Cesar Chavez

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The first motion picture about civil rights leader Cesar Chavez’s life and fight for migrant farmers rights is being released. Vice President of Communications of Radio Campesina and City of Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski talks about the film.

José Cárdenas: This month people are celebrating the life of civil rights leader and farmworker Cesar Chavez. He founded the United Farmworkers Union and led walkouts of America's fields to campaign for better treatment for migrant field workers. We are seeing a clip from a film set to premiere tomorrow.

Cesar Chavez Movie Trailer: The day you came into this world I received the clarity I so desperately needed. I hope that one day you can be as proud of me as I am of you. I come here out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time, Cesar Chavez. [Applause] I was born in Yuma, Arizona, at a ranch owned by my family. We lost it in the depression. That's where I witnessed the injustice suffered by the people. To be successful we have to have an army of boycotters willing to do the work. Farmworkers in California have begun an unprecedented strike in the Central Valley. The citizens of Delano respect the law. So do we, especially the Bill of Rights. Have you seen the headlines they are getting? That's costing us real money, Mr. Bogdanovich. It's all lies, saying the strike is not legal, painting us to look like criminals. I've failed you as leader and I will fast until everyone makes a pledge recommitting themselves to nonviolence. Does he know what he's doing? No, he doesn't. They have been coming in bigger numbers since he started not eating. Everything depends on the man. Once social change begins, it can't be reversed. You can't humiliate someone who has pride and scare someone who's not afraid anymore.

José Cárdenas: Here now to talk about the film and Cesar Chavez's legacy is Michael Nowakowski, vice president of the communication fund under the Cesar Chavez Foundation Radio Network founded by Cesar Chavez. He's also the Phoenix councilman for district 7. Welcome to "Horizonte." The surprise is not that a movie has been made about Cesar Chavez, but that it took so long to make one.

Michael Nowakowski: April 23rd is going to be the 21st anniversary of his death. Diego Luna, the Mexican star and director, had a son here in California. He started looking up in the history books about Mexican-American heroes. Cesar Chavez kept on coming up. I went to look for movies or videos and there was nothing on him. So I decided to do something. So we came to the Cesar Chavez Foundation, talked to Paul Chavez, the president of the foundation that happens to be Cesar's son. Said, I'd like to make a move on your dad. We started working together and adding stories, and all of a sudden this movie came about after four years of just sitting around a table like this and having conversations.

José Cárdenas: Were there any particular barriers they were running into, either for funding or in terms of getting support from the studios?

Michael Nowakowski: You know what was so amazing, funding came really quick. We thought we would struggle with finding the funding but there was more than enough money to make this movie.

José Cárdenas: What about getting people to play the roles? There are some big names in the movie. The casting looks terrific, at least from the clip.

Michael Nowakowski: Right.

José Cárdenas: What about the cast?

Michael Nowakowski: We have a grower that's John Malkovich, a great actor. Starring as Cesar Chavez, Michael Pena, one of the great up and coming Latino artists. And Rosario Dobson, we have a lot of great Latino leaders he and actors. And also nonLatino actors. Robert Kennedy and John Malkovich in there, too, a mixture of great people.

José Cárdenas: It's a great historic story which you were involved in for a number of years. So this may be an unfair question. What's your unbiased opinion of the quality of the movie?

Michael Nowakowski: You know, I was amazed on the quality of the movie. What's most important about the movie is the history part of it. If you're from Arizona, you're going to be amazed. Cesar was born here.

José Cárdenas: Even though movies try as best they can to be true to the story, at times because it's a movie they take some poetic license. Was there ever anything that didn't ring quite true?

Michael Nowakowski: Not really. Some jogged your memory, like when he went to Europe and boycotted the grapes of Europe. And how England was a key part of breaking the boycott and making it successful. Just things you don't remember. President Reagan played a role, and Nixon. I like for people to go to watch it. But also it's a movie of three different stories. A man that was struggling to build a union. It was a man that was struggling to be a father, that was being an organizer and a leader. And how he had to leave his son and allow his son to go live with his grandmother, because he wasn't paying enough attention. And the tension between a son trying get attention from the father, and then the whole growers aspect of it, too. There's three different lines. If you're a business owner or if you're a growing you relate to that part of it. If you're a community leader like yourself, you have to spend a lot of time in the community away from your family. And the sacrifices that your family has to give up, not having their dad there. That story's in there, I think there's something for everybody in this movie.

José Cárdenas: What are the parts of the movie that people are going to go to, and we're talking about people who feel they are pretty knowledgeable about the Cesar Chavez story. What are the parts where they are going say, I didn't know that, and I'm surprised.

Michael Nowakowski: One of the parts is Robert Kennedy, when they had hearings in California and Robert Kennedy asked the sheriff to read the constitution during their lunch break. The other thing is where the Pickett was being very successful here in the United States, but then the growers convinced the President at that time to sell the grapes overseas. And they created another market for the grapes to be sold overseas. So he had to go overseas to continue the boycott, and that really brought the negotiations to the fullest and the contracts were actually signed, because the Europeans came on board and supported the boycott also.

José Cárdenas: How does Arizona fare in the movie? This was his birthplace, also the place he died. While most of his unionizing activity was in California, Arizona was a part of the story. How do we look?

Michael Nowakowski: We look really good. At the very beginning we talk about Arizona and at the end about his death. One of the key things that the slogan, si sespu ede was as you will coined when the fast was going on. What happened was Dolores Suerte was asked, what are people saying, how is the fast going. People were saying, it's not possible here in Arizona to break the crazy laws and the injustices going on with the farmworkers. Then he turned around and told her, you go out there and tell people, yes, we can. We can do it here in Arizona. So I think that's a portion of history that's here from Arizona. I think what's so important about this whole movie, it's an American story and especially being a Mexican-American, it really brings us to our roots. Somebody or someone in our family is always -- was a farm worker at one time. I think it's really important for our children to see this movie, to realize where we came from. We came from the fields.

José Cárdenas: Councilman, we're almost out of time. Probably the most important detail at the moment. The premiere is tonight at midnight?

Michael Nowakowski: Absolutely. We will have it at Westgate and we rented out all the theaters. Hopefully we can get 3,000 people out there to watch the movie. It's a first-time viewing in the whole United States at midnight. We're asking people to go out to any of the AMC or any of the theaters out there.

José Cárdenas: We look forward to seeing it. Thank you for coming to "Horizonte." That's our show for tonight, from all of us here at Eight Arizona PBS, and "Horizonte," I'm Jose Cardenas, have a good night.

Michael Nowakowski:Vice President of Communications and Councilman, Radio Campesina and City of Phoenix;

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