Film and TV

Pioneering Activist Dolores Huerta — and a Rousing New Doc — Won’t Let History Write Her Out

Dolores Huerta, at the Delano Strike in 1966, is the legendary leader who was behind the epochal 16-year California grape boycott that won farmworkers their basic rights.
Dolores Huerta, at the Delano Strike in 1966, is the legendary leader who was behind the epochal 16-year California grape boycott that won farmworkers their basic rights. Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield
Let me set the record straight: Dolores Huerta created the rally cry “Si se puede,” otherwise known as “Yes we can.”

If you’ve only ever seen the 2014 film Cesar Chavez — about the legendary farmworkers union president — or watched an Barack Obama campaign speech, you may have thought the phrase originated with one of those two charismatic men. Not so. Huerta may have been given merely a cameo in the Chavez film (played by Rosario Dawson), but this small-framed dynamo who’s still going strong at the age of 87 was co-founder of the union and every bit the engine behind the epochal 16-year California grape boycott that won farmworkers their basic rights and drew up a blueprint for today’s activists.

“You know, Cesar wanted us to boycott potatoes, but I said, ‘Cesar, people think of Idaho when they think of potatoes, not California,’ ” Huerta tells me. She laughs, and director Peter Bratt, who sits beside her, promises he’ll include that story in the special features accompanying a future home video release of his new documentary Dolores. The history books may have forgotten Huerta — hell, the Texas Board of Education literally voted to remove her from theirs — but now, finally, with Dolores, we’re getting the lesson we deserve.

“I always thought I knew Dolores Huerta,” Bratt tells me. She listens with an impish grin on her face. “But going through the archival footage, I realized I didn’t know her at all.”

Bratt’s own mother was an activist, involved in the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Alcatraz Island between 1969 and ’71. His passion for telling Huerta’s story came from a frustration at her erasure. When he sent out his archival producer Jennifer Petrucelli to find footage of Huerta, he was shocked at the bulk of discoveries. “Jen literally crisscrossed the country to visit archives,” he says, speaking of the “treasure troves” of documentation of the activist’s work, of which the documentary is comprised. “I kept thinking, ‘For a person that people were saying now was unimportant, news crews and journalists and others sure did put their camera on her a lot in that time.’ ”

Fellow activists like Art Torres (also a former Democratic California state senator) insist in the documentary that Huerta was not remembered like her male counterparts simply because she is a woman. “She was the chief negotiator (for the union). People knew it,” he says.

Many photos show the thin-framed leader surrounded by men but beaming nonetheless. There’s something about Huerta’s indomitable spirit that pulls in the justice-minded like a tractor beam, which makes it easy to see why some men would have been intimidated by or even jealous of her. She speaks so quickly and with such precision that it’s nearly impossible to shake her from her train of thought — I type 80 wpm, and I had to slow the tape down to 40 percent of its normal speed just to transcribe this interview.

A master at negotiation and empowerment, and something of an optimist, Huerta tells me that even though neo-Nazis are on the rise, there is hope because of people like Heather Heyer and the 40,000 demonstrators in Boston last week. In addition, education starting in pre-K is the way we can fight white supremacy, but specifically through reframing history classes and reinstituting ethnic studies classes (of the sort that Jan Brewer banned in Arizona). As I try to catch up, she points out that, also, this nation was brown to begin with and that, in fact, all humans were brown and descendants of Africans, so we must “tell the David Dukes of the world, ‘Get over it. You’re African, OK?’ ”

Huerta does not waste a minute of her life with trivialities. Being in her presence is like getting a shot of adrenaline to the heart. And she seems to get a rush herself when she talks about the Dolores Huerta Foundation victories: Just two months ago, a couple of women she organized who speak only broken English were able to get on the water board, detect embezzlement and get an indictment for the city’s water manager.

“You know, if I had known then that what I was doing was going to be used in a film, I would have talked slower,” Dolores jokes. “I’m talking really fast and sometimes I can’t even understand what I’m saying. My grandfather used to call me Seven Tongues.” She moves on from that into a rousing speech on the importance of organizing locally before Bratt says, “Watch out! She’s organizing you!” (Reader: it worked.)

She may talk a mile a minute, but those who listen have heard her messages loud and clear — Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton all appear in this documentary, citing Huerta’s valor and integrity and influence on their lives. In 2016, Huerta, a lifelong socialist but ever the savvy strategist, came out in support of Clinton during the Democratic primaries, much to the chagrin of Rosario Dawson, who was campaigning for Bernie Sanders at the time. The two had a public exchange of open letters. Huerta heard Dawson out but disagreed with her about who might be a better ally to Latinos. Then she adamantly assured the press that there were no hard feelings and said that “when the dust settles … we will be together.”

These are words from a woman who’s been beaten nearly to death for her beliefs. They’re words from an activist who stood on stage next to Robert F. Kennedy just moments before he was shot and killed. They’re words from someone who’s been in the shit — it seems there is nothing that can faze Huerta. And watching this documentary, it’s clear there is no one in the world who can deliver bad news with such a comforting smile.

In the film, her friend Ramona Holguin says, “Dolores doesn’t waste time on negativity.”

When I ask her about Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville, she smiles again. “I have faith, and as an organizer, I always see negative things as opportunities,” she says. “We can organize around that, raise people’s consciousness and get people more involved in activities to end some of these isms we have.”

Sí, se puede, Dolores Huerta.
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