by Duane Campbell
There is an important new film out – Dolores, the story of former DSA Honorary Chair Dolores Huerta and her fight for justice. (All DSA honorary chairs were eliminated by the 2017 DSA convention.) She is the woman holding the Huelga sign on the DSA landing page. If you want to be inspired by her struggle for social justice, go see the film.
Although at times ignored by the Anglo media, and at other times castigated as a red and an “outside agitator,” Huerta tirelessly led the fight for racial and labor justice alongside Cesar Chavez, becoming one of the most important feminists of the twentieth century. If you don’t know her story, you should ask yourself why. She continues the fight on many fronts to this day, at age 87. With unprecedented access to Dolores, the film reveals important parts of the struggle for dignity and justice for farmworkers, as well as the raw, personal stakes involved in committing one’s life to social change.
Dolores, produced by PBS and Independent Lens, serves labor history well by accurately describing the often overlooked role of Filipinos who initiated a strike in Delano in 1965, which the nascent NFWA (National Farm Workers Association) joined to create the great Grape Strike that changed labor history in the Southwest.
Video clips in the documentary illustrate the hard work required to build a union — particularly a union of Mexican, Filipino, and other migrant workers. Former DSA Honorary Chairs Eliseo Medina and Gloria Steinem, along with activist Angela Davis, provide historical records, commentary, insights, testimonies, and evaluations of Huerta’s important life work.
After negotiating the first union contract in grapes, Huerta moved to New York in 1968 to build the Grape Boycott, developing great union support for the effort to build a union for farmworkers. There she encountered Gloria Steinem and the New York feminist movement of that era. Over the years, Dolores became a well-known Latina/Chicana feminist as well as a union leader. Her participation contributed to a broadening of the mostly white feminist movement of that time to include the struggles of working-class women of color.
The film shows Dolores being assaulted by police in San Francisco during an anti-Bush demonstration in 1988, leaving her badly injured with two cracked ribs and a ruptured spleen. She sued the SF police department for violence and received a large settlement. The funds from the settlement became the endowment to establish the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which continues to this day to teach community organizing and women’s (particularly Latinas’) empowerment.
Since founding the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, along with Cesar Chavez and others, through her current work in supporting union democracy, civic engagement and empowerment of women and youth in disadvantaged communities, Huerta’s influence has been profound. The creation of the UFW changed the nature of labor organizing in the Southwest and contributed significantly to the growth of Latino politics in the U.S. Union professionals had argued that farm workers could not be organized into a union — but they were.
As Michael Harrington once did, Huerta frequently speaks at universities, union conventions, feminist organizations and forums on issues of social justice and public policy, and she remains active in the current immigrants’ rights struggle. I most recently saw her at a series of demonstrations in Sacramento in the spring of 2017 for the California Sanctuary Law SB 54, which passed the legislature after significant community mobilizations. It will become law on Jan.1, 2018. Dolores now works to develop a new generation of community leaders and advocating for the working poor, immigrants, women and youth as president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. The film records her being recognized for this work, including her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2012. ( BTW, Dolores supported Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, for president in the 2008 Democratic Party primary).
Dolores Huerta has played a major role in the U.S. civil rights movement as a labor organizer, community organizer and social activist for over 50 years. A staunch advocate for women’s rights and reproductive freedom, Dolores is a founding board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation and serves on the board of Ms. Magazine. The video shows examples of how, along with the union struggle, Huerta was famous for her assertive, militant assaults on sexism within the union, in politics, and in the broader society. She is a disciplined, effective advocate for change. Young feminists and socialists have much to learn from this film.
Testimony and interviews in the film show her achieving overtime pay for farmworkers, toilets in the fields, and worker protections from pesticides among others. These conditions exist only in California due in large part to the building of a farmworkers’ union. The video also highlights Dolores Huerta’s eventual exit from the UFW leadership after the death of Cesar Chavez.
That Huerta is not better known in the nation provides a commentary on how little the mainstream media, and much of the Left, know about the growth of Latino power in these movements.
In the film Curtis Acosta, known for his work to defend ethnic studies in Tucson, Arizona, argues that an accurate and complete history of Huerta’s life is a vital part of a complete education and serves to empower young Chicanas/Latinas to organize and to continue the several struggles for social justice. In the film, Huerta and others argue that developing a strong Latina feminist leadership is important for young girls today in order to continue the fight against misogyny and to develop local community organizers. Huerta’s role in labor history and feminist history provides a bridge to continue to teach new generations a more complete view, a more accurate view of our society.
Both Texas and Arizona specifically ban textbooks that contain references to Dolores Huerta because she is a member and (was then) an honorary chair of DSA, thus a socialist. Through my own efforts and that of several Latino allies we were able to mandate the inclusion of Dolores’ historical contributions, along with those of Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz and others, in all California public school textbooks beginning in 2017.
Most unions in the U.S., have suffered declines in membership and power in the last twenty years, including the UFW. Early in the film, Huerta quotes Cesar Chavez as saying, “We will not have a national farmworker union in our lifetime because of corporate power, grower political power and racism.” This observation has proven to be accurate.
Currently, with a weakened farm union, migrant farm labor remains an exploitable resource as a result of strategic racism. This system of racial oppression is created and enforced because it benefits the over-class of corporate agriculture and farm owners. It is a complex structure of institutions and individuals, from police and sheriffs to immigration authorities and anti-immigrant activists, white nationalist politicians and elected officials and their support networks.
Do yourself a favor. Contribute to your own education. To celebrate Latino Heritage Month, go see the film Dolores and then go out and organize a more multi-racial DSA chapter.
Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and past chair of Sacramento DSA. He serves on the Immigrant Rights Committee of DSA’s Anti Racism Working Group. The committee can be reached at [email protected]
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