Dolores: Heroine for the farmworkers

A Documentary
Directed by Peter Bratt

I grew up boycotting grapes. My family supported Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. But I never knew about Dolores Huerta until I heard about this documentary. Now I feel I know her (of course, I don’t).

Huerta was a part of the union from the start. She gave up her chance to have a normal life, became an absentee mother, ignored her love of music, and became a leader in the labor struggle, the Chicano movement, and inevitably the women’s movement.

She had a difficult but mutually respective relationship with Chavez, the public face of the union. He originally felt warry of a woman becoming so powerful in the union, but eventually realized her importance. They argued frequently, but helped change California politics together.

According to Peter Bratt’s personable documentary, Huerta came up with the idea of boycotting grapes. The strike had been going on for some time, but there were so many desperately poor people that the bosses had no trouble finding workers willing to cross the picket line. The boycott galvanized the left, which was already going strong with civil rights and the Vietnam war.

As she fought for better wages and basic human decency, her enemies had a strong weapon to use against her: sexism. She divorced twice (in a very Catholic culture) and had 11 children, not all of them in wedlock. Several of her children, all now middle-aged, speak well of her in interviews in the movie, even as they talk about being left in the homes of strangers or going out into the fields where they could be shot.

Huerta, now in her late 80s, also talks about her experiences in the film. She still walks on her own and seems to be healthy in her mind. But we hear more of her talking in older interview footage.

What makes this superior to most political documentaries? Huerta’s own vitality, both young and old, helps a lot. And discovering an important figure that history seems to have skipped.

Dolores, the movie, brims over with music. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Carlos Santana produced this documentary, and he clearly wasn’t a silent partner. The music plays an important part in understanding what she gave up. Huerta admits that when she was young she wanted to be a dancer. The closing montage shows people playing and enjoying music, with carefully-chosen clips of Huerta moving in ways that suggest that she, too, is dancing.

The stills provided to press do not do justice to the documentary’s visual style. Most of the film is in color, and she isn’t always seen speaking to crowds.