Several times throughout his 2018 film, Hailing Cesar, director Eduardo Chavez meets Latinos in California who embrace him when they learn that his grandfather was labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. After one of these encounters, Eduardo muses, “People say they know my dad’s side of the family even though they’ve never met them.” The unsettling thing for Eduardo was that he felt he didn’t know his grandfather any better than these strangers did.
That realization sent him on a journey to learn more about his famous grandfather and share what he learned in the documentary, Hailing Cesar. Now Eduardo is continuing that journey by taking his story on the road to colleges and universities across the country. The film was screened at Worcester State on Unity Day, Sept. 26, and the next day he visited campus for a Q&A session sponsored by the university’s Intercultural Student Alliance, Office of Multicultural Affairs, and Liberal and Interdisciplinary Studies Department.
To make the film, Eduardo worked for a month picking grapes alongside farm workers at a vineyard in Northern California and then went to Delano, Calif., where Cesar Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association along with Dolores Huerta. The film tracks Eduardo’s experiences with the strenuous conditions of farm worker labor—conditions that, Eduardo noted, were challenging even for him, a 24-year-old man in his physical prime, much less laborers who have worked in the fields for more than 40 years. It also documents Eduardo’s growing understanding of his own father.
At Worcester State, Eduardo sat down with Professor and Chair of Worcester State’s History and Political Science Department Aldo Garcia-Guevara before a packed room and discussed film craft, what this journey has meant to him and his family, and what he hopes to inspire with his film.
Eduardo has now been to more than 80 colleges and universities. “It was not something we ever envisioned as a team when we made this film that the audience that would champion the film would be students of college age,” he said, “but it kind of makes sense because it’s a very transformational and important time for self-growth and self-discovery.” He called students “the true champions of this film.”
That certainly seemed to be the case at this event, which ran 30 minutes past its scheduled time, with Eduardo graciously agreeing to answer every question from the enthusiastic student audience. The visit to Worcester State came at a time when 25,000 unionized United Auto Workers at Detroit’s big three automakers—GM, Ford, and Stellantis—are in the midst of an historic strike to secure wage increases and job security.
“We were honored to be able to bring Eduardo Chavez to campus as part of the university’s Latin American Heritage Month,” Garcia-Guevara said. “The messages and examples of Cesar Chavez remain vital and timely. Honoring the legacy of Cesar Chavez is critical, as a representative of the fight for civil and labor rights for Latinos. Regarding labor, Chavez is an example for all of us as workers and consumers. Labor organizing is important to workers as we see with auto workers and teachers, and the fight for civil and political rights continues.”
Eduardo said that one of the things that inspired the film was that he felt removed from his grandfather’s legacy because he associated it with struggle that he hadn’t experienced. “The question growing up was, ‘Why did I get dealt such a good hand?’” he said. “And the question that I later came to understand was the more important question was, ‘What am I going to do with these incredible circumstances that I was dealt?’”
The journey opened his eyes, he said. “I knew my grandfather was important, but it wasn’t until I really dove in and talked to people that he organized with and worked with that I understood the magnitude of how important this was, not only for farm workers and labor but really for the empowerment of Latinos in this country.”
Perhaps even more important than getting to know his grandfather was getting closer to his father, Fernando Chavez. Before starting the film, Eduardo had no idea that his father had done farm work or had started working at age 14.
The film gave Fernando the opportunity to confront his sometimes strained relationship with Cesar. Eduardo explained that, as a 14-year-old, Fernando didn’t care about the bigger cause his father was involved in; he just wanted his father at his baseball games. It wasn’t until middle age that Fernando fully understood and accepted that, despite losing that close connection with his father, he had gained a legacy and a kinship with everyone who had been a part of his father’s movement. “There’s only so much of yourself that you can give,” Eduardo said, “and [Cesar’s] choice was to give most of himself to the cause.”
Part of Eduardo’s challenge as a filmmaker was to show that the path of an activist isn’t always “sunshine and rainbows,” that there were sacrifices made not only by Cesar but by the people in his life.
Another challenge was deciding what to include in the film. There were a lot of great moments that didn’t make it into the final cut, he said. He had to make the hard decision to leave out moments that didn’t move the story forward. That meant leaving out many of the personal stories of the men he worked with.
One moment he left in was a conversation with a worker who had been doing farm work since 1975. “Listening to that, it hurt me inside because that work is so difficult,” Eduardo said. “There are many people that do difficult labor and have been doing difficult labor since 1975, but when you look at it from the grand scheme of America and break it down to laws protecting workers, farm workers, for 100 years—it’s the only work that has been neglected from any sort of federal labor law. Every other single workforce has protections from the federal government.”
He pointed out the absurdity of this. “We all eat food. And that food has to be sourced from somewhere, and it comes on the backs of predominantly Latino men and women who do it for very little wages.”
“I’m not my grandfather,” he said. “I don’t have aspirations to walk directly in his steps. I want to take my own path and do it with the themes and the messages he left behind and do it with those in mind, do it with serving a community, with family, with equity and justice. I want to forge my own path and do it my own way.” His way is through filmmaking and speaking with young people.
He acknowledges the challenges that organizers face today. He said when it comes to mobilizing people on the ground a lot “gets lost in the ether of the Internet.” The biggest challenge today is that the vast majority of workers are undocumented. When Chavez was organizing, the workers were US citizens. Now, workers may be threatened with deportation if they attempt to organize.
He stressed that, according to Fernando, Chavez “wasn’t an innately special person.” He had a 6th-grade education, he wasn’t a powerful speaker, he was shy and insecure. “But he had something that went beyond all that. He had passion and determination for a cause. He was an ordinary person, but he had extraordinary drive, and that’s not something you’re born with. We all have that potential.”
Top image: Eduardo Chavez (back row, fifth from right) with several of the Q&A attendees. Photo courtesy of Eriberto Mora Carrera.
Summer research opportunity
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the 2023 Donor Impact Statement, “Supporting the Whole Student,” published in September. The annual publication highlights the impact of . . .