Movie on Cesar Chavez to push for National Day of Service in his honour

Movie on Cesar Chavez to push for National Day of Service in his honour

Cesar Chavez, the first feature film about the man once described by Robert F. Kennedy as a “heroic figure of our time”, will be released in 100 cities across the United States this Friday.

Its promoters are using this opportunity to push forward a petition calling for a National Day of Service in memory of Chavez’s legacy.

A number of special screenings have already been held, including at the White House and “The Forty Acres” – the place where Chavez worked and went on a hunger strike during the historic Delano grape strike in the 1960s.

During the film premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival, Dolores Huerta, a struggle companion of Chavez and co-founder of the United Farm Workers union (UFW), told reporters:

“I think this film really brings the fact that farm workers all over the world are the least respected of people…although they do the most important work of all, because they feed us.”

The 83 year-old former union organiser added: “The only way that we can do it [make changes] is by organising.…The changes we were able to win for farmworkers in California, today farmworkers in New York State still don’t have those benefits. So we have a lot work to do.”


Californian grapes of wrath

Chavez’s life very much embodies the American struggles and challenges of the 20th century.

Born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, Chavez dropped out of school at a young age to help his family who had become migrant farm workers in California after losing their land during the Great Depression. He then served in the United States Navy for two years, before returning to the fields and becoming an organiser.

But it wasn’t before the 1960s, a decade of civil rights activism, that Chavez became one of its champions. By co-founding and leading the UFW, he challenged the idea that farm workers should have no working rights or decent living wages.

When Filipino farm workers in Delano went out on strike in 1965, the UFW readily supported them.

Using non-violent methods such as marches, strikes and boycotts, the union managed to bend the arm of table-grape growers and force them to establish the first ever collective bargaining agreement with the workers.

The five-year Delano grape strike remains a landmark victory in American labour history.

But as the movie release coincides with current debates around US immigration, critics of Chavez argue that his union opposed the “Bracero Program” in the 1960s, which allowed American companies to employ temporary contract workers from Mexico, and allegedly reported undocumented migrants to the authorities – an issue not documented in the movie.

Refuting those claims, Marc Grossman, communications director of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and former speech writer of Chavez, told Equal Times:

“Cesar opposed strike-breakers, no matter who they were. And the movie doesn’t deal with immigration because it wasn’t an issue in the sixties. There were very few undocumented workers.”

Yet, Chavez’s actions eventually led the state to pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.

Until this day, it remains the only law in the US guaranteeing farm workers in California – which represent about one-fifth of the (on average) one million hired farmworkers nationwide – the right to organise, choose their union representatives and negotiate with employers.


Honouring Chavez through community service

Despite having three states (California, Texas and Colorado) where his birthday, on 31 March, is a public holiday, as well as numerous streets, libraries, parks and even a naval ship named after him, many Americans have little knowledge of who Cesar Chavez really was.

The promoters of the film hope to fill that vacuum and launched an online petition to push President Barack Obama to declare a National Day of Service “so Americans can honor the legacy of this civil rights and farm labor icon by engaging community service and working for nonviolent change”, reads the petition.

If successful, it would make it the third day of its kind in the United States, the other two being in honour of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 9/11 attacks.

So far, only about 25 per cent of the 100,000 targeted signatures have been signed, but Grossman believes that the movie release will drive more Americans to support the initiative.

“Of all the honours Cesar received, this is the one he would have liked the most.”

“President Obama established the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in 2012, and he also told us that Cesar was an inspiration for him to become a community organiser.”

And in 2008, Obama’s famous “Yes we can” slogan echoed Chavez’s “Si, se puede” (Spanish for “Yes, one can”) : a cry for change that still resounds loudly in public demonstrations around the world more than twenty years after the death of this working class hero in 1993.