Dolores Huerta is as American as they come—born in New Mexico, raised in California, co-founder, with the legendary labor activist César Chávez, of what would become the United Farm Workers. Yet in Dolores, the new documentary about her life as an organizer that opens theatrically September 1 in New York and will air on PBS early next year, the now 87-year-old Huerta is quoted saying that after years of political and social campaigns, “I found out no matter what I did, I could never be an American.”
“Because I am Latina,” she says today, “and am a person of color, every week I get these micro-aggressions. Because I am indigenous, they think you are coming to work somewhere.
“The assumptions we make about people,” she adds, a sense of weariness in her voice. “It’s something we have to recognize, and I’m glad it’s visible now, because if it’s not, we will never be able to end it.”
In other words, after fighting racism, sexism and the politically and the economically powerful for decades, Huerta is not—surprise, surprise—a fan of the current resident of the White House. You know, the one who talks about Mexicans bringing drugs, crime and rapists to the States. The one who says there are “very fine people” who just happen to be white supremacists.
“The racism is so out there, and Trump is giving a license to all the racists,” says Huerta. “He came out of the gate, and the first thing he did was attack Mexicans, and he continues to attack all people of color. And he’s not alone, when we think of the campaigns of all the other Republican candidates. They don’t want Latinos in the United States because they vote for Democrats.”
Huerta has been through all this before. Many times. She says the “racism of the growers” was the biggest obstacle to organizing farm workers, and their treatment of those people—paid 90 cents an hour, with no drinking water or toilets in the fields—was “inhuman. Those are basic rights we were fighting for. Yet to get them many people were killed, went to jail, were beaten.”
This brutality was also reflected in the indifference and casual cruelty of certain politicians, who almost gleefully opposed the UFW’s unionization efforts. Like then-California governor Ronald Reagan, who is shown in the film scarfing down grapes during the UFW’s 1965-1970 boycott campaign, smiling as if he were at some sort of Roman bacchanal. That kind of willful anti-humanism didn’t stop millions of people from joining the boycott, nor did it force the union to drop its protest. In fact, the boycott strategy effectively turned public opinion against the growers and the UFW ultimately emerged victorious, winning a collective bargaining agreement.
Huerta learned two key lessons from all this—that the right strategical approach can overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and the right to vote is a key element in moving a progressive agenda forward. In this latter respect, she is especially interested in Republican attempts to pass voter suppression laws that target blacks and Latinos. Noting that a federal judge recently struck down a Texas voter ID law, saying it was discriminatory, Huerta says that “the Republican Party has to realize the damage they are doing in the Southwest, and once people in Texas get the right to vote, a lot of the Republicans are going to realize their future as a party will be jeopardized if they continue this anti-immigrant rhetoric.”
Pointing to her home state, where Latinos now make up over a third of the population, Huerta sees it as, in a sense, Texas’ future. “In California we gave the nation Nixon and Reagan,” she says. “But now the state is so blue, the Republicans are irrelevant.”
(Needless to say, she thinks the idea of a border wall is a waste of money and “ridiculous.”)
Huerta is now a legitimate leftist icon. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she has had an exhibit about her life and career mounted at the Smithsonian, and her phrase “Si se puede” (“Yes, we can”) has entered the activist lexicon. But even though Huerta recognizes that the Latino community has come a long way from the days when she was trudging through fields trying to organize grape and lettuce pickers, she knows there is still a long way to go. Noting that there are only two states—California and Hawaii—that have recognized farm workers’ right to organize, she adds that even in California things could be a lot better. Just this past May, for example, 50 farmworkers were poisoned by a pesticide that the Trump Administration has refused to ban.
“We have to see what we can hold onto with the Trump Administration,” she says, “because there is an attack on the Latino community. We have a fight on our hands, but we have progressed. And it is not the whole country—only 30 percent or so are Trump supporters.”
Then, reverting to the organizer-speak that has carried her through decades of activism, Huerta adds: “We have the power, and the power is in the vote, in organizing. The people have the power, and they have to utilize that power.”