His name graces Bay Area schools, streets and plazas and his birthday is a state holiday, but how many Californians know what labor leader Cesar Chavez actually did?
A new movie aims to convey a glimpse of the man behind the iconic face of schoolyard murals. Chavez family members and advocates hope the Hollywood attention rejuvenates his unfinished causes. Others who worked closely with Chavez say the film does not probe deeply enough into the complexity of his leadership and the farmworker movement. Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993, might have just shrugged.
"He didn't like fanfare. I'm sure he would not have been happy," said San Jose lawyer Fernando Chavez, the civil rights leader's eldest son. "But I think it's important to have a movie. It's great for Latino kids to have a role model. Not an actress, not an athlete, just a simple person who did incredible things."
Humanizing the leader of the United Farm Workers labor movement was a goal of Mexican actor and producer Diego Luna, whose filmmaking debut -- called simply "Cesar Chavez" -- is the first feature movie about the union organizer's life. It stars Miguel Peña as Chavez and appears in theaters beginning Friday.
A superstar since his 2001 breakout in "Y Tu Mamá También," Luna and his production team won the family's blessings early on, most importantly from Cesar Chavez's widow. Luna said consulting with 86-year-old Helen Chavez, played in the movie by America Ferrera, allowed him to relay some "intimate moments of Cesar" never before shared.
Luna said he was struck by the many layers of the Mexican-American labor activist's personality, but struggled to find a way to express the nuances within the confines of a 95-minute story about a historic grape boycott. One surprise came when family members let Luna sift through Chavez's old record collection.
"He had Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Johnny Parker," Luna said. "I was expecting rancheras and banda music. So much of the stereotype, he wasn't."
Tying the plot together is the labor leader's strained relationship with his oldest child, Fernando, then a teenager bullied because of his father's polarizing campaign to unionize grape pickers.
The depiction of that father-son relationship is "fairly accurate," said Fernando Chavez, now 64, speaking as he strolled through the East San Jose neighborhood known as Sal Si Puedes where the family lived in the 1950s. The family moved from city to city, eventually settling in the southern Central Valley region where the movement was born and the film begins.
Fernando Chavez said classmates at Delano High School really did stuff grapes into his locker that fell out when he opened the door, as the film shows. And the growing anti-union violence -- including a truck driver who mistook him for his dad and tried to run him down on a country road -- forced him to leave Delano and move in with an aunt in San Jose.
"It was Helen who pointed out the breaking of Fernando and Cesar's relationship, the main core of my film," Luna said in an interview before a screening of his movie at UC Berkeley. "At the end, a film is not a history lesson to lecture people ... but you can definitely connect with characters."
That familial focus disappointed some who worked closely with Chavez and wished for a more sophisticated portrayal of how the movement coalesced and why it mattered.
Jerry Cohen attended the Berkeley screening and appreciated the enthusiasm of students for the movie, but he was surprised when his character was used as an archetype for 1960s counterculture idealism. Cohen worked as the union's top attorney from 1967 until his falling out with the organization in 1981.
"When I showed up in a hippie van, I just burst out laughing. I wasn't a hippie," said Cohen, played in the movie by "Hunger Games" actor Wes Bentley.
That was a small quibble for Cohen, whose larger complaint is the movie's simplification of a dramatic organizing effort.
"I think as an introduction to a generation who does not know who Cesar is, it's a good thing," Cohen said of the movie. "I just wish Cesar had come across as more of the complex, amazing political organizer he was."
Far more critical of Chavez and his leadership style is "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez," a new biography out this month by journalist Miriam Pawel. Pawel saw the movie and was also unimpressed.
"He's been so oversimplified in the last 20 years since his death, and portrayed in such hagiographic terms," Pawel said. "There's nothing wrong per se with an inspiring movie about a Mexican-American who took on the forces of evil and won, but it perpetuates that very two-dimensional portrait of someone who was much more complex."
By letting the family tell their story, the movie continues a "tremendous protectiveness" over Chavez's legacy and fails to express his "strategic brilliance, or the depth of the movement, what the boycott was, what the contracts got ... or what victory meant," Pawel said.
Chavez, she said, "deserves a place in history as a much more complicated and significant historical figure. People do not know who he is or who he was. And that's in California, where all these things are named after him."
Luna recently screened the film at the White House and to an audience of Central Valley farmworkers, preparing the film for what could be a broader political impact amid ongoing battles for immigration reform and workers' rights. Fernando Chavez does not expect a blockbuster but hopes the movie will introduce young people to his father's work in years to come.
The film, like Chavez's victorious 1960s boycott of California grape growers, seeks an audience from those otherwise indifferent to the lives of farm laborers.
Fernando Chavez said his father "knew if you could go to the American public and tell them the story of these workers who are being marginalized in their health, their lives, in what they were being deprived of, he knew that the American public would not tolerate it. He was right."