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Guest Voz: New film about the life of Cesar Chavez contradicts his legacy by using non-union actors

By Lisa Mendoza*

(Editor’s note: Lisa Mendoza is a pseudonym for the writer’s real name who wishes not to be identified.)

“We know what unions have done for other people. We have seen it and we have studied and we have cherished the idea of unionism. We have seen the history and development of unions in this country and we tell the growers that we want nothing more, but that we want our own union and we are going to fight for it as long as it takes.” Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez leads a boycott in the fight for farm workers' rights.

This story began 25 years ago, very simply when I, as a freshman at a well-known southern university where the student population was 60,000, and out of that number, 1,000 of us were Latinos pursuing higher education. I felt out of place my freshman year, many always asking, “Where are you from?” with that derogatory intonation, we as people of color, know so well.

Imagine then a well-known public figure who came to speak at this particular, not very diverse, university who changed the worldview of a naïve freshman. Who was it? None other than Cesar Chavez himself, and he made an indelible impression on me.

At the rally in the student union, he at first read from a prepared speech and he kept losing his place and to an extent — the audience. The moment he let go of the speech and simply spoke from the heart, no one in the room moved. He mesmerized us for a good hour and I’m not exaggerating that the room roared to an intense applause when he finished.

I was only 18 but I managed courageously to go up to him afterwards, tap him on the shoulder and say to him, “Thank you for all you do.” He smiled serenely at me and I turned to walk away for fear he might see me cry. Here I was in the presence of a great man and I could not speak. From then on, I followed all of the United Farm Workers (UFW) activities until I left that state and moved to California to pursue further my studies in theater and acting.

Fast-forward a few years later in 1993 when, as I walked down a rainy city street in the Bay Area, something caught my eye. It was the newspaper headline announcing Cesar’s death. Somehow the somber weather fit my mood that day, for the sadness I felt in his passing.

I followed all the news coverage of his death and cried when I saw on television the image of his simple pine wood casket carried for burial. Somehow his work seemed incomplete and I hoped those left behind would carry the torch, and I prayed that the UFW would continue to thrive. Thanks to that amazing woman, Dolores Huerta, it did.

In my own life, I’d gone on to be a professional union actor, working in all mediums: television, film and theater. I was doing okay, making a living as an actor when two years ago the work stopped coming my way and there were no professional gigs, I mean, I’m talking nada.

I simply wasn’t booking union acting work, and it felt like I was a total failure.

On the 20th anniversary of my being in the entertainment industry, I felt like hanging it up and doing something else with my life. Was it the fact that the productions at the studios had gone down substantially, the work had moved to Canada, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was losing ground tremendously in television because most of the new contracts for shows had gone AFTRA, (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) — the other union whose contracts pay less, or the recession, etc.? Perhaps it was a combination of factors.

In this same period, I read somewhere that Diego Luna and Gabriel Garcia Bernal were producing a film about the beloved labor leader, and I immediately began the campaign to put myself on the filmmaker’s radar, contacting their production company, Canana Films in Mexico City and keeping an eye out for the opportunity to audition for them.

Suddenly, last October, a casting notice came out from Heidi Levitt, the woman who cast THE ARTIST, saying that a national search was on for the roles of Cesar, Helen Chavez, and Dolores Huerta. These announcements I always take with a grain of salt because they usually mean that it’s just publicity to generate buzz for the film.

In my heart, I knew I would not necessarily get the opportunity to audition for the major women’s roles as I am a character actor, but I told my agent to figure out a way to “get me in the door,” because I felt so connected to the story. I figured I’d be a shoe-in for a supporting role.

Submitting to the casting director via a filmed audition through the Internet, I was surprised that I was not called at all. I felt a great let-down because of all the effort I put into it, while lesser known and not very trained or seasoned non-union actors were called in for auditions. I was baffled.

The announcements started pouring out as to who would play the main roles, and again Hollywood or rather the producers of this film, decided to cast non-Chicanas in the lead female roles. It was not unexpected but since this is primarily a Chicano story, with a Mexican at the helm, no less, it annoyed me no end that Cesar’s life was getting the proverbial “Hollywood Treatment,” and Puerto Rican and other Latino nationalities were in the mix.

That’s my personal issue in that I always hear actors, who are of other nationalities trying to play Chicanos or Mexican-Americans, and they don’t study the specificity of how we speak. They sound Puerto Rican or Central American, so I take issue with that. Just like I take issue with someone (an actor) who isn’t from that culture they are portraying and they don’t work on their character or their accent — you can just tell.

I made peace with it though, and I said to myself, “at least it’s being made.” UNTIL LAST WEEK.

A casting notice came my way from the same casting director saying that several roles were still available for the Chavez film and they were all “NON-UNION, ARIZONA LOCAL HIRES ONLY.” I had to re-read that several times because I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

A film centered on the theme of unionism is hiring non-union actors to tell the story?

That did not make sense. I called my agent and sure enough the breakdowns said the roles re-released were all non-union and he couldn’t send me in for an audition. Breakdowns are the acting job announcements released by producers and studios that go out to agents as to what roles are available for actors to audition for.

I began to feel an unmitigated rage swell up inside me that the producers would go the non-union route to fill the smaller day player roles and one-line roles.

Believe it or not, all actors are not created equal. There are the “A” Listers as they are called, the George Clooneys and Brad Pitts, the 1% and then there are the rest of us, the 99%.

We are the journeymen actors who do the smaller roles, the one-lines and under-fives, who really have to fight to be cast. Latinas have to fight even harder because if you don’t look like Salma, JLo, Sofia Vergara or any other Latina bombshell, you are rendered invisible, playing maids, the undocumented, and nothing more substantial.

What I wouldn’t give to be able to say congratulations, Cesar’s biopic is finally being made, but because in the way it is being produced, I cannot in good faith say I support that.

How are the producers making a product with non-union labor and then they turn around and are going to sell this film about unionism to the general public?

It’s hypocritical and dishonest. My rage spurred me to action and I began to call around to the different entities involved in making this film. I reached out to the Dolores Huerta Foundation who said they were not part of the project at all, but directed me to the Cesar Chavez Foundation. Their legal department contacted me immediately when I said I would like to talk to them before I went to the press, and about the only thing I said that made any type of impression on them was the fact that the production was going to shoot in Arizona, only the most anti-immigrant, anti-Chicano/Mexican-American state in the union.

Their counsel said that they had sanctioned the rights only, but that they weren’t really involved in the production. Thus they passed the proverbial buck and directed me to Canana Films, the production company making the movie. The person I was told to contact there was not too keen to talk to me in the least. They chose to give me an e-mail address so that I could state my concerns. No one has gotten back to me as of this writing.

The issues for me in relation to the production of Cesar Chavez’s film biography are three-fold. First of all, hiring non-union labor to tell the story, as well as the making of it, is dishonoring the theme of unionism and everything he stood for in my opinion.

Yet, the Cesar Chavez Foundation, especially Helen Chavez, his wife, sanctioned the production, selling the rights to producers who are mostly Mexican. (Do they know how it’s being produced or not? I’m not sure) John Malkovich, the well-known American actor, is a producer on the film as well. Why make the film with the star actors being union but the smaller roles non-union, and as I write this, perhaps even the crew?

It goes against everything Cesar fought for. Union actors and crews are working people too. We must take care of our families by earning a decent living. We too have bills to pay, and we, Latino union actors, suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in the union.

I called SAG to educate myself on employment statistics as to how much Latino actors work in comparison to other ethnic groups. Their reports are not current, but according to the report, as of 2006, employment statics proved dismal. Seventy-two percent of union acting jobs went to Caucasian actors, 14 percent to African American actors and 6 percent went to Latino actors. Is it any better now in this recession? I don’t need statistics to tell you it isn’t.

Another issue is the fact that they are shooting in Arizona and Mexico.

Arizona is a right-to-work state, so the producers can hire whomever they want. Who do you think they will choose if they can pick between a union and non-union member?

The producers don’t have to pay a non-union member pension and health, or contribute to them qualifying for health insurance. I doubt that Cesar would have liked for the film based on his life to contribute to a state’s economy that is so adamant in keeping Chicanos and immigrants down. Hello, who was famous for economic boycotts?

Lastly, it saddens me to think that an American hero, for Cesar was American, and a Chicano hero, that the only people willing to give money so that the film could get made are from the Mexican government. The Mexican government is subsidizing this movie for the most part, and thus they are shooting there.

This information came directly from the Chavez Foundation counsel. Chicanos couldn’t figure out how to finance a film about our Chicano hero, and therefore a Mexicano took the rights and is making the film he wants. However, they don’t have the money to make the epic that it needs to be. That’s why I wish they would shelve it for a bit, get more investors, perhaps some of our own Latino organizations here in the U.S., like MALDEF and LULAC to invest together so that everyone could be a union member working on this worthy project.

Wouldn’t that be something? To have Cesar be our bridge to create economic prosperity for US Latino actors and Mexicanos by working union? We hunger for our stories about our heroes to be told. That’s why I went after this project with so much fervor because I wanted to say proudly that I was part of a historical story that meant so much to me on a personal level, and it was a substantial film.

With the way it is now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

My personal hero, Cesar Chavez has been OUTSOURCED, his memory has been outsourced, and what makes me even sadder is that some Latino union actors are okay with it. They tell me to think of the “bigger picture,” that at least his story is being made into a film. At what cost, though, tell me?

Well, it’s at the cost of union jobs for us Latino journeymen actors. Not only are we more invisible than ever, we’re completely expendable now and some of my fellow Latino actors are “okay” with it.

Where is my union SAG in all of this you might ask? Sadly, that’s a whole other subject that needs its own article. It would take time to explain the union rules and the reasons the producers of the Cesar Chavez film are allowed to shoot the film the way they are. The information is intricate and, well, it needs to be examined separately.

Let’s just say, a union that is supposed to be protecting its own is not doing a very good job of it.

I wanted to write this article using my real name in it, but I have been advised by some veteran actors that if I stated my real name my own Latino acting community would turn against me, that I’d be black-listed in the entertainment industry, and that I would not work again — all because I dare to point out this hypocrisy.

Wow, I thought we were more courageous as a community, but with the way the Cesar Chavez film is being handled, are we proving that old adage that we Latinos can’t work together to produce change?

Stay tuned.

Lisa Mendoza* (not her real name) is an actor who has acted professionally for twenty-one years. She has worked all over the United States in regional theater, and she also has acted in the mediums of television, commercials, film, and even won an award or two. She would like to thank her friends and family for sticking by her through the highs and lows of this amazing career she has chosen.


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  • Carla Archuleta
    April 13, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    Wow there are so many wrongs in this story. Why of all states would they chose Arizona, they dont want us there so why film the story of a man that faught for equality of our people. He is the leader of the Chicano movement, this whole story goes against his beliefs period.

  • compa1953
    April 15, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Briefly, Cesar was born in Arizona, and his parents owned a farm there before being forced to sell it and work as migrants in California.  Still that doesn’t excuse the hiring of Arizona locals only, since the state is a “Right-to-be-Exploited,” or “Right-To-Work” state.

  • goodbyehello
    April 18, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    They cast Rosario Dawson to play Dolores Huerta. They look so much alike. NOT!

  • goodbyehello
    April 18, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    Re: ” 6 percent went to Latino actors”

    And most of that 6% is probably non-Mexican-Americans. There are very few Latino films, and those films rarely have that many Mexican-American actors, if any at all.

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