Blog Post

Ch. 4: Curtis Marez, "Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and the History of Star Wars,"

Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White

Review of Chapter 4, "Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and the History of Star Wars," by Curtis Marez
Cesar Chavez and George Lucas, at first blush, seem to have little in common. Both spent time in California's agrarian Central Valley and in Southern California, but Marez points his reader to a closer link between the two. He begins this connection with USC and with the juxtaposition between the simple memorial plaque for Cesar Chavez and the Douglas Fairbanks statue, which appropriates the image of a Latino in front of the equally appropriated Spanish architecture of the film school, to which Lucas donated enough money to warrant the name of an entire building. Marez uses this image of the Latino activist and the American actor in Latino drag to launch his critique of the ways in which the Central Valley farmer's son (Lucas) unconsciously engages with the struggle for farm workers' rights. Within the broader context of the interplay between Latin American migrant workers' struggle for fair treatment and the rise of the film industry, Marez critiques the subtle ways in which George Lucas, a self-styled misfit from rural Northern California, consistently perpetuates the disregard for Latin American farm workers espoused by prominent Central Valley farming families, like his own, at the time of Cesar Chavez's many protests against such treatment. Taking into consideration Lucas's physical and temporal proximity to Chavez's work in the Central Valley, the author traces these parallel histories, showing how the struggles of migrant workers during Lucas's childhood and adolescence influenced the images and world-views being portrayed in his students films, his first commercial film, THX 1138, and his magnum opas, Star Wars.
This article is engaging in content and style. Marez brings together two seemingly disparate cultural phenomenons in a way that is convincing and makes the reader wonder why the correlation between these histories has not been previously explored. He frames this critique with provocative anecdotes about present-day Silicon Valley, which led me to wonder why the issues brought up in these anecdotes weren't further explored. It seemed that ideas about production, laborers' bodies, and representation of each in Silicon Valley would fit well as a present-day extension of the themes he discusses regarding Chavez and Lucas.
As I read this article, I was struck by the relevance of local history in a global economy. Despite being from California, I had not previously considered the interplay between several elements of the state's economy or the specific ways in which the exploitation of laboring bodies has grown and changed over time. But Californians are not the only ones profiting from the exploitation. Silicon Valley products and services are being consumed and utilized throughout the country (and the world). If I have not been aware of all of these histories and continuing problems in the region, having lived most of my life within a few hours of the area, how many other people profiting from such treatment of laborers are equally unaware? Applied to a larger scope, are we really aware of the power structures in which we are engaging when we buy products or use services from particular places domestically and internationally? What should our reactions be to these power dynamics?
I was also curious about what more there is to consider about low-wage labor in Silicon valley. What are we to think of the fact that Silicon Valley produces products and services of which we are consumers, dependent upon labor by those who may not have the means to access these goods and services. While we applaud or admire the many benefits of employees involved in research and development, how is the laborer at the typical Silicon Valley company being treated, and what can those companies (and specifically, the individuals in power withing the companies) do to treat their laborers more equitably. Perhaps in addition to laundry services on campus, offered so that their programmers need not take the time to do household chores, these companies should offer the laundry staff programs to purchase a computer or develop technical skills that would prepare them for higher paying jobs.
On the one hand, Marez's critique of Lucas's privileged position within the community oppressing the farm workers Chavez championed gives the reader new insight into the filmmaker's subtle perpetuation of racist tropes. However, the power of this critique is not limited to a historical analysis of these two communities, nor is it revealing a purely localized problem. By gesturing to contemporary Silicon Valley, Marez presses his reader to examine the ways in which such power structures are still being perpetuated today.



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