The city of Delano, California doesn't really stand out in most people's minds. It sits in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley north of Bakersfield, two and a half hours north of L.A., 30 minutes off the 5. Its namesake is Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, cousin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's dotted with prisons and grape fields, clouded by the same scents of citrus blossoms and petrochemicals that float over the freeways up and down California's agricultural backbone.

But to the nearly 1,000 farm laborers gathered there Tuesday night to watch a special showing of Diego Luna's biopic Cesar Chavez, Delano stands out in their minds constantly. Its Forty Acres Historical Site that hosted the event – set up with classy white chairs, a bean and pork dinner and beer tents for this occasion – was the fertile soil for the 1960s movement that gave farm workers rights, wages, material support and basic human recognition. It was there that Cesar Chavez starved himself on their behalf; it's where he took a wasted chunk of central California dirt and, along with his right-hand badass Dolores Huerta, screamed “huelga!” (strike!) in the face of intransigent grape plantation owners. Inside its hand-built structures, Chavez signed their field-working forebears to their first union contracts for the United Farm Workers and started the most successful agriculture labor action of the 20th century – the Delano Grape Strike – that saw him march 300 miles to Sacramento. 

Clearly, this special screening bore far more significance than any of the others that will air in the lead-up to Friday's national opening. Far from red carpets and heavily branded stand-and-repeats of a typical L.A. screening full of quibbling film bloggers and rubbernecking Hollywood gawkers, last night's screening had the feel of a down-home labor rally. Families waved red UFW flags and spontaneous chants erupted.

“The fact that we're here with people who marched with my father and stood by his side, that's especially heartwarming,” Cesar's middle son Paul Chavez told reporters. He intimated that the movement's struggles are far from over, with UFW membership down to around 5,000 members from a peak near 50,000 in the 1970s. ]

Credit: Paul T. Bradley

Credit: Paul T. Bradley

Most of the time, it felt like the reporters were intruding on a private party. The only Hollywood moment came when director Diego Luna popped in to say a few words. The press throng that surrounded him resembled an alien landing amid the gusting dust and relaxing families. Sure, folks were excited – they screamed his name and jostled for shots – but most of the crowd stayed seated far away. What was Luna going to explain that the film itself wouldn't? His sharp suit and the flashing lights stood in stark contrast to the t-shirted crowd out in the dusk. He spoke in Spanish about his four-year journey to get his movie made. He joked in Spanish that the movement's slogan was no longer “Sí, se puede” (Yes, it is possible) but “Sí, pudimos” (Yes, we could).

It felt odd asking the attendees things like “What does the film mean to you?” For many of them, the hours spent on chartered buses were answers enough. The vibe was more, “This whole thing is a big deal, yes, but let's have a good time and watch the picture, ok?”

Mexican film star and director Diego Luna dwarfed by the people who made Cesar Chavez possible.; Credit: Paul T. Bradley

Mexican film star and director Diego Luna dwarfed by the people who made Cesar Chavez possible.; Credit: Paul T. Bradley

Like perhaps watching All the President's Men near Bob Woodward's bench on the National Mall, or JFK in Dealey Plaza, there's an odd promise of magic to in situ movie-watching that ultimately does not quite pan out. While the bulk of Cesar Chavez was shot in current Mexican grape fields that most closely resemble California of the 1960s, the meditative tracking shots on last night's portable projection did little justice to the sun setting on the actual fields behind it. And while the film itself is a skillfully crafted hagiography to the silver-tongued Chavez, it could never do justice to the feeling that one might have had standing with him or marching with him. And even at its best, no film could ever hope to accomplish that.

Three quarters of the way through the specially Spanish-dubbed version we were watching, unexpected gales billowed in and slowly sent older attendees back to their buses. The trickle of departures became a flood when rain started to fall. But the bulk of the workers remained undeterred and stayed in their seats, huddling their kids with blankets. When the projector finally cut out and heavier drops fell, chants of “Sí, se puede” rang out.

Among the mass exodus that followed were Jairo Hernandez, a 20-year-old student, and his godfather Israel Padilla, a laborer. But Hernandez was still optimistic

“Look, I wanted to come check this out for myself because this is where I'm from, Delano,” Hernandez said. “The roads he walked on are the roads I walk on every day and I got to see that onscreen.”

Padilla conveyed in spotty English that wanted his godson to see what most of his family struggles through so he can be a student.

They're interrupted by the last chants of “Sí, se puede” when some smart-ass joking about the rain cancellation yelled, “No se puede!” Hernandez laughed. “Maybe the rain…it's Cesar Chavez crying tears of joy?” he said.

Either way, the rain is hardly tragic: more rain means more work in Delano, and in the midst of a drought that's something infinitely more important than red carpets, or even red flags.

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