LOS ANGELES — Mexico and the United States share thousands of miles of border. But to actor/director Diego Luna, the countries seem to be from opposite sides of the planet.
"There are so many things we have in common and so many stories we should be sharing. But we've allowed this border to fracture us. It has divided us. We have to accept there are more things that connect us," Luna says.
That was the motivation behind Luna expanding his film production company from Mexico to the United States. The idea was to tell stories that showed the link between the countries. The first attempt is the new feature film "Cesar Chavez," which focuses on the table grape boycott in the late '60s that became one of the biggest victories in the war for human rights for farmworkers.
It stars Michael Peña ("End of Watch") America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty"), Rosario Dawson ("Sin City") and John Malkovich ("In The Line of Fire"). This is the first English-language movie directed by Luna, who is better known to American audiences for acting in such films as "Frida," "Havana Nights: Dirty Dancing 2," "Milk" and "The Terminal."
"My interest in Chavez started gestating when I began spending significant time in Los Angeles. There were streets everywhere carrying his name and references to him as well as murals in San Francisco. I must admit that I was a bit ashamed not to know much about him, so I began to investigate," Luna says. "I came to understand his historical significance, that he was the first Mexican-American to have a real voice and accomplished so much change for his community. " … I was surprised to find out that a movie about Cesar Chavez had not been done and I really think it is the right time for it."
He was so moved by the story that Luna pursued the financing for the film for four years. Major studios in the United States liked the idea but passed on banking the production. One executive told Luna that the story needed "to be a little more sexy." Funding finally came from backers in Mexico.
Luna's initial plan was to shoot the movie in the United States. But to save costs — and to match the look of locations from the time period — he ended up filming the majority of the film in Sonora, Mexico. He found standing in the grape fields of Sonora had the same vast feel he experienced when standing in the grape fields in the central San Joaquin Valley when he scouted locations.
Making the film became an emotional journey for Luna. He was extremely proud to do the first major motion picture based on the life of Chavez. But at the same time, he was depressed that a film hadn't already been made. He sees it as such a major moment in the lives of Latinos in America that the events should never be forgotten.
The film focuses on a specific man, but Luna stresses there's a bigger story being told.
"I thought by telling the story of Cesar Chavez and celebrating the legacy of this man, we would be sending the right message that if change is ever going to happen, it's going to be in the hands of the people," Luna says. "We can not be waiting for the political class to make it happen or corporations to wake up and realize they are doing wrong.
"What the movement showed us in the '60s is that there's a way to connect with others. People who apparently don't have any connection to context and your reality and your struggle, really do."