When we think of the United Farm Workers we recognize César Chávez but not Dolores Huerta. Yet, Dolores founded the National Farmworkers Association (later the United Farm Workers Union), with Chávez and worked steadfastly alongside him to make great strides in workers’ labor rights by helping to unionize workers in agribusiness. Though Dolores Huerta made and continues to make a tremendous mark and continues to be instrumental in the struggle to achieve success in a wide array of human rights issues, why don’t we know about her? And why did Chávez overshadow her in the historical record?
Dolores directed by Peter Bratt, written by Jessica Congdon is a monumental film about this monumental woman. Bratt and Congdon bring Dolores Huerta into the spotlight where this pioneering Latina belongs. In chronicling the arc of her life, they pose reasons for her underwhelming recognition. Chief among them is she is a woman. During the time of the organizational beginnings of the UFW, though Dolores was in a leadership role, her gender was a strain for the men who were products of a paternalistic Latin culture. That culture was perhaps more comfortable with César Chávez as the public face of the United Farm Workers. However, Dolores was equally if not more significantly effective as she did much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes, including the organizing, spearheading the rallies, conducting the protests, working the door-to-door campaigns to convince laborers to fight for their rights to decent wages and working conditions.
Bratt and Congdon’s documentary is devoted to making visible Dolores’ prodigious efforts. It uncovers Dolores’ backstory and her history in sweeping and glorious terms. By the end we understand how and why Dolores Huerta has been highly feted for her activism in championing worker’s rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, human rights. Bratt even includes footage of Dolores receiving from President Obama in 2012 the Congressional Medal of Freedom, two decades after she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Clinton in 1998. These are just two of the countless awards and honors enumerated in her biography.
How did this woman who has eleven children, was married twice and who had to negotiate paternalistic mores, become the powerful, widely recognized Latina role model in her culture so that many ballads have been written about her? Bratt and Congdon dig deep into the record and magnify her vital presence during a time in the 1960s when there were no easy templates for agricultural workers’ dissent, no models for women’s activism at a difficult time when Mexican immigrants’ labor and her gender and role as a woman and activist were marginalized.
One of the sterling elements of this documentary is that filmmakers coalesce the exhaustive footage, archival material and documents about Dolores Huerta without losing the substance and vitality of how Dolores helped to shape the era. Without her presence, one wonders if the strides would have been made at all. Bratt and Congdon fuse the selected historical footage with current day interviews of Dolores, her children and family, Gloria Steinem and other friends and activists in the feminist and labor movements. Bratt and Congdon organize this wealth of information in a tantalizing format to capture the most formative moments in her life and career. What results is an endearing and venerable portrait of this amazing woman.
The beauty of this documentary is its humanity; one walks away feeling as if Dolores is accessible to you on a person-to person level so that you could actually sit down and have a discussion with her about human rights, activism, the current political situation or your own life during which time she would encourage you to become an activist if you are not presently involved.
Filmmakers use a chronological organization to edit in past and present segments. They seamlessly switch from the archived footage, etc., to the interviews adding and paralleling Dolores’ comments and her children’s comments to answer the questions that filmmakers raise and questions the audience might entertain as see footage of migrants’ living conditions, the inception of the union and various milestones in the movement. Music accompanies these segments.
The commentaries and interviews provide bridges in the film. They clarify an understanding of her life: for example Dolores’ wise commentary, her children’s discussion about the issues they confronted not having their mother with them all the time, Dolores’ comments about her relationship with Richard Chavez, César Chavez’s brother. These segments reveal an individual who is not perfect. The filmmakers’ portrayal is refreshing; we see that Dolores is like us. And if she is like us, then we, too, can take heart and do exploits to help make others’ lives better and not feel it is pointless or hopeless.
Gloria Steinem who met and joined Dolores in her advocacy credits Dolores’ peppery enthusiasm, energy, determination and courage to have motivated her in her own life. Steinem implies Dolores’ influence set her on a different path from that toward which she may have been directed. The filmmakers emphasize the extent to which Dolores made an incalculable difference in the lives of all the people who came into her sphere of influence, for example political leaders even business people. She always involved her children in her activism, and to date they have distinguished themselves in their own right.
At the heart of the film is the dynamism that she created with Chávez. They spurred each other and collaborated to set up strategies which served as the foundation that strengthened the movement’s philosophy and brought around senators and congressmen (i.e. Bobby Kennedy), to encourage them to become politically minded. An important turning point came when the grape boycott steam rolled across the nation which lead to a three-year contract between the entire California grape industry and the United Farm Workers in 1970.
It was then that farm workers were given their place in the sun and consumers were launched into the realization that they could make agribusiness and the food industry more accountable with regard to the use of pesticides and food additives. Dolores’ intent was to improve the civil rights of American citizens as consumers and immigrants on a larger scale beyond the immediate here and now of salary and working conditions. The bottom line was the people’s democracy and economic justice and equality.
As an integral part of her life’s work she always inspired others toward activism, toward registering to vote and voting so that the voices of the marginalized were heard and had to be reckoned with. In this her activism dovetailed with the feminist movement, children’s rights, human rights, voter’s rights, civil rights throughout her life. Key to the 1960s and 1970s was social unity, the fusion of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement and the labor right’s movement as each group realized that they would be able to strengthen and stand up for each other against the system that would oppress them.
Interestingly, Bratt and Congdon gloss over how Dolores did not take over the United Farm Workers after Chávez died unexpectedly. Dolores was not voted in as president. In a Q and A after the film, she expressed that she understood the rationale. She supported the union leadership and worked diligently for the union (she was arrested 22 times in peaceful protests), until in a rally in San Francisco, she was a victim of police brutality which nearly cost her life and did cost her broken ribs and a removed spleen. The brutality was caught on film and she was awarded a judgment against the SFPD which she used to help farm workers. In typical Dolores style she turned the experience into an opportunity to improve the SFPD’s crowd control policies and the disciplining of officers.
After a long recuperation, (Bratt and Congdon include footage of her hospitalization and comments by her children and Dolores), she continued her broader work in human rights and women’s rights touring the country and encouraging Latina women to run for office. Her activism has resulted in an increased level of Latinas represented in government at the local, state and federal levels.
Filmmakers reveal that Dolores is working on behalf of the Dolores Huerta Foundation (begun in 2002), a non profit community benefit organization which helps groups organize at a grassroots level and creates leadership opportunities for development and civic engagement in health, the environment, education, economic and youth development. She is as fiesty and energetic as ever.
At this time when civil rights are under siege, when questions abound about foreign interference in our democratic processes and overwhelming corporate involvement would oppress democratic institutions to put in danger our country’s healthcare, education, national parks, right to a clean environment, and our relationships with our global allies, Dolores is an uplifting film. At its core is the encouraging reminder, “Sí, se puede.” Yes, we can.
We can continue to unite, oppose and resist. We can continue to fight against those who would uproot the forward strides of the last 60 years. We can hold their corruptions, collusions and unjust economic inequities to account. If this iconic woman of 86-years-old, Dolores Huerta, is continuing the struggle, so should we. For updates on this must-see film’s screenings, Click Here.