Biography spoke with filmmaker Peter Bratt and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, about 'Dolores,' a new documentary about her life and trailblazing activism.

Dolores Huerta’s girlhood dream was to become a dancer. She loves the music of Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpeter, and his friend and contemporary, legendary saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jr. Dolores told filmmaker Peter Bratt that when she met Bird, she was unable to speak. “It is hard to imagine Dolores that way,” Bratt jokes, in an interview on a blistering August day in New York City. For nearly half a century, beginning in the mid-1950s, it was Dolores’s voice that persuaded farm workers to abandon the fields that allowed them to support their families. She spoke to them of a larger vision. Bratt’s mother, a Peruvian-Quechuan who worked in the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley, shared Dolores’s idealism, and joined her marches, her young son beside her. 

Dolores co-founded the UFW, the United Farm Workers union, in 1962, along with César Chávez, after a decade of labor organizing. She would go on to become the UFW’s vice-president. Bratt’s biographical documentary, Dolores, which will open in theaters on September 1st, is the first feature-length film about the life of this fearless activist, born in New Mexico in 1930. It is a narrative that belongs to tens of thousands of workers, and to Bratt and his family. As a mixed race Latino-indigenous man, he views Dolores as a tribal elder. “My aunts were all farm workers,” the filmmaker recalls, “and I want my children, especially my daughter, to know this story.” 

Bratt’s previous film is La Mission (2010), a narrative feature set in San Francisco’s ethnically diverse Mission District. Dolores marks his documentary debut. A few years ago, the filmmaker received a call from Carlos Santana, the iconic Mexican-American guitarist and founder of the band Santana. The two men, both from the Mission District, had met at a screening of La Mission, and spoke about working together one day. Santana had invited Dolores to his Hawaii home for a much needed rest from her work, now centered on the social justice efforts of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. “She’s 87 and works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Bratt says. “At night, she likes to go dancing.” 

Director Peter Bratt

While making 'Dolores,' filmmaker Peter Bratt spoke with 10 of Dolores’s 11 children, as well as historians, farm workers, and her colleagues in the movement that led to the establishment of the UFW.

Santana, a producer on the documentary, discovered that Dolores had a passion for jazz. He sent Bratt footage of their conversations about music, and suggested that he tell Dolores’s story. The filmmaker had some concerns about embarking on the project, not the least of which was that he had never made a documentary. Also, Dolores is a much-beloved and admired figure in the Latino community. “I was nervous,” Bratt says. “Her dedication to justice staggers me, but in documentary, you have to challenge your subjects, and sometimes, you’re in conflict with them.” He need not have worried. On camera, and in person, Dolores is candid, thoughtful and charismatic. “I am happy to be back in this city,” she confides when we are able to speak later that morning. Asked about her ongoing work in reforming voter registration laws, she smiles. “Our next battle is in Texas,” she says, “where they’re making it difficult for Latinos and African-Americans.” 

Dolores was four and a half years in the making, and Bratt spent the first year just getting to know his subject and her family. “We are Latinos, and what one person does in a family reflects on the whole family,” he observes, “so I wanted to meet everyone.” He spoke with 10 of Dolores’s 11 children, as well as historians, farm workers, and her colleagues in the movement that led to the establishment of the UFW. It soon became clear to Bratt that Dolores had deliberately been written out of history. Many of those interviews are in the documentary, along with Dolores’s testimony, and an illustration of the UFW’s machismo attitudes at the point at which a new president had to be named. That is when Dolores made her exit from the organization that had been her life for over 40 years. 

Dolores recalled that footage when we spoke. “It reminds me of something, a conversation I had with César when he first joined the organization,” she says. “We mostly traveled separately, but a few times we had to travel together for a march or speak at the same event. César said we had to agree about who would be the spokesperson, and he thought he should do it. I just said ‘okay,’ but today, I would say that we should take turns. It’s funny how you change.” 

Dolores Huerta in 19175

Dolores Huerta speaking at a press conference in 1975.

Dolores depicts many of the activist’s remarkable achievements, such as getting Aid for Dependent Families and disability insurance for California farm workers in 1963, and the role she played leading up to the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, that granted these workers the right to collective bargaining. Dolores’s leadership, along with Chávez’s, resulted in a decade long boycott of non-union lettuce in 1970, and a five-year boycott of grapes in 1965, the latter inspired by Filipino union members, and chronicled in the documentary. Despite her longstanding commitment to non-violent resistance, Dolores has been arrested over 20 times, and in 1988, required surgery after a San Francisco police officer beat her during a demonstration against George H.W. Bush.

“It’s no mistake that this woman of color stands at the intersection of social justice, labor and gender equality, and environmental justice,” Bratt says. “You hear a lot of talk today about intersectionality, but Dolores has been living that for decades, bringing together people of different backgrounds for one cause.” In Dolores, the filmmaker tackles what may constitute one of the most controversial aspects of Dolores’s life, given the era of her youthful activism and Latino family values—she never had much time for her children. In the documentary, her daughter Maria Elena recalls being sad and resentful of her mother’s absences, yet the siblings also evince a fierce pride, especially Rick Chávez, Dolores’s youngest son.

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta speaking out for the cause in the 1970s.

“To advance the cause of justice there has to be great sacrifice,” Bratt says. “I’ve seen that firsthand. When men make those sacrifices, they get lionized. Because Dolores is a woman, it had the opposite effect.” In my last few moments with her, I ask Dolores about the most affective moment in the documentary, when she gazes straight into the camera to answer Bratt’s question about putting the movement first. “I have regrets. I couldn’t give Rick the dance lessons he needed, and he is a very talented performer,” she says. “As a girl, I grew up in a middle class family and I had dance lessons and music lessons, but I couldn’t afford it for my children. They don’t seem to mind now, and I am so proud of them—in their own ways, most of them are in the movement.” 

'Dolores' opens in theaters on September 1.