Living in the United States, a nation divided among racial and cultural lines, you would be forgiven for thinking that you are living in a 1950s television rerun. Perhaps that is why the arrival of the new documentary “Dolores” feels so timely. Directed by Peter Bratt, produced by musician Carlos Santana and distributed by PBS, “Dolores” tells the story of Dolores Huerta, the activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez and helped to articulate a growing Latino political consciousness.
Although the documentary at times feels like a made-to-order response to the age of Trump, the film’s real purpose is confronting older injustices, chief among them Dolores Huerta’s relative obscurity. In doing so it invites us all to reflect on the politics of memory: What do we remember, what do we forget, and why?
Huerta’s lack of recognition is certainly not due to a lack of proximity to power; she stood alongside giants of American history. She was thanked by name by Robert Kennedy as she stood beside him on the night he was assassinated. She was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who concedes that it was Huerta who first uttered the phrase si se puede, which Obama translated into “yes we can”—the slogan of his 2008 campaign. In the documentary, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis are interviewed to attest to Huerta’s influence.
The most powerful interviews of “Dolores,” however, are not with these celebrities, or even with Dolores herself, but with her children. We see the personal cost that a lifetime of activism exacted on a real family.
Obama concedes that it was Huerta who first uttered the phrase si se puede, which Obama translated into “yes we can”—the slogan of his 2008 campaign.
Determined to live like the people she served, Huerta made her family live in voluntary poverty. When organizing work for the farmworkers’ movement, it would often take her far from home, Huerta would then leave her children alone or in the custody of friends. Huerta’s status as a twice-divorced single mother of 11 children by 3 men was often criticized, even within activist circles.
Neither Huerta nor her now-adult children shy away from describing the pain and tensions these decisions caused. Huerta’s willing sacrifice of herself and her children is sobering and, if you are to believe the documentary, a painful but necessary step in her quest for social progress. “We’ve all learned we’re not afraid to struggle, we’re not afraid to sacrifice, because you can’t make change if you’re not willing to give something up,” Dolores says at one point. Without a doubt, she walked the walk.
History is brought to life in “Dolores” with visceral footage of violence and the bitter fight for justice in the fields. Occurring parallel to the civil rights movement in the South, the farmworkers’ movement led to similar scenes of confrontation with police enforcing racial and economic stratification. The bitterness of these clashes is felt in the description a farmworker offers of Dolores as “the first general I followed into war.”
Determined to live like the people she served, Huerta made her family live in voluntary poverty.
Growing up as a Mexican-American in California’s central valley, I had heard these stories. And in “Dolores,” they are presented in full, saturated, color; the red flags of the U.F.W. blazing against the gold-green background of the land.
The film ends in the present day with the decision by Arizona Republicans to ban Mexican-American studies classes in high schools. This was in part due to a controversial comment that Dolores Huerta made in a talk to an ethnic studies class: “Republicans hate Latinos.” Arizona Republicans responded by denying Latino children their history. After the film’s completion a court struck down the Arizona ban on ethnic studies as unconstitutional. Perhaps one day soon this film will play in a classroom full of Latino children.
But the film does not address the question I have always had: If Chavez, Huerta and the U.F.W. were so successful, why are farmworkers still so marginalized today? When I worked in an after-school program in a camp for migrant farmworkers, many of the children had never heard of Chavez, let alone Huerta. None of their parents worked under a union contract, and many still toil under awful conditions. What did all the sacrifice we witness in the film accomplish? The Central Valley is still a land of agriculture, small towns and racial inequity hidden behind the veneer of “progressive” California. The story of Dolores Huerta inspires me to imagine a world where that will not be the case. The political battles over Latinos’ right to be in the United States feel more contentious than ever. Yet as the film concludes—with Huerta surrounded by her children—I was reminded that this struggle is generational. Dolores Huerta’s final legacy will depend on how the next generations, including my own, receive, carry and ultimately pass on the torch of her struggle. The film cannot answer all the questions it raises, but it can keep those questions in our memory.