New Doc About Dolores Huerta Aims to Set the Record Straight

Dolores Huerta at a press conference in 1975. (Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs Wayne State University)

“Well-behaved women rarely make history” goes the old quote, but the truth of the matter is that the contributions of powerful women are too often sidelined in favor of their male counterparts. A perfect example can be found in Dolores Huerta, founder of the first farmworkers' union in America. You’ve most likely heard of her compatriot Cesar Chavez. You've probably heard the chant, "Sí, se puede!" which was actually coined by Huerta.

Dolores, a new documentary by writer, producer and director Peter Bratt aims to set the record straight -- while Huerta, now 87, can still tell her own story. The film’s tagline says it all: Rebel. Activist. Feminist. Mother. “We want to set the record straight, I mean, women cannot be written out of history,” says one of Huerta’s eleven children. That documentary doesn't fall short of this goal. I was brought to tears by the end, realizing I’d too long understood Huerta to be a lesser sidekick, almost a secretary, to Chavez.

Chavez' name can be seen on schools and streets across the United States. And on calendars: In 2014, President Obama declared March 31 Cesar Chavez Day. Huerta, on the other hand, hasn't received the same recognition. In one infuriating example in the film, an Arizona legislator refers to her as “Cesar Chavez’ girlfriend,” which hits like a slap on the face once you understand the work she did and the sacrifices she made.

After all, Huerta was the co-founder of the United Farm Workers labor union. She negotiated a labor contract between the farmworkers and Schenley Industries wine-grape company, a historical first, and she was a core promoter of the wildly successful national table grape boycott of the late 1960s. After interviewing dozens of politicians, educators, labor historians, ten of Huerta’s eleven children, and Huerta herself, director Peter Bratt became convinced that Huerta was the victim of a “deliberate erasure from historical record.” In effect, this erasure is punishment for living an unconventional life.

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Dolores traces that life from the very beginning. Huerta was raised by a single mother and businesswoman in Stockton, an agricultural community filled with Mexican, Filipino, African-American, Japanese, and Chinese working families. She came to political consciousness as a teenager after witnessing police brutality against the Mexican and black kids she grew up with. “Equality wasn’t there,” she tells one interviewer in a film jam-packed with powerful archival film footage and photographs.

By the time Huerta met Fred Ross, a community organizer and founder of the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO), she was a young mother who had been twice married. At the age of 25, Huerta became the CSO’s political director and one of the few women, not to mention one of the few Chicanas, involved in developing policy for the California State Legislature.

Dolores Huerta at the Delano Strike in 1966.
Dolores Huerta at the Delano Strike in 1966. (Photo by Jon Lewis, courtesy of LeRoy Hatfield)

Ross introduced Huerta to Cesar Chavez, the executive director of the CSO, who was busy organizing farmworkers in Oxnard. Huerta was doing the same in Stockton. Realizing they had a mutual vision, the two resigned from the CSO and launched the National Farm Workers’ Association in 1962.

They began to organize in Delano, a tiny Central Valley farm town north of Bakersfield, where farmworkers told stories of harvesting in 115 degree-heat -- without breaks or drinking water -- for 90 cents an hour. Those who complained were shown the door, according to Eliseo Medina, a union leader who says in the film that he started working in the Delano fields at the age of 15. “The worst part was knowing that people held you in contempt,” adds Medina.

Undaunted by racist growers and criticism from those who thought the mother of seven children in the middle of a divorce should not be out in public life organizing farmworkers, Huerta launched with a whole-hearted ferocity into the work that would come to define her. She spent her days and weeks in the fields, working to galvanize scared and downtrodden farmworkers to stand up for their rights and demand a share of the wealth from growers.

Dolores Huerta speaks at the podium, circa 1970s.
Dolores Huerta speaks at the podium, circa 1970s. (Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs Wayne State University)

Her children speak honestly throughout the film about the fact that their mother wasn’t around for most of their childhoods, lending a complexity to the story. “We soon recognized that my mother really didn’t belong to us,” says son Emilio Huerta.

But this was a time when many people -- even mothers -- were taking to the streets in support of the civil rights, anti-war, environmental, and feminist movements. Huerta -- despite her conservative Catholic upbringing -- would soon be transformed.

“If Huerta and Chavez felt it was possible to organize farmworkers, when no one believed that was possible, it was because many of us during that period were totally convinced we could change the world, that revolutionary change was possible,” says activist and teacher Angela Davis, also interviewed extensively.

Underlying the film is a popping soundtrack of jazz (Huerta is a fan of the genre), campesino songs, and tunes by James Brown and Carlos Santana, the film’s executive producer.

This galvanizing documentary powerfully conveys a complex and layered portrait of a woman who's had an indelible impact on political and social movements in California and beyond. By the end of Dolores, it's impossible to justify why Huerta has been all but erased from history books. Let's hope the film acts as a remedy.

'Dolores' opens at Berkeley's Shattuck Cinemas and the Smith Rafael Film Center on Sept. 8, and Sebastopol's Rialto Cinemas on Sept. 15.

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