Actor and director Diego Luna's first introduction to Cesar Chavez was seeing the union activist's funeral on T.V. The 13-year-old Luna was impressed by all the people walking with his body and that Chavez was being buried in a wooden box. Then while working in California, Luna started seeing Chavez's image on murals and his name on streets and got curious about what Chavez had done. When Luna's son was born in Los Angeles, that really made him want to tell the story of Chavez, a Mexican American born in Arizona. Luna says he remembers when he got to be 9 or 10, noticing the income inequality in Mexico and struggling to make sense of things.
"I hope when my son goes through that, he can see a story about where he comes from that could inspire him. That's the impulse I had to do this film," said Luna who was in Berkeley recently to promote Cesar Chavez. He continues:
"But also it's a film that talks about a very simple thing I think we need to be reminded of which is that if we don't get involved, change is not going to come. If we keep expecting politicians to come and change our reality, or if we keep expecting the great consciousness of those who run corporations to say, 'You know what? Let's do better for people,' it's not going to come."
Luna, known for his acting roles in Y Tu Mamá También -- where he appears alongside his childhood friend Gael García Bernal -- and Milk and Elysium, founded a production company, Canana, with Bernal and producer Pablo Cruz. For their first U.S. movie, they thought Chavez's story of starting the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta and their grape boycott was a compelling one.
Other production companies had tried to make a movie about Chavez, but the civil rights leader's family decided to go with Canana. Luna says that Helen Chavez, Chavez's wife, told him that their oldest son moved out for a while, feeling that his father had chosen politics over family. Learning this changed the focus of the film, he said.
"She was suddenly very affected, and I thought, 'Well, that needs to be in the film,'" Luna said. "Also I'm a father so I connected with that, and that matters to me. I went back and rethought a little the story."
Chavez was a complex character Luna said, far from people's stereotype of a Mexican American. While looking through the union leader's office, Luna found cassette tapes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz musicians. He also learned that Chavez, a vegetarian, did yoga and was a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolence. He said, along with making people think about where their food comes from, he hopes Chavez's story will inspire others.
"As Cesar said many times, this is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things," Luna said. "You don't need special powers and a cape to bring change -- you just need to be clear about what you want, and never lose the curiosity to see who around thinks like you do. And if they don't, why? It's about never losing that curiosity and never letting that difference rule your life."
Cesar Chavez was mainly filmed in Sonora, Mexico, and stars Michael Peña as Chavez, America Ferrara as Helen Chavez, Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, and John Malkovich as a grape grower who opposed Chavez. It opens in Bay Area theaters on March 28; March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day.