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Archive for April 13th, 2014

I recently went to see “Cesar Chavez” at the theater with my mom and my daughter Rebecca.  My daughter is very politically inclined and offered to come down from Sacramento to see it with me as part of my birthday weekend.  My mom got invited because it’s close to her birthday and because she (and I) actually met Mr. Chavez and we lived through the period the movie covered (mostly the 1960’s to mid-70’s) here in California.  Although we were not living in the Central Valley, nor were we involved in agriculture, my mother is a Mexican national and we were keenly aware of the issues of the braceros (temporary farm workers who were forced to leave the country if they stopped working) and many of my cousins and relatives, while not “braceros”, were manual laborers.  My mother was an early adopter of the California grape boycott and, as a youth, I sold some or my dog’s puppies and donated the proceeds (about $12) to the United Farm Workers union (UFW).  That was my one time actually meeting Mr. Chavez, who came to receive the funds and have me in a photo-shoot demonstrating support by folks in San Francisco.  I also remember admonishing my friends several times for eating grapes and other boycotted produce.
So, having some history with Cesar Chavez and the UFW, can I be objective in my review?  No, and I won’t really try to be, either.
Is this a great movie or great cinema?  No.  I got the feeling it was intended to be quasi-documentary and quasi-theatrical.  Is it entertaining?  No, at least not in what I would call the traditional sense of the word.  Is it at least accurate?  To be honest, I don’t really know.  Particularly from the growers side of the movie, it seemed more theatrical / dramatized as nobody in their right mind would admit to having the conversations related in the film.  Is it worth viewing, then?  Most definitely!!
The movie is about the life of the title character (Cesar Chavez) during the almost two decade struggle to form the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and the grape boycott which came to symbolize the struggle for civil rights for field workers in the California Central Valley (and most of the American southwest).  While the movie adopts an almost documentary feel (in timing and cinematography), it maintains a sense of the moment, and by that I mean it maintains the almost carnal feeling of the absolute poverty and hardship being experienced by the farm workers (Hispanic and Filipino).  There is something profoundly disturbing about watching a person working in the sun, in a field, in what is clearly HOT weather, who is being paid a dollar or two a day, and all the while, the landowner is sitting in a truck with water which he is selling to the workers.  Even forty years later, I remain stunned that humans would treat each other this way.
I remember watching “The Butler” in August last year (review here) and seeing a black laborer get shot to death by the white landowner in front of all the other workers and thinking, “Yes, but that was almost a hundred years ago, when someone could get away with it in the South.”  In this movie, these things happened in my lifetime…
I guess my point is that while I did not find this movie to be “entertaining”, it was profoundly disturbing because as far as we may have come – or feel that we have come – from these kind of working conditions, we very much seem to be on a course taking us back to “the good ol’ days”.  At the moment, unions represent fewer than 15% of the U.S. workforce, yet unions are constantly being denounced by the right (and by non-union workers) as one of the great fundamental sources of unemployment and lack of competitiveness in the American workforce.  I can understand this belief on the part of the right, but I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone who has spent any amount of time working (let alone studying the union movement) can believe that unions are the reason the American worker is making less money than thirty years ago.  (Actually, it is more correct to say the American worker has less purchasing power, not that we earn less money.)
The ironic moment in the movie is when the U.S. government (under the Nixon Administration) intervenes to guarantee the sale of grapes in Europe and the purchase of produce for consumption by the American military, it is the European unions which come to the aid of the UFW by refusing to off-load or move the produce from the ships to the shops.
I attended the movie on opening weekend.  There were fewer than fifteen people in the entire theater (including the three in my party).  The movie has not gotten very good reviews and I imagine it will go quietly into the night.  That is too bad.  While the movie may not be as good as it might have been (entertainment-wise), it is a profound warning about where we have only recently been – and, I fear, where we are all too quickly headed.
Final recommendation: If you want to see a realistic representation of working conditions in a dystopian America (“the good ol’ days”), this is a must see movie.  Highly recommended!
To find out more about the United Farm Workers union and the continuing struggle for workers’ dignity (and pay), please visit their site at: http://www.ufw.org/
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On This Day In:
2013 Democracy
2012 Borrowed Expectations
2011 Not Necessarily True

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