Cesar Chavez premiered this past weekend in theaters across the country. Hollywood films premiere all the time, but this one is different.
Most Americans know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela — some of the great civil rights leaders of our time. But sadly, very few know the story of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the countless others who labored alongside them for the rights of farm workers in the 1960s. Whenever I mentioned I was part of a movie about Cesar Chavez, people asked, “Who? The boxer?” It was disappointing to realize most people really don’t know the story of this great leader, a man who was a contemporary of Dr. King and who Dr. King himself considered “a brother in the fight for equality.” His story is our story, and it should matter to all of us.
Cesar Chavez can be seen as many things — a heartfelt narrative of a father and son, a portrait of a civil rights hero — but it’s a lot more than that. Cesar Chavez is an American story: the story of a marginalized people who came together to fight for their human rights. It’s a narrative we’ve seen repeated since our nation’s founding; one we’re still living today. And for the first time, the public has an opportunity to learn about this important chapter of our history as the main attraction, not simply as the subplot of a box office film.
Cesar Chavez, the activist, knew how to organize, knew how to galvanize the disenfranchised, bringing them together to effect desperately-needed change. The farm workers’ movement was one of the largest non-violent movements the world has ever seen. But Cesar didn’t accomplish this alone. Cesar Chavez highlights wonderfully the contributions women made to the farm workers’ movement. Women like Cesar’s wife, Helen, one of the first to get arrested for the cause. Women like the great activist Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) — the farm workers’ union — with Cesar and who continues to lead her community today. Women like the countless American mothers, housewives, and activists who gave momentum to this movement by getting their friends and families to boycott grapes and wine from their tables, in support of the rights of farm workers. The farm workers movement started on the West Coast, but thanks to the efforts of these women and millions of others, it spread across the country, and even across the Atlantic, going “viral” in a time before the word “viral” as we know it even existed.
The movement was significant, because it brought together two groups of minorities and gave them a majority voice. Larry Itliong was one of the great leaders of the Filipino farm workers. When his people went on strike in 1965, they sought solidarity from the Latino farm workers, and Cesar and his movement united with them against the grape growers in Delano. Many think the story of Cesar Chavez is relevant only to Latinos, or only to farmworkers. But as the film makes clear, this is a story for all of us. The film focuses on Cesar, Helen, and their family, but the real story is a collective story. It’s the story of people from all races and walks of life coming together to fight for the rights of the voiceless few.
Many of the issues Cesar, Larry, Dolores, and Helen fought for — fair wages, humane working conditions — have improved tremendously because of their work and the work of leaders like them. But we also know there’s a lot more work to be done to lift so many others out of the shadows today.
This year, we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Voto Latino, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Latino Millennials find their voice and make it heard. Though they are often stereotyped as an apathetic and disinterested generation, Millennials want to have a say in the future of their country. Many of them feel that their voice can’t make a difference, but the truth is — it can, when united with the voices of millions like them. Millennials care about issues like immigration reform and crippling student debt. They care about finding a solution to our nation’s chronic unemployment, about equality. And they are making their voices heard. For them, it’s easier to take a stand today than it was for the farm workers in Cesar’s day, as they harness the power of the internet and social media.
TrendUrVoice, a voter registration initiative we recently launched with Rock the Vote, is a perfect example. Our strategy for this campaign lives completely online. Why? Because we know that’s where Millennials live, too. And we want to leverage the platforms they already use to help them amplify their voices and shape the face of the American electorate this November and beyond.
Cesar’s greatest contribution was empowering those who saw themselves as voiceless, and then teaching them how to use their voice for a greater cause, no matter how small they may have felt. The Filipino and Latino farm workers who formed the strikes, the millions of Americans who joined the boycott may have felt individually that they could not make a difference. But we know that because they came together, a great movement was started, and millions of lives were changed for the better.
Similarly, we may feel that our individual voices won’t matter, but as all of us register to vote and then take action by going to the polls on Election Day, we will make a difference! In the film, we witness Cesar fast for nearly a month. We see the farm workers risk their lives and the livelihoods of their families as they continued their strike for five long years. Our role is so much easier in comparison, but it’s just as important.
Every American has a stake to bring about social change, and thanks to leaders like Cesar Chavez, every American can. When our children and grandchildren look back on our day, just as we now look back on Cesar’s day, and they ask us what we did about the pressing issues of our time, what will we tell them? I am following in the footsteps of these great leaders through Voto Latino, through my advocacy for other causes about which I’m passionate, and through the role of Dolores Huerta, who I am so honored to portray in this film. You can participate by bringing friends and family to watch the film so we can send a message that stories like this are wanted and important. I truly believe you will walk away inspired by what you see and learn about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Each of us is capable of greatness, and I hope you will show your strength and join me now by registering and voting this mid-term election. Voting is how we write our history! Let’s make it count!
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