Let’s do a quick run-down of the famous folks David and Sarah Chavez have rubbed shoulders with over the last decade.
Jennifer Lopez. Jessica Alba. The Black Eyed Peas. Rosario Dawson. Martin Sheen. Eva Longoria. Kris Kristofferson. President Barack Obama, during one of their four visits to the White House.
They’ve become quite the power couple, producing Latino events across the country. The Topeka natives — who became a blended family with six children when they married in 2002 — run LatinPointe Brands out of their home in Olathe.
Latina Style magazine recently noted their work with some of the most influential Hispanic organizations in America, calling the Chavezes “one of the heartland’s best-kept secrets.” If there’s a major Hispanic event going on, the Chavezes are likely involved, the magazine wrote.
Before they went into business for themselves in 2004, David coordinated conventions for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, out of Washington, D.C. But he wanted to move back to the Midwest.
“We let everyone know that we’re from Kansas City,” said Sarah. “We think we can build on what we’re doing from the Heartland.”
Over the last few days they’ve driven and flown coast to coast promoting the movie “Cesar Chavez,” which opened Friday.
Let’s just get one thing out of the way right now: They are not blood relations of Cesar Chavez. But they feel like family now.
The movie, directed by Mexican actor Diego Luna, stars Michael Pena as the Mexican-American labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America and forced the world to see the horrible working conditions of migrant workers in the fields.
The movie focuses on the 10 years surrounding the grape boycotts Chavez led in the 1960s.
Rosario Dawson stars as Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Chavez, and America Ferrera plays Cesar Chavez’s wife, Helen Chavez.
Keir Pearson, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Hotel Rwanda,” wrote the script, and the film was co-produced by John Malkovich and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, among others.
The movie debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February and won an audience award at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin this month.
Working with the Cesar Chavez Foundation and Pantelion Films, the movie’s distributor, the Chavezes organized screenings in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix and at the White House.
They’ve watched people leave the movie in tears.
“What gives me a rush is that you’re seeing people coming out bringing pictures. Some have marched with Cesar and they’re so proud … they’re sharing their stories from the ’60s and ’70s. Either their parents were farm workers or they were farm workers,” Sarah said by phone as she and her husband drove across California last week. “In Chicago, the Chicanos were coming out in droves.”
A whole row of Kennedy family members attended the New York City screening. More than 1,000 people showed up in Los Angeles.
“It doesn’t surprise me but it’s amazing to see who comes out to support Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement,” said Sarah.
But it was the screening last week in the farm fields in Delano, Calif. — ground zero for the activist’s work — that really moved them.
A giant screen was set up outside the hall where grape growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers more than four decades ago, the Los Angeles Times noted. More than 1,200 people came.
The newspaper described audience members stepping off buses waving red UFW flags. Some came straight from the field. Some workers gave up a day’s wages to attend.
“When the film played, its images were a mirror of everything around: the fields, the stretching sky, the buildings — and the faces in the audience,” the Times wrote.
Women were crying before the movie even started, said Sarah. Even though rain cut the screening short and no one saw the ending, “it was a truly amazing event on hallowed ground,” she said. “It was almost a spiritual experience.”
They’ve been rushing around on brief hours of sleep since March 11, when they kicked off back-to-back screenings in Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix and Chicago in four days.
The pace has been manic. Invite the right dignitaries. Make sure speakers are lined up. Get the food and drinks squared away for the prescreening receptions. Is the theater ready to show the movie? Is the rental car big enough to haul the 8-foot-by-16-foot red carpet backdrop?
But they’re used to this. Their regular gigs include producing the annual ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Awards in Los Angeles, a glittery affair honoring Latinos in film, music and TV.
In 2009 they produced the Latino Inaugural Ball, drawing 4,200 people to Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Closer to home they’ve organized Latino Day for the Kansas City Royals and the Hispanic Scholarship Awards celebration.
This is their first time promoting a movie. They first worked with the Cesar Chavez family two years ago when they produced the 50th anniversary convention of the United Farm Workers. That led to jobs producing a series of fundraising concerts in California featuring Kris Kristofferson and a UFW awards show honoring Martin Sheen.
About a year ago Paul Chavez, Cesar’s middle son, asked them to help promote the movie.
“At that point we didn’t know what that meant,” said David, “but obviously we were going to say yes.”
They were more than happy to help a movie they believe should have been made decades ago.
“Our stories just aren’t told,” said Sarah, referring to Latino culture. “We can name them on one hand: ‘Selena,’ ‘La Bamba,’ ‘Frida’. That’s it.”
At each screening Paul Chavez and Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, have encouraged audience members to take family and friends to see the movie.
A lot of the support for the movie has been grass roots, true to the farm workers movement itself. Groups like League of United Latin American Citizens and AARP have bought out entire theaters for their members and communities.
“The purpose behind it is to show the power of the Hispanic community,” said David.
People have asked why the movie wasn’t made sooner.
“Robert Redford approached Cesar while he was alive and wanted to do a movie,” said Sarah. “But Cesar said we have much work to do. … He was so humble.”
The Chavez family guarded the story, waiting for the right time and the right person to tell it. Each time Paul Chavez introduced Diego Luna at a screening, he told audiences his family wasn’t sure what to think when the actor approached them about making the movie.
They wondered whether the Mexican-born actor would be able to connect with the plight of Mexican-American workers. But Luna impressed the family in their first meetings because he said little but listened carefully.
He and producer Pablo Cruz spent four years working with the Chavez family, gathering stories and other information to capture the essence of the movement, said Sarah.
At the White House screening, President Obama addressed a group of 150 Hispanic leaders before the movie was shown.
Paul Chavez introduced his niece — Cesar Chavez’s granddaughter — Julie Chavez Rodriguez, a member of Obama’s administration.
“The air in the room was palpable. Her ovation and applause was even louder than it was for our president because you could feel the history and the gravity of having Cesar’s granddaughter there,” said Sarah.
The president said he couldn’t stay and watch the movie that night but would watch it later.
David Chavez hasn’t seen the movie yet, either. At every screening, he’s been working on plans for the next city’s events.
He and Sarah are disappointed that the movie will be shown in only two theaters in Kansas City. The movie wasn’t going to be shown at all in Topeka until locals there “started making some noise and now they’re going to get the movie,” she said.
Now their own families will get to see what they’ve been working so hard to promote.
As they’ve traveled the country, people have assumed they are part of Cesar Chavez’s family. Many people have mistakenly thanked them for their work on behalf of farm workers.
But that’s OK by Cesar’s son, who told Sarah: “Tell them you’re my sister. You’re family now.”