Mexican actor-turned-director Diego Luna, at 34, is too young to remember much about Cesar Chavez except for television news clips of his funeral in 1993. But he understood the historic importance of the Mexican-American labor leader, born in Arizona, who in the 1960s cofounded the United Farm Workers, famously organized a grape boycott, and led a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, Calif., that drew global attention to the plight of migrant farm workers.
He also understood that, despite Chavez’s stature, many young people on both sides of the border don’t know much about the man.
“My first son was born in Los Angeles; he’s a Mexican-American. I wanted my son to look at a film and see where he comes from,” says Luna, who got his big break in the 2001 hit “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” directed by friend and fellow Mexican Alfonso Cuarón. “I was shocked that there had not been a movie about Cesar Chavez.”
Luna decided “Cesar Chavez” would be his second directing effort and his first English-language film. He cast Mexican-American actor Michael Pena as Chavez; America Ferrara (“Ugly Betty”) as his wife, Helen Chavez; and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, the labor activist who cofounded the UFW with Chavez.
Both Ferrara and Dawson, activists themselves in the Latino community, had living women to draw upon: Helen and Dolores still organize for social justice. (Luna says Huerta, now 83, deserves her own movie.)
“Helen and Dolores represent the presence of women in this movement. Out in the fields, it wasn’t just men; it was men, women, and their children. For me, it was a gift as an actress and an audience member that Diego chose to not marginalize the contributions of women,” says Ferrara, who met with Helen Chavez in preparation to play her. “I loved learning that Helen wasn’t supportive in just the traditional ways. The issues were deeply personal to her. She’d been working in the fields since she was 7 years old and went back to the fields to make money to feed their family while Cesar was organizing. So, when she was picketing and getting arrested, it was for her own dignity and the dignity of her family.”
Others tried over the years to get a Chavez film made without success, Luna says. Luna took a script by Keir Pearson (“Hotel Rwanda”) and Timothy J. Sexton (“Children of Men”), who’d secured the rights and cooperation from the Chavez family, to US film studios and producers. But few in Hollywood shared Luna’s passion for the project. “Many told us that the film needed to happen but they had no interest in investing. Other times, they wanted to know, ‘How can you make it more sexy and less risky? Can you get Antonio Banderas to play Chavez?’ ” says Luna during a recent visit to Cambridge, where he screened “Cesar Chavez” at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
So Luna headed back to his native Mexico, where he found investors and produced the film through his own Canana Films, the company he founded with fellow actor and longtime friend Gael Garcia Bernal and producer Pablo Cruz. With a modest budget of $10 million, Luna shot what both he and Ferrara call “an American story” in Sonora, home to nearly all of Mexico’s production of table grapes. “It was 117 degrees when we shot in the fields. You could look left and right and see real workers out there,” Luna recalls.
That authenticity provided more than just atmosphere. Luna scouted the actual vineyards in Delano where Chavez and his family picked grapes and organized migrant workers. “The vineyards in California look completely different today; the technology around the fields has changed dramatically,” Luna says. “We’d have had to re-create everything to look the way it did in the 1960s.”
Besides retro vineyards, Sonora provided another visual gift: plenty of real-life fruit pickers who worked as extras.
“I wanted those faces to look real. No makeup can substitute for faces that have actually been under the sun,” Luna says. “There’s no film industry in Sonora. So it was easier to tell a farm worker how to act on film than tell an extra how to look and act like a farm worker.”
A professional actor since he was 12, Luna has worked with some of today’s top directors. Besides several films with Cuarón, he’s made movies with Steven Spielberg (“The Terminal”) and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”). He remembers shooting “Milk” on Castro Street in San Francisco during demonstrations against California’s anti-gay Proposition 8. “It was unbelievable to see the past and the present right there at the same time,” he says, a quality he tried to bring to “Cesar Chavez.”
“The message behind the [grape] boycott was nonviolence and going straight to the consumer. It was mothers talking to mothers, parents talking to parents, making consumers understand that buying a grape supports child labor,” says Luna. “It’s indifference and ignorance that stops people from doing the right thing.”
Luna has been screening the film at universities, trying to engage with students about ongoing labor, health care, and immigration issues. He knows he couldn’t tackle everything in “Cesar Chavez,” so he hopes it leads to more films that put Latino and Mexican faces on the big screen.
“Typical representations of this community fall into a stereotype. You can barely see the richness and complexity in films. There’s a few, but cinema is so expensive now it’s tough to find people willing to risk it,” he says. “But this country is changing and hopefully this film will show that it’s not a risk anymore, but a necessity. Like Cesar Chavez, we learned that change will never come unless we’re part of it.”