Dolores Huerta’s 87 years on earth has been a part of history, from leaving her elementary school teaching job in Stockton to join the fledging United Farm Workers to campaigning for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy to establishing her own foundation to fight for social justice.
One thing she hasn’t witnessed until the release of ‘Dolores,’ a 97-minute documentary of her life, were photos and film of her history.
“It was very emotional as you could imagine. I had to see it two or three times because it was a lot of the footage I had never seen,” said Huerta during a meet-and-greet with Dolores Huerta Foundation supporters last Monday (Sept. 25).
“In looking back I was really glad that I said the right things,” she said jokingly.
The documentary – which debuted last week in Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno – includes actual footage of Huerta with her 11 children during the early days of the union in Delano.
It graphically depicts the rise of the farmworker movement from the Central Valley vineyards to the urban centers of New York and San Francisco.
The footage is raw: In 1988, she was beaten by a riot police officer at a protest against President George H. Bush in San Francisco. Dolores was left with broken ribs and a failed spleen.
UFW founder/president César E. Chávez is shown at her hospital bedside during her recovery.
The documentary – which won the Seattle and San Francisco film festivals – was directed by Peter Bratt and produced by Carlos Santana. It debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Bratt’s focus is on Dolores the union activist, not the woman who gave up teaching in the early 1960s.
“I left teaching to become an organizer,” said . I felt the people needed to organize themselves to battle all of the things they were suffering. After I learned how to organize, I knew the people would organize themselves and fight for their rights,” said Dolores, who loves to dance.
She taught from the mid 1950s to nearly 1960 near Stockton. Union organization took up so much of her time that her seven children were left with friends and relatives while Huerta traversed the country recruiting for union support.
Working alongside Chávez, Dolores was the driving force in unionization efforts. She coined the famous union phrase ‘¡Sí se puede!’ (Yes you can!). In 2011, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
“We were not the kind of family that really had an archive of baby photos and videos,” said Juanita Chávez.
“It was really incredible to see. For the first time I was able to see images of the home that we grew up in La Paz, the home, the trailer,” said Juanita. “It was really heartwarming. Very touching for me.”
Dolores’ children have become doctors, lawyers, nurses, even a chef and a youth leader at a YWCA. Juanita left her teaching position to become executive director of her mother’s foundation.
“One thing that my children, myself, they grew up in the struggle pretty strong,” said Dolores.
Juanita believes the documentary on her mother was long overdue.
“Carlos Santana said five years ago, ‘This needs to happen,’ about bringing this woman’s story to light. He actually put the resources together to make it happen,” said Juanita.
César’s death is included in the film, and the ensuing election that didn’t result in Dolores as president.
Juanita said it likely wasn’t her mother’s first choice to become president of the union.
“The movies seems to somehow lead people to believe that she was forced out, but that’s not the way she sees it. She chose not run for the presidency. She was 63 years old at the time. She really felt it was time for new leadership, for young leadership,” said Juanita.
Dolores continues to hope that today’s union movement is better received.
“It would be nice if the growers would be more amenable that they (growers) would sign the contracts. There’s one big company, Gerawan. I actually organized that election about 17 years ago, before I left the United Farm Workers; and the union to this day, still doesn’t have a contract,” she said.
The film also shows the movement’s progress alongside other movements, the feminists and the Civil Rights Movement. Feminist Gloria Steinem and Teatro Campesino founder/movie director Luis Valdez, among others, along with appearances by the Huerta children are in the film to give testimonials.