About halfway through Dolores, a new documentary about civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, the film cuts to archival footage of Robert F. Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles following his victories in the California and South Dakota primaries. As a viewer, you know what comes next. You know that the assassin’s bullet is moments away, and that the dream of continuing Camelot and the Great Society will soon be dashed. Yet as you watch Kennedy give his speech, you can’t look away from the Latina woman with an ear-to-ear smile in a red dress, and with a red United Farm Workers of America (UFW) flag in her hair.
Huerta, the co-founder of the UFW and creator of the organization’s slogan Si se puede, which President Barack Obama adopted and translated into “Yes We Can” in the 2008 election, stood next to RFK on that fateful night. For those outside the Latino civil rights, environmental justice, or California labor movements, Huerta’s name may be unfamiliar, but she has been one of America’s most impactful civil rights leaders over the past 50 years.
The film describes Kennedy’s assassination as feeling like the “death of the future,” but Huerta’s commitments remained undeterred despite the tragic event of June 6, 1968. She was already a trailblazer and visionary before tragedy struck, and Dolores takes you on an emotional journey through the ups and downs, both political and personal, of a life devoted to civil rights. You see Huerta grow from a young girl who loved dancing and jazz to a leader of a movement.
In 1962 Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded the UFW to combat the abhorrent labor conditions that farm workers faced in California. Agriculture workers had been left out of all the New Deal-era labor advances because of the political muscle of agribusiness. Into the 1960s, farm workers, who were mostly Latino and Asian, lived lives of modern-day slavery. The sexual assault of women was extremely common. Workers were paid next to nothing, worked in contaminated fields due to the widespread use of pesticides, and many lived in houses owned by the owner of the farm.
These workers were left defenseless against their abusive employers, and challenging authority to combat rampant abuse could result in both a loss of employment and one’s home. The film includes interviews from farm workers describing how their skin itched and burned as they were repeatedly doused with pesticides, and shows images of…