“Dolores prefers the chair,” a publicist tells me, shortly before before sitting down with Dolores Huerta and Peter Bratt to talk about “Dolores,” a documentary about the legendary labor activist’s life. As my eyes drift over to the humble folding chair that would normally be reserved for the writer, I take my seat on the far comfier couch, realizing as Huerta darts around the room dealing with various responsibilities of the day, she is likely always sacrificing comfort for the ability to spring into action at any moment.
Yet when she does sit down, you feel like you’re the only person in the room, when that is clearly not the case, and what a strange proposition it must’ve been when Huerta was approached by Bratt and Carlos Santana to tell the story of her life, when her focus has never been on herself, but about the communities she cares about so dearly. “Dolores” can’t help but recognize what a true force of nature its subject is, still at age 87 whipping up crowds into a frenzy to fight against the ongoing war on workers and immigrants, where any progress she had made over the course of seven decades, most of which was spent with the United Farm Workers union that she founded with Cesar Chavez, feels precarious without continual vigilance. However, Bratt’s portrait of Huerta radiates her infectious spirit, demonstrating through her strategic and persistent organizing efforts that even when the odds are completely stacked against her, the power of the people can be harnessed to overcome just about anything.
Set to an electric soundtrack to match Huerta’s boundless energy, the film traces her journey from drafting legislation when she was 25 that would provide assistance to immigrants in California who had not yet attained citizenship to luring Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 to Kern County to support the drive to unionize farm workers in California to ultimately refocusing her efforts on voter registration and protecting the rights of immigrants after being brutally beaten by police during a peaceful protest in San Francisco in 1988. Shown marching at Standing Rock as late as last year (yet somehow with the film making the deadline to premiere at Sundance this year), Huerta refuses to be slowed down, though thankfully, Bratt, through interviews with fellow activists such as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem, politicians such as Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva and former California State Senator Art Torres, and most prominently, her own children, takes enough time to provide the proper context to allow audiences to fully appreciate and be inspired by accomplishments that the activist would be too humble to acknowledge herself and will continue to help generations to come.
While in Los Angeles, Huerta and Bratt spoke about why she reluctantly agreed to step into the spotlight, creating a film that engages on many different levels and preserving a legacy that has long been overshadowed by others.
Is this the first time you’ve been approached to tell your life story on film?
Dolores Huerta: I actually been approached by other people. [But] I knew of Peter’s previous movies, “The Long Way Home” and “La Mission,” which is such a great groundbreaking movie, especially for the Latino community, so I really trusted him. And of course, I’ve known Carlos [Santana] for many, many years because we did one of his first concerts actually in the Bay Area when we were working on the Great Boycott. He would come to our picket lines and he was very supportive of the Farm Worker movement. [So when they] wanted to do this film about my work with the Farm Workers Union and some of my life and they asked me whether I would be agreeable and I said, “Of course.” This is such a gift. How could anybody say no?
Peter Bratt: [Dolores] helped us roll out “La Mission” in Arizona when [Arizona’s anti-immigrant law] SB-1070 had been passed and there was a boycott, asking artists not to come into Arizona. My brother Benjamin and I called her and said, “Oh my God. Dolores, we’re opening there next week. What are we going to do? We want to honor the boycott.” And she said, “Not only do you need to take this film in there because people need to be lifted up with stories about who we are, but I’m going to go with you.” And that was a phenomenal experience, so when this opportunity came to tell this story, first I was a little bit intimidated, like “Oh my God, this icon.” But [when] I put on my filmmaker hat, it was really a creative challenge to figure out how to tell a compelling story about a very complex, incredible human being.
The opening montage from the present day is wonderful because you see how difficult it is to keep up with everything Dolores is doing nowadays, but I suspect that could’ve been a film all its own. How much did you want the film to live in the present versus the past, given all of Dolores’ accomplishments?
Peter Bratt: What became apparent in the research was that Dolores had literally been removed from the history books – literally — so it seemed to me that part of the story had to be showing that she was co-founder of this movement and then showing her evolution as a political being and an organizer throughout seven decades. So the archive became very important to show the audience, rather than tell them, about her work. Then when I discovered that she was a professional dancer who wanted to pursue dance as a career at one time that became the artistic way into the film for me.
Was there anything that came as a surprise in going back in time?
Dolores Huerta: It was a huge surprise seeing all of that archival footage. I didn’t even remember even having any of those interviews, and to think, “Did I really say that at that time?” I guess I did. (laughs) And it’s still things I believe in pretty much, but it was really important to see that. Then to see the way that they were able to put that together to frame the story [where] it’s almost like the archival footage led the story, I’m like, “Whoa, that was really interesting.”
Peter Bratt: Yeah, I consider myself politically involved and well-informed and I thought I knew who she was. But after I researched, I realized I didn’t really know that much about her work. I grew up thinking, up until a few years ago, it had been Cesar, who single-handedly founded this movement and brought in people. I had no idea [Dolores] was there from the very beginning as a co-founder and that she had such an incredible role, not only in the Farm Workers’ movement, but in California and national legislation.
It seems like it must’ve be an interesting balance to strike, given that there’s so much out there about Cesar Chavez, but relatively little about Dolores, to decide how big a role he’d have in this film. Was that difficult to figure out?
Peter Bratt: As a screenwriter, in order for the audience to go on the journey, it has to stay grounded in [Dolores]. She has to be in almost every scene. Everything that happens in the film has to be connected to her, otherwise, you’re going to lose your audience. So that was very clear to me. Cesar was a very strong element, and I definitely wanted to pay homage to him because he was a personal influence on me and just before his passing have a little montage of him. Hopefully that comes through that homage that we wanted to honor him, but it’s this narrative. His story’s been told several times and I think most audiences have at least heard of him.
Dolores Huerta: Yeah, and in looking at the film myself, getting beaten up by the police was at a rally that I had gone to when George Bush the first said, “There’s nothing wrong with pesticides.” And Cesar had just finished a 36-day water-only fast to bring attention to the whole United States about the dangers of pesticides, so the things that Cesar said in the movie, like “We will win. In the end, we will win,” [reflected] a really important part of Cesar’s mentality. He would always say, “You can win as long as you don’t quit.” He’s committed to the struggle, and actually, Cesar’s story needs to be retold also because in the other documentaries they don’t tell about the death threats on his life and what he had to go through, [or] the story of his wife Helen. While Cesar and I were going out organizing, his wife was out there in the fields picking the grapes to support their eight children and some of the [organizing] work we were doing, so you could do a whole other documentary about Cesar and his wife Helen.
Since you’re so much about the community, whether even the idea of a biopic is antithetical when you probably don’t like being the center of attention?
Dolores Huerta: Thank you! Thank you!
Peter Bratt: I can testify to that. [laughs]
What was the interview process like? It seems like talking to the whole family became a real backbone for the film.
Peter Bratt: First of all, the familia in Latino culture is the central organism and we don’t exist as individuals. We’re part of a famiilia. So even with my first meeting with Dolores, it wasn’t just Dolores. [laughs] Her whole family was there and I just felt like it had to be a family story. You look at her children and they’re all organizers too. They grew up in it and it’s one for all and all for one. But we interviewed 50 people and we interviewed several politicians and a lot of times they kept [to] talking points. At the end of the day, you want the heart and soul, and the honesty, the authenticity to come through and that’s ultimately what we went with.
Dolores, was there anything that was important for you to convey with this film?
Dolores Huerta: The main message is that we want people to know that they do have the power to make changes in their community. It’s important for people to see it and to learn things they didn’t know about the movement in the ‘60s [because] I think that people will realize that what we were going through then in the ‘60s and ‘70s, hey, we’re going through it again. So those people who missed the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it’s your turn now. You can get involved.
We hope that the film shows that you have the poorest of the poor – the farm workers – overcoming the President of the United States, Governor Ronald Reagan, the biggest organization of agriculture, and the Farm Bureau Federation and hopefully, that people will know that they can make a difference in their communities and in our world just by becoming engaged – engaged in voting, organizing and supporting groups that are organizing.
Peter Bratt: I know that Carlos, Dolores and myself, and my brother Benjamin, had a tall order when we set out to do this, but we wanted to tell an incredibly entertaining and compelling story. We wanted to create a piece of art and a call to action. And what we’re seeing from audiences, we seem to be hitting those marks. None of us foresaw the current political climate that we’re living in right now, so that call to action is urgent and this is small independent film. We don’t have the budget to advertise in newspapers and on television, so we’re pleading with people to come, fill the theaters in the first few weeks and spread the word.
Dolores Huerta: And if people want to learn about our foundation, we’re still continuing to organize. We have about 20 people in our organization that are working on all of these issues, getting people to run for office, doing civic engagement work and trying to stop the school-to-prison pipeline and working on education issues at DoloresHuerta.org.
“Dolores” is now open in New York at the IFC Center and will open on September 8th in Los Angeles at the Nuart. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.