Rosario Dawson on ‘Cesar Chavez,’ Immigration, Gentrification in NYC, and Beating Hollywood Bias

The actress-activist discusses her latest film ‘Cesar Chavez’ and how she navigated the treacherous, sexist, and oft-racist terrain of Hollywood.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Rosario Dawson is, in many ways, an anomaly. One day, filmmaker Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine spotted her on her front stoop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and asked her to audition for a role in their movie. It was the cultural touchstone Kids, and at 15, Dawson, a young woman of Puerto Rican and Afro-Cuban descent raised in an abandoned building squat, was granted entrée into Hollywood.

Over the years, she’s managed to become one of the most formidable Latina actors in the biz, someone who, in an industry that loves to pigeonhole actors of color, has convincingly played everything from a government agent (Eagle Eye) to a femme fatale (Trance).

In filmmaker Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez, in theaters March 28, she plays Dolores Huerta, a fervent activist who helps Chávez (Michael Peña) form the United Farm Workers, the labor union that aimed to provide better wages and working conditions for the exploited braceros—immigrants from Mexico permitted to live and work in the U.S. in agriculture, under conditions similar to indentured servitude. Through nonviolent protest, Chávez and his confederates made history. Barack Obama even adopted an English version of Chávez’s slogan, “iSí, se puede!”—“Yes, we can!”—for his senate and presidential runs.

Dawson sat down with The Daily Beast in her native New York for a discussion about the film, the city she loves, and her rise to stardom.

Cesar Chavez touches on a lot of issues that are still pertinent today, like labor unions, nonviolent protest, etc.

I’m excited to be a part of celebrating a moment in history that people don’t know much about. I’d tell people I was doing a movie about Chavez and they’d say: Hugo? The boxer? Come on, people. And I’d tell them I was playing Dolores Huerta and they’d stare at me blankly. She won the Medal of Freedom! This is not OK. This was the farmworkers’ unionized movement—marginalized people coming together, many of them illiterate, and making a noise loud enough that resounded around the world. The fact that these boulevards and streets that are named after Chavez don’t mean things to people is shameful, and evidence of how our education system’s failed us. This was a movement that went “viral” before we used the word viral.

The farmworkers, as we see in the film, were beaten back quite a bit by a white-dominated system, but eventually triumphed.

They suffered many more failures than they had successes, and it’s proof positive today when it comes to our broken immigration system, and how volatile the conversation has become. Young millennials are the first group that, as diverse as they are, really wants traction on a lot of these different issues. It opens us up to a way of thinking, “Yes, it’s in your power to do something about this. Yes, you’re inheriting trillions of dollars of debt, you’re drowning in student loans, you’re living with your parents, you’re worried about your future, you’re marrying less and putting off children. You’re a very interesting demographic. But two-thirds of you approve of gay marriage, you’re in favor of medical marijuana.” So you can watch this movie and go, “OK, that group of illiterate farmworkers banded together and changed the world. I’m a young person that feels very marginalized—people only treat me like a consumer—but I can change the world.”

You mentioned immigration, and it’s interesting because Chavez was actually anti-immigration.

In some ways, but he had a lot of undocumented people in the union. He didn’t like “poachers”—people who came in and took jobs, or union-busters—but if you were part of the union, you were good. I wonder what his stance would be today, because he’s been gone for 20 years, and the anti-immigration movement has gotten crazy.

What’s your take on the immigration debate?

I think we have a lot of people who are working here who have risked their lives to even come here, fleeing from places where our foreign policy is sketchy in, so a big reason why their homes aren’t safe places to work and foster and raise their own children is because of our immigration policies and our foreign policy. We’re very involved with the population that works here—not just because we benefit from the fact that they’re suffering indentured servitude, but that these are people who are working under social security numbers that aren’t their own, so they’re paying into a system that they can’t take out of. But they’re making sure that we have the most accessible, inexpensive food on the planet, and do all the jobs that people don’t want to do. You saw places like Georgia doing sweeps and deporting people, and then they went and sent out buses to get people to do the work, and no one wanted to do it!

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Undocumented immigrants do seem to endure great hardships just to live in America.

Right. I’ll do that hard labor so I can get a little money to provide for my family and see if I can achieve the American Dream. These are people who are putting their lives at stake for the American Dream. These are people who love to be here. That’s the big fallacy in a lot of the conversation when it comes to undocumented immigrants. They don’t want to be here! They’re just taking our jobs! No. These are people who believe in the American Dream probably even more than you do, and they value being in America in a way that you can’t really appreciate. I’m a humanist. I think it’s weird and interesting that we have divisive lines that say, “This is a different state, or city, or country.” We’re all humans. And when you say, “You don’t mean anything to me because you grew up on the other side of the invisible line,” well then we’ve got a real problem.

In the early portions of Cesar Chavez, the farmers suffer a great deal of racism at the hands of the white farmers. They’re beaten, called names. Have you, as a person of mixed ethnicity, ever suffered any racism yourself?

Absolutely. Classism: I grew up in a squat on the Lower East Side. Sexism: when you have one-in-three women that’s going to be raped, killed, or beaten in their lifetime, there’s a reality that’s there about how people will treat you, talk to you, and have expectations of you. Ageism. Racism, absolutely. There’s a reality where you walk into a meeting with a producer and they go, “Oh, you’re so articulate!” And you go, “Why do you sound so surprised?” It’s so patronizing and ridiculous. And, as a matter of fact, it’s not because I grew up in a middle-class home and went to college. I grew up on the Lower East Side—before it was gentrified—and I have a high school diploma. Even the way that you want to accredit how I speak, it’s because my mom, who has a GED, raised me that way. And my grandmother, who’s my hero—she passed five years ago and was a secretary, and talk about being marginalized! She doesn’t rate on most people’s radars, but she was the world to me and helped me become the person I am today. It’s a fascinating and telling thing about a person, the value systems that we filter people through. It’s so narrow, and lazy, and it’s like Mandela says: people are taught to hate, you’re not born that way. So it puts pressure on all of us to continue to look at the next generation and pass on our activism.

The racial bias in Hollywood that you mentioned is interesting. It seems like early on in your career, you were being pigeonholed a bit in roles—playing the girl from the block—but you managed to transcend that later on, and it was great to see you play a suit in Eagle Eye and Unstoppable. I think it provides a great model for other aspiring Latino actors.

I think I’ve been really lucky because I was discovered into acting. Kids was an amazing experience. I worked four days on it and it got me an agent and manager and changed my life. Spike [Lee] saw it and invited me to audition for He Got Game, and I was able to continue to get roles and keep pushing myself. Because that’s how I got started, I didn’t have this idea of a “career path” or “goals,” so I just wouldn’t take certain roles. I have very diverse tastes and interests, so I’d want to do a part in Rob Zombie’s movie, or a kids movie, or an action movie, or an indie movie with a first-time filmmaker. I’ve done over 50 films and they’re all over the place, but it’s been fun. I’m really lucky that I started in the independent film era. I think that helped create a lot of opportunities for me, and access points to perform in things that people would have seen. It’s been, I think, really remarkable. I’ve somehow navigated my way through the maze of the ageism, racism, sexism, and all the walls and blocks that exist there, because they do, and they exist for a reason. People like to tell their own stories and there’s a very specific demographic in Hollywood that gets to make those choices, but there are more and more voices that are coming into the fold that are getting more powerful, and the audience is changing, which is giving us an opportunity. It’s not that I haven’t seen that stuff come up, but it hasn’t deterred me.

Is it weird watching yourself in Kids? Like watching a home movie, or something?

I haven’t seen it in a while! I saw a clip of it, and it’s really interesting. There are no cell phones in it—we’re at a payphone in one scene, which kind of dates it—but it’s a portrait of a New York that doesn’t really exist anymore. Because there are no cellphones in it, it actually holds up better than some other films. My friend and me were talking the other day about You’ve Got Mail, and how it doesn’t hold up as well because it’s tied to a very specific time. But Kids is still so pertinent, and still resonates. I still know people who are going, “I just showed that movie to my son and it scared him out of his mind!” I feel really lucky that that was my start, and that we got to immortalize a New York that doesn’t exist anymore.

Right. I grew up on the Upper West Side when it wasn’t nearly as nice as it is today. And you’re from the Lower East Side, which has changed even more. It’s getting very expensive to live in New York, and very hard for people to live here. How do you feel about the state of New York City?

Spike spoke about how gentrified it’s become, and how “white-centric” it’s become—I don’t know exactly what he said—but it’s interesting because when I come back into the city, I’m like, “Why is there a building in what used to be a lot, or a park?” “They tore a church down for housing?” With the gentrification, I find myself sounding like some ornery old New Yorker going, “When I was young…” But it’s a transient city. That “Tale of Two Cities” has always existed in New York, and there have been times where it’s leaned one way more than the other. When I was growing up in a squat on the Lower East Side, that was a very low point for New York money-wise, and even then, it was still a city that a lot of people wanted to visit. It’s an interesting thing that people come here and say “I’m a New Yorker” because they rode the subway for the first time. That’s not something you get anywhere else. People don’t move to Paris and call themselves “Parisians.” I’ve lived in L.A. for nine years and I don’t call myself a “Californian.” It’s a very specific thing that New York has.

I think with De Blasio coming in, it bodes very differently for the city. NYCHA housing pays an extra $750,000 a year to have police care, which is ironic because they don’t have any police security and are often complaining about violence in the communities. This is also a community whose elevators are falling apart. All the mayors in the race went and stayed in the projects and balked at the rats and the black-and-green mold, and all this is happening in the same city where all these new big glass buildings are going up every day. The divide between these two things is getting wider and wider every day, and that’s a big problem. And what do we lose as we try to keep up with the Joneses? What about our culture? I loved having the trains have graffiti on them. I dug that. That was the moment in time when hip-hop was created, and so much was created. It’s so sanitized now. I’m walking around the Lower East Side and they’re bringing in 7-11’s, and it’s corrupting the very thing that made them want to move into that neighborhood. Or I’m seeing more gay-bashing going on, and this is the place where it was the freaks time! I walk around the Lower East Side and I’m like, “Where are the tattoo-faced people?”

Our office is in the Meatpacking District, which has changed A LOT.

Who would have thought the Meatpacking District would transform into what it did! It’s outrageous. But I like the Highline … you know what I mean? It’s not to say that we don’t want it to be clean and safe, but why is it that the people who suffered it at its worst aren’t able to afford it at its best?