Dolores, a new documentary about the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, sheds light on one of the many important female figures of change in the 20th century who have not gotten their due. You know who coined the famous slogan “Si se Puede”, or YES WE CAN? No, it wasn’t Cesar Chavez, and it wasn’t President Obama. That would be Dolores. Directed by Peter Bratt, the film includes interviews from her family, friends, and fellow activists, as well as the tenacious, determined woman herself. It should lead many of its audience members to ask, “how did I not know about her before now?”
Dolores C. Huerta, who, at 87 years of age, heads the Dolores Huerta Foundation and travels around the country
tirelessly agitating for social justice, has the sort of life in activism that sounds like three women, not one. She Starting her adult life as a teacher, she changed trajectories into activism after seeing children come to school hungry and bare-footed. First, she founded the Agricultural Workers Association. Then she co-created the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez. It was during that time that she lobbied and secured aid for dependent families and disability insurance for farm workers. She was also instrumental in getting a law passed called the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which granted the right to farm workers to organize and collectively bargain for better working conditions. Huerta has been an activist for the worker’s movement, women’s rights, environmental and ecological safety, and LGBTQ rights. She was a very important contributor to the campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy, Harvey Milk, and, most recently, Hillary Clinton. In 1997, she was listed as in Ms. Magazine as one of the three most important women of that year, and as one of the ‘100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century’ in the Ladies Home Journal. In 2012, President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon her, the highest civilian award in the US.
Even living through all those experiences, and being so influential, most average women of this country don’t know her name, or the impact she has made on our country. What does a woman have to do around here to get in the history books? Gratefully, Carlos Santana felt strongly that her story needed to be heard, and he asked longtime friend Peter Bratt, who is a feature filmmaker but has steeped himself in issues of social justice his whole life, to be the director of a documentary on Dolores. Among many other endeavors, for years Bratt has worked with the Friendship House Association of American Indians, which helps empower those recovering from substance abuse to build a better life for themselves.
The film shows Dolores’s life in activism, how it was shaped, and how there were many struggles through the decades of her commitment, especially how it impacted her 11 children. There are interviews with several of them, who voice their sadness at not having the benefit of her active parenting. These scenes show the compromise and sacrifice necessary in choosing to fight every day for social justice. Dolores herself will attest that her personal life, and often her family, took a back seat. Director Bratt doesn’t shy away from showing what a complicated woman she was and is, nor is he averse to causing conversation about whether her choices were selfish, or selfless, in the face of an inequitable world and the need to change it.
There are also a number of interviews with those who were part of the fight for workers rights, many of whom are men. It’s fascinating, yet unsurprising to hear how often she is seen as abrasive, difficult, and stubborn. How else might a woman in a veritable sea of men have her voice heard, her ideas respected, and her negotiating skills be taken seriously than t face the current circumstances with stubbornness and resistance? It’s clear the male leaders of the workers movement were equally vocal, but most of them seem to see themselves and each other in a more forgiving light. They don’t dispute, however, Dolores’s importance to their cause.
Also compelling are the interviews with Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis. They, themselves, can relate to what it is to be a woman in the front of movement. They speak of their interactions with Huerta, and their perspectives on a fellow female activist.
The movie Dolores is very inspiring at the same time as thought-provoking, in that it asks what it means to put your whole life and passion into activism. It also leaves the viewers wondering how Dolores has remained a lesser-known American hero. Hopefully this documentary will help change that, and rightly place Dolores in the forefront of those who have changed and continue to change America. For Bratt’s part, that is his wish, that more people embrace her part in making major strides in equality for all people, of all colors, gender, and class in the 20th century. Dolores is her story. Watch it to celebrate and be inspired one badass woman.
Advice to Women Direct from Expert Badass and Unsung Activist Heroine Dolores C. Huerta, in her own words:
I had to honor of speaking to Dolores C. Huerta, president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, and spectacular badass. We discussed her experience as a woman activist. Her words struck me as powerful advice to women of all ages, which I relay to you now:
1. ALWAYS COLLABORATE:
“From the very beginning of my organizing, with the Community Service Organization, which was the first organization I belonged to, before we formed the United Farm Workers, we passed legislation that took away the requirement that you had to be a citizen to get public assistance. In order to get that passed, we had to reach out to other organizations. People assumed all of the immigrants were Latino or Asian, but no, there were people from England and Israel who had never become citizens but were elderly and needed help. We had to go to them to get them to support us to get the legislation and they did. For the Farm Workers and the boycott in order to get a strong group, we went to the churches and synagogs—jews were the first to support the boycott. Then we had to go to organized labor and the NAACP, and the women’s movement. Gloria Steinem was instrumental in helping with the boycott. The collaboration and partnership was instrumental in getting the American public to support the boycott.”
2. GET INVOLVED AND MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD: BE AN EXAMPLE:
“Women have always been on the front lines. I don’t think they’ve often been recognized. They weren’t on the boards where the decisions were being made and that’s what still needs to be changed. We women, we feminists have to be on those boards where the decisions are being made and we know that if we are not there, the wrong decisions are going to be made. I know it’s difficult, as women to get so involved, to get the money, to get the kind of support, they have their families to worry about, and so I know it’s difficult, I’m on the board of the Feminist Majority, and we talk about the “feminization of power”—back in 1993 we had been involved in recruiting women to run for office and in one year in California we were able to get 35% of the state legislature to be women. BY going out there and saying “you’ve got to find someone to run, and if you can’t find someone to run, you’ve got to run yourself.” So we were able to get lots of women to run, not only for state legislature for for city council, board of supervisors and a whole bunch of women actually liked it! When they were trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, it was two women that put a stop to that. Two Republican women.”
3. LEARN ON THE JOB:
“I do a lot of speeches and I do talk about the need to have women in positions of power. I like to quote Coretta Scott King who said “We will never have peace in the world until women take power”. I think that’s true and I say to women don’t worry if you’re not prepared. “Do it like the guys do, learn on the job.” Trying to inspire women to do more and run for office and trust you have the smarts and passion to make a difference. I used to have a t-shirt that said “A Women’s Support System is Herself”. There won’t be a support system when you get there, you have to start with yourself and build one.”
4. NEVER STOP STANDING UP FOR YOURSELF
“I tell everyone my age. I’m 87 years old. People ask me if it’s ok to say how old I am, and I say, “OF COURSE!” I also want people to know they don’t have to play the aging grandma. Don’t let yourself be captured into being the grandma that takes care of the kids, because then you’re going to be trapped. Women go from their father’s home, to their husband’s home, and when it’s time for them to have some freedom, they become babysitters for the grandchildren. I’m not saying not to ever do it, we all want to love and enjoy our grandchildren, but I like to quote Eleanor Roosevelt. After FDR died, her children told her, “you were never a very good mother, so now you have time to be better and spend time with your grandchildren.” She said something like, “If I wasn’t a very good mother, and I didn’t have time to spend with you, what makes you think i’d be any better as a grandmother?” And so we went on and did great work with the refugees after World War II, and then even when she was going to present a program to the U.N., one of the men said they’d do it for her, and she said “No! I’m going to do it for myself!” So it’s this constant struggle we have to stand up for ourselves, to take credit for our own work. Until we get rid of the misogyny in our society, it’s always going to be a struggle for women.”
4. KNOW POWER IS LIKE LOVE.
“We have to get into our education program starting in kindergarten what the contributions of people of color have been to our country, what the indigenous people, the slaves, who literally built the White House and Congress, the people from Mexico, China, Japan, and India who built the infrastructure and railroads, the contributions of women are not being told either in our society. Also organized labor is responsible for the 8 hour day, safety standards, social security. People fought and died to get these rights. Unless we get that in our school books, the misogyny is never going away. Education has been about domination and about what the men have done, never what the women have done. It has to be mandatory from the very beginning, so that little boys and girls will respect their moms and dads equally and in the same way, they will respect people of color equally. And LGBTQ as well. There’s something called the 3rd gender in indigenous people. In Mexico they talk about it. We have a lot of work to do. The first step is to add more to the spectrum of color going into our children’s minds. We have to concentrate on that. It’s not going to be easy. The people in power want the discrimination and division to continue because that’s how they keep their power. They are afraid. It’s delusional, this idea of power. Here’s the truth: Power is like love: the more you share, the more it grows.”
5. DON’T LET YOURSELF BE COLONIZED.
“The irony is we already have the power. We just don’t know it and we don’t exercise it. Or we abdicate it. We saw that in the last election. How many women voted the way their husbands wanted them to vote? How many women when we are electing somebody, who with his own words, admits to sexually assaulting women…does that mean that we don’t even have the pride to stand up for ourselves? For our own bodies, and for each other? And when you have the most qualified person that ever ran for president, Hillary Clinton, and you get someone elected who shows no respect for women, that means we have a lot of work to do. So many women haven’t gotten to that place in their own minds. It’s almost like they are colonized, they don’t belong to themselves. They have to be able to get that domination or the machismo that they are subjected to and stand up to it in their own minds.
I was very fortunate that I was raised by my mother who was a feminist. My mother was always the dominant force in our family. She was a very gentle, quiet woman, but very powerful, and a very hard worker. So I was lucky, because I saw her and used her as an example. So when I went to work with the Farm Worker’s Union, seeing a lot of machismo, and I had to tamp down my feminist ways, to be able to fit in and organize, and then I saw that I shouldn’t be doing that, and found the courage to speak out. I did it even though it turned a lot of the men forcefully against me, but I realized and really determined that the machismo has no rhyme or reason. So many women think how can my father or my brother or husband that loves me want to keep me down just because I’m a woman? It doesn’t have any rationale. It has no explanation. It’s just that it’s been that way a long long time and it’s wrong.
Domination only becomes power when other people allow themselves to be subjected to it. You can’t dominate me unless I let you, you can’t influence me unless I let you. Now, I’m not talking about abusive situations here, I’m talking about society as a whole. We have to stand up to it. It was hard for me to do that, but I did it. I’ve had to have the courage to have my own thoughts, my own actions and stand up for myself, and reject or oppose the domination.”
6. BE YOUR OWN PRINCE CHARMING.
“I think we have to teach children and young women that nobody is going to support you or protect you except yourself. If you expect someone to dominate and take care of you, you will always feel less than. You have to learn how to protect yourself and each other. This friend of mine Ellen Snortland wrote a book and made a movie called Beauty Bites Beast, showing how women can protect themselves. Women can and should be inoculated early and not submit to domination or aggression. It’s easy to say but hard to do. Prince Charming isn’t going to come. How about being charming for ourselves? Then when we do look outside of ourselves for partners, let it be for true partners who let us be our most powerful selves.”
For more inspiration, see Dolores, in theaters now.