Cesar Chavez Film to Avoid Immigration Debate
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
But this time is different.
Participant and its partners are getting ready to offer a Latino hero in their still-unfinished movie “Chavez,” about Cesar Chavez and his struggle to unionize farmworkers. But they are largely avoiding the overriding Latino issue of the moment — immigration reform.
Mr. Chavez, perhaps the best-known Mexican-American activist, fought for better wages and conditions for workers but held complex and evolving views on the status of unauthorized immigrants, some of which would be at odds with the changes many Hispanics and others are seeking today.
That has created a challenge for Participant, which is usually eager to have its films become talking points in a national debate.
That debate has intensified this week as the Senate has begun a three-week push toward immigration reform, which might include offering a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living and working in the United States and expanding legal entry to the country for some workers. Some of the proposals could soon become law, or be swept into the maelstrom of midterm Congressional elections next year.
Either way, Participant and its partners, including Pantelion Pictures, a joint venture between the Lionsgate entertainment company and the Mexican media giant Televisa, are mostly staying outside the fray. At a meeting two weeks ago, the film’s backers began laying plans to sell the movie as a tale of American values and social justice, without much reference to the thorny issues now in the spotlight.
“It’s an American story, and that’s the way we’re treating it,” said Paul Presburger, Pantelion’s chief executive.
While no release date has been set, the movie is expected to open next year around March 31, Mr. Chavez’s birthday, which several states, including California, will observe — and when backers hope the possible declaration of national holiday in his honor will give the film a point of entry.
The producers’ aim, Mr. Presburger said, is to make the country’s large and vibrant Hispanic audience — which accounts for about 26 percent of domestic ticket sales, outstripping the 17 percent Hispanic share of the North American population — the core support for a more broadly based hit.
Immigration issues, noted Jonathan King, a Participant executive who is closely involved with “Chavez,” do not directly figure in the film, which instead focuses on Mr. Chavez’s leadership of a strike and grape boycott that began in 1965 and lasted five years.
Immigration issues are what made Chavez's 1965 strike and grape boycott feasible -- specifically, the ending of the bracero guest worker program in 1964.
“That’s apart from this story,” Mr. King said of the immigration issues. “This story is about the boycott.”
Born 86 years ago in Yuma, Ariz., Mr. Chavez fiercely opposed the Bracero Program, which until the mid-1960s allowed growers to import cheap seasonal labor. This practice undercut efforts by the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers union), which Mr. Chavez co-founded, to improve wages and working conditions.
Under Mr. Chavez, the union, in its fight against strikebreakers, sometimes reported undocumented immigrants to officials, and only in the early 1970s, according to a spokesman for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, dropped its support for legal sanctions against employers who hired workers without legal status in the United States. In 1986, however, Mr. Chavez became a backer of the Reagan-era immigration reform, including its amnesty provisions.
Did Chavez favor the corruption that led to growers getting the other half of the deal -- workplace enforcement -- turned into a dead letter? He was pretty loony by then, so I don't know?
Mr. Chavez’s changing posture toward unauthorized immigrants has led to a contemporary debate over whether he would have approved current reform proposals.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., a columnist who has publicly argued that Mr. Chavez would have opposed contemporary reform proposals, reiterated that belief in a recent e-mail. “The deal breaker would be the guest worker program, where maybe another 200,000 guest workers would be imported and not allowed to join the union or not able to join in any practical way because they’d be temporary,” Mr. Navarrette wrote.
Arturo S. Rodriguez, the U.F.W.’s president, and a son-in-law of Mr. Chavez, has spoken in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, and helped advise lawmakers in shaping legislative proposals. He argues that Mr. Chavez, who died in 1993, would do the same, though in his day a much smaller percentage of field workers came from abroad.
“We have no doubt Cesar would have enthusiastically supported immigration reform today because he did so before,” Mr. Rodriguez said in an e-mail. Advocates of the new reform measure invoked Mr. Chavez, at least indirectly, when a version of the measure was approved by the Senate judiciary committee last month. “¡Sí se puede!” they chanted in the committee hearing room, echoing a slogan — roughly, “Yes, we can!” — that was a signature phrase of Mr. Chavez’s union movement. ...
What proportion of NYT subscribers do you think will utterly miss the point of this article, will take away the message: "There go those cowardly Hollywood rightwingers failing to show that Cesar Chavez was a great activist for more immigration just because they are terrified of the power of anti-immigrant racists like Karl Rove"?
I'd love to do social science experiments in which college students read New York Times articles that try to get across a subversive point in an understated manner and see what percentage of them actually get the point. I bet it's not high.
The movie sounds like it's going to be a waste of its star Michael Pena's sense of humor. It will probably be a dud, and then nobody will ever make the film Pena was born to star in: "The Lee Trevino Story."