Actor Turned Director Diego Luna Celebrates Cesar Chavez
by Brad Balfour
Born on December 29, 1979 in Mexico City, Diego Luna Alexander lost his mother in a car accident when he was only two. Therefore, Luna became immersed in his father’s passion for entertainment. His father was Mexico’s most acclaimed living theatre, cinema and opera set designer. From an early age Luna began acting in television, movies and theater. Once he achieved international recognition, he has expanded his résumé to include writing, producing and directing as well.
This producer-actor-director’s full bio includes such highlights as big budget sci-fi thriller Elysium (2013), the Oscar-nominated Milk (2008), the Tom Hanks starrer The Terminal (2004), and the provocative Y Tu Mamá También (2001). However, his recent directorial effort Cesar Chavez not only outlines a slice of the famed civil rights leader and labor organizer’s life (powerfully played by Michael Peña) but also chronicles the birth of a modern American labor movement. The film tells the story of a man torn between family duties as a husband and father and his commitment to the fight for a living wage for farm workers.
Passionate but soft-spoken, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled the greed and prejudice of the local white community in this struggle to bring dignity to his constituency and disenfranchised people in general. Chavez inspired millions of Americans who hadn’t worked on a farm, or been to California, to fight for social justice. His journey is a amazing testament to the power of one remarkable person’s ability to change the world.
Buttressed by two incredibly strong women — wife Helen (America Ferrara) and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) — Chavez presciently foresaw the impact the Latino American community would have on this country as he drew attention to this long-disenfranchised sector.
Once you got this idea, how long did it take you to do this film?
At the beginning I didn’t know I had to do it. I would have quit had I been told this was going take four years and a half of my life. When I started I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that there’s no film about Cesar Chavez. But this is so powerful and comes in time for many reasons, and since this community’s growing, everyone’s going to want to do this film.”
I went out and started shopping, as is done with films. You go to studios and sit down with executives. Everyone gave us a chance to sit down, which sounded like, “Okay it’s happening!” Then they said, “Wow, this is great. We love that you’re doing this. We’re not going to join, but once you have a film come and show it to us and probably we’ll be part of it.” And we’re like, “No! We need the money to do it!”
It’s not like I’m just going out and doing it. I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” I was like, “How can I make it more sexy? If it was sexier, farm workers would probably be living a different reality today.”
They said, “What about A-List actors? Can you have Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem in it?” I’m thinking, the man existed. There are pictures. There are murals! You cannot just say, “Well, now it’s just going to look like something else…” This is about a Mexican-American, a guy who was born in Arizona. Anyway, we found no support in this country. But by that point, I promised the family that I was going to deliver a film.
I promised that it was happening and invested a year of my life into it at that point. We were working on the script with Keir Pearson, so I said to my partner Pablo Cruz, “Let’s go to Mexico and finance it the way we do in film.”
We went to Mexico and in a week and a half we found the money. At least 70% that allows the comeback for the other 30%. Then we came back and found the perfect partners, Participant Media and Pantelion Films, two different kind of film [studios]. They’re both doing films that would be perfect for this market — one that we’re trying to prove exists. That’s how everything started in terms of putting it together.
We wanted to come to the States and open a company and office here, so we said that we have to do a film that mattered on both sides of the border. It would allow us to work here, but still do stories that connect us with where we come from. The community we belong to, to the point that my son who was born here, in the States, so he’s knows he’s a Mexican-American. In fact, he had an American passport before the Mexican one.
In a way, this was an attempt to tell a story that he would be able to use to find out where he comes from. What needed to happen for him to be where he is at the moment. That’s how everything started.
Do you hope this film will change society’s perception of Latinos and the issues that concerns this community?
There’s something that’s happened here before which is that all us Latinos, we have to learn from these guys. If we organize, if we’re united, we have the strength to change the world. That’s definitely a reality, because I don’t think we’ve been so well organized since then. Yes, there’s a lot of complaints that we have to this country, as a community, but I would start looking at ourselves in the mirror and [ask] why we haven’t done [anything]?
We have a chance to send that message on the opening week, March 28th, which is, “We want these films to be out. We want our stories to be represented. We want our heroes to celebrated in film.”
There are two things that matter here, as Cesar said and showed us. One is that our strength is in our numbers, and they’re growing. I don’t know why we, as a community, haven’t experienced that feeling of power [that] we actually have in hand. The other is that the film confronts you, not just us Latinos, but everyone in this country, with a reality that’s very uncomfortable. That today in the fields, the conditions still aren’t great.
The struggle continues. Consumers have also not been aware of what they’re part of when they buy a product since then. The amazing thing they did as a community, is that they connected with consumers, the rest of America, a community they didn’t think they had a connection with. They found a way to say, “Our story matters to you.”
When you buy a grape, you’re supporting child labor. Moms listened to that. When a mother was in a store in Chicago, she found a farm worker saying, “When you’re buying that product, you have to remember that behind that product is the work of my six year-old.”
Mothers stopped buying grapes. So it’s about connecting, finding out what connects us, not what separates us. I think that’s a beautiful message about the film, and that applies not just for America, but for the world. It’s a nonviolent movement that said it’s about the responsibility of knowing we’re not here alone. The work of many has to happen so we can experience the life we have. It’s just being aware of that — that’s what matters.