The title in Spanish of the new biopic movie about Cesar Chavez sums up just how little known the Mexican-American labor leader is in Mexico.
The movie that opened Thursday, Labor Day in Latin America, is called “The Mexican who defied the United States,” with a subtitle that translates as “Who the hell is Cesar Chavez?”
That Chavez is barely known in Mexico shocks most Americans. That he was a U.S. civil rights hero with streets, schools, parks and a day in his honor surprises many Mexicans. Most of the moviegoers interviewed before an afternoon showing of film in Mexico City said they only knew about Chavez because of Mexican actor Diego Luna, who directed “Chavez” as his first English-language film.
“I only know he was an activist and I know it because I read about the movie,” said Pedro Penaloza, 48, a sports coach.
The movie’s producer, Pablo Cruz, said it was tricky coming up with a marketing strategy to draw a Mexican audience and admitted that license was taken with the title to do so. Chavez wasn’t a Mexican citizen. He was born in Yuma, Arizona.
Cruz said at a Mexico City screening last week that the distributor Videocine came up with the idea of the Mexican who defied the U.S. “That’s something that’s very inherited somehow, the revenge system, even just in soccer or whatever,” he said.
The movie, starring Mexican-American actor Michael Pena, portrays Chavez from his early organizing in the fields to his hunger strike, the grape boycott and eventual victory in getting growers to negotiate with farmworkers for better wages and working conditions. He died in California in 1993 at age 66.
Luna said he wanted to make the film because it’s a shared history that people on both sides fail to recognize. Moviegoers at Mexico City’s upscale Antara shopping center, where the screening occurred, are unfamiliar with the issues laborers face in U.S. fields. Mexican-Americans don’t realize how much Mexico has changed.
“Michael Pena, when he first came to Sonora, he said, ‘How strange. The most Mexican person here is me.’ And he’s from Chicago,” Luna said. “He was thinking of the Mexico of his father in Purificacion, a small town in Jalisco … and the world we’re sitting in has nothing to do with the world he thought of as his father’s.”
“We can’t allow that distance to exist … like you see in the movie, we’re much stronger as a united force.”
The movie’s creators also know they have an uphill battle in selling a movie that portrays any union as a savior of exploited workers in a country where unions are generally considered corrupt. It also doesn’t help that the movie had such low box office receipts in the United States after lukewarm reviews.
The film cost $15 million to make, but has made under $6 million so far since opening March 28 in the United States.
But early moviegoers had positive reviews.
“It’s a really good movie,” said homemaker Julieta Cabrera, 66. “I wish there were a man like him in Mexico right now because we’re in the same bad situation. We need people as courageous as him to change things.”
Dolores Huerta, co-organizer of the group that became the United Farm Workers of America, and who is played in the movie by Rosario Dawson, joked that people in Mexico think of the boxer, Julio Cesar Chavez, when they hear labor leader’s name.
“In those days when we were organizing we didn’t have the social media as we do right now, there wasn’t as much interchange,” she said at last week’s screening in Mexico City, though she noted that Chavez received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest honor given to a foreigner.
“The whole fight for immigration reform will bring us together,” she said. “Everybody is very conscious there and here.”
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