“The Cesar Chavez-Larry Itliong Connection” in this week’s issue of the Manila Mail (July 9-15, 2014)

“The Cesar Chavez-Larry Itliong Connection” in this week’s issue of the MANILA MAIL (July 9-15, 2014)

Pilipinasblitz Forever – A column by Bles Carmona
For the week of July 9-15, 2014

For my generation whose knowledge of Cesar Chavez is limited to streets and buildings and a holiday named after him, the film, “Cesar Chavez” directed by Diego Luna could not have come at a more opportune time when it was released in theaters last March.

Speaking merely for myself, I do admit that I only have a vague idea about Cesar Chavez, although I do know that he worked in conjunction with Filipino farm workers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz. There was a recent hue and cry among the more activist Filipino-Americans in the community, saying that the film “Cesar Chavez” conveniently downplays the role of Itliong, who had more than 30 years organizing experience and taught himself nine Philippine dialects and three foreign languages (including Chinese, Japanese, Spanish) to become an effective organizer and communicator to non-Spanish speaking members of the union. Another member asserts that what Cesar Chavez actually achieved was because of the triumvirate Kennedy-Chavez-Itliong, and was bemoaning the fact that while Kennedy’s contributions were portrayed “accurately” in the film, Filipino-American Larry Itliong’s equally big part in the struggle was not.

I am willing to overlook all that because there is such a thing as “artistic license” in the making of any artwork. Director Diego Luna was telling his biopic of Chavez from his artistic vision, and if there are “deviations” from what really happened, then I’m sure there is an artistic explanation, which may not always be logical. If the Filipino-Americans want to make their own film about the farm workers’ struggles, of course they are welcome to make one. In fact, Filipina-American filmmaker Marissa Aroy made the 30-minute documentary called “Delano Manongs” which premiered to a sold-out crowd in an Oakland theater in March, which I have yet to see.

However, in terms of the rights of farm workers, their demands for higher wages and more humane working conditions, this film truly made inroads into a middle class mentality like mine who never had to struggle so much for so long just for me to be given things I consider basic to human existence. Cesar and his fellow workers are just asking for dignity and an appreciation of how much their unstinting work brings prosperity and literally food on the tables of the plantation owners. (I just noticed that there were a lot of sequences in the film that were shot in dining rooms – the palatial one of Bogdanovitch and the more humble ones of Chavez and other workers.) The metaphor I’m getting is that what Chavez and his fellow protesters are fighting for is as basic as food on the table for them in their impoverished condition.

Other critics (Gleiberman, 2014; Silva, 2014) are quick to point out that the director should have emphasized that it was not the efforts of Chavez alone, his “heroism” as a lone-wolf savior, that made sweeping changes possible – but instead his hold on the masses, inviting the masses to share the struggle with him, and his charisma as a leader are what mobilized thousands upon thousands to follow his example. They say that it was Chavez’s ability to organize, mobilize, and embody his principles that drew many to his cause.

To this day, in Central Philippines, many farm workers are still haggling with the management of Hacienda Luisita, the sugar plantation owned by current President Noynoy Aquino’s family (on the maternal, or the Cojuangco side/former Pres. Cory’s side). They were promised via the Philippine Agrarian Reform Law that they can own the parcel of land they have been farming after X number of years. The Cojuangcos still have to make good on their compliance with the law, which is actually the result of a Supreme Court ruling in reaction to a suit filed by the farmers’ union. It is easy to see how the existence and presence of unions could make many a crooked business owner shake and quake. However, if this same owner just followed the rules, extended his humanity to encompass the many workers dependent upon his largesse without letting this fact go into his head, and shared his wealth more equitably — well, there you go, my personal pipe dream which has as much as a snowball’s chance in hell of coming true. If all that were true, then we will have a more just society.

John Lennon once urged us to “imagine.” Now I am afraid that there is a dearth in imagination, and since we don’t imagine anymore how things could get better for all of us across the board, then we just perpetrate petty violences upon each other’s rights, including the right to a decent life. The film “Cesar Chavez” will definitely not please everyone, purists and eclecticists alike, but for people like me who consider a look-back on history as something to strengthen my spine for future fights and advocacy for the voiceless in society, then “Cesar Chavez” hits its mark.
It’s all of us, together, who can make a difference. ¡Sí se puede! Yes we can!

Gleiberman, O. (2014). Also playing: Cesar Chavez. Entertainment Weekly, 52.
Ochoa, C. (2014, March). Two films differ over Cesar Chavez and role of Filipinos in farm workers strike. Retrieved from http://inquirer.net
Pascual, F. (2014, April 9-15). The law, not GMA or SC, farmed out Luisita. Manila Mail, p. A7.

*************For personal readings, email me here: pilipinasblitz@gmail.com

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