Bishops say Cesar Chavez film shows Catholic social justice

Michael Peña portrays Chavez in the new film

Several bishops have praised “Cesar Chavez,” a new movie about the labor rights leader and devout Catholic, for its portrayal of a man whom they say embodied the ideals of Catholic social justice.

“This fine film shows a man of deep faith who struggled against injustice using the spiritual weapons of nonviolence, prayer and fasting,” Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said March 14.

“Cesar Chavez” is distributed by Pantelion Films and Participant Media, and is set for a March 28 general release. It played at The Berlin Film Festival and won the audience award for narrative film at the South by Southwest film festival earlier this month.

The Arizona-born Chavez grew up in a family who lost their business and land during the Great Depression, moving to California to become migrant farmworkers.

Chavez, a father of eight, organized agricultural workers to advocate for better labor protections and higher wages by means of protests, strikes, and boycotts.

His protests frequently featured Catholic elements, including praying the rosary as well as images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He also incorporated fasting into his efforts to draw attention to the plight of laborers.

He successfully organized tens of thousands of workers as members of the United Farm Workers union.

Archbishop Gomez said March 16 that Chavez “was a man of prayer and man of peace. Learning about his life tells me that he had a deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and that he tried to live the Beatitudes in his daily life.”

The film depicts his early years as a labor organizer, including his launch of a massive boycott of grapes picked by non-union workers. The film dramatizes his conflicts with President Richard Nixon and then-California governor Ronald Reagan, as well as his 300-mile protest march from Delano to Sacramento.

Michael Peña plays Chavez, while America Ferrera plays his wife Helen. Labor organizer Dolores Huerta is played by Rosario Dawson and John Malkovich plays Bogdanovich, a vineyard owner opposed to Chavez’s work who is himself an immigrant from Europe.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said he has always considered Chavez a prophet of non-violence who preached and exemplified “the best in Catholic social justice and American civil rights.”

He called the film a “fine movie” that “only confirmed that high estimate.”

Fr. Greg Boyle, founder and director of the Los Angeles-based gang member rehabilitation program Homeboy Industries, said the movie will “galvanize a new generation” to embrace the fight for “justice and equality.”

“Cesar Chavez lived as though the truth were true and took seriously what Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King took seriously: the way of non-violence. This film shows the way.”

Archbishop Gomez hoped that the film may “inspire us to continue Cesar’s work until all our brothers and sisters are able to live with the dignity that God intends for them.”

At a recent conference in Anaheim, Bishop Edward Clark, an auxiliary of the Los Angeles archdiocese, said the film “is going to be a wonderful opportunity for us to unite around issues very important for our Catholic community,” while his fellow auxiliary, Bishop Gerald Wilkerson, said that seeing the film will be an opportunity “to be inspired by this great man and his love for the people and the Church.”

And Fr. James Martin, editor at large for “America,” noted “how much I respect and honor Cesar Chavez and all the wonderul work he did, and this new film is a terrific testimony to his life.”


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Three kinds of spiritualities

Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

All of us struggle, and we struggle in three ways. First, sometimes we struggle simply to maintain ourselves, to stay healthy and stable, to stay normal, to not fall apart, to not have our lives unravel into chaos and depression.

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