If you think of Dolores Huerta only as César Chávez’s “right-hand woman,” that’s largely because her profound work to improve the life of the American farm worker as co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association (now known as the United Farm Workers) was downplayed or simply ignored by the media and the labor union itself during the peak of her activism in the 1960s. If so, Peter Bratt’s Dolores serves as a corrective, making the powerful case that Huerta deserves her place within the pantheon of labor leaders, civil rights activists, and feminists of the latter half of the 20th century.
The film sharply trumpets Huerta’s life and centrality in the turbulent history of social justice since the ’60s, from the earliest stirrings of the organization of Mexican-American fieldworkers in California to the Delano grape strike—the 1965-to-1970 campaign that moved tens of millions of Americans to boycott non-union grape growers—to the founding of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Told through archival photos, footage, and interviews with Huerta’s peers, children, and Huerta herself, Dolores paints the woman as an insightful activist steadfastly committed to an enduring political fight.
Bratt doesn’t shy away from the contradiction that plagues Huerta’s career: that her activities made her a massive, public force within the UFW and on the national stage, even as her contributions and name were shadowed over. As a voiceover reminds us that Huerta’s activism is largely forgotten, footage of her work being recognized by no less than the Clintons appears on screen. Huerta also shared stages with Robert F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and it’s the English-language version of her motto “Sí, se puede”—which she came up with in 1972—that Obama first used during his 2004 Illinois Democratic primary race for U.S. Senate. That Huerta can be remembered so fondly and have such a major impact on the history of the U.S. and still seem as if she’s been sidelined is a travesty that the film deftly comprehends and seeks to redress.
Intersectionality is the watchword not only of Dolores’s analysis of Huerta’s erasure from the public record. The film identifies the concept operating almost at the bedrock of the woman’s activism, and Bratt focuses on the courage and dynamism in her understanding of how the struggle for workers’ rights was unthinkable without an understanding of racism and sexism. This perspective, and Huerta’s unique capacities to connect with people on the ground, allowed the UFW to ally and engage with the civil rights, feminist, and even the environmental movements in their nascent days.
Dolores is, somewhat paradoxically, more focused on Huerta, now 87, as a person than as a political figure. She’s framed in her interviews dead-center, covered in light from all sides, looking just a tad angelic, while the only thing resembling a critique of her is Bratt’s focus on her absent parenting. Regrettably, in its efforts to lionize her, the documentary takes some of the edge out of Huerta’s politics; it only gives one soundbite to her being a socialist and neglects to address the UFW’s controversial, if complex, stance on immigration. Which is to say that, in lieu of a truly well-rounded portrait of Huerta’s activism, Bratt offers up a hagiography.
Dolores foregrounds Huerta’s lifelong struggle with the Republican party, beginning with her resistance to then California governor Ronald Reagan for his insistence that striking fieldworkers were “blackmailing” landowners. (Later, a series of laws banned her from school curriculums in the wake of her comment that “Republicans hate Latinos.”) But the film seldom extends its scope beyond the obvious, decidedly softening its stance when dealing with other political groups in the United States. For one, the film misses the opportunity to frame the complexities of Obama’s immigration policies in relation to Huerta’s own position on immigration.
These sorts of effete gestures ally Huerta to a largely anti-labor party (even if she’s done that herself in recent years) and anaesthetize the radicality of the very legacy that the film otherwise so eloquently suggests was and continues to be at the core of her activism. Nonetheless, Bratt’s film, especially now as monuments to America’s long history of oppression of its minorities are being pulled down from their public pedestals, is nothing short of necessary—a spirited appeal for the remembrance of those forgotten figures from the history of the fight for economic and racial justice in this country.