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A WORK IN PROGRESS, CESAR CHAVEZ DOCUMENTARY GETS GOOD RESPONSE AT SACRAMENTO PREVIEW
By Edgar Sanchez
SACRAMENTO - Ten years ago, a smiling Cesar Chavez appeared on a colorful 37-cent stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.
On Wednesday, his image filled a larger canvas - a giant silver screen at Sacramento's Crest Theater during an 18-minute preview of "Song for Cesar," an unfinished documentary about the legendary leader of the United Farm Workers Union and the famous musicians who rallied to his cause.
The program, which included a concert by the "Si Se Puede" All-Star Band, was a fundraiser to help collect about $100,000 to complete the powerful movie.
More than 500 people attended. All were deeply moved by the preview, demonstrating that whether he's on a 1Â½-inch stamp or a big screen, Cesar Chavez's legacy remains alive among millions of people two decades after his passing.
"I had an emotional reaction when I saw him on the screen," Ramona Landeros, a former farm worker, said afterwards. "It brought tears to my eyes."
The footage evoked flashbacks "of what he meant to us as campesinos," added Landeros, now a legal researcher.
The preview was also poignant for Paul Chavez, the middle son of Cesar Chavez.
"It brought back a lot of memories," a reflective Chavez said after the show. "It reminded us that physically, you don't have to be a big, powerful person to have big, powerful ideas.
"You remember how humble he was. But even in humility, my father was able to inspire people, even 20 years after his death," he said.
A Work In Progress
The movie chronicles how music lent a driving beat to the UFW cause, after famous musicians - Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, and Carlos Santana, to name a few -- began performing at "Farmworker Benefits" in the 1960s, to help Chavez promote the cause of field laborers. The preview included recent interviews with those artists and others concerning why they supported the union through their music, along with archival footage of Chavez organizing in verdant fields like those on his stamp.
"He was a walking lesson," Joan Baez says in the preview, referring to Chavez. "And being around him, it was actionâ€¦.I wouldn't want to be part of any movement that didn't have music."
Also in the preview, reminiscing about Chavez and his non-violent struggle, were, among others, Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the UFW; writer/poet Maya Angelou and Cruz Reynoso, the first Chicano associate justice of the California Supreme Court.
"Song for Cesar" was inspired by a video of a song by the same name. Honoring Chavez, it was written in 2002 by Abel Sanchez and Jorge Santana, the brother of Carlos Santana. The MTV-type video, with images of Chavez, was created by Sanchez and Andres Alegria.
"With the success of the music video, we started thinking about what we would want to do next," Alegria, co-producer of the unfinished film, told the Crest crowd on June 19.
Creation of a full-length movie, with Sanchez as co-producer, was the answer.
In 2006, "We began doing an interview here, an interview there to start building the project," Alegria said, "and it really started taking off within the past year. It's definitely a work in progress."
Sanchez, who led the San Francisco band Abel in the 1970s, said the ongoing venture "has been a work from the heart."
He first met the Chavez Family in the 1990s, when, as Hispanic Program Manager for the U.S. Postal Service in San Francisco, he helped campaign for the Cesar Chavez commemorative stamp.
As a result, he became "quite close" with the Chavezes, he said.
To date, the film has cost between $75,000 to $100,000, according to Sanchez. Completion will require about the same amount, he said, adding the goal is to finish it this year.
"A Little Hesitant"
The UFW gained national attention in 1965, when it launched the Delano grape strike and boycott against non-union table growers. The actions lasted more than five years, until the growers signed a collective-bargaining agreement that was a great victory for more than 10,000 affected farmworkers.
The bitter dispute had gained the sympathy of noted musicians, who starred in pro-UFW benefit concerts.
The concerts not only raised much-needed cash; they also lifted the strikers' spirits, Sanchez said.
Paul Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, echoed those remarks. "During the early days of the movement â€¦ my father incorporated music and art in the struggle â€¦ and that helped spark a revolution in Latino arts that continues to this day," he told the Crest gathering.
He added: "My father's work inspired many Latino artists, who in turn moved millions of others with their music. They demonstrated that music can - and must - do more than just entertain; it is also a powerful, nonviolent tool that can educate and inspire people to action."
In 2006, Sanchez and Alegria began asking those musicians: Would they be willing to appear in a film about Cesar?
"At first, we were a little hesitant," about phoning them, Sanchez said. "But the musicians â€¦ wanted to participate. They felt it was very important to document this history."
Filming has taken place mostly in California but also in Arizona, where Chavez was born in 1927.
"Song for Cesar" is not the first film about Chavez. Other documentaries have been made about him, with "Chavez," a $10 million drama directed by Diego Luna, currently in post-production in Mexico.
But no other movie has the musical angle of "Song for Cesar," Sanchez said. "Song for Cesar has a story of its own with a unique way of telling his story and works," he said.
The President Speaks
Also speaking at the Crest was Arturo Rodriguez, who succeeded Chavez as UFW president after his death in April 1993, at age 66.
When Chavez died, many anti-union growers expected the UFW to die as well, he said. But the union remains very much alive, waging battles on many fronts, one of them in Congress for immigration reform, he said.
The documentary "Song for Cesar" will ensure that future generations learn about Chavez too, Rodriguez said. His hope is that after watching the movie, the youth of the future will adopt Chavez' ideals and philosophies.
Then, it was time for the fiery concert by former and present members of Malo, Tower of Power, Abel, War and other groups.
Sanchez, the film's co-producer, retook the stage with his Fender guitar and led the all-stars through such hits as "Black Magic Woman," "Watermelon Man," "Song for Cesar" and "Me and Bobby McGee."
Besides Sanchez, the performers included guitarists Jorge Santana and Gabriel Manzo; lead vocalists Arcelio Garcia, Richard Bean and Tony Lindsay; trombonist Mic Gillette; Frankie Bailey on trumpet, and Marcia Miget on saxophone.
Also, drummer David George; percussionists Marcos Reyes and Gibby Ross; bassist Ramiro Amador; Herman Eberitzsch on keyboards; and vocalists Melinda Olivera and Ali Berumen. Cesar Chavez' nephew, Rudy Chavez Medina, played harmonica on a Jimmy Reed blues medley.
Edgar Sanchez is a former news reporter for the Palm Beach Post and the Sacramento Bee.