Many in the Chicanx community know Dolores Huerta as the woman who brought the huelga to agro-businessmen in the Salinas Valley and beyond. She is the subject of corridos, murals, poems and pop culture. Now, Huerta's story is told in Dolores, a documentary directed by Peter Bratt, which opens at the Center for Contemporary Arts this Friday Oct. 6 (7 pm. $15. 1050 Old Pecos Trail, 982-1338). As a steadfast social justice advocate and union organizer, Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers Union in 1962 with Cesar Chávez. She was 32 at the time with seven young children to care for (she later had four more) and the will of a fed-up Chicana. The phrase Huerta coined, "Si Se Puede," was not only the rallying cry of the UFW, but also the slogan Barrack Obama borrowed for his presidential runs. In talking with Huerta, now 87 and originally from New Mexico, it's clear that she is still all business, taking on everything from tax law in California to teaching people of color to run for office. As she says, "the journey for justice is not over."
How did you learn to become such a powerful public speaker?
Just getting the message out there gives me the impetus and motivation. For example, [the 1973 UFW boycott of] grapes and lettuce. But as part of the UFW, we also taught other people to speak in public. Immigrants who never had the chance to have a voice did. During the grape boycott, 40 farmworkers went to New York City in a school bus to speak at churches and labor unions, asking others to boycott grapes. They helped form committees and were on radio shows. All of this happened before social media, and it was successful.
Where did you get your values from?
New Mexico. I grew up in Dawson until I was 6 and a half years old, when my parents divorced. That's when I moved to California. I spent another summer there when I was 11. But I continued to have a lot of cousins and tíos from New Mexico, all of whom shared the same values. Many were devoteos of Saint Francis of Xavier. They were known to give and help people. There was an obligation to your community. Part of the New Mexican tradition that I inherited from the old families was that everybody would sit around talking; politics was always part of the conversation. It was something we all did. Voting and political participation was just part of growing up. I would like to make that part of everyone's tradition. My father was also an assemblyman in the state legislature and worked in the miner's union. I always say that people should go to New Mexico to get humanized.
What are you working on now with your foundation(doloreshuerta.org) or otherwise?
We worked on a proposition to tax millionaires in California an extra 3 percent, which passed on a state level and brings $9 billion more into the state. That was Proposition 30 from 2012, which was renewed as Proposition 55 in 2016 because of a sunset provision. We are also working on a proposition to make corporations pay their fair share of property taxes. As part of the foundation, we have house meetings, sometimes in people's yards if there isn't enough room, where we bring people together to talk about what conditions in their community need to be addressed and then we come up with an action plan. We encourage them to run for office after they've gone through the learning process of canvassing and voter registration. One woman who was a maid in a hotel joined. She is now a member of her local utility board. I'm also working on a book project with my daughter about how you become strong to be able to give other people a voice so that they can make changes.
For those who will watch Dolores, was there anything that wasn't portrayed, but that's still important to know about you?
Yes. My children and I were never estranged as the documentary portrays. I had to leave them with friends at times, like when I went to New York for the grape boycott, but we were all close. They grew up really strong. Also, the documentary doesn't mention that I left teaching at 25 to become a community organizer or that I was a Girl Scout, which was an incredible experience. I sang at hospitals, made clothes for babies, went camping and learned to speak in public. Also the documentary doesn't correct that at least one third of the executive board of the UFW were women. There were a lot of women leaders.
The documentary speaks to the intersectional nature of the Chicano Movement among many other social justice movements coming of age in the 1960s. Was that true?
Yes. One scene right before Bobby Kennedy gets shot, you hear the speech where he says, "We have an obligation to our fellow citizens." Homeless people, disabled people, women, labor unions are and were all in the struggle. It's about empowering people and telling them that they don't have to wait for change.
How was it being the victim of police brutality in the 1988 protest in San Francisco of Vice President George Bush's opposition to the UFW's grape boycott, and what can you say about it now?
Hurtful. I ended up suing the city of San Francisco, which enabled me to do more political work and start a 501c3. [The Dolores Huerta Foundation is] dedicated to grassroots community organizing. In my own community of Bakersfield, California, there have been more people killed by police there than anywhere else in the US. Some people have suggested that I move to the Bay Area, but I think it's important to stay in these communities in these places that need to be corrected.