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Dolores Huerta: Ahead of her time

Wmc Features Dolores Huerta Jon Lewis 083017
Dolores Huerta during the 1966 Delano, California grape workers' strike. Photo by Jon Lewis, courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield.

The United Farm Workers transformed the U.S. labor movement, making impressive gains for its members, including salary increases, medical insurance, and paid vacations. Most people associate those gains and the first national farmworkers’ union with the late Cesar Chavez. 

But Dolores Huerta, the only woman to sit on the UFW executive board, co-founded the group with Chavez. When she was just 25, Huerta was one of the only women lobbyists in Sacramento for the Stockton Community Service Organization, which trained people to do grassroots organizing. She met Chavez at the CSO, and they went on to found the UFW in 1962. Her skills as a lobbyist were apparent when she secured Aid for Families with Dependent Children and disability insurance for farm workers in 1963. Huerta was a lead negotiator for the union; the director of a national grape boycott, which led to contracts for the farmworkers; and the originator of the phrase “Si, se puede,” which people associate with Chavez (and which Barack Obama adapted in his presidential campaign as “Yes, We Can”). Now 87, Huerta is still fighting for human rights with the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which trains people in grassroots organizing. 

Dolores, a new documentary about Huerta, shows how she fought not only for workers’ rights, but for environmental and racial justice as well as women’s rights. Dolores premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Inauguration Day, where Huerta led the Women’s March in Park City, Utah. It opens in New York September 1 and in other U.S. cities throughout September.

Huerta’s passion to change things began when she was a child in Stockton, California and noticed she and other Latino kids were treated differently.

“We were being racially profiled. We didn’t call it that back then, but the police would always stop us going home from a basketball game or a football game, and they would search us.  They didn’t do that to the white kids we knew,” Huerta said in an interview in San Francisco, the day after the film screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it won the audience award.  “You grow up with all of this racial injustice, and it just makes you really angry.” 

Meeting Fred Ross, who founded the CSO and taught her and Chavez about grassroots organizing, had a huge influence on her, Huerta said.

“He showed us what they were doing in Los Angeles with all the infrastructure improvements they brought into the community and sending police to prison for beating up Mexican kids,” she said. “They show this one shot in the film where you see 100 people at a meeting! I had never seen 100 Latinos at a meeting, and you could see you could really create that power to make those changes. It was very exhilarating.” 

Peter Bratt (La Mission, Take Me Home) agreed to direct the movie after he got a call from the executive producer, musician Carlos Santana, who believes Huerta’s story is important to tell. Bratt, raised in San Francisco by a single Peruvian indigenous mother who took him to marches with Huerta and Chavez as a child, agreed. But he had never made a documentary, and he wasn’t sure how to make one about labor history. Once he started researching Huerta’s story, though, he realized how exciting and dynamic it is, with her at the intersection of different struggles for justice.

“She started off in labor and then she was confronting pesticides that were being sprayed on the workers, which kind of led to this new term: environmental justice,” Bratt said. “Then she’s coming up against obstacles based on racial inequality, and so she becomes an advocate for racial justice. Then the same thing when she’s advocating for the boycott and encounters Gloria Steinem and other feminist leaders in New York, and there’s this cross-pollination.”

In the movie, Steinem and Huerta talk about learning from one another when Huerta was in New York. Steinem says she got Huerta’s attention when she got the heir of the A&P supermarkets to boycott the A&P in support of the farmworkers. Steinem says she learned about labor history and the conditions of the farmworkers from Huerta.

“I know that she set me on fire in terms of racial injustice,” Steinem says in the movie. “I would not have been able to see what’s hidden in the fields without Dolores.”

And Huerta, in turn, a mother of 11 who was raised Catholic, says she changed her mind about a women’s right to choose, through talking with Steinem and other feminists. 

“They really helped me with that transition that you do have a right to decide whether to have a child or not,” Huerta said in the interview. “When you look at the so-called pro-life people, they’re usually all white men or they’re all men, and they are going to make decisions about what women can do with their bodies? It’s a right women need to have.”

Some of Huerta’s 11 children are interviewed in Dolores. Her daughter Camila Chavez, the executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, is one of them. Chavez tears up in the movie, talking about how hard it was, having her mother gone so much. Now she feels that it was a sacrifice she and her siblings made for the movement, and she’s proud of all that her mother has accomplished.

“She was one of only two women lobbyists in Sacramento at that time and had to endure a lot of discrimination, but she was still successful at passing major legislation,” Chavez said in a phone interview. “She was a director of the national grape boycott and a successful negotiator for the farmworkers’ union, and she’s held so many positions and accomplished so much.”

Chavez says it wasn’t only her mother who was a feminist, but her mother’s mother as well.

“In the ’40s, she left her abusive husband and came to California and owned a restaurant and ran a motel as a single mother,” Chavez said. “She was ahead of her time.”

At her foundation, Huerta focuses on coaching young people to become organizers and leaders. There’s something in particular she would like young women to learn, which she talks about in the film—claiming their work as their own.

“At one of our meetings, one of our vice presidents got up there and claimed credit for all the work I’d done on the grape boycott in New York.  Luckily, I got to speak after him, and I said, ‘I just want to correct the record here—I’m the one who did all this work.’ He was very upset with me, and said, ‘Why did you embarrass me?’ and I said, ‘Well, why are you taking credit for my work?’” Huerta said. “Gloria Steinem, in her book Revolution From Within, speaks about that directly and says, ‘You’ve got to take credit for your work.’” 

At 87, Huerta has earned the right to take a break, her daughter Camila Chavez says. But that’s not who she is.

“She’s not interested in having a quiet life,” Chavez said. “She’s dedicated herself to the grassroots organizing model.”



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