Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez with UFW strikers in the Imperial Valley in 1979. (Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times)

At least 25 streets and 46 schools are named in his honor, but many young people know little about Cesar Chavez, who in life was a polarizing figure, most famous for the successful series of marches, fasts and strikes he led on behalf of mostly immigrant farmworkers.

The next big act of Chavez's afterlife begins this month, with the first dramatic film about the towering Chicano figure and a major biography due out days before California and other states celebrate Cesar Chavez Day on March 31.

Both projects seek to reclaim Chavez's place in the American memory. But the book and the movie offer markedly different portraits of a man who joined the pantheon of American civic saints after his death in 1993.

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In the film "Cesar Chavez," by a Mexican production team led by the actor-director Diego Luna, he is a heroic and beatific figure using nonviolence to lead his people to victory. The movie ends with Chavez's United Farm Workers winning contracts in 1970 from recalcitrant growers.

The 534-page book, "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez," by former Times editor and reporter Miriam Pawel, follows Chavez, from his birth in a Depression-era Arizona and his father's loss of the family farm, to his death, following a long period in which the UFW was in decline. Much of the second half of the book delves deeply into what Chavez's old allies call "the dark side" — his isolation and his embrace of what some saw as a cult of personality.

For Luna, the movie has been a four-year crusade, working largely outside the Hollywood studio system.

"We're lucky [Hollywood] didn't say yes," Luna said in an interview.

Hollywood executives suggested Luna cast one of two bankable Spanish heartthrobs, Antonio Banderas or Javier Bardem, as the lead. Instead he gave the role to Michael Peña. Like many talented Mexican American actors, Peña's has a resume filled with mostly small roles, including as a faux Arab sheik in "American Hustle."

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Luna and his production company Canana (which he co-founded with actor Gael Garcia Bernal) have been screening the film for select, often largely Latino audiences across the U.S. ahead of its March 28 release date. On Wednesday, he also screened it at the White House for President Obama.

Luna and producer Pablo Cruz were also recently at UCLA, at a standing-room-only event for more than 300 people, sponsored by the university's Chicano Studies faculty and students. "Please help us spread the word," Luna told the audience. "We have to send a message to the industry that our stories have to be represented. And with the depth and the complexity they deserve."

"We found the right partners for the film," Luna said. Mexican investors put up much of the funding. The $10-million film, shot in Sonora, Mexico, is being distributed by Participant Media and Lionsgate, and is opening in about 600 theaters.

Chavez declined offers to have dramatic films made about him during his lifetime, and since his death he has appeared on the big screen mostly in documentaries.

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Luna made Chavez's family life the emotional center of his story. He said he ignored another executive who asked, "How can you make this more sexy?" "I said that this is beyond sexy," Luna said. "It's not even just the story of Cesar Chavez. It's the story of a movement."

"Cesar Chavez" is filled with authentic visual details, including the religious iconography that was a staple of UFW events and the infamous "short hoes" that ravaged the bodies of farmworkers forced to use them. America Ferrera plays Cesar's wife, Helen, with Rosario Dawson as union leader Dolores Huerta and Jack Holmes as ally Robert F. Kennedy. At 101 minutes, the film limits itself to a decade in Chavez's life.

The book, published by Bloomsbury Press, is the first full-scale biography. "I'm writing beyond the hagiography," Pawel said. "It does him a disservice to portray him in a more simplistic way."

Chavez earned his saintly hue by going on a 25-day fast in 1968 that helped turned public opinion in the UFW's favor, an event that's key in Luna's film. But Pawel said the film only fleetingly captures the real Chavez's genius for strategy and tactics. He could also be gruff leader who gave no quarter to perceived enemies, a quality he readily acknowledged.

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