Watch out, here I go about Cesar Chavez
I saw the Cesar Chavez movie tonight and I have a lot of feelings I’m working to process here. I saw it opening weekend like any good San Antonio girl would, while eating a giant dill pickle (if you know, you know; if you don’t, you ain’t San Anto).
Cesar Chavez is a complicated historical figure, as all of them are, because making someone a deity or a saint or a demon is rarely the right way to frame anyone, including the best of the best or the worst of the worst. The movie of course isn’t as bound in nuance because that’s not generally what mainstream movies do. I have a real thing I talk about constantly as a history teacher that no one is perfect. MLK, Gandhi, they have hella flaws. Hitler loved children and animals. That’s ok. The moment someone has to be a saint to make a difference, we’re all off the hook for working for change and we can take a seat. (Spoiler: no one’s off the hook). The moment someone has to be an obvious monster to be wrong, we’ll let anything slide because even serial killers are so nice and normal when you ask their neighbors after the fact. Life isn’t black and white. We’re down here in the muck and the grey and the nuance. That’s not so much where my complicated feelings lie. That’s an easy thing for me because I accept it going into the story.
1) I’m gonna throw it out there first because it was my overwhelming feeling of neglect throughout the movie. When do we get a Dolores Huerta movie? She was a co-organizer in the campaigns, and while we see her flit in and out courtesy of the formidable and incredible Rosario Dawson, the main focus of the story is the singular bravery of Cesar Chavez. His wife, who I’m not sure is ever actually identified by name in the movie (Helen), was featured more prominently, and she is also a force to be reckoned with, but c’mon. Huerta. Let’s make it happen. She’s not a sideline figure in this story. She is front and center.
2) I spent a good part of the movie a little weepy because it hit me so hard how rarely I see people that look like me, like my family, like my students, like my city, in stories where they are brave, smart, organized, and fighting against injustice. Latin@s are so often seen as pawns in bigger stories, or as peripheral characters, or as one-dimensional characters in a generic anti-racist story. It was more powerful than I was expecting it to be to see that story on the big screen, and I was much more emotional than I suspected I’d be. I went in a little wary, as I am of all civil rights story movies because of the above mentioned tendency to deify people rather than speak to their complicated stories with nuance. But it made me want to show my (mostly Latin@) students this film because it made me think that if I, someone who seeks out stories of activism and revolution and civil rights, have so rarely seen myself up there on that screen, there must be many fewer opportunities for the average kid, and how powerful that is. They’ve all heard of Cesar Chavez, but it’s different to see yourself on screen. Representation matters in so many ways. We can’t picture what we can be if we never see it in front of us, and there’s a much bigger system working to keep us from seeing that than there is to encourage us to see power in our struggles. So that makes the erasure of the Filipino union alliances rough, too.
3) It’s in an interesting balance to see this specifically Chavez-centered picture in a story about collective bargaining, organizing, and striking. Labor is by definition, a movement that only works when all the people work together. It must have been difficult to center this story while still focusing on the collective appeal necessary to the story. It makes me wonder if we might be seeing a new era of union organizing and fighting back in the face of what is historic economic injustice in our world. Can films like this play a part? I hope so. It’s heroic to see people working together in this manner, because if we wait for one single perfect hero, there’s no such thing, and it lets us off the hook for ever doing anything. Collective organizing is the only hope for any justice issue.
4) That being said, I wonder about the angle that is in all these movies that show how much your family suffers when you stand up for what’s right and work for justice. In some ways it’s true. The hours I put in organizing definitely leaves me less time for my partner and family and things I could be doing in every day leisure life, but in other ways, the people I work with are kind of my family. But let’s be honest; I don’t know any feminist organizers who also have perfect feminist organizing partners that do as much as them right next to them (at least in the area I’m familiar with). I also thought it was interesting from a gendered perspective that it showed his female partners as being supportive and on the front lines with the men, whereas often in these stories (though not always in real life), the most supportive thing partners can be shown to do is give them their blessing and get out of the way. Usually the woman is not the focus, and so she is able to stay home and take care of the family while the male hero is out fighting for justice. I wonder how many more women we’d see as centers of stories if that wasn’t the case. There’s not generally too many movies focused on same sex couples so it’s harder to extrapolate lessons there. And I have no data here, just a feeling I get. But it’s almost that object lesson we see in movies about career women. You can care and work and do something important, but generally it means you’re going to sacrifice your family for it. I don’t think that’s true, and I also think it serves to disincentivize people from getting involved. I mean, who looks at a movement and says they want to give up their family for it? Not many people. It’s used as a plot tool to show the intense sacrifice someone makes because they believe in a cause, and in fairness many families feel strain at the level of a Chavez organizer, but it also just makes them look like martyrs instead of people. This is not a problem with this movie, it is an issue with all social justice movies.
5) What businesses are supporting the candidates in Texas that are supporting anti-abortion legislation? Or other harmful legislation? We’re in a more connected, multinational capitalist world, which makes things complicated, but it’s not impossible to do these things. Texas orange shirts, how could we organize in the face of what we’re up against in a way that hurts wallets? And allows people across the country/world to support us?
6) ^^ this plus maybe a hunger strike. We could do it. Some of us could do it. How pro-life are you if you let people starve? Throwing it out there. It might be an organizing practice that’s usable.
8) The big bummer of it all is, honestly, we study these people as anomalies or change makers throughout history, but these organizers have always been around, and though they are important to change, it gets exhausting to see the same fights over and over, and often time, to see what ground we’ve actually lost. Economic justice, gender justice, racism, all those things are still problematic, and in many ways have gotten worse and more slippery to deal with as time as has gone on. Things become micro aggressions, or isolated incidents that are more difficult to prove as it becomes more unsupported to be a generally awful racist, sexist person publicly. And these issues are systematic, so if we can attribute them to one person (or more often, not attribute them because that’s a nice guy! he can’t be a racist/sexist/asshole!) we can avoid dealing with them systematically. Not being around during the civil rights movement, I can’t say for sure, but it seems that the focus has come away from focusing on systems and instead, trying to prove individual wrong-doing, which is just a chip away at the system, not a fix. How many people are forgotten that do this every day, and have been for years? decades? centuries? That part is depressing.
7) I’m still working through all this. There might be many more things to say as I process.