Future generations will not forget Dolores Huerta and her more than six decades of activism, no matter how hard the Texas State Board of Education or anyone else tries to erase her from the history books.
But it is not only her political and ideological foes that have threatened to sideline her accomplishments: Though he passed away in 1993, César Chávez, the legendary farm union organizer known for leading the United Farm Workers (UFW), still manages to overshadow her with countless monuments and street signs, and even a day, March 31, dedicated to him.
Thanks to the documentary Dolores — a movie that’s won Audience Awards at four separate film festivals and premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens Tuesday March 27 (9 p.m.) — that narrative is changing. Dolores was written, directed and produced by Peter Bratt. “I had always believed that César Chávez was the singular visionary who got different partners to ally and help build the organization,” Bratt, who describes himself as a “movement kid” and “in the know” at a young age, told PEOPLE CHICA. “Once I started to interview her, I realized she had been organizing farm workers in Stockton [California] prior to meeting Chavez, including founding the Agricultural Workers Organization, which was the precursor to the union. And that this really was a co-venture, a cofounding. They launched it together.”
Bratt, who did years of research and found a treasure trove of Huerta footage, said his subject recounted one particular event when Chávez asked her if he could be the spokesperson for what would become UFW. “And she said, coming from the ’40s and ’50s, she was used to accommodating men. She brings up the fact that now, with the consciousness today, she would not have been so accommodating.”
Dolores Huerta was a key female role model. Born in 1930 in New Mexico, her parents split when she was 3 and she moved to Stockton with her mother, who came to own a restaurant and hotel. She watched her mother give the those in need, often migrant workers, free food and shelter (her father, who she was close with, went on to become a New Mexico politician). She was inspired to do community organizing early on, at least in part due to the segregation and poverty she saw around her while an elementary school teacher. At 25 she helped start the Stockton Community Service Organization; by 30 she cofounded the farm workers union AWA to protect migrants against the powerful grape-growing interests; two years later, she and Chavez partnered for what would become the UFW with its groundbreaking development through non-violent resistance in the mid-1960s.
At 36, she negotiated the first contract ever between farm workers and an agricultural company. Huerta, not Chavez, was the principal legislative advocate of the group. “Even that fact was left out of the historical record,” says Bratt. “And even in all the iconic photos, you see growers holding up the contract, and Cesar and the male leaders of the executive board. She’s oftentimes not even in the photo. The one who negotiated it.”
In 1968, she was honored by Robert F. Kennedy minutes before he was gunned down at the Ambassador hotel. In 1988, she was beaten so badly by police during a peaceful protest in San Francisco that she had to have her spleen removed in emergency surgery. The assault was captured on video and her lawsuit against the city actually led San Francisco to change its crowd control policies. Bratt and his coproducers sometime referred to her jokingly as the Forrest Gump of activism because she has been, at one time or another, connected to an array of events, movements and leaders from Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis, who show up in the film, to Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock today.
Dolores Huerta is still politically active at 87. Lately she has been focusing on educational system reform through the Dolores Huerta Foundation and examining whether people of color are properly or under represented in history books. Also, her group keeps an eye on potential Voting Rights Act transgressions, among other civil society duties. In fact, throughout the last few years, Bratt had a hard time pinning her down to do the five separate interviews he eventually filmed, because “she had work to do.”
That work is what likely keeps her out of the history textbooks. Huerta was actively removed from textbooks in 2010 by the Texas State Board of Education at least partly because she is still alive and a democrat (you can watch the debate on YouTube). This school board and Texas textbooks have an outsized influence on public schools throughout the country because they print so many that they give them away for free — as long as they come from certain publishers. As Bratt says, “Certainly in other states, teachers may on their own teach [about Huerta]. But in the official textbooks, she was removed and remains so.” At least, there is a school in Fort Worth, Texas, named after her.
Another fun fact: Dolores the documentary was the brainchild of musician Carlos Santana, who called Bratt in 2013 to tell him the movie had to be done. (Santana also produces and was reportedly told to get the movie made by his mother). Bratt, the son of a single Peruvian mother who marched with Huerta and brother of the actor Benjamin Bratt, had made feature films but had never done a documentary. Luckily for him, and for true-history fans, a wealth of archival material shows her “in action in the trenches throughout six and a half decades. We felt like we could show the audience her presence and importance rather than tell them about it.”
Dolores premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on the inauguration day of President Trump, but the project began in a different political setting. “When we started out, Barack Obama was president of the US. At that point, we were supposedly quote unquote post-racial,” Bratt says with a laugh that evokes a certain nostalgic naivette. As for now, he says, “I think people are kind of in awe of the depth of her work and also her example. The very example that people need right now with the strife and the racism, and what’s happening in the women’s movement, the #MeToo movement.”
But the film Dolores, which covers her entire life, is not the simple portrait of a hero or, as its promos call it, “one of the most defiant feminists of the 20th century.” Bratt interviews several of her children and it becomes clear that she made tough choices between being an activist and a mother. She is twice divorced.
Other than Dolores, about which the Washington Post had nice things to say, Bratt has helmed two acclaimed independent features, Follow Me Home (1996) and La Mission (2009).
After Dolores debuts on PBS’s Independent Lens Tuesday, March 27, it will be available for streaming at pbs.org.