‘Dolores’ Offers a Timely Lesson in Mexican-American Studies

Dolores Huerta finally gets a documentary of her own.

Joe Arpaio never appears on screen in Dolores, but he’s there in spirit, particularly in the final act when Dolores Huerta is seen as the catalyst of and then protestor against the ban on Mexican-American studies programs in Arizona. Huerta also led protests in the past against the recently pardoned sheriff. With the documentary, we’re also reminded that Arpaio is not a unique adversary in the history of the Latino civil rights struggle. The documentary features a clip of Kern County Sheriff Leroy Galyen defending his pre-crime arrests of peaceful United Farm Workers labor strikers in 1968.

Huerta is best known for her activism in support of the UFW, which she co-founded and led, first as the National Farmworkers Association, with Cesar Chavez. If you’re familiar with him but not her, that might be because there are plenty of films focused on Chavez’s life, while this is the first concentrated on hers. She obviously appears in Chavez docs and is portrayed by Rosario Dawson in the 2014 biopic Cesar Chavez, and she’s been co-subject of Miss Representation and an episode of Makers. Now Huerta finally has our full attention.

The fact that Chavez has been given more of the spotlight over the years is addressed in Dolores as a problem with history’s failure to recognize the herstory of prominent women in even chronicles of civil rights movements — those narratives you’d expect to be more inclusive since they’re actually about equality for all. The primary purpose of this documentary, directed by Peter Bratt (La Mission), is to give Huerta her due as an integral part of any complete curriculum on women’s studies, as well as Latino studies, general ethnic studies, and even the whole of American studies.

As such, Dolores is a decent educational film. While rather dull in form, the documentary does try for a dynamic experience of Huerta’s biography with the music of executive producer Carlos Santana. But this is a fairly straightforward lesson, yet not always chronologically so, on Huerta’s involvement with the UFW and the grape strike and boycott, her witnessing the Robert Kennedy assassination, her 1988 beating during a demonstration outside a George H.W. campaign stop, and her more recent attention for her remarks about Republicans hating Latinos.

You know, the Wikipedia bullet points, but fleshed out with talking-head commentary from Huerta herself, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, and some of Huerta’s 11 children, plus a lot of archival footage of the UFW strikes that we might have seen in the Chavez docs and/or might prefer watching unedited on its own (maybe that’s just me). Not everything is textbook material, though. Huerta’s kids talk about how their mother was absent for much of their lives while fighting the good fight. Of course, there’s no real drama there, no expression of resentment. Dolores isn’t excessively hagiographic, but it’s entirely positive.

While Huerta is an essential figure to learn about, and Dolores can be part of that teaching for many years to come, the film is sort-of coincidentally important in this moment as both Arpaio and the Mexican-American studies ban are back in the news, the latter having just been shot down by a federal judge for being racist and motivated by a political agenda. It’s fortuitous when docs arrive with unforeseen relevance, and this one was started back in 2014 and announced its release date a couple months ago. Given the context, you’ll likely get more out of it by seeing it now.

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(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.