FLOSSIE WILDBLOOD explores self-sacrifice and self-assertion in Dolores, a new documentary about civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.

Dolores is yet another, more subtle, act of subversion from someone who has made a life of being a rebel; a provocative acknowledgment of the numerous different ways Dolores Huerta’s own narrative has been – and still is – obscured, whilst she has fought tirelessly to give others a voice. In Peter Bratt’s new documentary, Huerta is vocal about the prejudice she experienced during her long career as a labour leader: prejudice that, at the time, she often felt she had no choice but to brush over. Perhaps the most enduring metaphor for this is the miscrediting of ‘Sí se puede’, the inspiration for Barack Obama’s ‘Yes we can’, which Huerta came up with in 1972, and which has repeatedly been misattributed to the more renowned César Chávez. Dolores is a defiant attempt to reassert her legacy in spite of such attempts to ‘write women out of history’, to speak up where she has previously been silenced.

But Dolores is not just a film about redefining the past: it is also about confronting it — Huerta is proud of her numerous successes in advocating for workers’ rights, but also feels guilty about the effects of the lifestyle this necessarily entailed. In the same way that she picks up on her deliberate ignorance of sexism, she also retrospectively recognises the ways she at times wilfully neglected her own family relationships. As magnified as this was by that same sexist media, it is something she cannot help but dwell on, and something she forces herself to look at head-on in the film. Self-sacrifice is not idealised in Dolores; the film is rather a bittersweet testament to the ways in which revolutionary figures – particularly women – give themselves up entirely for their aims. We can only hope that as further progress is made the very idea of this ‘choice’ will stop being quite so gender-specific.

Born in New Mexico in 1930, Dolores Huerta was a pioneering labour leader, who co-founded the United Farm Workers’ Union with César Chávez. In 1955, she became one of the key actors behind the Delano Grape Strike, whereby farmers organised in protest against unfair treatment by grape growers in California, incentivising a widespread consumer boycott. The strike lasted more than five years, but – thanks to tactical grassroots action and consistent but non-violent resistance – culminated in a collective bargaining agreement with grape-growers. Since this crucial victory against racism and injustice, Huerta has remained engaged in politics and advocacy, and in 1993 she became the first Latina to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Image courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library.

At 87, she remains strikingly lucid, and appears for much of Dolores looking straight into the camera, bare-faced and unafraid. She wants to be visible, and it is these scenes – where Huerta speaks straight to us – that really shape the film. Its cinematography in general is eclectic: Bratter recreates the stimulating cultural background of the 1970s, onto which Huerta’s narrative is transposed as something that feels both completely separate and intensely interconnected. The rhythmic tones of jazz music weave through the plot-line, while scenes of young people dancing are interspersed with shots of desolate conditions on farms, Huerta’s rousing speeches, and dangerous acts of protest. We’re reminded of just how linked the worlds of art and protest became in the ‘70s, but there is, equally, a sense that they remain two worlds apart. We cannot ignore the gentle suggestion of all that Huerta, who tells us that jazz music was her passion and that she would have been a dancer in another life, gave up to fight for the ‘greater good’. 

In Dolores, the steady comings and goings of family life – the natural births and deaths – jar discordantly with reports of murder and images of brutal, bloody violence. Huerta’s children reiterate throughout that they were brought up surrounded by poverty and uncertainty not out of necessity, but due to their mother’s ‘choice’. Speaking through tears, they relate the ways in which this lifestyle and her absence affected them, and the ways they stuck by her in spite of it all — for example when, in the late ‘80s, she was hospitalised with two broken ribs and a ruptured spleen as a result of police brutality at a protest. They lay themselves bare on screen. As too does Huerta, but separately — both parties are given an equal platform on which to speak, but don’t engage in direct dialogue, so we’re able to weigh up their perspectives in and of themselves. The same goes for the varied high-profile figures that weigh in on Huerta: Angela Davis and Hillary Clinton may well sing her praises, but others refer to her simply as ‘a former girlfriend of César Chávez’ and express disgust at her more recent battle-cry, ‘Republicans hate Latinos’, which resulted in her removal from the US curriculum.

Image courtesy of Pitzer College/Flickr.

Dolores is an attempt to canonise Huerta, but it’s an unconventional one; her story certainly isn’t sugar-coated, but once she and her (now grown up) children have told their tales in the most unglamorous of ways, we feel a renewed sense that the choice she made was the right one. Their final acknowledgement that, looking back, they understand that she did exactly what she had to do feels like it comes from the heart. The film is a deliberate, considered antidote to the damaging outrage, latent within social justice circles and rampant within the press, that a twice-divorced mother of eleven children could ever even have considered a life of activism. Her presence on the picket line paved the way for the presence of other women, and this film is an attempt to call out her, and their, absence in the history books and the curriculum. As director Peter Bratt says, ‘there’s nothing past tense about Dolores’ — through this film and her continued work with the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she is fighting not just for the rights of others in the here and now, but for herself and for other Latina women in the future.

Featured image courtesy of forbes.com.