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César Chávez and Loretto: Seeing the movie

Posted on October 29, 2020, by Mary Ann McGivern SL

Mary Jean Friel CoL and her three grown children, Nathan, Michael and Carolyn, attended the San Diego premier of the 2014 movie “Cesar Chavez.” During the years the movie covers, Mary Jean was César’s assistant, answering calls, arranging meetings and dealing with whoever came looking for him. By the end of the movie, which took us to 1978, Nate was almost 3; Mike was 2 and Carolyn was still nursing.

Mary Jean and family aren’t in the movie. Her son Mike says on his Facebook page that like all of his Hollywood acting efforts, he was edited out. Mary Jean says it’s a very good movie, accurate in what it covers, recognizing the limits of a story that can be told in 100 minutes.

Mary Jean had been introduced to farmworkers in the sugar beet fields of Greeley and Fort Lupton, Colo., by Jean Patrice Golden SL when she was a first-year Loretto novice in 1964. She, Cathy Mueller SL, Mary Margaret Murphy SL and other novices and young professed (including the author of this article) worked summers during the 1960s running day care and other services. It was an introduction to a level of poverty none of us had ever seen.

Then in 1968 Loretto Anne Madden SL enlisted anyone in Denver who had worked with farmworkers and could report on lobbying for passage of laws regulating water access, housing and wages. After that intensive course in
running a legislative campaign, Mary Jean went to work for the farmworkers in California. It was there that she met Pearl McGivney, who would later become a Sister of Loretto, and in 2012, Loretto’s president.

During the 1973 Loretto Assembly Mary Jean was arrested in Delano, Calif. The delegates to Assembly sent two of their number, Ann Pat Ware SL and Cathy Mueller SL, to California to take Mary Jean’s place and bring her home. Mary Jean came out of jail and onto the airplane shoeless and without luggage. Arriving at the Loretto Motherhouse with Cathy Mueller, she got out of the car, walked into the chapel and talked straight for an hour to the delegates and observers about the strikers’ conditions.

About the movie, Mary Jean said she was glad her children were with her to watch it. The helicopters, violence and police jeers, though only in two parts of the film, brought back the chaos and fear to Mary Jean’s mind across the years.

At breakfast four years ago, talking about the movie, Mary Jean and Pearl were remembering that strike. Pearl had been in Salinas, running a union-organizing office. She didn’t even know Mary Jean had been arrested when Ann Pat appeared at the office door and said she was there to take Mary Jean’s place. What could she do to help?

Pearl’s account is one Mary Jean had never heard. She said there was a press blackout across the nation. People were being arrested wholesale, including Dorothy Day. César was fasting. Strikers were beaten by police and growers — but nobody was writing about what was happening.

Pearl asked Ann Pat, “Well, what work do you do?” Ann Pat said she worked for the National Council of Churches. “Could you call the church people you know and ask them to call the press? Can you break the blackout?” Ann Pat, in her polyester suit, nylons and pumps, sat down at a desk, pulled an address book out of her purse, and began making calls. Pearl says that Ann Pat broke the news blackout.

Pearl and Mary Jean both say, “See the movie.”

The work continues. Carolyn Jaramillo CoL, center, at a farmworker rights march,
Fresno, Calif., 2017
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Jaramillo CoL
Mary Ann McGivern SL

Mary Ann McGivern SL

Mary Ann is a member of the board of the Peace Economy Project and chairs Empower Missouri’s Criminal Justice Task Force. Additionally she serves on several Loretto committees. She is an editor of Loretto’s "Interchange" and the St. Louis Catholic Worker’s Round Table. She also writes for the National Catholic Reporter. She has been a Sister of Loretto since 1960.
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