Column: Movie honors courageous, complex Cesar Chavez

A terrific new movie describes Cesar Chavez, a remarkable American whose influence continues to help Americans – and Minnesotans. Having seen the movie, talked with people who knew Chavez and had a tiny role in his work, I strongly recommend the picture. The movie “Cesar Chavez” was released March 28 and is rated PG-13. Here’s a link to its trailer: http://bit.ly/1lBLATg.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Chavez was born in 1927 in Yuma, Ariz. His family had a small farm that they lost during the Depression. They moved to California, hoping to find jobs. According to information from the Chavez Foundation, Chavez served in the U.S. Navy for two years in the ‘40s in the Pacific and afterward returned to California. He began a movement that continues today – to expand justice and opportunity for farm workers who harvest crops like grapes and lettuce. More information is available here: www.chavezfoundation.org.

The movie shows Chavez struggled to balance responsibilities of an organizer, husband and father. He and the union he founded, United Farm Workers, suffered defeats as well as successes.

But better wages, working conditions and new laws are part of his legacy. Chavez overcame powerful enemies, including Gov. Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon. As the movie explains (and Chavez Foundation communications director Marc Grossman confirmed), Nixon’s administration bought unsold grapes, shipping them overseas in an attempt to break the boycott.

Chavez’s work continues with people like Ramona Arreguin de Rosales. While a University of Minnesota student, she met Chavez at a Chicago meeting in 1969. Chavez later came to Minnesota and met with Ramona in her home. She recently recalled: “He was a very humble, quiet, respectful man. He taught us to organize.”

Ramona and her husband Francisco met at that Chicago meeting. They have continued working for more than for 40 years. This includes founding a St. Paul charter public school named for Chavez. The school helps students develop academic skills and a desire to be active, constructive citizens. They liked the movie, but as Francisco explained, it left out how Chavez described his work as “part of a bigger thing – the continuing American effort to expand opportunity.”

Chavez brought many people together. Some of the first dates my wife and I went on, 40 years ago, were at grocery stores where we, supporting Chavez’s work, encouraged people to boycott grapes.

Chavez also inspired state Rep. Carlos Mariani, D-St. Paul. He has introduced a House resolution to observe March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day, not to close schools but “to have Minnesota acknowledge its Latino people who have played a vitally important role in the development of our state, particularly in its agricultural sector, rural town growth and most presently, in the great diversity of all of its communities. (And to recognize) the life of a great American whose work helped shape this country … focusing on justice, equality and the dignity of workers.”

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, D-Minneapolis, has introduced a similar resolution to “help educate Minnesotans about this role model, (who was) dedicated, persistent and did not give up even when he faced enormous odds.”

Encouraging, inspiring, uplifting: These are overused words. But they fit this new movie.

It includes this Chavez conclusion: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate a person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate a person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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