Obama’s popular, rabble-rousing slogan: ‘Yes we can!’ (how long ago that time seems…) may be one of the only things keeping Mexican-American civil-rights activist Dolores Huerta in the spotlight. That affirmative phrase was hers, translated from the Spanish ‘Sí se puede!’. As Dolores explains in the film, when the slogan was created it was conservative Arizona in the 60s and change seemed impossible for the poor Latino farm workers Dolores was helping.
Dolores is one of the most famous activists in 20th century US history you’ve never heard of (and I confess my woeful ignorance as a socialist of Cesar Chavez too). Peter Bratt’s film then, stands as a correction to years of erasure from the history books of this passionate and dedicated woman. A woman who single-handedly made Chavez see that they could have a union in their lifetime, was the late great Robert Kennedy’s friend and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 (a clip of that ceremony shows Obama humorously admitting he stole the phrase from her and Dolores’ amused response, and still people think it was Chavez’ phrase as the film proves). So how was she erased from history?
The erasure seems to have occurred because as Hillary Clinton puts it in the film “she spoke truth to power”, calling out Republicans for their hatred of Latinos in a 2006 Tucson High School lecture for a Mexican American Studies course. As the film shows Mexican American Studies was consequently banned in Arizona by Republicans, ironically proving her point.
The film charts Dolores’ rise from conventional 50s housewife with seven children (which became eleven much to rich white people/grower’s condemnation), to divorcee uprooting her family from a safe middle-class neighbourhood to the small, very working-class town of Delano, California. Moving there to be with the farmer workers and live like them – much to her children’s regret; Chavez and her believing in Gandhi’s philosophy that you couldn’t help people unless you lived like them.
The film makes clear from archive footage and talking heads with farm workers the appalling conditions that they had to endure for such vital work; working for 90 cents an hour in 150-degree heat with no water break. It was this form of ‘feudal wage slavery’, as one of the talking heads says, and endemic racism that makes the struggle for farm worker’s rights so key.
Dolores’ activism was also correlated with parallel movements, black civil rights and feminism especially, as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem – two impressive talking heads – point out. Although a clip of Dolores in the early 70s shows her early ignorance of feminism as something that was militantly anti-children. Older, wiser Dolores talks in the film about later realising that feminism was about “having a choice”; and she wakes up to the sexism inherent in the machismo of the 99% male FWU leadership. Sexism that is confirmed when they sadly side-line her after Chavez’s death.
Dolores with the FWU was progressively also at the forefront of environmental issues. They organised bans on grapes when it was clear that the DDT was poisoning workers; shocking black and white archival photos showing babies born without limbs and workers with patches of skin burned off.
With all this material Dolores could’ve been a one-dimensional hagiography of a savior. Instead, the film tries to also show the flip-side of Dolores’ single-minded activism, namely the negative impact on her children.
The children are at the heart of the film’s many talking heads, often tearing up while relating an enforced working-class life lived with strangers; taking part in violent strikes, hardly seeing their mother as she’d be gone before breakfast, “she didn’t belong to us” as one of them, sadly but empathetically puts it. Something the older Dolores really regrets. And it takes a hospitalisation – with two broken ribs and a ruptured spleen- following a protest gone wrong in 1988 to bring the family back together.
The way Bratt frames this 1988 protest against George Bush’s opposition to the grape boycott (who alongside the UFW hating Nixon and Reagan, give even more reason to dislike Republicans), sums up well the hypocrisies of America. George Bush’s speech extolling America’s democratic and principled virtues- “democracy belongs to us all”, plays over footage showing impassive police brutally kicking and battering with truncheons peaceful protestors including Dolores, who is trying to move the protesters away.
It a memorable scene and one which still sadly resonates in a time where minorities are routinely beaten up or shot by police, and where fear of the ‘other’ has taken hold. Dolores then is relevant viewing for anyone who needs that extra inspiration in these terrifying times to remember that ‘sí se puede’.
Dolores is showing at Bertha Doc House, Curzon Bloomsbury until December 7th.