Latin America & Caribbean

Cesar Chavez film triggers legacy discussion

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Media captionBBC Mundo speaks to the director and one of the lead actors of the film

Cesar Chavez is one of the best-known labour leaders in the United States. Now, as BBC Mundo's Jaime Gonzalez reports from Los Angeles, the life of the Mexican-American activist has been made the subject of a feature-length biopic by Mexican director Diego Luna.

Its release at a time when immigration reform is at the forefront of the political agenda in the US has meant that the film, entitled simply Cesar Chavez, has been drawn into the controversy which surrounds this divisive issue in the US.

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Image caption Cesar Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers

The movie focuses on a crucial period in the 1960s when Mr Chavez led a boycott of grape growers in Delano, California, in protest at the appalling conditions and paltry salaries of immigrants working in California's farming industry.

It shows how Mr Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) trade union he co-founded in 1962 mobilised thousands of workers across California and the US, forcing growers to the negotiating table.

But some critics have questioned whether using the character of Mr Chavez as a shining example of the fight for illegal immigrants' rights may be too simplistic.

They say the movie fails to reflect the sometimes "complex and ambiguous" positions Mr Chavez held vis-a-vis undocumented migrants.

Faced with growing strikes organised by Mr Chavez and the UFW, farm owners brought undocumented workers from Mexico to break the strike.

This in turn drove Mr Chavez and the UFW to at times report undocumented immigrants to the authorities.

Union members also set up outposts, called "wet lines" to stop immigrants from entering the US illegally.

Journalist Miriam Pawel, author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, a biography of the late labour leader, told the BBC that Mr Chavez was a complex character.

"He was a remarkable person in many ways, and a true hero. But heroes also have flaws," she explains.

In her book, Ms Pawel has documented how Mr Chavez often used the term "wetbacks" to talk in a derogatory manner about undocumented immigrants.

She also says that in the late 1970s and early 80s, Mr Chavez "dictatorial management-style" alienated many UFW members.

By 1984, the UFW had lost most of its influence and its membership had shrunk considerably.

She argues that showing Cesar Chavez warts and all would not have taken credit away from his historic accomplishments and his legacy.

'Need for heroes'

But Arizona State University Professor Matthew Garcia says many Latinos are "disinclined to hear another version of Cesar Chavez".

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Image caption UFW membership has dwindled from 50,000 in its heyday in the 1970s to 6,000

According to Prof Garcia, "Mexican-Americans and Latinos have a need for heroes - for pinning their hopes and their dreams and their sense of themselves on to a kind of saintly figure.

He says Mr Chavez was a man of his time. "In the 1970s and 1980s, Cesar Chavez was very much a union man and the position of the unions was that undocumented immigrants were bad."

Mr Chavez's son Fernando maintains that if his father showed any opposition to undocumented immigrants, it was only in their role as strike breakers.

Fernando Chavez says he has no doubt that, if his father was alive today, he would be leading the movement for immigration reform.

'No discrimination'

Arturo Rodriguez, who worked with Cesar Chavez for nearly 20 years, thinks it is "ridiculous" to call the labour leader's credentials into question.

Mr Rodriguez, who succeeded Mr Chavez as UFW president after his death in 1993, says the union has never discriminated against anyone, and notes that many of its members are undocumented migrants.

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Image caption Arturo Rodriguez says the union does not discriminate against illegal migrants

Activist Randy Shaw believes some of the criticism directed towards Cesar Chavez is down to people taking his views out of context.

Mr Shaw, who is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, hails Mr Chavez as a key figure in the movement for Latino rights.

"He did more for Latino political power than any other person in the history of the United States," he says, fully subscribing to the films tag line, that "history is made one step at a time".

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