1,000 Farmworkers View Chavez Film, Dedicated To Them

Farm workers in California were treated to a film about the late Cesar Chavez, the legendary activist. He took on the powerful agricultural industry in the 1960s.

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A new feature film about the early days of Cesar Chavez opened this weekend. The story of the legendary activist who took on the powerful agricultural industry was directed by Mexican actor Diego Luna. This past week, the filmmakers treated an audience of California farm workers to an outdoor preview of the movie dubbed into Spanish.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco was there.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: It was like old times in Delano, California. As they waited for the film to begin, nearly 1200 campesinos, farm workers, chanted the rally cry of the UFW, the United Farm Workers Union.

FARM WORKERS: Si se puede. Si se puede. Si se puede...

BARCO: Si se puede, yes we can, chanted by lettuce pickers, grape harvesters and more - those once championed by the late Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the UFW's cofounders. The workers arrived by bus from all over California to this national landmark, the first UFW headquarters; the very spot where Chavez won his first victory, signing a contract with table grape growers promising better wages and working conditions.

DIEGO LUNA: (Foreign language spoken)

BARCO: Director Diego Luna told the crowd his film was dedicated to them, the people who help feed this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

BARCO: The film spotlight's the heyday of Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, when he first took on the powerful agriculture industry. Chavez led strikes and a 300-mile pilgrimage to Sacramento. He held a 25-day fast on this very site in Delano. His nonviolent campaign included convincing millions of Americans to boycott grape for five years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

BARCO: Watching from the front row and holding up the UFW flag was 85-year-old Josefina Flores. She says she the film accurately portrayed the turbulent union struggles of the 1960s.

JOSEFINA FLORES: (Foreign language spoken)

BARCO: I was shot and beat up and jailed, Flores says, along with many others. Flores was Cesar Chavez's assistant and now lives in the UFW's low-income housing for retired farm workers. So does her friend, Ruth Martinez, who recalls how bad the working conditions used to be.

RUTH MARTINEZ: There was no water in the fields. There was no bathrooms in the fields. There was no breaks - nothing. We struggled for everything we got.

BARCO: Things have changed, says 50-year-old Francisco Favela, who's worked in the fields most of his life.

FRANCISCO FAVELA: Since I was, like, 9 years old. We lived in barracks and they used to treat you, you know, like trash. And now they're treating you a little bit better.

BARCO: Favela says he doesn't see such young children working in the fields any more; growers are obliged to provide free fresh drinking water and accessible toilets. And there are laws limiting pesticide spraying over the fields. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez says union members now have paid vacations, medical insurance and pensions. But the demographics in the fields have changed since the 1960s, where there were still many Anglo, Black and Filipino farm workers.

ARTURO RODRIQUEZ: Today, it's primarily an immigrant labor force that's out there - mostly from Mexico. And unfortunately, probably about 70 to 80 percent are undocumented, without papers. So that it puts them in a very difficult situation, to say the least, that where they can be exploited and abused and taken advantage of by their employers.

BARCO: Rodriguez says UFW these days is urging immigration reform. And the union is still fighting some growers who are challenging efforts to organize.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BARCO: About 20 minutes before the end of the movie, rain began to sprinkle and strong winds kicked in, threatening to knock over the inflatable movie screen and the speakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BARCO: Some of the diehards in the audience urged others to resist the winds, but the screen went black and the farm workers scrambled to get back on their busses. Before leaving, many of them said they'd be watching the movie again in the theaters, where this first weekend's box office numbers count.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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