Director Richard Ray Perez on César Chavez and Farmworkers Today

Director Richard Ray Perez on César Chavez and Farmworkers Today

Are there any challenges with telling a story, and giving a new perspective on someone as well known as César Chavez?
Telling the story of César Chavez with a new perspective and telling the story of someone as iconic as he, is hugely challenging for a number of reasons, first and foremost there has been a number of films about César Chavez, so there’s a lot of material and content out there. As I was developing the story for the film one thing I was noticing was that there was not a lot of material about his spiritual commitment to his work. So that was the area I decided to focus. This focus also emerged from the material I had to work with — footage of César’s 1988 “Fast for Life.”  This look at César’s spiritual inspiration was an opportunity to tell his story from a new perspective.  Another element of that was part of this new perspective is presenting César’s human side -- the fact that he was not perfect, that there was a lot of tension in the Union and infighting after 1977 that ultimately led to a lot of people leaving the Union that hadn’t been addressed and looked at in any previous documentary film about César Chavez; it hadn’t happened until my film.

What was your point in focusing on César Chavez's last fast?
The reason I focus on this fast was that there was an incredible amount of rich material that I inherited so the content was there, but most importantly this fast reflected and was a window into his life and spiritual commitment to his work. I used the fast really to show how César’s spirituality was wholly integrated to everything he had done when it came to this movement. The story of the fast provides the film’s architecture on which the bigger picture of César’s spirituality and the spiritual inspiration of the movement that he helped found and lead hangs.

When you talk about spirituality do you mean religion?
I wanted to distinguish spirituality from religion. César was a Catholic. He learned Catholic rituals, mass and the Church’s teachings very early from his grandmother, and later via the Cursillo Movement. Those experiences shaped his spirituality. Now, I wanted to distinguish that because yes the Catholic Church was involved with the movement, but I don’t think César was limited to Catholic dogma. I know that César was an early advocate of the gay rights movement, which of course the Catholic Church certainly was not then nor now.  He respected and was inclusive of the movement's many Jews, who were critical to the movement’s success, as he was to the movement’s Protestants and Muslims. He made sure that the community was inclusive. So he himself was a practicing Catholic, but he wanted to distinguish his movement from being a religious movement because it included people of all faiths.

What is it that you want people to take away after they watch your film? Specifically young people who weren’t alive during this time.
There are several things that people, particularly young people, can take away from this film. First, movements -- faith-inspired movements are capable of carrying out positive social changes, even though those changes may seem impossible to make. So today, for example, we live in an era of income disparity; the wealth gap is wider than what it has ever been in this country. That means for people who want to address that and join, be part of, or lead a movement to confront this, they may think “wow this is pretty damn hard,” or people who are discouraged to be part of a movement may think it is just impossible to challenge huge, powerful corporate interests who have lobbying muscle, etc. Well I think this film tells us, ‘no, actually collective people power can be greater than corporate power.’ But that depends on organizing, individual and collective sacrifice, and a commitment that draws on hugely powerful entities like faith and spirituality. These movements are possible, and I want to remind people of this by showing César’s commitment and César’s movement to show that it has been done before and with the right dedication, organizing, faith, and commitment it can be done again if we want it to happen.

How do you think UFW has been fairing since César Chavez's death?
Well the UFW has had challenges even before César had died. Starting in the early 80s they started losing a lot of the contracts that they had for a number of years.  Since then the Union has had huge, huge challenges that are on one hand are common among to all organized labor today. There are other challenges, for example today’s farm workers are largely undocumented so it’s very difficult to organize undocumented farm workers. And while César was alive, there were other problems. César and everyone else had to learn how to lead a movement to victory and beyond as it happened. There was no precedent. Nobody had ever led this sort of social or labor movement.  So some people wanted to create a strictly labor movement modeled after the United Auto Workers or even the teamsters. I think César clung to a vision of leading a social movement.  Ultimately, I don’t think he could reconcile the two and it alienated many people who gave a lot to building the union and being part of a social movement. That resulted in ugly infighting that really hurt the union’s ability to sustain the influence and efficacy it once had.

What is your vision for the future of farm workers in the United States?
The vision I have for farm workers is the vision I have for all working people. That is that people are paid a fair wage and salary for the work that they do. That includes all laborers, be it home healthcare workers and other low-wage workers, workers in fast food industries, or farm workers. And that they work in safe environments – environments free from toxic pesticide exposure and other dangerous or potentially fatal working conditions. It’s going to take a lot of work to make that to happen and it’ll take a lot of sacrifice. Part of this sacrifice is carrying out the work that it’ll take to organize farm workers of the fields. This is hugely, hugely difficult. How do you inspire farm workers to say, ‘okay stop making that wage that is barely keeping me alive and go out on strike,’ or ‘give up everything I have for the possibility that I might make more money if I there’s a successful union campaign?’—That’s a lot to ask of farm workers. The other thing is ultimately consumers will probably have to pay more for food and we as a society have to make sacrifices for the greater good of our society and that’s a challenge that we face ourselves. So we have to ask ourselves, are we willing to pay a little bit more for food, whether its fast food, produce in grocery stores, for domestic work so that we live in a more just, equitable society?

Can you share anything from your personal life story and the personal motivation for making this film?
My father was a farm worker for twenty-two years; by the time I was born he became a factory worker. So I grew up experiencing first hand how hard working people labor for what little they have. It was just inspiring to see the dedication and hard work of these people in my community. But their lives were full of struggle. They had to work incredibly hard to achieve any semblance of the American Dream. I think my background, coming from a working class Chicano/Mexican-American background really gave me some insight into the power of that immigrant and ethnic working class experience. It really inspired me to try to tell stories that reflect that this experience, but try to tell them in a way that speaks to everyone, universally.

Do you think that people think of César Chavez as a relic of the past or do they still view him as a motivation for future labor movements?
Well, the answer to both questions is yes. César is embedded in our history, in the American narrative. But sadly he hasn’t gotten the exposure the way other American historical figures have. So he’s unique in that way. I think, one of the unintended consequences of César and César’s work is that he inspires millions of people -- generations of Latinos to take leadership positions either in community organizations, or political organizations. I saw it in my dad who really suffered a lot of humiliation in his years as a farmworker. It didn’t go away when he was an adult. I saw the pain he carried with him. But I know that when he saw César Chavez organize a movement of people who look like him, and other people of color, and successfully challenged these a racist power structures; it filled him with dignity and pride. That pride didn’t end after my dad’s generation; today people are inspired by César Chavez. Its not just about farm workers, its about an entire ethnic group who are inspired by what’s become a cliché, “Yes We Can”. But the emergence of that phrase has been hugely powerful, so much so that it inspired and helped elect our fist president of color.  I don’t think César Chavez a relic of the past, I think he’s really a symbol of what we can achieve now and in the future.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think is important to talk about?
In the last decade there has been a lot that has been written about César’s failures. I don’t disagree with that material, and of course I wasn’t part of the movement so I really can’t access how true these claims are. But I can say that many of these writers are credible and can be convincing. But I think that can get in the way of identifying the net positive that César brought to our society. If we think about a man who had an eighth grade education, who had to figure it out on his own and go out into uncharted territory. That is hugely difficult, it’s very easy to do some armchair quarterbacking and say he screwed up. But the challenges he faced with the life experience he had and the limited education he had, I mean it really is a miracle that he did as much as he did, notwithstanding whatever faults he had and challenges he faced. I think that easily gets lost in the discussion by critics. Yes you should challenge popular narrative to find deeper meaning and truth, but I don’t want the net positive result of his work, both in the fields and inspiring generations of Latinos outside of the fields to be ignored, overlooked or minimized. I don’t think that should be diminished because of the problems that the union faced, self-inflicted or not, he’s been an undeniable positive contribution to society.