Activism

A New Documentary Celebrates the Life and Work of Dolores Huerta

A new film celebrates the force that is Dolores Huerta, the labor organizer who works tirelessly on behalf of poor people around the country.

A New Documentary Celebrates the Life and Work of Dolores Huerta

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta organizing marchers on the second day of March Coachella in Coachella, California in 1969. (© 1976 George Ballis)

Dolores, the new documentary directed by Peter Bratt in theaters this month celebrates the force that is Dolores Huerta, the labor organizer and political activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of some of the most poverty stricken workers in the country.

Amongst union organizers and political activists, Dolores Huerta is a legend. Yet she is virtually unknown to the public.

Watch the Trailer:

 
Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Cesar Chavez. They were equal partners in the movement in every way except how history remembers their contributions. This is true even of the slogan “Si, se puede!” It’s often attributed to Chavez, and President Obama adopted the English translation, “Yes, we can!” for his own campaign. But in fact, the slogan actually came from Huerta.

Archival footage gives us a front-row seat to the indignities, big and small, of being a woman who steps outside of traditional roles. In one archival interview clip, Huerta was asked to defend her “lifestyle” as a single mother raising children out of wedlock. In another, a man asks: “Who’s taking care of her children while she’s out on all her adventures?”

Today, at age 87, Huerta is not close to slowing down. She has established the Dolores Huerta Foundation and she is going back to her grass roots, talking to people in their homes and urging young women to be visible, to be loud. In these dark times, Dolores inspires all of us to never give up.

We talked with Dolores Huerta and director Peter Bratt about the film. This interview has been edited.
 


 

Titi Yu: In making this documentary, what surprised you the most about Dolores?

Peter Bratt: I had known Dolores socially over the years and I think the thing that I learned about Dolores in making this film is that she is a relentless organizer. She is constantly focused on justice. She is that person 24 hours a day. She is so authentic and so fearless.

When I first started filming with her, I was in awe, like oh wow who is this person? She’s 87, my crew were in their 20s, some 30s, I’m in my 50s. After shooting all day, we’d be shooting till 11, midnight, and we have been up early in the morning. You know, at the end of the day, my crew’s tired, and I’m tired, and she would be like, let me cook you dinner, let’s go dancing. We just couldn’t keep up with her. At 87 years old! She’s just never tired.

Yu: Dolores, was there something that surprised you in making this film?

Dolores Huerta: The thing that surprised me so much was that there was so much footage in that film that I’ve never seen! All that archival footage they found. To me, it was really remarkable.

Other than that, as I told Peter, I wanted the film to be only about organizing. And he said, well, that’ll be really boring and nobody would come and see it. So that was the tension between us. But we did end up getting some organizing footage in there at the very beginning and in the very end. And we did talk about the work I’m doing now, the type of grass-roots organizing that that we are doing on education. But I think the movie came out really well. Because not only is it very historical, but it’s also a very relevant chapter in today’s world. And it’s entertaining. So yes, the context is very heavy, but the way he directed just made it very enjoyable for me to watch.

Yu: Why do you think this film is so important for the political moment right now?

Bratt: For Dolores and Cesar, this struggle started as a labor struggle, but they kept coming up against racism. In agribusiness, the system that was in place was based on an older system of slavery. And this thing called race is still at the crux of our conflicts. In that way, when Obama was elected, so many people said we are post-racial and all that. But now it’s apparent that we still don’t know how to deal with race. You look at the struggles that Cesar and Dolores went through, we are still fighting the same fight. When we were putting the film together, Black Lives Matter was just starting.  We were editing the part where police were beating up Latinos and then Black Lives Matter was happening in the streets, and we were like, this is Black Lives Matter 40 years ago. Because of this divisive climate and the division in this country, the film has an urgency. And Dolores as an example is needed now more than ever.

Because of this divisive climate and the division in this country, the film has an urgency. And Dolores as an example is needed now more than ever.

— Peter Bratt

Huerta: Well, I think it’s very similar, the times are very similar. We had the Vietnam War going on at the time. We had a lot of protests against the war that were happening, and we had the civil rights movement that was happening at the same time, the women’s movement was just starting, the environmental movement was just staring. One thing that’s different is that all of those movements are pretty established now. So in some respects we may be stronger. We have stronger organizations that are already in place.

Now I know on the opposition side, they are also stronger and more organized.

But now we have the social devices that can really inform people and can really mobilize people and tell people what’s going on. So it’s almost like, the issues of the past, somehow they are not insulated anymore. Many of them are becoming more visible. During the Civil Rights era, racism wasn’t visible to people, but not anymore. People have taken off the hood. We can identify the people you know. People are not trying to hide their racism anymore. In a way it’s better because it makes it easier to address.

Yu: The decline of unions is arguably one of the great political tragedies of the left. Most millennials have no connection to unions whereas a generation ago, unions were the norm for most American workers. How can unions address the changing needs of the workforce and not be obsolete for future generations?

During the civil rights era, racism wasn’t visible to people, but not anymore. People have taken off the hood. We can identify the people you know.

— Dolores Huerta

Huerta: I think it’s a very scary time for unions. Somehow we’ve got to get [that history] into our school books. Not just labor studies, but the contribution of the labor movement to our society that people don’t realize. Things like eight-hour workdays, the weekends or unemployment insurance, disability insurance compensation, Social Security, public education, all came from labor.

And you know labor created the middle class. And what’s happening right now is that the middle class is diminishing. And I do think that’s because labor is diminishing. And so many of the strong tools that labor had to organize workers have been taken away from them. If you don’t have a middle class, you don’t have a democracy. I think our democracy in the United States is threatened when you don’t have labor.

Yu: Peter, when you have the great Carlos Santana as the EP, you for sure will have the best soundtrack to the revolution. Can you talk about the music? What was the thinking behind choosing the music?

Bratt: Before I started this documentary, I watched a lot of the documentaries about social movements from the ’60s. In those documentaries, people would explain what happened during that time, but there was no context. When we were talking about UFW, we really had to place UFW in context of that time.

Art and music has always played an enormous part in social movements. We wanted to choose music that were anthems. So when people hear these songs, they can bring their own personal memory as well as the collective memory to it. When people discuss music of the ’60s, it’s usually Dylan or the Stones, which may be true for a lot of people. But for communities of color, that wasn’t necessarily so. For black and Mexican communities, we had other anthems. So we wanted to highlight those.

The other thing we discovered in the filmmaking process was that Dolores was very much like a jazz musician. She has a lot of musicality to her movements. She’s always out there improvising on stage, in front of crowds, and I started seeing her as the sound track for the film.

Yu: Dolores, tell me about the work you are doing right now through the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Huerta: Well, first of all, we have to get people involved at the grass-roots level. We meet people in their homes. Because when you meet them in their homes, you show them that people just like themselves have been able to solve issues in their own communities. We can see these people who are just ordinary people and then they start volunteering and they just get into it. That’s how they develop their leadership skills. So it’s really wonderful.

Right now, we are working on education issues. We sued our local high school board. We sued them because of the large number of suspension and expulsion of African-American and Latino students. They changed their policy to keep the kids in the school. So we are doing that in different school districts and we are doing it by organizing the parents. When we had our first conference for this particular high school district, 150 parents showed up. So it’s a very powerful way to organize. And then those parents turn into voters. We go door to door and talk about different issues and different measures that are going to be on the ballot. We now have 20,000 voters that are identified with our organization.

Yu: What do you hope this film will inspire people to do?

Bratt: Change the world of course! As a filmmaker, as you are constructing the film, your number one goal is to engage the audience. As a person, as a citizen, you want to rock the house. You want to be an inspiration to people and to ignite them into action. We find the film is doing that.

There is a woman who’s Dolores age, she’s 87, after she came to one of our screenings, she organized seniors on her block and they are getting out there and registering people to vote.

Titi Yu

Titi Yu is a freelance documentary producer, director based in New York City. Yu has produced for PBS, HBO, NBC and other independent documentaries. Yu’s work focuses on social movements, human rights, and economic justice. Most recently, Yu reported from Standing Rock in 2016 and followed the development of Black Lives Matter during the 2016 election. Yu was a 2014 fellow at Columbia University’s Alliance for Historical Dialogue. She holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and M.A. from Emerson College.