Could Cesar Chavez Inspire a New Wave of Chicano Cinema?

Cesar Collage

(Top Lt to bottom Rt):  Michael Pena, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, & Jacob Vargas

By Robert T. Wood

With its all-star ensemble and historically significant subject matter, Diego Luna’s English- language debut as a cineasta might very well be the marquee matinee for Chicano films in 2014. Boasting an international ground game and a star-studded cast, Cesar Chavez has the potential to be a smash hit on a global scale. Cesar Chavez’s method of peaceful protest and message of social solidarity ignited and broadened the hopes and dreams of many who had previously despaired. Chavez’s charismatic leadership and tireless efforts led to higher wages and improved working conditions for farmworkers in the fields. His rallying cry for change, Si, Se Puede, was incorporated nearly forty years later into President Obama’s initial bid for the American presidency: Yes We Can.

Showcasing Michael Peña in his first lead performance since 2006’s Walkout and featuring stars such as Rosario Dawson, America Ferrera, and Jacob Vargas, this biopic is set to chronicle Cesar Chavez’s courageous journey. Co-starring Jack Holmes as close ally Bobby Kennedy and John Malkovich as a recalcitrant grower, the very first motion picture about Chavez’s struggle for social justice has been designed to depict the famous farmworker and advocate’s earliest accomplishments, those that earned Chavez a crucial place in American history. The production’s purpose, among others, is the explain why the name of a man who came from the Greatest Generation and died just over twenty years ago on April 23, 1993 has been emblazoned on scores of American schools, streets, and scholarly foundations.

Much has been made of the auspicious past of Chicano-centric and Latino-centric creative works. Less has been said about the genre’s ostensible comeback. Along with the release of other films such as Bless Me, Ultima, and the upcoming Water & Power, Cesar Chavez could represent a return to form unseen in decades: a socially-conscious characterization of the Mexican-American experience.

(Top Lf to Bottom Rt):  Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosana de Soto, Elizabeth Pena & Dyana Ortelli & Esai Morales
(Top Lf to Bottom Rt): Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosana de Soto, Elizabeth Pena & Dyana Ortelli & Esai Morales

To date, Luis Valdez’s La Bamba, released in the summer of 1987, holds the record for most successful film with a Chicano theme. In a time of frizzy hair, snazzy synthesized tunes and square- styled sports cars, Columbia Pictures brought Valdez’ vision of the life and legacy of Ritchie Valens to the box office. A new generation discovered the teenager’s journey from migrant farm worker to the music industry. This film helped catapult the careers of lead players Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales while cementing the reputations of Elizabeth Peña, Rosana De Soto, and Dyana Ortelli as capable dramatic actors.

Stand&DeliverAccording to Henry Puente in his book The Promotion and Distribution of U.S. Latino Films, Columbia’s $6.5 million investment, unprecedented for a Chicano-themed or even Latino-themed film, created a bonafide blockbuster grossing over $54 million in total throughout its fourteen-week run. David Rosen asserts in Off-Hollywood: The Making and Marketing of Independent Films that the success of La Bamba led to the backing of more movies comprising the canon of Chicano cinema, including Ramon Menendez and Tom Musca’s masterpiece Stand and Deliver.

Will the tale of one man’s resistance to injustices and one community’s resilience in the face of past and present adversity be effectively translated onto reels of celluloid? Can Chavez‘s success persuade major studios to recognize the ever-expanding purchasing power of U.S. Latinos and pursue a previously uncharted course in catering to the community? Will the production play a role in educating communities worldwide about what Cesar Estrada Chavez did for his country? A victory for Cesar Chavez at the box office would be a resounding vindication of a cinematic movement, vibrant in decades past but dormant as of late.


Robert T. Wood is a writer and researcher. He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2010
with a double major in Global Studies and Hispanic Studies and earned a Master’s in Latin American
Studies from Georgetown University in 2012. His research interests include Latino activism, history,
politics, and the creative arts.
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