Michael Peña to play iconic labor activist Cesar Chavez in new Diego Luna-directed biopic
Actor Michael Peña, 36, known to tackle diverse roles from comedy to drama, has been cast as the lead in an ambitious new biopic from Canana Films. (Photo: Facebook)
By ANGIE ROMERO
After much speculation, the lead in Chavez, the highly anticipated biopic about labor rights activist Cesar E. Chavez, has finally been announced: Michael Peña. Last seen in Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist, Peña has signed on to the Diego Luna-directed and Canana-produced (Luna’s production company with BFF Gael Garcia Bernal and Pablo Cruz) vehicle.
Born in Chicago to Mexican parents who were once farmers but later pursued factory jobs in the city, Peña is in great company. Rosario Dawson is set to play Chavez’s right-hand woman and United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) co-founder, Dolores Huerta, while America Ferrera will play Chavez’s wife Helen. You may remember Ferrera posed as Dolores Huerta in a 2009 Glamour photo shoot honoring “female risk takers, rule breakers, and style makers.”
Together, Chavez and Huerta fought tirelessly for the economic parity and civil rights of (mostly) Mexican American farm workers during the 1960s and 70s, leading mass strikes, pickets, and boycotts, and often fasting and enduring arrests and beatings themselves.
One of their most successful strikes was the five-year Delano Grape Strike, which began in 1965, just as the Civil Rights movement was heating up in the South. In 1966, they also led a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento. Those combined efforts, along with the subsequent Salad Bowl strike in 1970 (also known as the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history) resulted in better pay and safer working conditions for migrant workers and the signing into law of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.
It was Fred Ross Sr., a community organizer from California, who first recruited a young Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez to the Community Service Organization in the 1950s. The grassroots, door-to-door community-based activism they learned in the CSO defined their success as activists later on.
Huerta, a living legend, continues to do great work via her Dolores Huerta Foundation. Interesting fact: it was Huerta, not Chavez, who came up with the phrase “Si se puede,” which became synonymous with the UFWA’s struggle and was famously revived by President Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.
In an interview with Latina last year, Huerta spoke to me at length about Chavez, who died in 1993 at age 66. When asked what she admired most about him, she said, “His courage and his intelligence … he was his own man.”
“[From him I learned] ‘you’ll always win if you don’t quit,’” she added.
Chavez is an important project for Luna, an established actor who made his directorial debut at Sundance with Abel in 2010, and has said that he wants to direct more. In 2007, Luna shot and directed a documentary on another Chavez, Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez.
“We’re delighted to be making a film which goes directly to the heart of the Mexican and Latin community,” Cruz told Variety last year.
Shooting for Chavez will begin in Mexico in April. More details to come.