In their Sunday edition on July 1st, the LA Times featured a story about a new biopic currently being filmed in Mexico that depicts the life of Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American UFW (United Farm Workers) union leader best known for his role in the grape boycotts of California during the 60s and 70s. This is the first film portrayal of the Arizona native and will depict the trials said leader overcame as well as the lives of those around him including socialist promoter Dolores Huerta.
After giving descriptions of life on set for the cast and crew, the article winds down to the usual history of the movie subject and glorification from the actors thanks to new-found admiration while playing their roles. This is includes the usual “he was such an inspirational leader” and “my family cried when they heard what historical figure for Hispanics and unions I was to be casted as.” Simply put: from where I stand, their warm fuzzies for the likes of Cesar Chavez and his merry band of partners-in-crime is disgusting. Little known amongst many who have been taught to call Chavez a hero is that the shenanigans put on by the UFW workers as taught in class were really moves against Hispanics and immigrants as carried out by his union thugs.
As the daughter of a zanjero (or person who delivered water to farmers) and retired worker for the Coachella Valley Water District, I grew up hearing stories of the years my father lived having to work amongst the UFW who terrorized farmers and their families. My father grew up in the small farming community of Thermal, California, and remembers what really happened to cause such an uproar amongst migrant workers as it was not racist, white farm owners abusing those who tended to the crops for them. Back in the day farmers used to have small housing complexes on their farms so that during the harvest season migrant workers may stay at little to no cost so they could more easily and comfortably work in the fields. After many of these complexes were trashed due to migrant workers’ lack of up-keep, farmers made them stay off their land as they couldn’t afford constant building repairs. During this time period, migrants workers lived like gypsies whose racial backgrounds were of Hispanic and Anglo-American decent moving wherever there was a harvest to work, unlike what the UFW would have the public to believe.
When Cesar Chavez finally stepped in with his ideas of a union, the living conditions of those that later joined were willful pig sties as the migrant workers still had tendencies to trash their living situations. However, violence erupted once the UFW became popular and eventually farmers saw dangerous threats. Cesar Chavez gave “protection” through his union to migrant workers while threatening those who wouldn’t comply to join and hire solely union workers. The famous Grape Boycotts of the 60s and 70s were really violent protests, if not demonstrations of intimidation. As my father recollects, the migrant workers would be working in the fields picking the grape harvest in Thermal on one side of the road and UFW members would be standing on the other side shouting insults (even death threats) in Spanish all while the sheriff was standing in-between trying to keep the workers safe.
These protests often ended in riots. A friend of my father’s, a man by the name of Bud Manis, was delivering a newspaper to a farm in nearby Mecca, California, during a UFW protest. Once he stopped in his truck, the UFW proceeded to try and pull Manis out to harm him. But Manis had his .22 handgun and shot one of the union members in the behind, which scared the rest of the goons away.
If only these protests had remained just that. It wasn’t uncommon during the harvest months of April-June to also see 50+ union members scrambling away from authorities after destroying infrastructures on a farm they had targeted. On top of everything else, Chavez and the UFW frequently threatened to blow up the Coachella Canal which is a 124 ½ mile irrigation system spanning from Lake Cahuilla, California to Yuma, Arizona. The entire canal had to be patrolled day and night by my father and a dozen other Water District workers for a whole week during the threats. If Chavez had indeed bombed this vital water system it would have cost millions of dollars in damage as well as cause the flooding of many farms.
In truth, a whole book could be written on this man’s lack of moral compass and compassion. While dear leader Chavez was supposedly “protecting his union members” he was also flying around in a private jet wearing nice business suits before getting into a limo, driving to one of his many houses in California, and changing into more grubby attire so he could be “one of the people.” One sheriff admitted to seeing this first hand. In reality, Cesar Chavez and his bunch were not for immigration rights. Hispanic migrant workers eventually realized Chavez’s UFW union was really bullying farmers and making it harder for them to have jobs in the fields. Eventually the non-union workers stood up for themselves and rebelled, leaving the UFW to quickly fall out of popularity.
I hope those who see the film “Chavez” when it opens in theaters watch with a grain of salt. The lies being fed to the American people about Cesar Chavez’s hero status are despicable. It is deeply troubling to see how the truth about this man has been washed from archives over the years and how truly descriminatory he really was towards Hispanics. Promoting riots, destruction of private property, assault, and even lives of undocumented workers lost during these years all in the name of a Union should be considered terrorism, not heroism. If this is the type of man you’d want immortalized through film and idolized, you’re crazy.
Elissa Roberson | College of the Desert | @ElissaRoberson