Writer-producer-director Peter Bratt’s spirited biopic “Dolores”, about United Farm Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta, is a story for our times! Bratt uses the arc of Huerta’s life on which to hang the tapestry of America’s great era of social change – “The Sixties.”
Huerta is one of the most accessible, engaging figures to lend their lives to social movement. She is the everywoman in the Garden, harvesting those apples! Her rich, complex life is a demolition derby of relationships and politics.
Bratt lays it all out for us chronologically. Dolores was a child of the 1940’s, her growing social consciousness collided with her desire to be accepted. The deeply ingrained sense of who she was, a Mexican-American in a racialized society, fueled her quest for improvement and recognition. Unfortunately, the film spends little time showing us how Dolore’s mother Alicia Chavez instilled Dolores with the values of compassion and service. Alicia owned and operated a restaurant and 70-unit motel which often housed itinerant farm workers for free. Her father Juan Fernandez had been a miner, field farm worker, union activist and ultimately Colorado State Assemblyman.
Dolores describes the transformative spark in her life as her work with legendary organizer Fred Ross. Ross put flame to fuel. His strategy of direct action, on the ground organizing campaigns was the music of Huerta’s soul. They started with door to door outreach. Meetings for community improvement. Outrage over police brutalizing Mexican-American youth. Fighting for increased pay and safer working conditions for farm workers.
In 1955 Huerta helped Ross set up the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization and then became their youngest political director in Sacramento. In 1960 she co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association. In 1962 she joined with Cesar Chavez to co-found the United Farmer Workers.
Huerta was a good match for the naturally shy Chavez. Dolores was more outgoing, an indefatigable campaigner for workers rights. Together they set out to organize a national union for the worst paid workers with the most dangerous jobs, the unrepresented farm workers. Because those raising and picking food crops were overwhelmingly Mexican American, they fought not only wage slavery, but the racism that enabled it.
Cesar Chavez’s choice of Huerta was controversial because she was a woman. When asked why he had women in important positions, Chavez replied “because they do the work.”
Meanwhile, powerful growers and owners attacked Dolores for her willingness to subordinate family to union organizing. She had too often abandoned family to build the union first in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, then to Delano the United Farm Workers headquarters in the south. Of course, the same rich growers who were so quick to criticize her as a parent, often supported child labor and refused to pay their workers a living wage.
Huerta’s tenacity and single minded drive, as well as her enthusiasm, was a driving force, yielding the first farm worker credit union, co-operatives, benefits and health care. The huge 1966 March from Delano to Sacramento won the first negotiated contract between agribusiness and the young UFW.
As the union grew, through its successful grape boycott, a range of celebrities including Robert Kennedy, Gloria Steinem, Coretta Scott King and Hillary and Bill Clinton sang the praises of Dolores Huerta and her work. Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a host of other awards. Capturing the spirit of Huerta and the time, Angela Davis observes how “many were convinced, we could change the world.”
That change came at a price. Movement leaders sacrificed their lives. Dolores lost ally Martin Luther King, Jr. to assassination and stood next to strong supporter Robert Kennedy as he was gunned down shortly afterward. Bratt unflinchingly documents Huerta’s own self inflicted personal wounds as she broke up her family and often abandoned her eleven children. Love, understanding and their own commitment to their mother’s mission reconciled the family. But the question remains: could that union have been built with less pain or a lesser person than Dolores Huerta? Perhaps best answer is that most of Dolores Huerta’s children now also work for social change. Si se puede!