Dolores Huerta is done being edited out of her own history

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Dolores Huerta had “a calling.” That’s how she put it, and that’s why, even though she was then the single mother of seven children with a stable job as a teacher, she left her steady work and some of her younger children behind to go Delano, about two hours north of Los Angeles, and organize farmworkers.

It was the early 1960s, and these workers were existing in a state of sort-of slavery: The immigrant labor force earned feudal wages and had no access to health care, often going without clean drinking water as they worked long days in the smothering California heat.

Huerta would go on to co-found the United Farm Workers with her friend Cesar Chavez, and he would go on to get the lion’s share of credit and adulation for the work they did together. It used to not bother Huerta so much, being edited out of her own history; it was just the way it was. (No one ever puts it this way, but the inverse of “behind every great man is a great woman” is “in front every great woman is a man, blocking her from view.”) But she’s since changed her mind.

Now 87, Huerta wants to be known: As an organizer behind a nationwide grape boycott of California grapes that succeeded—in spite of flagrant obstruction and trolling by Ronald Reagan, then governor of California—and resulted contracts for the unionized, mostly Filipino-American laborers; as a survivor of police brutality who nearly died in the hospital after an officer beat her with a baton while she was protesting a rally for President George H.W. Bush in 1988; and even as the firebrand who, in 2006, told Tuscon High School students that “Republicans hate Latinos,” a remark that was later used by Arizona politicians to justify passing a ban on ethnic studies. (Just weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that the ban was racist and violated students’ constitutional rights.)

So in 2012, when President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States—it is not surprising that she beamed as he described the success of her boycott and how “she has fought to give more workers a seat at the table” ever since. (You know, just a nod from one community organizer to another.)

“And on a personal note,” Obama added, “Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, ‘Sí se puede,’ — ‘Yes, we can.’ Knowing her, I’m pleased that she let me off easy. Because Dolores does not play.”

President Barack Obama awards American labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, May 29, 2012, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Huerta is the subject of a documentary, Dolores, which opens in theaters in September and will air on PBS in early 2018. Directed by Peter Bratt, the film follows Huerta from almost the very beginning (as Huerta told ThinkProgress, the documentary neglects to mention that she was a Girl Scout) as she advocates alongside, and on behalf of, virtually every marginalized group in the United States.

Huerta and Bratt sat down with ThinkProgress to talk about Huerta’s life of activism, her belief in non-violent protest, and her shifting feelings about her American identity.

In Dolores, you talk about how it used to not be important to you to get credit for the work that you do, but you’ve changed your stance on that. I’m curious what that evolution was like for you. What made you change your mind?

DH: Well, I had a couple of instances where some of the men, board members, one of them got up in a meeting and took credit for my work in New York City, for organizing the grape boycott. I was furious. Right after he did that, I got up and said, “I just want to set the record straight here: I am the one that did that work in New York.” This guy wasn’t even in New York, and he’s taking credit for my work! And after that, he was really mad at me. He said, “How could you embarrass me in front of all those people?” I said, “Well, why did you get up there and lie and take credit for the work that I did?”

Then I started really noticing that not only was that happening to me. We had another instance where a woman came up with this great idea, and we’re sitting in a board meeting, and he comes out with [that idea], and I said, “Wait a minute, Cecelia had that idea because you did.” Then I started really noticing, more and more, how men will plagiarize and take credit for women’s work… I’ve noticed that it just happens a lot. And when I read Gloria Steinem’s book, [Revolution from Within], she says, and I quote her in the movie, you’ve got to put lights around your work. You’ve got to bang the drum to make sure people know that you did it. We, as women, we see that happening and we don’t object to it, we don’t complain. It seems like it’s just part of life.

It seemed like, from watching the film, that for you it was about not making it about you, but making it about the work that you’re doing. Early on, did it feel to you like if you were to put those lights around what you’re doing, that it would be shifting the focus away from the issues?
DH: As an organizer, that’s what you do: You organize people. You become a facilitator, and you empower people to take control of their own lives, their own communities. Show them that they have the power to make changes. And sometimes they don’t realize they have that power… You can get engaged, you can make that happen. And a woman told me that, “You opened up another world for me. I didn’t know that world existed, that I could get involved and make a change.” And these are things that we celebrate, when you see people take power, become leaders, and do all these incredible things. And you are just the facilitator that made that happen.

Dolores Huerta at the Delano Strike in 1966. CREDIT: Photo by Roy Chatfield/Dolores/PBC

So you, Peter, were part of this credit-giving moment by deciding to make this documentary. What was the process like for you to pull up all this old footage and see the reality of Dolores’ contributions compared with the perception of those contributions?
PB: That was a very remarkable thing to discover. In the research, she did all this stuff but she’s not mentioned in any of these books! And she’s never mentioned as a cofounder. I was really stunned by that. I would even go on the UFW website and they don’t mention her as cofounder. So something is not adding up. And going into the archive and realizing, for somebody who’s “not that important,” how come she’s so well-documented throughout the last seven decades? That became a very intriguing aspect of what the story would eventually become. It was Carlos Santana, the legendary musician, who got the ball started rolling by saying, “We’ve got to tell a superhero movie, the story of the real Wonder Woman, and we’ve got to do it while she’s still with us, and that’s Dolores Huerta.” (Editor’s note: Santana is the film’s executive producer.) 

“Voting has got to be part and parcel of the movement. It’s got to be the foundation of the movement. And if people don’t vote, everything stays the same. You can protest until the sky turns yellow or the moon turns blue, and it’s not going to change anything if you don’t vote.”

Dolores, was there anything you saw in the documentary that was different from how you remembered it or that surprised you?

DH: Not really. It’s very, very accurate. There were a couple of things that were left out. One is that I was a teacher. I gave up this teaching job to go to Delano, a very secure job, that provided enough money for my family. And the fact that I was a Girl Scout.

PB: The truth is, her life is so rich and so complex. She’s a huge advocate for LGBT equality, and this goes back to Stonewall, and she campaigned with Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician in United States history. There’s just so many rich chapters. Her involvement with the Feminist Majority, protesting nuclear power plants, anti-fracking, I could go on and on and on. Her support of the American Indian movement, the occupation of Alcatraz, the coalition with the Black Panthers. It’s such a rich and complex history; you would need five feature films, or an entire season of a series, just to cover the breadth of her work.

Do you remember at what point in your career that you realized that all of these separate social justice issues were aligned, and that intersectionality was the best way forward to get the change that you wanted?

DH: With the Community Service Organization [which organized for Latinos’ civil rights], the first organization I belonged to, we were trying to pass legislation so that all the people who were permanent residents of the United States could get public assistance, we had to go to other organizations. For instance, there were a lot of people from England that had never become citizens, there were people from Israel, and people from other countries. So we went to these other groups to get them to support our legislation… In the farmworker movement, again, we would not have won if we hadn’t gone to the Puerto Rican organization, the African American organization, the women’s organizations, to help us do the grape boycott. So that was kind of part of the organizing work that we always did.

#3 -Dolores Huerta press conference (1975) CREDIT: Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs Wayne State University

I’m on the board of the Equality California, Feminist Majority, I’m on the board of People for the United Way, of course I’m active in Latino and immigrant rights organizations. I always saw my role as getting LGBT to support the immigrant rights movement—which they did—and getting Latino organizations to support the women’s movement, for reproductive rights. So that’s kind of the work that I’ve always been doing. The first name of the movie was going to be “Weaving Movements Together.”… Because this has always been my work, is to bring people together.

PB: I do think, though, as a woman, as a Latina, as a labor organizer, she occupies that place of intersectionality. It evolved organically. They’re organizing for labor rights, but they happen to be Mexican Americans and immigrants and there’s a racial component—racism—that you’re dealing with. And at the same time, people in the fields are being sprayed with these toxic pesticides that are killing them, so it becomes and environmental issue. Within the movement itself, she’s coming up against pushback because she’s a woman. And all these elements collided, and you have this very unique life experience. I don’t think anyone else could have made those connections like she did, because of who she was at that particular time in history.

“She articulated something I had felt all my life, and that other people feel, and that is: You’re born here, but somehow you feel like, you go into other communities and you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You feel like a guest. You hear rhetoric like, ‘We need to take back our country.’”

What do you make of the modern activism happening right now? The Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March — does that give you hope? Is it disheartening to see that we still need this on this scale?

PB: Not to mention the Charlottesville alt-right movement.

Of course. The many, many sides of activism.

DH: I think it’s really, really great. When you have 40,000 people marching in Boston against the alt-right — and you see that the majority of people marching are Anglos, they’re not people of color… I think that really gives hope for the nation, because these are young people that understand why LGBT people should have rights, and why women should have reproductive rights, and they’re against racism, and they’re marching with Black Lives Matter. I think that’s really, really important.

The one thing that worries me is that a lot of the young people who are marching are not voting. That is where the connection needs to be made. Because ultimately, if we don’t vote, you can’t elect progressives to these public offices that we need: to Congress, state legislatures, city councils, school boards. So voting has got to be part and parcel of the movement. It’s got to be the foundation of the movement. And if people don’t vote, everything stays the same. You can protest until the sky turns yellow or the moon turns blue, and it’s not going to change anything if you don’t vote.

PB: They asked her to lead the Women’s March in Park City the day after Inauguration, and that’s what she told everybody: “It’s awesome that you’re out here marching in the snow, right on, great. But it doesn’t matter unless you go vote!”

DH: Really! And organize in your community, and educate and inform people who are ignorant because they don’t know, they haven’t been taught. People are working hard and don’t have time to hear or read the news, and if they do see the evening news, it’s going to be the crime report… You’ve got to get informed on your own, basically. And now with the internet, you can do that, which is a great thing. People can mobilize and make an incredible impact. But you’ve got to vote. And you’ve got to run for office.

In the documentary, and I believe you’ve said this more than once, you said that you found out that, no matter what you did, you could never be an American. Do you still feel that way?

DH: In many ways, yes. As a person of color, you get these little microaggressions all the time. It’ll pop up at the airport or a restaurant or when you’re trying to purchase something. Or you’re watching the news and Trump is out berating Mexicans, talking about building a wall. This is my heritage. My dad was in the service, he was in World War II and the Korean War. My brother was, too. Many of my friends were killed in World War II and in the Korean War. So many sacrifices… So what do you have to do to be considered, to be treated as an equal in this country? And I think it’s still going to take more time.

“What do you have to do to be considered, to be treated as an equal in this country?”

We have to do more organizing. We have to do more educating. I keep saying to people that unless we start teaching what the contributions of people of color have been to building the United States of America, starting with Native Americans who were the first slaves. African American slaves who built the White House. People from Mexico and Asia who built the infrastructure of this country: The railroads, the bridges. Who tilled this soil. We were an agricultural country at one time. Let’s teach kids, at the kindergarten level, what the contributions of people of color were to building the United States of America. People are going to continue to be infected with racism in their heads [if we don’t].

PB: I’m glad you brought that up, because that was an old audio clip. We couldn’t find the video.

Where was it from?

PB: It was a speech in, I want to say, the late ’80s. She’d won some award, and I think she went off-topic. And when I heard her say that, I started crying. Because, like her, I’m an American, I was born and raised here. She articulated something I had felt all my life, and that other people feel, and that is: You’re born here, but somehow you feel like, you go into other communities and you feel like you’re walking on eggshells. You feel like a guest. You hear rhetoric like, “We need to take back our country. We have a black man in office and we need to uphold our heritage. We need to preserve our statues and protect our culture. Brown people are invading from the south; we have to build this wall.” You don’t want to feel like you’re not an American. You want to feel like this is yours. And these conversations push you to feel that way. It’s dog-whistle politics. There’s a subtext.

DH: The descendants of slavery in this country, we never gave reparations… We have a lot of healing that we need to do in our country, but it’s got to start with knowledge, with people understanding what’s going on. Because the majority of the people in the United States are people with good hearts. We saw that because when they responded to the boycott.

Dolores Huerta speaks at the podium. c1970s. CREDIT: Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs Wayne State University

At one point in the documentary, you talk about how you really have to love people to be able to do this work that you do. And I had never really that about that, because so much of the work that you do is dealing with people who hate you. Why is love integral to this work? 

DH: When you think about what kinds of methods of organizing and tactics, when you talk about non-violence, that means the people that are hating you, that you’re not going to hate them back. You’re not going to use any violence against them. You’re going to try to deal with love, to be able to change things. We know that love is powerful and love grows, and it becomes more and more powerful. When you love people, you’re wiling to sacrifice something, whether it’s your time or your resources, you put them ahead of yourself. I think that’s why love is really, really important. And I know that sounds kind of corny, but when you think about the people who have done that—Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King—they gave their lives to help other people. And when people do that, it makes you stronger, and it makes your life fulfilling. It makes your life worthwhile. Because you can say, what I did really helped that other person. I think that’s what we need now.

“As a woman, as a Latina, as a labor organizer, she occupies that place of intersectionality.”

Sometimes we’re so much into our own careers, our own comfort, that we kind of forget. And Gandhi said, “We have to live simply so that others can simply live.” We have a very materialistic world, where people want two cars and two houses. All of this stuff that you can’t take with you when you die. You never saw a U-Haul attached to the hearse, you know? If people can just give up a little bit of their own money and their own time, we can make the world a better place. And vote.

It reminds me of the Obamas talking about hope and how at the time it seemed, as you say, like a corny message. And after the 2016 election, Michelle Obama gave this interview where she said, essentially, now you see how important hope is, because you know what not having hope feels like.

DH: As an organizer, I have to say, when you see negative things happen—like what’s happening right now—you go, “Oh man, what a great organizing opportunity we have!” Because now people who were out to lunch, who were taking a nap during the last election, are saying, “Oh my God, I need to get engaged.” And that’s what this movie is all about. It’s about getting people engaged at the local level, the national level, the state level also: Vote. Because we know the majority of people are good-willed, but if you don’t do anything, we have what we have right now.

PB: There’s a spiritual calling here. There’s a selflessness that’s happening here, and I think it’s really beautiful. I hope we capture that in the film. There’s corazon, there’s heart, and I think that’s what people are reacting to… If we can capture that essence, we’re getting close to truth.

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