The first feature film about California’s iconic farmworker leader hits theaters later this month, called, simply “Cesar Chavez.” It’s largely set in the Kern County town of Delano, where farmworkers went on strike and started a grape boycott in the 1960s. But it’s not so easy for a visitor to Delano to find the sites depicted in the film, because many of them are unmarked.
Unless, that is, you happen to take a tour with some of the original farmworkers involved in the grape strike.
“All we wanted was our basic rights,” says Roberto Bustos. He says the conditions depicted in the film are spot-on: shots showing farmworkers using short-handled hoes, harvesting crops on bloodied knees and paying money to drink lukewarm water from a shared tin cup.
“The right to organize. You know, restrooms in the fields, clean, fresh, cold water, to be treated like human beings, period,” says Bustos, who was 23 when he joined the strike.
Bustos is standing in front of a row of farmworkers’ houses in Delano, across from an alfalfa field. He points to what’s now a Pentecostal church. There’s no plaque or sign marking this site, but this was the first union headquarters and a starting point for the historic farmworker march Chavez led from Delano to Sacramento in 1966.
“We thought (Chavez) was talking about a caravan,” recalls Bustos. “He said, ‘No, no, no, we’re talking about walking. We’re going to be marching to Sacramento.’ We thought, ‘That guy is crazy.’ We thought maybe all the pesticides in the grapes have affected his brain. Now he wants us to walk!”
Walk they did, for more than 300 miles. Chavez named Bustos captain of that march.
“Man, blisters galore!” laughs Bustos. “We were walking in our Sunday shoes.”
The film intersperses dramatized scenes of the march and other key events in the farmworker movement with historical news clips. Directed by Mexican actor Diego Luna, the movie was largely shot in the Mexican state of Sonora, whose government helped finance the project. On the set, Luna went to great lengths to recreate sites in Delano, like Filipino Hall, where Filipino and Mexican strikers came together.
“I’m half Filipino and half Mexican, and the growers used to pit the groups against each other,” says Lorraine Agtang, sitting near the old strike kitchen. “It was the first time I felt like a whole person, because Filipinos didn’t hang out with Mexicans. But Cesar had the ability to bring those workers together.”
“I really believed that all the roads leading out of Delano led to another grape field,” recalls Agtang, who went on to work as an administrator in Yolo County. “Cesar opened the door to the world for all of us. We were just little farmworkers, in a little farmworker community. I didn’t know anyone outside of Delano. I don’t think I’d ever been outside of Delano. And then in the grape strike, to see the whole world supported the union, and everyone stopped buying grapes, that was pretty amazing.”
The filmmakers also built a replica of the adobe brick gas station at the 40-acre compound, which later became Chavez’s headquarters.
“I do not remember this room being so small and so barren. Pretty stark,” says Paul Chavez, the son of Cesar, as he unlocks a tiny storeroom. It is empty but for a single bed and side table with a pitcher for water. This is where Cesar Chavez stayed during his 25-day fast to emphasize his commitment to nonviolence back in 1968. Paul was just 11 years old at the time.
“It’s a scary feeling to see somebody you love become weaker by the day,” says Paul Chavez. “Knowing they could just start eating, that it would be OK, and not understanding why he wouldn’t eat. But later, I came to understand the importance of penance and sacrifice.”
Initial reviews of “Cesar Chavez” have criticized the film for making Chavez appear too one-dimensional, too saintly and not exploring more of his character flaws or darker periods.
The esar Chavez Foundation, which Paul heads, weighed in heavily on the script. Paul says the filmmakers encouraged the Chavez family to share more private details of Cesar’s life, so the script could humanize him.
“We want to make sure that we don’t put my father up on a pedestal, so that we make him larger than life and people think there’s only once in a lifetime that a Cesar Chavez comes,” says Paul. “If there’s anything to learn from my father’s example, it was that he was a regular person. He never owned a car, never owned a house. He showed that regular, ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
A visitor to Delano can’t just pull up and see the room where Chavez fasted. A plaque outside shows the compound at “The 40 Acres” has been designated a national historic landmark, but there are no exhibits or tour guides. President Obama did designate the Cesar Chavez National Monument at Chavez’s later headquarters in Keene, Calif. That site is run in conjunction with the National Park Service.
“Why aren’t their murals or museums about Chavez in Delano? People here are slowly forgetting his history,” says Irene Mendoza, a farmworker who still works picking and packing grapes. “New immigrants coming now to Delano, they don’t know who Chavez was. We hear, thanks to him, we have this or that, but not really who he was.”
Mendoza sits in her living room, in the house she was able to buy two years ago in a new subdivision in Delano. She says because of the farmworker movement, she now gets unemployment during the winter, when there’s little work in the fields.
“Now the conditions in the fields are better. We have cold water, enough bathrooms. The only thing missing is that we still barely earn above minimum wage. And we don’t have Chavez to help us with that,” Mendoza says in Spanish.
Membership in the United Farm Workers union has dwindled since the period depicted in the film. Mendoza has never worked under a union contract. She says most of her co-workers don’t seem that interested in paying union dues, and count on Cal/OSHA or other agencies to enforce some of the laws the union fought for back in the 1960s.
The film depicts a town in which Slavic growers were hostile and demeaning to Filipino and Latino farmworkers, shooting guns at striking farmworkers and spraying them with pesticides. The grape boycott forced many of Delano’s growers to the negotiating table.
Today Delano is still largely agricultural, but the power dynamics have changed. Back in the 1960s, white growers largely controlled the police, the courts and the town government. Now, the City Council is all Latino, as is the mayor, former farmworker Grace Vallejo.
She took me on a tour of Cesar Chavez High School, a gleaming new complex built on a former vineyard in 2003.
“Back in the 1960s, you would never ever see a display of Cesar’s pictures in any school, let alone have a school named Cesar Chavez High,” she says.
It cost the school district $100,000 just to be able to name the school after Chavez. The grower who sold the district the land loathed Chavez so much that he stipulated that, if school officials ever named the school after Chavez, they would have to pay an additional fee.
Vallejo says Chavez didn’t just improve things in the fields, but gave farmworkers the confidence that they could get an education and move into positions of power in Delano.
“It’s a huge change in Delano. It’s like the caterpillar that became the butterfly. I think that’s what happened to our lives. We don’t want to fly away,” Vallejo says. “We want to be here and we want to improve things.”
Many of the students and teachers at Cesar Chavez High are children of farmworkers. English teacher Lorraine Leynes, 27, says she came back to Delano after earning a master’s degree. She didn’t learn about the significance of Delano’s history until she got to UC San Diego.
“Delano, the farmworker movement, Cesar Chavez, were being mentioned in textbooks all over the world, and me, being from Delano, I knew very little history. So I made it a point to learn it,” she says.
Leynes wants to organize a field trip for her students to go see the film in nearby Bakersfield.
The film isn’t scheduled to play in Delano.
Update: Since the airing and publication of this story, Diego Luna, the Cesar Chavez Foundation and the UFW jointly hosted a screening of “Cesar Chavez” at Forty Acres.
Interactive tour and web production by Olivia Allen-Price.