New ‘Cesar Chavez’ film omits Filipino farm leaders from story

Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) criticizes the omission of Fil-Am contributions to the farm labor movement
FILIPINOS OMITTED. Critics say the new film on the life of California labor leader Cesar Chavez omits the contributions of Filipino labor leaders. Screenshot from official trailer of 'Cesar Chavez'

CALIFORNIA, USA – As expected, “Cesar Chavez,” the first feature film about the life of the legendary Arizona-born co-organizer of California farm workers, stirred excitement among Filipino Americans, especially the descendants of farm workers and their advocates, who have been clamoring for recognition of their pioneers in historical records.

Last week, the FIlipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) gave its critique of the newly released film directed by Mexican actor Diego Luna.

“Film leaves out Filipino American contributions and misses opportunity to provide accurate account of the farmworkers’ struggle,” headlined the statement from the Seattle-based organization’s national board.

“We respect Diego Luna’s vision of a film about the heroic rise of Cesar Chavez, but as a history of the farm workers struggle, the film falls short by downplaying, erasing and silencing the significant role that Filipinos and others played in the heroic struggle for farmworkers justice in California,” said FANHS board member Dr Dawn B Mabalon, who is an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University. “We understand that this is Hollywood and not a documentary, but the filmmakers still have a responsibility that the history they present is accurate.”

Mabalon is author of Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipino American Community in Stockton, California, a 2013 account of the birth of the Filipino farm labor movement from 1920 through the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the early 1970s.

“We hoped that the film would show how Filipino strike leaders such as Larry Itliong, Pete Velasco, Philip Vera Cruz, Ben Gines and Andy Imutan, and Mexican leaders such as Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gil Padilla did the challenging work of organizing workers and creating and sustaining a coalition and how their strategies, cooperation and solidarity resulted in the nation’s first successful farm labor movement, the UFW,” Mabalon emphasized. “It does not.”

FANHS had envisioned a depiction of history that would inspire viewers to “continue to learn about the movement and action towards today’s movements for worker justice and such issues as immigration reform,” according to the statement issued by Ron P Muriera, a FANHS national trustee based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Instead, the group noted that “Cesar Chavez” squanders an opportunity to present facts such as the Filipinos’ 1965 grape strike that inspired the movement. It also sidestepped the alliance between Filipinos and Mexicans, the group added.

‘Artistic depiction’

Another view came from an elected Fil-Am state official responsible for the 2013 law requiring the inclusion of the story of Fil-Am labor organizing in school history curriculum in California. 

Rob Bonta, the first Fil-Am California Assemblymember, had yet to see the film, but was aware about its presentation in the Fil-Am community. (READ: Rob Bonta: California’s first Fil-Am assemblyman)

“I want to emphasize that the Hollywood film is not intended to be a documentary-style film; instead, it is an artistic depiction of the life and times of Mr Chavez, not necessarily highlighting his efforts in the struggle for farm worker rights,” Bonta said in a statement.

Bonta acknowledged that the contribution of Filipinos is largely unknown outside the Filipino community.

As a child, however, Bonta had a front row seat to the unfolding history as the son of activists living in a trailer in La Paz, where the UFW set up its headquarters, he said.

“The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, was the first to strike for improved wages and working conditions in Delano in 1965 – launching the American Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, joined forces to start the now internationally-famous UFW.”

Saying he was “proud to support the recent release of two films depicting the role of the Latino and Filipino American communities” in organizing California’s farm labor movement, Bonta offered an option.

“Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers,” he said, is “more documentary style, portraying the experiences of Filipino farm laborers and their prominent role and critical leadership in the California farm labor movement through photographs, video footage, and recorded audio from the time.”

Bonta said he will be involved in a future screening of “Delano Manongs,” a film by Marissa Aroy.

“With recent, newly invigorated political energy, The Filipino American community has had greater opportunity to organize and express our collective concerns in the state of California,” he said.

Bonta’s caveat was echoed by a Hollywood insider. 

“While I wish ‘Cesar Chavez’ was portrayed more prominently and accurately our manong’s heroic and major part in the farm workers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, it is important to remember that this is a biopic on Chavez, and not about that movement in general,” Ruben Nepales told PNews. “What I’d like us to focus on is to marshal our forces to launch a narrative feature film project to tell our manong’s story from their perspective. I am sure we can come up with an involving dramatic feature that will narrate the Filipino farm laborers’ struggle in America amid the backdrop of the 1965 grape strike.”

Nepales, the first Filipino elected chairman of the board of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, stressed the obvious.

“It’s time that we ourselves tell our story because no one else will; we can’t expect Diego Luna to tell our story,” he said. “But we can’t completely dismiss or disparage films like ‘Cesar Chavez’ because films that address minority issues are important, especially in Hollywood which still has a long way to go in featuring more stories about minorities or more diverse talent.”

The ‘Cesar Chavez’ screenplay was written by Keir Pearson, who received an Oscar nomination in 2004 for writing “Hotel Rwanda.”

Diego Luna co-produced the film that stars Michael Pena in the title role with America Ferrera as Helen Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta.

Cesar Chavez was released in time for the subject’s birthday, March 31. Chavez died in 1993 at the age of 66. – Rappler.com

This story was republished with permission from Philippine News