“Dolores,” Peter Bratt’s lively, deft, and provocative documentary, tells the story of activist Dolores Huerta, who cofounded the United Farmworkers Union with César Chávez in 1962. It also tells the story of how an assertive woman can be squeezed out of her own story.
Even Barack Obama, when presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, had to apologize for stealing Huerta’s slogan “Yes, we can” (“Sí, se puede”) for his first presidential campaign. Though she coined it in 1972, it has often been falsely attributed to Chavez.
Bratt goes a long way toward setting the record straight, showing how Huerta cofounded the UFW, helped lead the fight for farmworkers’ rights, and furthered the feminist, environmental, and civil rights movements. He deftly edits together archival footage and interviews with Huerta’s children, co-workers, collaborators, and Huerta herself. He backs it with a jazz and salsa soundtrack and tells the story with zest and clarity.
Her love of such music was one of the things that Huerta says she most regretted giving up when she shared the same living conditions as the workers in the vineyards of California. She also had to sacrifice time with her children — 11 in all, fathered by two husbands and her longtime partner Richard Chávez, César’s brother.
Her non-conformist personal life was an issue raised not only by her enemies, but sometimes by other leaders in the union — all men — who questioned and resented her influence and power. When César Chávez died in 1993, Huerta was not chosen to succeed him, but was instead slowly squeezed out. She finally resigned in 2002.
In her activism, Huerta has always remained true to the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence, relying on peaceful marches and demonstrations and such measures as the famous 1960s national grape boycott that finally compelled the industry to recognize and come to an agreement with the UFW. This contrasts with the violence against her cause that she has endured and witnessed, from the beatings and killings of union demonstrators in the early days of the movement to the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, which occurred minutes after he had thanked her onstage for helping him win the California Democratic presidential primary.
And perhaps most resonant today is the still-shocking video of Huerta, then 58, beaten by police in San Francisco during a peaceful demonstration protesting a speech by Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988. She had to undergo life-saving surgery to remove her spleen and was incapacitated for many months afterward. But she survived and at 87 her work continues. Thanks in part to this film, so does her story.
Written and directed by Peter Bratt. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. Unrated (violence, injustice). In English and Spanish, with subtitles.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.