What’s the Real Reason the New Cesar Chavez Biopic’s Villain Is Fictional?
Professional movie critics overwhelmingly share the rabidly pro-Big Labor politics of the new Hollywood biopic of the much-praised, but little-understood farmworkers union cofounder and comandante Cesar Chavez. But few can bring themselves actually to like Cesar Chavez: History Is Made One Step at a Time, directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Pena as Chavez and Rosario Dawson as his cohort Dolores Huerta, who with Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Alliance, known today as the United Farm Workers union, or UFW.
As reviewer Godfrey Cheshire pointed out with befuddlement (see the link below) in late March, one peculiar aspect of the movie is that it tells its audience very little about the activities of the farm workers in support of the monopolistic union that Chavez, Huerta, and their associates insisted the workers desperately needed:
When the farm workers go on strike, what exactly are they demanding? What kinds of wage increases or improved conditions? A little specificity in the details of these struggles would have helped viewers understand them far better, which in turn would have helped them feel less generalized and more genuinely dramatic.
What Cheshire surely doesn’t know is that, to give any substantial information about the perspective of the farm workers themselves would have required director Luna either to give up on making his picture a Chavez whitewash or to veer even more deeply into fiction than he and his backers apparently were willing to do.
For the fact is, as journalist Ralph de Toledano demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt in Little Cesar, his 1971 expose of the UFW kingpin and his lieutenants, Cesar Chavez and his union were never supported by the overwhelming majority of the farm workers they were targeting.
One piece of evidence that the UFW did not have majority support among the California grape pickers it most famously sought to unionize is the fact that the UFW hierarchy consistently opposed secret-ballot elections over union certification monitored by disinterested third parties.
Huerta, the union’s second-in-command, once capsulized the union hierarchy’s stance very well in public testimony: “They [farm workers] don’t understand what an election is. They don’t understand democracy.”
Why did she and Chavez steadfastly oppose farm workers’ right to vote over whether the UFW union would “represent” them? It’s not hard to guess.
After spending virtually all of the 1960’s and millions of the AFL-CIO’s forced-dues dollars on a so-called “organizing” drive, Mr. Chavez had convinced fewer than 1000 of the 140,000-strong California grape labor force to join his union.
As de Toledano (whose fluent Spanish allowed him to interview innumerable grape workers during six visits to the San Joaquin Valley between 1968 and 1970) pointed out in a 1972 commentary:
“It took the blackmail of an illegal grape boycott [in which Chavez sympathizers would harass supermarket clerks by checking out big grocery orders, then refusing to buy anything from a store selling “scab” grapes] to force the growers, facing bankruptcy, to sign [a forced-dues contract] with him. . . .”
Unable to ignore completely the reality of massive worker opposition to Chavez, the new Hollywood picture dishonestly and nastily suggests it was all due to ethnic prejudice against the Mexican American bosses of the UFW by Filipino farm workers. On the contrary, farm workers of all ethnicities were targets of UFW harassment and thuggery (both common despite Chavez’s pious media claims to be an apostle of nonviolence), and the vast majority of grape pickers of all ethnicities wanted nothing to do with the UFW union.
By ignoring the real history of conflict between farm workers and the union militants who were supposedly out to “help” them, Luna and his scriptwriters deny themselves a lot of dramatic material. That’s probably why they have to create a fictional wealthy grower named Bogdanovich, portrayed by John Malkovich, to serve as the UFW union bosses’ principal foil.
Cheshire generously assumes that Luna and company opted for a fictional grower, rather than a real one, to serve as their villain because they did not want to face a lawsuit “from a real-life miscreant.” Given that the events portrayed took place 40-50 years ago and many of the major wealthy growers of the time have undoubtedly passed away by now, this is an extraordinarily lame excuse. The reason Hollywood had to create “Bogdanovich” is because it just couldn’t stomach the fact that farm worker opposition, not grower opposition (which was at any rate generally half-hearted), was the real reason Cesar Chavez had to resort to politics and consumer boycotts to get union monopoly-bargaining power.