WHO has the power? People have the power!”
Small, slender Dolores Huerta, with her soft but firm voice, was whipping up a crowd at a Los Angeles rally against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. Dozens of people boisterously echoed her words.
“She’s an icon,” actress Jane Fonda said. Fonda, who had organized the protest, has frequently crossed paths with the indefatigable Huerta, an activist in an impressive array of movements: for union, feminist, ecologist and human rights — and for nonviolence.
At 86, the inspiration for Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan — he awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor — remains largely unknown to the wider public.
She was a comrade-in-arms of Cesar Chavez, the famous leader of farm worker protests. Yet while he has had streets named after him and a monument raised in his honor, Huerta remains largely in the shadows.
But now, a documentary called “Dolores,” previewed at the Sundance Film Festival last month, wants to give Huerta her proper place in history.
The film, co-produced by guitarist Carlos Santana, has “an important message that women’s participation in history also has to be recorded and memorialized,” she said in an interview from the offices of her foundation in Bakersfield, in the heart of California farm country.
“Hopefully it will inspire more women to get involved.”
Women’s role minimized
“I call it HIS-tory,” she said. “It’s easy to see in the last election — we had a woman that was superbly qualified to be president of the United States that was not elected even if she won the popular vote, and you had a man who had no experience in governing at all that was elected.”
“It shows how women in our societies are devalued and disrespected,” Huerta said.
Director Peter Bratt says Huerta, the descendant of Mexican immigrants who was raised by a single mother during the Depression, “has impacted our democratic evolution in the last 50 years.”
“Dolores” traces the birth of the United Farm Workers, co-founded in the 1960s by Huerta and Chavez.
It revisits their struggle for the basic human rights of farm workers: fresh water, functioning toilets, safe working conditions, regular rest breaks, unemployment insurance and a minimum wage.
Huerta and Chavez organized strikes, spectacular marches on the California legislature, and a nationwide grape boycott to protest the poor conditions facing vineyard workers, notably their exposure to toxic pesticides.
She has been arrested more than 20 times, has been beaten, and was seriously wounded by the police during a 1988 protest in San Francisco.
Twenty years earlier, she stood on a podium alongside Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, just minutes before he was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.
That incident left her with a fierce commitment to nonviolence and a passionate dislike for firearms.
“It was very emotional for me to see the movie,” she said. “I relived a lot of things.”
She added: “Many issues it addresses are still relevant, like police violence, discrimination against women, the use of pesticides...”
With the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, Huerta is girding for “many, many fights.”
She fears the new administration could roll back gains on environmental protection, women’s right to abortion, gun control, minimum wages and more.
“We’ve faced tremendous obstacles with President Nixon, Reagan when he was governor of California, the agribusiness,” she said, adding: “This is the nature of struggles: You take two steps forward and one step back. But you keep going.”
Huerta’s parting message for her fellow citizens: “Get yourselves organized, go to your neighborhood, talk to people, get involved.”