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New documentary shows how Cesar Chavez tapped into San Francisco arts to build movement

Farm labor leader Cesar Chavez pickets outside San Diego area headquarters of Safeway markets. | Getty Images

Fans of Carlos Santana likely won’t be surprised to learn that the smoldering guitarist behind such bangers as “Smooth” (featuring Rob Thomas) comes from a musical family. Santana’s father, Jose, was a violinist who played in classical and mariachi bands across San Francisco. His younger brother, Jorge, was a talented songwriter in his own right who was also the force behind a new documentary called A Song for Cesar, which delves into the role of music and art in the United Farm Workers movement. 

Created by the late Jorge, who died in 2020, and his longtime friend, Abel Sanchez, the film will be screened on June 11 at a “Farmworker Hero” exhibit at the San Mateo County Fair ahead of its nationwide release on PBS this fall. Sanchez will perform before the screening with the Song for Cesar Band.

Originally set to premiere in the fall of 2020 but delayed by Covid, the film documents a labor movement that coalesced in Delano, California, in 1962, when Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and other Chicano activists formed the National Farm Workers Association—later to become the United Farm Workers—to fight for improved wages and working conditions for the thousands of immigrant laborers growing and picking crops for people across the country.   

Aptly, the project grew out of a song written by Jorge Santana and Sanchez in the 2000s about Chavez that’s anchored by a blazing guitar solo performed by Jorge. According to a press release, upon hearing the song, visionary Black poet Maya Angelou challenged the two songwriters to go bigger by exploring how art amplified—and helped finance—this labor movement. 

A Song for Cesar is also largely autobiographical. Jorge was a central figure in propagating the farm workers’ struggle through song. A native of Jalisco, Mexico, Jorge got his start playing guitar at nightclubs in San Francisco's Mission District in the late 1960s at the same time that his brother Carlos was soaring to fame with high-profile performances like his acid-fueled set at Woodstock in 1969. 

A year later, Jorge’s band, Malo, signed to Warner Bros. Records. Malo gained an early following with a series of benefit concerts for the United Farm Workers at San Jose State University and Sacramento State University in the early 1970s. Social movements traditionally rely on unpaid labor, and the documentary shows how the musicians and artists involved with United Farm Workers donated their time and talent to “La Causa.”

In many ways, the farm workers' movement ran parallel with the Civil Rights Movement, employing nonviolent organizing strategies like boycotts, fasts and marches to negotiate labor contracts. Just as “We Shall Overcome” became a rallying cry at the March on Washington, farm workers chanted “Si, Se Puede,” or “Yes, We Can”—a motto that lives on to this day.

Musician Carlos Santana sits for an interview featured in the documentary "A Song for Cesar." | Courtesy "A Song for Cesar"

Jorge recruited Carlos, as well as Angelou and songwriter Joan Baez for the documentary, which also includes archival footage and photographs from the farm workers’ movement. 

The June screening is perhaps also the latest call to action to support the United Farm Workers—a union that has flagged in recent years due in large part to lack of federal legislation, short-term labor contracts and internal struggles.

According to Sanchez, the documentary is a testament to his late friend’s commitment to the future of the movement. 

“As Jorge grew older and realized the importance of what Cesar Chavez was doing for the farm workers and our people, I saw the deepening of his wanting to help educate younger generations to get more involved and use their lives to do good for our people in the tradition of Cesar that Jorge embodied,” Sanchez said.

Live Music & Film Screening: 'A Song for Cesar'

🗓️ Sunday, June 11 | 1:30 p.m.
🗓️ 1346 Saratoga Dr., San Mateo
🎟️ $15-$20