Many people know the story of how civil rights activist Cesar Chavez transformed the U.S. labor movement by founding the first farm workers’ union. But less people know abut his equally influential co-founder, Dolores Huerta, who tirelessly led the fight for racial and labor justice alongside Chavez, becoming one of the most powerful and defiant feminists of the 20th century. Like so many powerful female advocates, Dolores’s enormous accomplished have been largely overlooked. Even as she empowered a generation of immigrants to stand up for their rights, her own relentless work ethic was constantly criticized, including by people who judged her harshly as a woman who married three times and raised 11 children. But nothing dampened her passion or deterred her from her personal and lifelong mission. Even today, at the age of 87, Dolores Huerta remains as steadfast and as active as ever in her fight for the rights of others, especially the less privileged and those under attack in today’s climate.
Peter Bratt’s provocative new documentary, Dolores, reveals the raw, personal stakes involved in committing one’s life to the fight for justice. Interweaving fascinating archival footage with interviews from Dolores and her contemporaries, the film sets the record straight on one of the most effective and undervalued civil and labor rights leaders in modern U.S. history. It was a thrill for me to sit down with Dolores Huerta, a personal hero of mine, and director Peter Bratt to discuss this must-see film.
Danny Miller: What an honor it is to meet you, Dolores Huerta! You were an icon in my house when I was growing up and I still remember the “no grapes” mantra during the boycott. Peter, despite the fact that Dolores often gets overlooked in the history books, my first thought after seeing this film was, “What took so long?” Were you surprised that no one had made a film about her accomplishments and life’s work?
Peter Bratt: Yes — blown away, actually! Like you, I grew up keenly aware of Dolores and her work, but I’m continually astounded by how many people are not familiar with her activism. I even remember mentioning to her college professors who would say, “Dolores who?”
No! Dolores, every aspect of your work is so inspiring but I love that the film also delves into the effects of such work on your family. Knowing how committed you are to the work, did you have any reservations about letting Peter bring your personal life into the film?
Dolores Huerta: Oh, many reservations! (Laughs.) I wanted the movie to be just about the work, that was the big battle that Peter and I had throughout the process.
Peter Bratt: And I’ve got several bruises to prove it!
Dolores Huerta: But Peter kept telling me that you have to have a story, you have to do something that not only informs people but also entertains them and holds their interest. You have to tell a story that people can relate to.
It does make it all the more powerful, in my opinion. Just the honesty of having your kids in the film talking quite frankly about the challenges of having a mother who was such a well-known activist — that was really moving to hear.
And, you know, that’s a worry that ALL working parents have, especially single moms. “Who’s going to take care of my kids today while I have to go to work?”
Peter Bratt: My experience with activists is that they’re often very uncomfortable having the lens turned on them — they’re so used to being out there inspiring others. The turning point with this film happened when several of Dolores’s children came to her and said, “Okay, mom, you don’t want the story to be about you, but what you have to realize is that your story is going to inspire and empower other young women.” I think when they finally convinced her of that, that was when she really came on board!
Dolores Huerta: It’s true that I don’t like being the center of attention. I think of all the people we’ve lost in the movement. There are so many people you’ve never heard of: Nan Freeman, an 18-year-old Jewish girl from Boston who was killed on the picket lines in Florida during a strike of sugar cane workers. She was run down by a truck. Nagi Daifullah, an Arab woman, was our second martyr, killed by one of the deputy sheriffs you see in the film. We had Juan De La Cruz, an older Mexican gentleman in his 50s who had been one of our first charter members in the United Farm Workers, shot in the heart by a labor contractor, and then we had Rufino Contreras, who went into a field to talk to strikers and was met with a hail of 80 bullets — and those guns and bullets had been bought by the owner. So many people who were killed, or beaten up, or went to jail, and nobody knows their names, they get no recognition. So then I think, why should I be recognized?
Your personal story will inspire so many others, as your daughters have said. Thinking of that time that’s covered in the film when you were in your fifties and brutally attacked by the authorities during a protest and terribly injured, was it in your head from the beginning that you could be attacked or killed at any time?
Yeah, it was. During the strike, we were frequently assaulted. They tried to run us down with their cars, I had to jump out of the way on more than one occasion. We were often met with rifles pointed directly at us, and during our fight with the teamsters, a group came at us with two-by-fours and with iron dollies. You saw a lot of harassment. That’s why I feel so strongly about the whole issue of nonviolence. It’s that philosophy that makes you feel strong in those moments.
Peter Bratt: What’s so great now is to see all the young activists reaching out to Dolores, particularly in these times with the rise of the alt-right and violence erupting in so many places. It’s great to hear her talking to activists and making such a clear case as to why they really have to stay away from using violence. Otherwise, as she says in the film, we become like the oppressors.
These seem like such regressive times right now. Dolores, how would you assess the position of farm workers in this country today? Do you feel the gains you worked so hard for are still in place?
Dolores Huerta: Well, I think in terms of the California farm workers, we do have certain laws but the union is still struggling. They still can’t get contracts, in some cases, because the growers take them to court and are willing to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on fees for their anti-union attorneys rather than use that money to give workers better wages. So yes, the unions still have a very hard time but the law is there. The farm workers have toilets now by law, they have drinking water by law, they have rest periods by law, and they’re covered by minimum wages and safety standards whether they’re documented or not.
I know you’re involved with many young people who are part of the DACA program. I’m sure you were horrified by the recent decision of the Trump administration to rescind that program.
Yes, of course, but I’m very happy that Sid Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, and others are taking the Trump administration to court. There is a feeling that because of Trump’s enunciations about Mexicans in particular, and the fact that over 70% of Dreamers are Mexican, that this is a class of people that is being attacked because of their racial identity. I think they have a legitimate civil rights case that they can file to try to prevent DACA from terminating. The only thing that worries me a lot is that I’m afraid the Republicans might be using this as a ploy. They are such expert strategists, and Trump saying he was turning it over to Congress, that might be part of a plan to get money for the wall or other programs that are designed to further divide our community. Of course we don’t know what’s going to happen but I feel that the majority of the American public supports these young people and that it would such a huge loss to the country to sacrifice all of that great mind power and purchasing power and all the great contributions these kids are making and will continue to make.
Were you as flabbergasted by the results of the election last year as many of us were? Did you kind of see it coming?
I was saddened, but I wasn’t devastated because I lived through the 60s when we were fighting Nixon and the Vietnam War. So many of the organizations that were just coming into their own during that time — the Green movement the LGBT movement , the immigrant rights movement, the environmental movement — those groups are now organized, they are institutionalized, so I think in many ways, we’re much better prepared than we were to fight and resist. And now we have cell phones and Facebook and Instagram and all these other tools that we never had before. My biggest concern is that all the people who are protesting also need to vote. They need to march to the ballot box because otherwise you can’t really change policy.
And also run for office!
Exactly. My grass-roots organizing that I do these days with the Dolores Huerta Foundation is not only about registering people to vote but also getting them to run. We have a lot of our farm workers and construction workers and maids in hotels who are now sitting on school boards, water boards, recreation boards, and city councils. This is so important.
Speaking of the campaign, I don’t know if you want to comment on what happened at the Nevada Caucus last year but I was so angry when I saw that video of Susan Sarandon browbeating you about your support for Hillary Clinton. I wanted to shout at the TV, “Do you know who you’re talking to?!” Have you spoken to her since?
No, I haven’t, but Rosario Dawson, who was also part of the Sanders group that day, along with a lot of other Bernie people who were disappointed in my support of Hillary, they have come to me and apologized. Look, we know that we’re ultimately on the same side. And I hope that we all come together and stay together because I believe that we have a big opportunity in the 2018 elections if we get ourselves organized. I keep saying, we are the ones who are going to build a wall — a wall of resistance. If we can get more progressive candidates elected, which is totally in our hands, then we can resist Trump and his divisive politics.
Peter Bratt: As you can see, she hasn’t changed at all! (Laughs.)
Were there points when you considered running for office yourself?
Dolores Huerta: No, I never have, I’d rather help people get elected. We’ve been working for progressive candidates for many years. We did a campaign in 1982 that had the largest number of women ever elected to the California legislature, and the largest number of women of color. And we did it all by grass-roots organizing and networking. When people ask me to run for office myself, I always turn them down and say, “I like to put ‘em in and take ‘em out!” (Laughs.)
What’s it like for you to watch this film? Are there moments that you find especially uncomfortable?
The first time I saw it, it was so emotional for me that I couldn’t really concentrate. I had to see the film two or three times to be able to take it all in. The content is very heavy. I get very emotional seeing Robert Kennedy and Cesar and seeing farm workers getting beaten up and killed. It was only after seeing the film a few times that I could hear Robert Kennedy’s amazing words — the very last words he spoke before he was killed which were “We have a responsibility to our fellow citizens.” And it’s true — we do have a great responsibility to our country, to our world, to our fellow citizens, we must get involved.
In all your work over the years, did you ever meet Donald Trump?
No, but I did see him last year. Thanks to Hillary, I had a front row seat at one of the debates and he and his family passed right in front of me. I remember thinking, oh my God, these are strange people. It was like seeing robots — they were not making eye contact with anybody. It was just so unusual, they didn’t seem human.
Have you thought of what you might say to him if you had the chance to have a conversation?
Not really, to be honest. In a way, I feel sorry for him. He was obviously raised in a family that was not very compassionate and was infused with these ideas of racism and looking down on poor people. Like Woody Guthrie wrote in that song, “I Ain’t Got No Home” about Trump’s father who he calls “Old Man Trump,” they wouldn’t rent to Jews or people of color. That’s pretty typical of people whose minds are poisoned with that kind of thinking.
That’s why I’m so hell-bent on getting the stories of our people of color out there, people who have made so many contributions to this country, who literally built our infrastructure. That education needs to begin very early. One of our staff had a young son who came home from school the other day and told his mom that a little girl in his first grade class said to him, “I’m better than you because I’m white.” I think that kind of awareness has to be a mandate not only in our educational system but in all of our organizations, public and private, to work to end this cancer of racism and misogyny and homophobia and bigotry against working people.
Which reminds me of that horrible law in Arizona that’s covered in the film that literally erased you from the curriculum there.
Peter Bratt: And that legislation still stands, if you can believe it. Dolores is still officially not allowed to be mentioned in the social studies curriculum in Arizona.
That’s insane. Your story should be told to all schoolchildren everywhere.
Dolores Huerta: Well, I know that in California I’m in the second grade textbooks!
Oh good, my son is in second grade here.
And there are a lot of teachers who bring that information to their students , especially Latino teachers and teachers of color. And part of our work is organizing parents to go to school districts and try to change things.
My son is in a great Spanish-immersion school here in Los Angeles and last year they had a day when kids dressed up as one of their heroes from their culture and there were several Dolores Huertas.
Awww, that’s so sweet.
Of course, there were about 17 Frida Kahlos, but also several Dolores Huertas!
(Laughs.) Well, that’s great, too. We love Frida!