This Friday, March 28th, the Diego Luna-directed film that documents the life and times of Cesar Chavez is set to hit theaters across the country. Chavez was an incredible man and one of the co-founders of the United Farm Workers — a male co-founder, to be more specific.
The movie looks pretty amazing, and I want to preface this by saying not only that I am extremely excited to see it, but that Cesar Chavez was indeed an amazing individual deserving of further spotlight in the American mainstream. But I couldn’t help but be kind of annoyed that this film about the uprising of agricultural workers focuses on Cesar Chavez when Dolores Huerta was just as integral to the leadership of that movement.
Dolores Huerta, along with Cesar Chavez and his brother Richard, was one of the leaders of the National Farm Workers Association – the predominantly Mexican organized group of farm workers that joined with the primarily Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to form the United Farm Workers labor union. It was with Dolores that Chavez decided to join the Delano grape boycott; it was with Dolores that he organized the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history — in which Dolores served as lead negotiator, in fact — and it was with Dolores with whom Chavez came up with the now epically popular slogan Sí Se Puede (reinvented by Barack Obama as “Yes We Can” during his first presidential campaign). So where’s Dolores’ movie?
Dolores Huerta is, of course, in the film; she is played by Rosario Dawson, who herself has a deep history of civic engagement work in the Latino community. To not include her would have been a ridiculous affront and re-writing of history (though that’s exactly what some advocates are claiming happened with Filipino organizer and farm worker leader Larry Itliong). I have yet to see the film, but because Rosario Dawson is a political person, and because she did meet with Dolores Huerta — who is still alive and, at 83, still doing awesome work today – I imagine that her role in the film will be quite substantial. And it is worth saying that Dolores supports the movie. But though her character appears in them, neither of the two main theatrical trailers so much as mention Dolores’ name.
I don’t mean to throw shade at what looks like a really great movie. But I think it’s important to talk about whose stories get told — who gets selected as important and significant and worthy of having a story to be told. And the reality is that the ways that process happens — even in our own progressive communities — is raced, classed, and gendered. We see this happening in all sorts of movements, of course. We saw Matthew Sheppard become the (white, blond, blue-eyed, male) face and household name of the gay rights movement in the ’90s while the names of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson — trans women of color who were some of the first to use their stilettos as weapons at Stonewall — are still obscure in mainstream America. We see the narrative of the “good” DREAMer immigrant that just wants education vs. that of the “bad” criminal immigrant (despite the work of radical undocumented youth to challenge that narrative). And I think that gender is at play here, in the making of Cesar Chavez as the star of the movement for justice for farm workers in the 1960s and ’70s.
Movies, and other cultural products, are some of the most powerful ways that we tell stories — affecting everything from the way that history is written to who we remember as important. The stories that we tell are how we create our activist heroes — even though, of course, those who become our heroes were always human, flawed and imperfect, as all of us are, and certainly neither Dolores Huerta nor Cesar Chavez were any different.
Dolores Huerta is still around today, supporting not just labor rights but immigrants rights, abortion access, and LGBTQ liberation. She could have stayed very safely within labor, but she has chosen instead to use her political capital to put the spotlight on work and movements that, in full honesty, often exist in tension with labor and with one another. There aren’t a lot of political figures of her caliber that have been willing, for as long as she has, to bring these kinds of issues together, and she has rightfully earned her place on many people’s feminist sheroes lists.
I am excited that this movie will give the American public a chance to learn more about Cesar Chavez, about organized labor, and about people of color-led resistance. I also hope it gives folks the chance to learn a little bit more about Dolores Huerta, and all the women involved in making the farm workers’ actions as successful as they were. And I hope that, one day, we get so many nuanced and wonderful movies about women and trans and gender non-conforming activists and activists of color that this isn’t even a concern.
Verónica is still pretty excited to see Cesar Chavez.