Dolores Huerta gets her due in a film about her life in activism

By Bliss Bowen

Photo by Felix Adamo.

Why don’t more people know about Dolores Huerta?

Here is a Latina feminist — Dolores Clara Fernández Huerta, born in 1930 — who worked tirelessly for decades alongside labor, civil and human rights icons like César Chávez, Bobby Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, each of whom celebrated Huerta as both a peer and
an inspiration.

While in her mid-twenties in 1959, Huerta was a political director for the Community Service Organization helping to draft legislation ultimately approved by Sacramento’s white male-dominated Legislature. In 1962 she co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (which later became the United Farm Workers) with Chávez. The mother of 11 answered the call she felt “so strongly” to help organize farm workers despite unforgiving judgment from family, friends and chauvinistic colleagues; despite ever-present threats of physical danger, she chose to live in poverty in labor camps alongside workers denied water or toilet facilities in the fields.

Huerta’s strategizing, grassroots organizing and contract negotiating empowered other women to walk picket lines. A savvy, motivating speaker, she was onstage with Bobby Kennedy shortly before his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel. At the height of the boycott Huerta helped lead, a reported 17 million people were choosing not to eat grapes; that brought agricultural growers to the bargaining table for some of the first contracts for U.S. farmworkers.

It was Huerta who contributed “Sí se puede” to the national conversation, a fact President Barack Obama clarified when awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, after first incorrectly attributing the phrase to Chávez — yet another instance of Huerta being overshadowed by her longtime friend and workmate. They both led the farmworkers’ movement, yet Huerta’s often sidelined in news and historical accounts.

“She’s the first general I followed into war,” playwright Luis Valdez declares in “Dolores,” director Peter Bratt’s enlightening new documentary about her life. Four years in the making, the film gets its official release on Sept. 1 and will open at the Nuart Theatre on Sept. 8 with special appearances by Huerta, Bratt and producer Carlos Santana.

As one of Huerta’s daughters tells the camera with respect and pain, “the movement became her most important child.” Such was Huerta’s dedication that, as she recalls in one poignant scene, after attending a jazz festival in Monterey it was years before she heard live music again.

So it is interesting that “Dolores” opens with a shot of a smartly dressed Huerta, who is now 87, checking her hair and makeup in a mirror before giving a speech at a gymnasium. She could easily be mistaken for a suburban grandmother. It subtly makes the point that she is a woman — a woman who has integrated family and work passions into a full life despite controversy and a widely publicized police beating in 1988 that broke ribs and necessitated the removal of her spleen. When the nonviolent grandmother subsequently won a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco, she donated monies to farm workers — a strangely poetic circle back to the childhood awakening of her social conscience by the brutalization of friends by police.

To call Huerta an inspirational role model for women is a dramatic understatement. Speaking alongside Bratt a week after the violent events in Charlottesville, she sparkles with conviction, vitality and good humor.

THE ARGONAUT: Do you still believe organizing makes a difference?

DOLORES HUERTA: [loudly] Oh, I know organizing makes a difference. In fact, I really do believe that’s the only thing that makes a difference. If you look at all the movements in the world — whether it was a peace movement in the ’60s, the Civil Rights Movement, the labor movement, the feminist movement, the LGBTQ movement — it all comes down to organizing, and getting people to stand up for their rights and to organize allies to support them.

Was the film made to remind viewers of the power of individuals, even in an anti-union environment?

PETER BRATT: Certainly one [reason] was to shine a light on the power of organizing. Especially today, when people are very dismayed and disheartened by the political climate, and are discouraged from getting involved in the political process.

I was struck by the amount of screen time devoted to Dolores’ children, and the recurring theme of sacrifices made by you and your family to support your work. That’s not something we typically see in coverage of male activists.

HUERTA: That’s true.

Was it your choice to give them such a prominent voice, to show what it takes to achieve social change?

HUERTA: That was actually Peter’s decision. One thing I’d like to say to women out there who might be thinking about their own children or nieces and nephews and grandchildren: I was very active, but we always had daycare for them. We had a Montessori school at the headquarters of the union to take care of the kids, and I always had somebody to take care of my children. So they were never alone. And the thing is, when kids grow up in the movement like my children did, they’re very resourceful, they’re very independent. My oldest son is a doctor; my next son is a civil rights attorney running for Congress in the 21st Congressional District in Bakersfield; my daughter Juanita became a teacher; my daughter Angela is an oncology nurse; my son Vincent is a chef; and so on and on and on. One thing about being in the movement, it gives them a lot of emotional fortitude, and really makes them able to go up against many circumstances and be strong.

BRATT: My mother was also an activist involved in the American Indian movement and some of the farmworker strikes and boycotts, and she took us everywhere. I also saw men leaders who would cart their families, their relatives. When you’re talking about the Latino community, the Native American community, oftentimes it is a family affair. We’re not just these individual silos. We’re members of these complex, beautiful families, and I thought it was really important to tell the family story, not just an individual story.

Wendy Greenfield, a volunteer, says onscreen that Dolores gave her children a meaningful life.

HUERTA: That’s very true. All my children worked different jobs in the union. My son Emilio is an attorney and now a congressional candidate — his job in the union was to be the garbage collector. [laughs]

BRATT: You hear these powerful young women, Dolores’ daughters, talking about carrying on the work. I think that speaks volumes to what they did gain through that experience.

HUERTA: My youngest daughter, who shed the most tears in the whole movie [laughs], she’s our executive director. I remember when she called me from a hall phone at her dorm in college, whispering, “Mom, you’re not going to believe this — there are girls crying for their mothers.” I reminded her of that. I really am very, very proud of my children.

BRATT: Having spent four-and-a-half years with the family — you’re around them and you see this deep, abiding love and loyalty and respect they have for one another. And they have a good time too. They work hard and they play hard.

HUERTA: We hope the film encourages mothers and grandmothers and sisters to get young children involved at a very young age. Because if they go on a march or protest or picket line, if they somewhat engage, maybe email their congressman or [Gov.] Jerry Brown — some kind of action that they can do to make a difference — that will stay with them for their entire lives and make them understand that they can make a difference.

People often make divisions — “Oh, we’ll stand up for this, but we can’t afford to defend that” — so it was interesting to hear Angela Davis’ comments about intersectionality, and others explaining how farmworkers brought together the labor, environmental, feminist and racial justice movements. Are they still linked, or have corporations and politicians effectively driven a wedge between them?

HUERTA: I think that’s a really great question, because we saw when the corporate interests get involved, what a difference they can make. When they tried to make this decision that they couldn’t serve people in public services because they were gay, immediately the world jumped in there and they had to change that. We see now the resignations of people from Trump’s advisory councils because of remarks he has made supporting neo-Nazis and the alt-right. If we can get more of the corporate world to embrace causes for justice that would make such a difference in our world.

Is corporate support necessary for environmental and labor movements to move forward in achieving goals?

HUERTA: I don’t think it’s the ultimate. I think the people’s pressure, the people’s organization, can make it happen. If the corporate world does come in it accelerates the process. One of the things we often forget is we are not consumers; we are citizens. If some of the corporate world forgets that, we have to find ways to put pressure on them, like boycotts. We know many people in the corporate world do support Donald Trump because they’re thinking of profits, not social capital. It’s obscene when you see some of these corporate figures, that their salaries are millions of dollars — $16, $20, $45 million. Where did that money come from initially? It came from the citizens of this country and the workers of this country.

The internet is a handy organizing tool, but is it a mixed blessing?

HUERTA: It’s easier in terms of getting information, definitely in terms of mobilization. But we have to remind people: It’s great to go on a protest, but you have to go back to your community and you’ve got to organize people at the local level. Get people on our school boards, city councils, commissions, state legislature.

BRATT: I would add one thing that I’ve learned from Dolores: The internet has leveled the playing field, but nothing compares to an in-person meeting, like a house meeting — the one-on-one physical contact with other people.

Dolores, in the film you’re heard giving a speech saying you were so proud to be an American when you first read the Constitution in school — but you came to realize that no matter what you did, you “could never really be an American. Never.” Has anything altered that opinion?

HUERTA: As a person of color and as a woman, you know, we always get these micro-aggressions — somebody’s going to denigrate you in one form or another. That’s something we have to keep working on. I believe that the only way we can end racism in our country is to make sure that every child, from kindergarten on, starts learning about the contributions of people of color, or this abysmal ignorance will remain in our society. The white supremacists need to respect people of color. Seventy-five percent of the world is people of color; 25% are Caucasian. This is a losing battle for the white supremacists. I like to remind people we only have one human race, homo sapiens, and [our ancestors] came from Africa! We’re all Africans, get over it — especially the David Dukes of the world.

BRATT: That line, ‘I will never really be an American’ — I think so many people of color, they’ve been born and raised here, they might be four, five, six generations here, and sometimes still feel they’re not fully a part of the country because our stories are deliberately kept out. That’s a debate we’re having in the national conversation right now, today, with Trump last night saying that we have to preserve ‘our’ heritage, ‘our’ culture, and with the ethnic studies ban that is still in place in Arizona being proposed in other states.

“Dolores” delves deep into Huerta’s personal and public life, exploring the intersection of feminism, motherhood and activism.

Dolores, what do you consider your greatest legacy?

HUERTA: Mine? Just being blessed enough to have met Fred Ross at the Community Service Organization. I think that’s a great point, too: the father of the Chicano Movement is an Anglo, Fred Ross. He’s the one who taught us how to organize, and that’s a tremendous legacy. Hopefully my legacy is that of an organizer. … The struggle that we are engaged in, it’s got to be a nonviolent struggle. There are young people that might get impatient. Remind them that Gandhi liberated India through nonviolence. The farm workers movement was able to do what they did through nonviolence. And my own foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, the work that we’re doing right now we are doing through the nonviolent movement. When people engage in nonviolence they grow in spirit and in skills, and that’s the way we have to win. Pablo Neruda the poet said, ‘They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t hold back the spring.’ And we are the spring that is going to come to fruition. And yes, we will gain justice and human rights for everybody.

BRATT: Bliss, you have just been organized by Dolores Huerta.

 

“Dolores” opens at the Nuart Theatre (11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.) at 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8, with Huerta and Bratt appearing to discuss the film. At 7:30 p.m., Huerta, Bratt and producer Carlos Santana speak during a panel moderated by Martin Sheen. Members of the Huerta and Chavez families attend a 7:30 p.m. screening on Saturday, Sept. 9. Call (310) 473-8530 or visit doloresthemovie.com.

 

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