When Abel Sanchez wrote and sang “A Song for Cesar” along with Jorge Santana, he was unknowingly building the scaffolding for something that became much bigger. “We were in the studio writing the song and something happened. It was almost like the spirit of Cesar Chavez entered the room,” Sanchez says.
The song marked the beginnings of what became a feature-length documentary that amounted to a massive labor of love—15-plus years in the making—for Sanchez and Andres Alegria, which will make its way to PBS this week.
“I knew the history of the farmworkers’ movement and the work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta,” Sanchez says. “The theme of the song was about the oppressed and the underserved people. It’s about equality and says that everyone deserves decent treatment.”
Though Sanchez is a musician through and through, he took time off the road for a while in order to help take care of his family, working as an employment investigator in civil rights. There were also coal miners in his family. “I had an affinity for the cause, and understood people working a hard job and not getting acknowledged for the sacrifices and the kind of work they were doing,” he says. “That’s the core fiber that hit home for me.”
When Sanchez began sharing the song with others, he realized his work with it was far from over. “As people heard it, they loved it and started telling us to put video footage to it,” he said. As much as Sanchez liked the idea, he was a musician, not a filmmaker, and had no idea where to begin. That’s when he paired up with Alegria, a man with professional roots in KPFA as well as in the television industry.
“It was a spontaneous project,” Sanchez said. “We did a few interviews related to the United Farm Workers movement, and added footage and created a six-minute DVD that we donated to the Cesar Chavez Foundation.”
When Sanchez showed the film to his good friend, the late Maya Angelou, she told him that the project he and Alegria had worked on had to be taken to the next level. “And that’s what we did,” Alegria says.
For the next decade and a half, Alegria and Sanchez were a two-man band of sorts, traveling far and wide to collect interviews and perspectives of farmworkers, artists, musicians, scholars and activists—including Angela and, of course, Huerta. The pair ended up with more than 60 hours of footage that they folded into a feature-length documentary. This week the film will air on PBS on Sept. 29-30.
Alegria says that while plenty of films have been made about the United Farm Workers and even individual musicians or artists, he did find a place for the film.
“The film that hadn’t been made was this film—the one about how musicians, actors, writers, artists, how they worked with the farmworkers’ movement,” Alegria says. “Once we realized it, it was clear.”
And, he says it’s a catch-all.
“It speaks directly to people who were involved in … the farmworkers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s. We also want to reach younger people who didn’t experience that, who are just coming into their own today,” Alegria says. “[It’s] a historical document that describes what happened and how that movement developed during that time period. But also an example of how people can use their talents, whatever their talents may be, to move forward any social issues that they are aware of and want to become involved in.”
When I ask Abel Sanchez what place music has in promoting social change, his answer is poignant. “There’s a line in the movie that says that you can learn the truth from a song. I think we’ve all learned some form of the truth from a song—whether it be a social movement or about love,” Sanchez says. “In a painting you can learn a truth. We want new generations to see the power of a movement. People think food comes from the shelves of Safeway, without realizing what the farmworkers went through to get them that food that is nourishing them. We want to acknowledge and honor what they do for our society.”
While reflecting on the central thesis of the film—that music and art shape and carry social justice movements—my daughters and I stumbled upon Doctor Xingona Diana Alvarez at the Lafayette Art & Wine Festival. She was strumming her guitar and playing a blend of Selena songs, originals and ranchera songs that she rewrote to fit her narrative as someone who identifies as a queer Latinx person.
Although Alvarez hasn’t met Sanchez or seen the film that he co-produced with Alegria, she resonates deeply with music offering a form of truth-sharing. She sang on a stage situated just yards away from where two picketers stood a day earlier with anti-trans messaging, sharing her truth—as a queer, Latinx musician performing alongside her beloved partner, unapologetically. “Sometimes we can say things in songs that we can’t say otherwise.” she says. “As a gender-queer part of the QT BIPOC community, it’s a message saying, ‘We’re here. We’re thriving and we’re divine.’”
Alvarez grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, like the late Selena, but tried to steer clear of music connected to her Latinx roots during the early part of her artistic journey. “Then when I was in Massachusetts—before moving to California—I encountered a lot of racism and the feeling of being an outsider. It made me want to learn more about my culture through song and music, and I fell back in love with it,” Alvarez says. “I started reinventing songs for myself and making them queer. It felt like I was healing my lineage. I grew up in a Mexican family in Texas and I didn’t have a lot of queer acceptance in my family. To be able to say that and reach other people means a lot to me.”
Sanchez and Alegria, by honing in on the power of song to shape a social justice movement related to something as basic as eating with A Song for Cesar, and Alverez, by focusing on identity politics through the radical act of showing up as oneself, all play roles in defining the world we live in.
“We are crucial in shaping the world we want to see,” says Alvarez. “As artists, we’re able to imagine something through our art that may feel very impossible. This has happened throughout history. If we look back at how artists have shaped and imagined the future that we are now living in, we can see the power of music.”
‘A Song for Cesar’ will air as part of the American Masters series on PBS on Friday, Sept. 29. Learn more at songforcesar.com. To learn more about the music of Doctor Xingona Diana Alvarez, follow @BrujaJuana on Instagram or visit Diana-Alvarez.com.