SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

April 11, 2017

 

‘Dolores’ delivers the inspirational jolt we need

 

By David Talbot

 

International film festivals are always glorious ways to escape our grounded existence. But this year’s San Francisco festival — with its invitation to see the world through the eyes of many nationalities, races and personal identities — seems particularly liberating these days. The festival screenings seem charged with the anticipation of not just discovering something new, but defying something old. There are no barriers in the global circus of the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival.

The Sunday evening screening of “Dolores,” the new documentary about the life of United Farm Workers union co-founder Dolores Huerta, was particularly thrilling after a week of grim and grimmer news from Washington.

Huerta is one of the great heroes of our time — a leader who, despite being eclipsed by her fellow warrior Cesar Chavez, deserves to be in the national pantheon alongside such legends as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, with whom she made common cause.

When Huerta walked onstage after the film, a bolt shot through the sold-out Castro Theatre audience, as if an iconic figure had just stepped out of a history book. But as director Peter Bratt reminded the audience — after leading a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” in honor of Huerta, who turned 87 the next day — “there is nothing past tense about Dolores.”

This became immediately clear when I spoke with Huerta in the upstairs theater lounge before the film. She was eager to talk about the latest burning issues, including the battle to protect sanctuary cities. San Francisco’s pioneering role as a protector of immigrants is “very important,” she told me. “The city continues to send a message to the most vulnerable people that they are not alone. I want to thank the leaders and the people of San Francisco for setting a national example.”

Huerta doesn’t harbor resentment against the city where she nearly lost her life during a 1988 demonstration against presidential candidate George Bush after her spleen was ruptured by baton-jabbing riot police outside the St. Francis Hotel. Thanks to the legal settlement she made with San Francisco, Huerta continues to receive $2,000 a month from the city. “That’s what I live on, along with my Social Security — you don’t get rich from being a union organizer,” she said, smiling. “So thanks to San Francisco, I can still do my political work.”

Luis Valdez, playwright and El Teatro Campesino founder, told me Huerta was roughed up more than once during her long service on the farmworker battlegrounds. Valdez recalled the time she was confronted by anti-UFW thugs at a Los Angeles produce market where she and other union activists had gone to block the unloading of scab-picked grapes.

“They picked her up and threw her off a loading dock onto a concrete floor several feet below. She landed on her back. We were furious and ready to fight. But she picked herself up and said, ‘No, I’m all right, don’t do anything.’ And then she got right back into the supervisor’s face. That sort of example gave all of us in the farmworkers’ movement the courage to be nonviolent. She will go down in our nation’s history as one of our greatest leaders.”

The only way to move history forward, Huerta says in the film, is “to have total commitment” to the cause. But her passionate dedication to “La Causa” came with a heavy personal price for Huerta and her 11 children, who often felt abandoned by their mother. The interviews with several of her grown sons and daughters give the film some of its most emotionally raw moments. “The movement became her most important child,” says one of her daughters. “I realize the importance of the work, but I was also very jealous of it. So there’s scars there.”

But Huerta has lived long enough to reconcile with her children, several of whom have followed her path of activism. Camila Chavez, her daughter by Cesar’s brother Richard, is executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which trains community organizers. And Dolores’ son Emilio Huerta is running for Congress as a Democratic candidate in a Central Valley district.

Many relatives, friends and fellow activists poured into the Castro for the screening of “Dolores,” which had the feeling of a homecoming celebration. Director Bratt — who has the lean good looks and charismatic smile of his brother, actor Benjamin Bratt — is a hometown boy. “The Mission District was an epicenter of the farmworker struggle when I grew up here,” said Bratt, the son of a Peruvian immigrant mother who was a nurse and community activist. “We have a particular pride that this film came out of San Francisco.”

“Dolores” was the brainchild of another local hero, Carlos Santana, who financed the film out of his own pocket. “He came to me and said, ‘Dolores is not getting any younger — it’s now or never,’” said Bratt. “Carlos calls the film the greatest song he’s ever written.”

In fact, “Dolores” is packed with more music — including salsa, jazz and protest songs — than you’d expect from a political documentary, since Huerta adores music and wanted to be a dancer when she was a girl. But it was one more thing she gave up for La Causa. “I decided that I loved people more than I loved to dance,” she said.

The exuberantly inspiring “Dolores” makes you want to march and dance. We need to do both these days. The film opens in theaters in September after making the festival circuit.