Retired television cameraman Óscar De León had a smile on his face as he recalled the five days of shooting some of the footage used in the documentary ‘César’s Last Fast.’
The documentary about César E. Chávez – an American labor leader and civil right activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association which later became the United Farm Workers union in 1962 – was shown at the Alice Peters Auditorium of the University Business Center on Oct. 5 by the Cross Cultural and Gender Center Latino/a Program as part of the many events at Fresno State University to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month 2018.
De León was of the guest speakers at the documentary’s showing and discussed his experience with Chávez’s work in the Central Valley.
“When he passed, I don’t say something came over me. But, I thought ‘I have to be there, I have to go over there,’” said De León, adding “how do you convince a boss to let you go for five days, you know. But they let me do that.”
De León said to him César Chávez was a spiritual leader, a civil right leader and when Chávez died he was really compelled to go and travel to La Paz in Kern County.
“I had to be there,” De León said, adding that he showed up without notice, without knowing anyone and with only the courage he felt to go there. “I wanted to be there at any cost.”
De León recalls that once he got there, he was told ‘yes, please come in’, of getting approval from Chávez’ family to be there during a very difficult moment for them.
“As I walked in the dark, with some lights, my equipment and an overnight briefcase they tell me ‘Do you want to see him,’” recalls De León. “And I think ‘What? He is here?’”
When asked again if he wanted to see Chávez, De León’s response was yes.
De León recalls being taken into a long staircase of the building and then seeing Chávez lay down in beautiful flower arrangements, flags, and two guards.
“And I went in there and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I asked for. This is what I wanted to be there for,” recalls De León. “It was, I don’t know, breathtaking, or something. I can’t explain it. But I always knew he was our spiritual leader, our civil rights leader. I had such, really, respect for this guy that dedicated his whole life for us.”
“He was our leader,” De León said. “No one else. It was him. He was the one I kept hearing ‘Go to school, educate yourself, better yourself, it’s going to work one of these days,’ and it did, it really did for us.”
De León, who is 67, was in his 40s with more than two decades of broadcasting experience as television cameraman when Chávez died.
“I was a veteran by then. I was already well seasoned, and I have seen a lot in the news department,” De León said, who at that time was working for Channel 21, the local Univisión affiliate.
“I just knew the importance and to be fortunate to break that barrier and go in there and they allowed me to do that,” De León said of his news director Daniel Rodríguez. “Like I said, they didn’t have to; my boss didn’t have to let me go.”
While at the compound, De León took footage what was used by his news station that was reporting the death and funeral of Chávez, but also footage that was only for the family.
Since De León had a lot of experience covering funerals, he knew what to do to avoid intruding in the family’s mourning and pain during that time he was there at La Paz’ compound.
“I learned really well you stay back here to take the shots, and you don’t intrude in their privacy unless they welcome you,” he said, adding that you still are very quiet and polite. “You learn a lot about respect.”
“At all time, I knew all the footage was for them. I wanted to document it, and I thought one day it will show up in a documentary,” De León said, adding that when the monument to Chávez was unveiled he figured some of the footage would be shown there. De León was invited to attend the monument ceremony with President Barak Obama, but at the end he didn’t attended as organizers couldn’t guarantee a seat.
De León was born in Texas and immigrated to California on a flat-bed truck alongside three other families. He was the seventh child of a family of 10 siblings. Growing up in Farmersville, he worked very hard in the fields alongside his family. He was the first member in his family to graduate from high school and served in the armed forces. He has an associated degree in liberal arts from College of the Sequoias and had background in film.
He was one of the first Chicanos to work in the media broadcasting industry and provided coverage for notable events such as the Space Shuttle II Lunch, the return of American soldier’s remains from Korea to the U.S and footage in ‘César’s Last Fast’ documentary.
De León said only four minutes of his footage at Chávez’ funeral, which was attended by 40,000 people, was used in the documentary.
Even though De León is not credited in the hour-and-a-half documentary, he is proud to have been able to shoot that important part of U.S history.
“I shot five days and they show four minutes, but every last minutes except the one (aerial) shot is my footage,” he said. “I just proud of it… This man was everything.”
De León, who retired in 2006 after 32 years in broadcast, said the documentary is made for the classroom.
“They want it to be use as a tool,” De León said, adding that he hopes one day he can take the documentary to his alma matter, Farmersville High School and spread the news of this educational material.
“It doesn’t bother me that I was completely left out, but the Chávez’ foundation allows me to sit and help introduce the documentary and that is the most important thing to me,” De León said.