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In Conversation with Dolores Huerta

The United Farm Workers co-founder discusses environmental racism, Standing Rock, and her new biopic

The United Farm Workers are remembered for their groundbreaking grape boycott during the 1960s to force California growers to negotiate better working conditions and wages for the campesinos laboring in the fields. But as Dolores — the new documentary about UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta — reminds us, the union also pioneered the fight against environmental racism. While organized labor and environmentalism are sometimes at loggerheads, this 97 minute nonfiction film shows that when it came to banning spraying DDT and other dangerous pesticides, the UFW proved: “Si se puede!”

photo of Dolores Huerta Photo by Why Tuesday, Flickr

Co-produced by musician Carlos Santana, Dolores is an exciting, award winning biopic about one of America’s most iconic female, Latina, labor leaders — one who realizes that protecting the planet also means defending workers and their families from environmental degradation. The film recounts Huerta’s heroic struggle alongside Cesar Chavez to organize Hispanic agricultural laborers so those who feed America would have improved standards of living. Covering Huerta’s long march literally and figuratively, on the journey to justice — Dolores includes archival footage, news clips, and interviews featuring Bobby Kennedy, Gloria Steinem, George McGovern, Angela Davis, and many others. President Obama is shown bestowing the Medal of Freedom upon Huerta at a 2012 White House ceremony.  

Dolores is directed by Peter Bratt, whose brother is actor Benjamin Bratt. Bratt and Huerta were interviewed in person for Earth Island Journal  at  a movie theater in Los Angeles. At 87, the inspirational Huerta is still fighting the good fight.

Ed Rampell: There is a segment in the documentary Dolores that deals with environmental racism and environmental justice. What is that?

Dolores Huerta: Number one, this is Mother Earth and we are supposed to protect Mother Earth. We’re supposed to make sure that the food we eat is safe. When you consider that the farm workers were not given toilets in the field — and I would like to remind people that when food is picked and put into a box, it doesn’t go to the carwash, it goes directly to the consumer and the supermarket — and yet the growers would not give the farm workers water to wash their hands in or toilets to go to. We can think about what an obscenity that is and the cruelty that was visited upon the farm workers, especially the women.

And then the pesticides. Unfortunately [some] are still being sprayed upon farm workers. In fact, about three weeks ago a group of farm workers near Bakersfield, CA were sprayed with a poison. One of the pesticides that was used where they were poisoned is one that Donald Trump took off of the restricted list.         

Can you describe that sequence in the documentary?

Peter Bratt: When we talk about environmental justice, Flint, Michigan is another good example of that — that we’ll allow environmental contamination, toxic dumps, pesticide spraying, to happen in communities of color. If they happened in white, middle class areas someone would stop it. But because they happen in marginalized communities of color, somehow that’s okay to do. So reservations still get nuclear waste, communities of color are still [more likely to live next to] toxic waste sites, and farm workers still live with pesticide threats every day. 

Often workers perceive environmentalism as a “job killer.” But in your film you show a union leading the fight for an environmental cause,  against pesticides and insecticides.

Huerta: That’s because the farm workers were living it and seeing their children that are born with all of these horrible deformities. It’s not incidental — we found that the percentage of children born with deformities and dying of cancer [in agricultural areas],was hundreds of times higher than the urban area. So it really is devastating.

The other sad thing, too, is that many of the pesticides that the farm workers’ union was able to ban [are now being used] in Central America and Mexico, and you have the same situation, children born with all these deformities and people are getting cancer.

I ask people to get politically active and engage in voting and supporting progressive candidates [because that] is the only way we’re really going to solve it. [We need] the Department of Health and Human Services to regulate pesticides, to take [the responsibility away from] Department of Agriculture, [away from] the EPA, and put it under Health and Human Services — because that’s where it belongs.

Tell us about your involvement at Standing Rock?        

Huerta: [Smiling:] I was very blessed to be able to be there with our incredible Indigenous leaders that we have from the Native nations at Standing Rock. Their great fight is for all of us, for all of us. You know, water is life. The thing is, the water in our country should belong to all of the people, not to a few corporations.

What are the next steps for Standing Rock?

Huerta: Well, we know right now they’re engaged in legal battles. One of the things we have to do is go after the banks, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, these financial institutions that are financing this pipeline. We know there have already been leaks in the pipeline. Everything Native Americans have been saying is going to happen. The contamination of our water — it’s already happened actually, a couple of times. They’re not just trying to save the water for their own nation, but also for all of the people that are going to be affected by this pipeline.

The other thing, too, is that the oil they are extracting is for export — it’s not even for the United States of America — and for corporate profits. It doesn’t make any kind of sense, no matter which way you look at it. There’s no benefit at all for Native peoples, for their nations or other people downstream from them. 

Dolores theatrically opens September 1, 2017 at IFC Center in New York City and September 8, 2017 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, where former Black Panther Party leader Ericka Huggins will moderate a discussion with Huerta and Bratt. The openings will be followed by a national rollout, and in February 2018 Dolores airs on PBS’ POV. For more info:   

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Earth Island Journal, Rampell is co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. The book’s third edition will be released by April 2018.

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