A Meditation on Sin: 'César Chávez' and the ongoing struggle for labor justice

I once had a homiletics professor who said not to worry too much if it appears that members of the congregation are daydreaming during your homily. A homily, he pointed out, is not an act of persuasion. You’re not up there trying to prove some point. (Or if you are, God help the people.) A good homily is meant to break open the Word, that is, to draw people into a space where God is close and can speak to them directly. Once they’re there, your mission is accomplished (even if you still have a lot to say).  

It seems to me that movies at times function similarly. By far the majority of films today rely on intricate plots, big action sequences, sight gags and/or snappy patter to keep our full attention. But occasionally a film comes along that is more like an Ignatian meditation, offering a bare bones framework of characters and events that invite the audience into a place where they can pray with and ponder their own lives.  

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Diego Luna’s new film César Chávez is such a project. In just over 90 minutes, Luna presents Mexican-American labor organizer César Chávez’s 1960s and ‘70s fight for the rights of migrant farmworkers in California. Though the details are different from the story of a Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, Luna’s film follows a pretty standard formula: noble figure on the outside of history faces down powerful forces arrayed against them, at risk to themselves and others, but the ultimate good of all.

In the film Chávez huddles with like-minded allies, such as his wife Helen (the luminous America Ferrara), co-founder of his movement Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) and lawyer Jerry Cohen (Wes Bentley). And he has his opponents, who include not only rich landowners (led by Ron Perkins and a wonderfully understated John Malkovich), but his oldest son Chato (Maynor Alvarado), who has no interest in life-as-a-cause.

The film offers the requisite turning points—Bobby Kennedy speaking on the farm workers’ behalf; Chávez’s 25-day hunger strike for nonviolence; then-Governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon’s attempts to destroy the farm workers’ strike. And it has its intimate moments of encouragement and struggle among Chavez’s family and friends.

Rising above this conventional framework usually requires a lighting-in-the-bottle lead performance, a la Sean Penn in Milk or Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. But as played by Michael Peña, César Chávez is a largely impassive, almost opaque figure. Though his commitment to the farm workers is clear, we never get a glimpse of what makes this man tick, what the stakes are for him personally. Even as screenwriters Timothy J. Sexton and Keir Pearson lay out the cost of Chávez’s work in the burden it places on his wife and son, Peña’s stoical portrayal mutes our sense of its impact.

But the choice to make Chávez more distant—which some critics have criticized—also makes the audience more active, inviting them to fill in the blanks and engage the issues Chávez faced for themselves.

Personally, I was reminded of the recent reports of Amazon.com workers toiling in warehouses far from sight who suffer terrible working conditions, just so that I can get a book within 48 hours. Likewise, not a month seems to go by without another story of the men, women and children in Asia who assemble amazing technological marvels for us—computers and smart phones and home theater systems—yet struggle to support their own families, or even just to survive their working conditions.       

The persistence of experiences like this in our country almost 50 years since the struggle of the farm growers begs the question whether we have progressed ethically as a nation. Or have we just learned ways to export our victims far enough away that we are no longer likely to see them, and they cannot mount a response?

Chávez’s story also brought to mind the situation in our universities. I’ve spent over half my life in and around institutions of higher education. And while few on the typical Catholic campus are getting rich (other than perhaps the coaches), it’s hard to miss the fact that some workers are not getting paid enough. Adjunct professors provide a larger and larger piece of the labor force at our schools, yet their salaries are often minimal and without benefits. Maintenance staff, grounds crews, dining hall workers all work long hours doing difficult physical work, but their salaries are in many cases not commensurate. And in many otherwise progressive institutions, the potential unionization of such groups provokes vehemence not too different from the animosity that Chávez and the farm workers faced.

Past history suggests that eventually there will be a Chávez of Amazon. And a Martin Luther King Jr. (or Susan B. Anthony) of China, for that matter. For all our failings as a human society, the arc of history does seem to be bending toward freedom and justice. 

But the question that “César Chávez” raises is whether such progress will ever bring with it not just change for some, but change in us and in our society. We might cast original sin as an intriguing myth from our Jewish forebears; yet the slippery persistence of sin in our social structures is also clear.

None of us wants to be responsible for the pain of another. But the reality that having things quick and cheap creates not just the possibility for, but the necessity of such hardship is even today buried or ignored.

And that is indeed a situation worth meditating on. 

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Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 8 months ago
I saw the movie this afternoon at a downtown West Palm Beach Theater. I was the ONLY one in the audience. Granted this is a Tuesday and the middle of the day, but still, it brought home to me the fact that there is only a very small part of the population that will have enough interest to even watch this film, let alone pay money to see it. One man came in wanting to know if "Noah" was showing in the theater I was in. Nope. So I saw the movie alone. Before the movie started, I sat through at least 30 minutes of trailers for other films - a Marvel comics film, a science fiction about someone dying (physically) but living on in some kind of spiritual/technological state that could be accessed via computer screens, a child who went to heaven and came back to his family to tell them all about it. Of course the child became quite the media phenomena. I felt like I was in an alternative universe inviting me outside of the reality that I know (and love). The only thing that sort of interested me was a Disney-nature film about bears. And then Cesar started. I was drawn immediately into the characters, the graphics, the filming. Yes, Chavez’ character is opaque, and the ongoing story of the Farmworkers’ struggle is greatly simplified and watered down. But I was captured by the mysterious beauty of the movement -- seeing the people marching down the California roads reminded me of the Israelites leaving Egypt. And the leadership, prophetic vision, and courage of Chavez. Where did his insights into nonviolence come from? It’s not like he studied for years and years like Gandhi. Or sat in prison for 27 years like Nelson Mandela. He seems to me to have been formed by the very experience of injustice, having worked himself in the fields since he was a child, and the discovery, within himself, of the way to respond. The power of truth itself. The privilege (and accompanying arrogant blindness and stupidity) of not only the landowners, but the sheriff and “white” townspeople is on full display. (Why are we so afraid of losing that “privilege”?) In today’s highly polarized political climate, I’m not sure that Republicans would appreciate the clear division between Bobby Kennedy’s efforts for the Farmworkers and the Nixon/Reagan efforts against them. That might be just enough for those who want to, to discount the historical (and moral) significance of how farmworkers were able to organize and obtain more just wages and living conditions. In fact, Chavez was able to win over people of all political persuasions to the rightness of the farmworkers' cause. Even the Europeans joined him in a Tea-Party-like emptying of boxes of exported grapes into the river. The struggle of the farmworkers IS a religious-political movement. There’s really no way to separate it into one or the other. One of the funny lines that I remember is when Chavez was accused of being affiliated with a Communist organization (probably the most evil accusation of all in that era). He laughed and said, “we can’t be Communists, we’re Catholic”! I laughed out loud. That this happened in my country and in my lifetime gives me a great deal of hope. I was also convinced that the more well versed you are in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the more leverage you will have in arguing for human rights.
michael baland
3 years 8 months ago
The Delano grape strike was initiated by AWOC, a predominately Filipino farm workers union. It was only when the growers brought in Chicano scabs that Chavez and the NFWA became involved. The role played by the AWOC leader, Larry Itliong, and Filipino workers has been erased or greatly minimized in this hagiography.
Anna Harrison
3 years 8 months ago
Shame on our treatment of adjunct faculty at so many of our Catholic campuses. Loyola Marymount University, at which I teach in the Department of Theological Studies, recently engaged in union-busting tactics -- and successfully. We do, however, take off for Cesar Chavez day.

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