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Pena brilliant in portrayal of Chavez
Michael Pena (right) stars as Cesar Chavez, a civil rights activist that co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. His birthday is Sunday, and its recognized as a holiday in three states. - photo by Photo Contributed

Manteca marked the home stretch for Cesar Chavez.

On April 2, 1966, the farm labor leader stopped in the little known farming community along the Highway 99 route that he and his group of hundreds were following from Delano to Sacramento and laid his head down for the night.

It’s not well documented. A small photo of him pointing towards Sacramento on a map with the route – and stop dates for 19 cities including Manteca – doesn’t provide compelling courtroom evidence.

Even still, that photo coupled with the grape boycott that Chavez had called for – and there were an awful lot of grapes in the area at that time – made the northern San Joaquin Valley a prime location for him to gain supporters just based on his presence.

All of this, save for the Manteca link, is chronicled in Diego Luna’s new biopic about a man that transformed the landscape of California and set the stage for a sweeping nationwide bill that finally gave farmworkers the same rights that any other organized labor group had at the time. 

Michael Pena was brilliant as Chavez. And maybe that’s because his parents immigrated to the United States as poor Mexican farmers and found solace in the wave of sweeping change that Chavez was trying to usher in from Delano.

“Don’t mess this up,” his father told him as he set out to take on a role that was almost mythical in the Latino community.

Well, Mike, you didn’t disappoint.

But I need to get this out of the way.

Cesar Chavez is a movie about politics.

Depending on where you line up on the spectrum, there’s a good chance that your chain will be rattled by something in the movie. It might be Chavez’s link with “subversive” and “Rules for Radicals” author Saul Alinsky. It might be the portrayal of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon as people indifferent to the plight of migrant farm workers in a state that they were both intimately familiar with.

But all of that is just white noise – roadblocks that people will undoubtedly stumble over as they move towards recognizing the amazing performance that Pena turned in about a figure that few people outside of the western United States are intimately familiar with.

Here in the Northern California we’re inundated with the name Cesar Chavez. Army Street in San Francisco was renamed in his honor. Stockton named a high school after him, and the main branch of the San Joaquin County library also bears his name.

His organizing companion, Delores Huerta, is portrayed on a mural on the Delta College campus. Less than a handful of states close schools on Cesar Chavez Day – formally recognized by not categorized as a holiday – and California is one of them.

So while the younger generations might not be able to tell you about the grape boycott or the 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, a concerted effort to keep his vision and his relentless pursuit of social justice fresh in the minds of everybody.

There’s a scene in the movie where Chavez, several days into a hunger strike, tells his brother that he’s tired of living in a world where the people that pick the food can’t afford to put it on their own table.

It’s a short sentence and part of a much longer diatribe about the plight of the United Farm Workers and a commitment to non-violence. But pointing out that disparity, and the lack of humanity during a time when everybody was trying to do what was fair and what was right, was a terrific summary of what motivated a man to go to great lengths to make sure that his people had the voice that they deserved.

Not everybody will like his movie. Some will even say it promotes communism.

Pay no mind.

As a people, can’t we all just agree to look at the source information ourselves and form our own opinions?

Si, se puede.