What Cesar Chavez Missed

The new film doesn’t capture the diversity of the farmworkers’ movement.

David Bacon May 15, 2014

In a scene from the film, farmworkers raise their fists. (Pantelion Films 2014)

The new movie Cesar Chavez: His­to­ry is Made One Step at a Time, direct­ed by Diego Luna, tells the sto­ry of the Delano Grape Strike that began in 1965. This epic five-year labor bat­tle led to the found­ing of the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers (UFW), and made Cesar Chavez a social move­ment hero. The movie has pro­voked con­tro­ver­sy over its depic­tion of his role, and the accu­ra­cy of the his­to­ry it recounts of those events.

When I was a farmworker, before the strike, we lived in different worlds—the Latino world, the Filipino world, the African-American world and the Caucasian world.

In this round­table, In These Times explores these themes with Eliseo Med­i­na, who was a farm­work­er when the strike start­ed and became a not­ed labor orga­niz­er, first in the UFW and lat­er in the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union; Doug Adair, an activist in the 1965 strike who has con­tin­ued work­ing on farms in the Coachel­la Val­ley; Dawn Mabalon, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty who stud­ies the his­to­ry of Fil­ipinos in Cal­i­for­nia; and Ros­alin­da Guillen, who comes from a farm­work­er fam­i­ly in Wash­ing­ton State, worked as a UFW orga­niz­er, and today orga­nizes farm labor in the Skag­it and What­com Coun­ties, north of Seat­tle, with Community2Community. (The inter­view­er, labor jour­nal­ist David Bacon, is also a for­mer orga­niz­er for the UFW.)

How did the movie square with your mem­o­ries of the grape strike as a participant?

Eliseo: It’s a good time for this movie to come out and show not only the chal­lenges immi­grants face, but also the fact that they’re will­ing to strug­gle and that when they do they can win, regard­less of the pow­er struc­ture. It could’ve done a much bet­ter job of telling the full sto­ry, but it’s impos­si­ble to tell 10 years worth of his­to­ry in 2 hours. It’s a movie, not a doc­u­men­tary, and its aim is not to tell the sto­ry of the whole move­ment. To do that would take a lot more than just one movie. 

The UFW was a multi­na­tion­al union, includ­ing Fil­ipinos, African Amer­i­cans, Arab-Amer­i­cans and Euro­pean-Amer­i­cans, as well as Chi­canos. Does that come through in the film? 

Eliseo: When I was a farm­work­er, before the strike, we lived in dif­fer­ent worlds — the Lati­no world, the Fil­ipino world, the African-Amer­i­can world and the Cau­casian world. We co-exist­ed but nev­er under­stood who we were or what each oth­er thought and dreamed about. It wasn’t until the union began that we final­ly began to work togeth­er, to know each oth­er and to begin to fight togeth­er. I do wish that that had been more explic­it. Cer­tain­ly the con­tri­bu­tion that was made by the Fil­ipino work­ers to the strike was an incred­i­ble part of the suc­cess of the union. The fact that we also had Cau­casians and African-Amer­i­cans par­tic­i­pat­ing in the strike nev­er even gets brought up. It was always mul­ti-racial. I do wish it had focused more on show­ing what can hap­pen when peo­ple work togeth­er and fight togeth­er and make changes, not only for one group, but for everybody.

Dawn: The first per­son killed in the strike was a Yemeni work­er, but in the movie, it’s por­trayed as some­one who’s Mex­i­can. The film­mak­ers did­n’t real­ly under­stand the multi­na­tion­al­ism that made the strike so powerful.

The movie’s por­tray­al of Fil­ipino work­ers has been crit­i­cized. How do you feel about that?

Dawn: Fil­ipinos had been orga­niz­ing, not just that year, but for decades. The grow­ers had always divid­ed Mex­i­cans and Fil­ipinos. What was so pow­er­ful about that moment in Delano, Cal­i­for­nia, was that those two groups defied this. But the way they came togeth­er was down­played. There was so lit­tle con­text that there’s no under­stand­ing that it was these oth­er peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar Lar­ry Itliong, who real­ly sparked the strike. Lar­ry went to Delano in the ear­ly 1960s, sent by the Agri­cul­tur­al Work­ers Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (AWOC). He already had decades of labor expe­ri­ence with the Alaskan salmon can­nery union. He orga­nized with the failed strike of aspara­gus work­ers in Stock­ton in 1948 and a suc­cess­ful strike in 1949. He had more expe­ri­ence than every­one, Dolores Huer­ta and Cesar includ­ed. Unfor­tu­nate­ly he died a few years after the UFW and did­n’t leave much behind for us. We’re still try­ing to piece togeth­er how impor­tant he was, not just to the Fil­ipino-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, but to Amer­i­can labor in gen­er­al. But we know he was real­ly piv­otal to this strike and to the ear­ly years of the UFW. He resigned in 1971, so he often gets left out of that larg­er history.

Doug: The orig­i­nal spark in Delano was when Fil­ipino work­ers began sit­ting in at the camps. It wasn’t a strike with pick­et lines, but a sit-in and refus­ing to go to work.

The movie starts with a lit­tle sec­tion where Cesar is the head of the Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vice Orga­ni­za­tion (CSO), but does­n’t show him orga­niz­ing protests about the bracero pro­gram, in which grow­ers were able to bring work­ers from Mex­i­co under very abu­sive con­di­tions, send­ing them back at the end of the sea­son. Should the movie have said more about it? 

Doug: Work­ers first went on strike in Coachel­la in the spring of 1965 because of the bracero pro­gram. AWOC demand­ed the same wage as the tem­po­rary work­ers. That was the spark that set off the strike. Actu­al­ly if it had been up to Cesar, there would­n’t have been a strike in Delano because he did­n’t feel our union was ready. There was no mon­ey in the bank, and he want­ed to do more orga­niz­ing. He used to say we’re not a union, and we’re not gonna start strikes.”

Ros­alin­da: For us, orga­niz­ing farm­work­ers and oppos­ing guest­work­er [bracero-type] pro­grams today, it’s clear why Cesar opposed the bracero pro­gram. Grow­ers at that time used the pro­gram to break strikes, when work­ers tried to form unions. It’s still hap­pen­ing today, to farm­work­ers in Burling­ton, Wash­ing­ton who went on strike last year. When I joined the Unit­ed Farm­work­ers in 1996, the union opposed the H2A guest work­er visa pro­gram very strong­ly. Leav­ing out that his­to­ry was a wast­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to include more polit­i­cal con­text that is still impor­tant to us.

The movie stops when the indus­try-wide grape con­tract gets signed. Did the con­tract change life for farm­work­ers in the long term?

Doug: When I worked under that first con­tract, [most pick­ers’] wages and ben­e­fits were over dou­ble the min­i­mum wage. We had a health plan that was the envy of many oth­er unions. We could sit down with the grow­ers and nego­ti­ate over griev­ances. We wouldn’t always win, but we could nego­ti­ate our work­ing con­di­tions. The movie did show that work­ers can join togeth­er in spite of appalling con­di­tions and improve their wages and work­ing con­di­tions and change history.

Eliseo: Clear­ly the union was able to begin lift­ing work­ers out of pover­ty. They had paid hol­i­days, vaca­tions and health insur­ance. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, at the time when we were poised to com­plete­ly change these work­ers’ lives we lost focus. As a result, work­ers today are back where they were before the union. Most are work­ing at min­i­mum wage again. Employ­ers are back to just try­ing to get the work done in the cheap­est way pos­si­ble, regard­less of the impact on workers.

Doug: Today, wages are nowhere near even the mis­er­able min­i­mum wage. There are a few advances in pes­ti­cide reg­u­la­tions, toi­lets in the fields, shade and drink­ing water — min­i­mal things that didn’t exist in 1965. But the pres­ence of the union in the Coachel­la Val­ley is a shad­ow of its for­mer self. Just a few pen­sion­ers like me.

Ros­alin­da: Today farm­work­ers can orga­nize because of the exam­ple of the farm­work­ers in the 1960s and 1970s in Cal­i­for­nia. This is one of the lega­cies of Cesar Chavez, this com­ing togeth­er of dif­fer­ent work­ers with dif­fer­ent reli­gions and dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal views. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, today we have a splin­tered move­ment and divid­ed com­mu­ni­ties. We see the same old attacks, like this guest­work­er pro­gram, to stop farm­work­ers from orga­niz­ing for bet­ter wages and bet­ter treatment.

Dawn: My father died work­ing the aspara­gus nine years ago. I wish the film had been much stronger in say­ing these con­di­tions still exist today and we still have to fight for farm­work­ers. I was hop­ing at the end of the film you would have this feel­ing of inspi­ra­tion and a call to action, but you get the sense that now we won and it’s over.

What did the movie do well?

Doug: It showed the vicious­ness of the grow­ers and their local pow­er struc­ture; dis­trict attor­neys and the cops and thugs on the side of the grow­ers. The whole local struc­ture was against the union and the farmworkers.

In one scene the sher­iff and the grow­ers accuse the unions of being Com­mu­nist, and Cesar says that’s sil­ly, we’re Catholic. But the Fil­ipinos, in their pri­or orga­niz­ing, had been very left-wing. Is this underplayed?

Dawn: There was always ten­sion between the Fil­ipino leftists/​Marxists/​Communists and anti-com­mu­nism with­in the UFW. Lar­ry Itliong con­sid­ered Chris Men­sal­vas one of his men­tors, who orga­nized Fil­ipino let­tuce work­ers in Sali­nas in the 1930s and was con­sid­ered by the FBI one of the most dan­ger­ous Com­mu­nist labor orga­niz­ers of his day. The union Lar­ry came from, ILWU Local 37, was led by left­ists and mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. [UFW leader] Philip Vera Cruz was an ardent left­ist. By eras­ing Fil­ipinos, you also down­play those rad­i­cal roots. Even non­vi­o­lence was a ten­sion for Fil­ipinos, who were used to using vio­lence against scabs who crossed thep­ick­et lines, and were uncom­fort­able with hunger strikes, march­es and reli­gious pageantry.

Doug: The movie stressed Cesar say­ing, We’re Catholic, so we couldn’t pos­si­bly be Com­mu­nists,” but in fact, a strong ele­ment in the union was anti-cler­i­cal. The church in Mex­i­co was always on the side of the grow­ers and the wealthy and always against the peas­ants and the poor. Typ­i­cal­ly the Protes­tants among farm­work­ers had rebelled against the Catholic church and were rebels at heart and were espe­cial­ly recep­tive to the union. And the young Fil­ipinos in the move­ment were rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, fight­ing to over­turn the whole sys­tem. The march to Sacra­men­to was a very rad­i­cal state­ment — that we want­ed to over­turn this whole cor­rupt struc­ture. We were the peo­ple that were feed­ing Amer­i­ca and that we had a right to be at the table.

The Fil­ipino com­mu­ni­ty is not unit­ed in their view of Cesar or the union, are they?

Dawn: The Stock­ton com­mu­ni­ty is divid­ed over the lega­cy of the Unit­ed Farm Work­ers. I think that Lar­ry Itliong’s com­padres became very bit­ter about what hap­pened to him, and that Fil­ipino voic­es had been drowned out in the union. There’s also the issue of Cesar’s vis­it with [Philip­pine dic­ta­tor Fer­di­nand] Mar­cos. The com­mu­ni­ty was already split about the Mar­cos dic­ta­tor­ship. It’s a very com­plex legacy.

Doug: Many of the lead­ers in the Fil­ipino com­mu­ni­ty were fore­men. They had a tra­di­tion of rep­re­sent­ing their work­ers and pur­su­ing bet­ter wages and work­ing con­di­tions for their crews. Lar­ry would work with fore­men to get whole crews on board. The grow­ers began sign­ing , and some fore­men urged their crews to make the switch. But many of the strongest Fil­ipino work­ers and fore­men stayed with the UFW because they were too rad­i­cal to nego­ti­ate with grow­ers. Doug: Many of the lead­ers in the Fil­ipino com­mu­ni­ty were fore­men. They had a tra­di­tion of rep­re­sent­ing their work­ers and try­ing to get bet­ter wages and work­ing con­di­tions for the crew. Lar­ry most­ly orga­nized through them and got whole crews on board. But when it became clear the strike was going to be bro­ken a lot decid­ed it was time to go back to work, and made a deal with the grow­ers. When the [UFW] con­tracts did come in, the pow­ers of the fore­men were stripped away. The grow­ers start­ed sign­ing con­tracts with the Team­sters, and they offered those fore­men their pow­ers back. Many of the Fil­ipino fore­men urged their crews to switch to the Team­sters. But many of the strongest Fil­ipino work­ers, who had been fore­men, stayed with the UFW because they were too rad­i­cal to nego­ti­ate with the growers.

Ros­alin­da: Now more than ever we need to see how move­ments are built. Orga­niz­ing is not per­fect — there is con­flict. It’s almost like this movie was pulled togeth­er to make Cesar a kind of super­hero instead of under­stand­ing how dif­fi­cult it is to build a union from the bot­tom up. 

At one point the grow­ers say they are going to bring in ille­gals” [the movie uses this word] by the truck­load. Do you think this expe­ri­ence shaped how Cesar saw the ques­tion of immigration?

Eliseo: The grow­ers knew very well that divide-and-con­quer was an impor­tant strat­e­gy. And they cer­tain­ly felt that hav­ing a cap­tive work force would make it eas­i­er for them. Cesar was well aware, as were all of us, that the union and the strike was a move­ment of doc­u­ment­ed and undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple. Some of the strongest and most active peo­ple were undoc­u­ment­ed. For the undoc­u­ment­ed, being for the union was a lot more seri­ous because it poten­tial­ly meant arrest and depor­ta­tion, leav­ing their fam­i­lies behind. The union was very con­scious about this and made it their pol­i­cy to defend those workers.

Doug: Whether they had papers or not, if they were strike­break­ers we want­ed them out of there. At dif­fer­ent points in the union’s his­to­ry, it’s tak­en a very hard line against peo­ple with­out papers. The union’s base was the per­ma­nent fam­i­lies who lived in Delano.

Ros­alin­da: In my time in the union, I did not see any behav­ior that was in any way anti-immi­grant. Today when we’re oppos­ing guest­work­ers, we’re not against Mex­i­can work­ers who are being brought in. We’re against this pro­gram that legal­izes wage theft, because they’re dis­plac­ing the work­ers who are already here. The issue of block­ing the guest­work­er pro­gram was cen­tral to the union’s polit­i­cal work, because the agri­cul­tur­al indus­try uses this pro­gram to slow down farm­work­er orga­niz­ing. The grow­ers try to turn Mex­i­can and Fil­ipino against one anoth­er, the poor­est of the poor and the most desperate.

Most people’s expe­ri­ence of the union was not in the fields, but as sup­port­ers in the boy­cotts. What do you think about the pic­ture that the movie paint­ed of the grape boycott?

Doug: By late Novem­ber 1965, it was clear that the strike had been bro­ken — we weren’t going to win the strike in the fields. The boy­cott was one of Cesar’s many ideas to finesse the local pow­er struc­ture and get the Amer­i­can pub­lic involved. Cesar’s genius was not in being the one hand­ing out leaflets but in putting togeth­er a team and send­ing peo­ple out to cities all across the coun­try, and in fact, all across the world. For exam­ple, a woman named Elaine Elin­son orga­nized in Lon­don. The Amer­i­can embassy in Lon­don was pro­mot­ing grapes, and mean­while the trans­port union and oth­er unions in Eng­land sup­port­ed the boycott.

Dawn: Lar­ry Itliong and oth­er Fil­ipinos like Pete Velas­co were also a strong part of the boy­cott. For the Fil­ipino-Amer­i­cans who were inspired by Lar­ry, those were some of their best mem­o­ries of being involved in the movement.

Any last words?

Doug: I cry in movies, and I cried in this one.

Dawn: As dis­ap­point­ed as some of us may be, I think the movie has giv­en us this amaz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty to dia­logue, and to con­tin­ue to be involved in farm­work­er jus­tice and issues where we need to coa­lesce with the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty, like immi­gra­tion reform. It’s made young Fil­ipinos go, Why aren’t we in it?” and I want to know more.” I think that’s amaz­ing. I’d also like to men­tion that a tal­ent­ed Fil­ip­inio film­mak­er named Maris­sa Aroy has made a film called The Delano Manongs, which includes some amaz­ing archival footage of Fil­ipinos strik­ing and brings more nuance to this movement.

Eliseo: Cesar’s lega­cy today is that thou­sands of peo­ple learned the skill of orga­niz­ing and are mak­ing their own con­tri­bu­tion to a more just soci­ety. A lot of the strat­e­gy and inspi­ra­tion comes straight out of the farm­work­er move­ment. I hope the next Diego Luna will be inspired to take a look at the whole sto­ry. It has a lot of lessons about orga­niz­ing and per­se­ver­ance, and the the­o­ry and prac­tice of non-vio­lence and how it can lead to major social change. It’s a sto­ry that needs to be told.

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
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