The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Struggle

by Bill Barry

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Struggle (1997)

This marvelous documentary provides a vivid history of more than 100 years of California commercial farming and of the generations of farm workers and their organizations. The producers collected extraordinary archival footage, mixed with a wide range of interviews, to show the development of agribusiness in California, built upon the stoop labor of successive waves of immigrants (Chinese, Filipinos, Okies, Mexicans and Chicanos).

Every generation of workers tried to organize with work stoppages and community pressure, attracting political radicals, religious reformers and sympathetic social workers—many of whom were interviewed for this documentary—to la causa. By the late 1940s, the workers established a permanent organization, the United Farm Workers (UFW), which is the main topic of this documentary. The UFW grew against the bitter hostility, of both class and race, from the growers in California’s central valley.

The wonderful range of interviews provides an oral history of a movement that left very few written records, offering a model of workers history. In many interviews, people who participated 30-40 years ago look back on the movement, and evaluate it with both a freshness and a nostalgia for a movement that seemed pure, no matter how bitter the opposition of the bosses.

The UFW offers a lesson for unions today because it was, of necessity, a multi-ethnic, multicultural movement, which made the workers struggles into a social movement and a national cause—que viva la huelga! It was a movement of immigrants, and mostly “illegal” ones at that, creating institutions, like housing projects, credit unions, cafeterias as well as narrow collective bargaining benefits.

For anyone who participated in farm worker activities, like the grape boycott of the 1970s, this documentary will revive many memories—some pleasant, like the signing of the first contracts with the growers and the temporary political support from Governor Jerry Brown in the early 1970s—and some unpleasant, like the desperate campaigns by the Teamsters Union to split the farm worker movement by signing sweetheart deals with the growers.

Like many of the histories of the farm workers, the documentary occasionally slides into idolatry of Cesar Chavez. It provides an extensive family history of the young boy whose family lost its farm and, in a dramatic discussion of downward social mobility, moved to California to become farm workers. After Chavez married in 1948, he settled in Delano and the rest is history. For such a famous figure, one inevitable question arises: did the man create the movement or did the movement create the leader? In any case, for many people Chavez was the movement, one of the most famous union officers of the 20th century.

The documentary provides extensive interviews about Chavez from his siblings, children and friends, and shows how he attracted both the rich and famous (like Bobby Kennedy) and the merely notable, like Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahoney.

For any history, diversity or social problems class, this documentary would be a great addition. (There are resources for the book at this PBS website and on the film makers website. There is a companion book by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval. In recent years, however, controversies developed about the UFW’s internal conflicts and about the role of Cesar Chavez. These issues can be evaluated at since they are not covered by this documentary. The UFW was such a compelling cause that it attracted hundreds of “middle-class” students and friends and their evaluations are particularly interesting since the UFW was, for many of them, a life-shaping experience and another history in itself.

Bill Barry teaches labor studies at Community College of Baltimore County.   He is author of Union Strategies for Hard TimesThis  review  originally appeared in Film & History, the leading peer-reviewed journal in its field.

Previous labor films featured on Talking Union:

Nothing But a Man
At the River I Stand
The Organizer
Made in Dagenham

2 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Angela Cristiani, Talking Union. Talking Union said: The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers Struggle #labor […]

  2. Good review. As a participant in this struggle for many years, the film and this review do it justice.
    There are 2-3 additional posts here on Talking Union about the legacy of Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
    Use the search device.

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