“Dolores” continues the fight for racial and labor justice
Dolores Huerta leads the audience in chanting “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power!” at a screening of the new documentary about her life, Dolores, in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15. Photo by Kara Newhouse.
In tenth grade I dressed as 1950s Mouseketeer Annette Funicello for a history class social. It was an easy costume: I’d worn a plaid A-line skirt in the fall play, and I still owned Minnie Mouse ears my sister brought me from Disney World. Despite those wardrobe conveniences, though, when I look back I wonder why I didn’t select a more inspiring figure from 20th century American history. Perhaps someone like women’s suffrage crusader Alice Paul or desegregation activist Diane Nash or farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta.
Of course, to dress as any of those women, I would have needed to first encounter their names and historical importance. That didn’t happen until college or later. For instance, I first heard of Huerta at a political poetry reading in Arizona five years ago. More recently, I learned much more of her story from the new documentary, “Dolores,” directed by Peter Bratt. The film is currently screening in cities across the country. Huerta has appeared at Q&A sessions at several screenings, including the one I attended in Washington, D.C. this month.
Much of the media coverage of the film has framed it as a corrective narrative to the historical record that so often leaves women out of the picture. For instance, if you read this United Farm Workers history of the Delano grape strike and boycott, you would believe that Cesar Chavez led those struggles alone. In striking photos and video clips in “Dolores,” however, you see that Huerta was there every step of the way in the 1960s and 70s, including co-founding the UFW.
For many viewers — especially white Americans like me — any history of the farmworkers’ rights movement may be new. Just as I didn’t know Huerta’s name as a teenager, neither could I have identified Chavez. My friend who attended the “Dolores” screening with me in D.C. said she’d heard of the grape boycott from her mom but never in school.
Had we encountered the farm labor movement in our textbooks, it likely would have been described as a series of events (marches and pickets) and the results (union contracts for agricultural workers). By contrast, one of the film’s strengths is its use of archival footage to shows what labor and political organizing looks like on a daily basis: the kitchen table conversations with farm laborers, the conflicts and camaraderie between movement leaders, and the personal sacrifices made by those who dedicate their lives to social change.
The impact of those sacrifices form the emotional backbone of “Dolores.” Some of Huerta’s 11 sons and daughters appear in the documentary, discussing the comforts they went without as children and the pain of her long absences amid organizing campaigns. Those wounds clearly still sting, as all of her kids verge on tears during their interviews. Yet they also acknowledge all that Huerta gave to them and the children of farmworkers through her work and her fighting spirit.
That spirit persists. The latter part of the movie chronicles Huerta’s eventual departure from UFW leadership and the founding of her own foundation, which provides leadership training and other support to community organizers today. During a post-screening Q&A organized by public television station WETA, the 87-year-old civil rights icon discussed such issues as police brutality, environmental destruction and Trump’s plans to remove Obama-era protections for young immigrants. She emphasized the importance of changing who sits in local and national political offices as a way to advance social justice.
“One of the reasons I’m traveling with the film right now is because I know we are in such a critical situation right now in our country, and I’m calling on everybody that we have to build a wall of resistance — in the Congress,” she said to applause and cheers. “It’s not just about voting. It’s about everybody getting out there and campaigning to get good people elected to Congress.”
Huerta ended the night by leading a round of the farm workers’ famous chant, “Sí se puede” (Spanish for “Yes, we can”). A movie crowd is not a movement, though, as was obvious when we trickled out onto E Street. Cater-cornered from the theater, a large group of white men and women were gathered, presumably in town for the next day’s pro-Trump rally. Their politics were apparent not from the red baseball caps worn by some but from their synchronized cries of “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” and “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” as they recorded themselves on smart phones. Several moviegoers gazed across the intersection, wondering out loud how to respond. But most simply diffused into the city, moving on to their next Friday night destinations.
“Dolores” is currently playing in select theaters across the U.S. According to a WETA representative, the film will air on PBS stations in early 2018.
Related: Turquoise Mountain illuminates Afghan arts and culture | How podcasters are reshaping the conversation on being Muslim in America | Pop-up Spanish-language bookstore tours the US in pursuit of a more inclusive country | ivoh fellow Anna Claire Vollers shares how immigration changed Sand Mountain
Sign up for ivoh’s newsletter
November 6, 2017
October 30, 2017