A passionate pioneer keeps organizing at 87

The first surprise is that Dolores Huerta is still quick, vibrant and busy; we don't expect that from an 87-year-old. The second is that she has accomplished so much, without becoming well-known. Now more people will know her, after an excellent documentary airs Tuesday (March 27) on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Dolores Huerta grew
up in a world of limits and barriers.

This was before
powerless people had a voice, long before teens would lead their own
march. Many people – including Latinos, farmworkers and women –
were on the outside.

Then Huerta went
into action. “I learned that you could really make policy changes
by organizing people and having them come together .... That was
exhilarating,” she said.

Agreements were
signed; bills were passed. “She was like a folk hero,” said Peter
Bratt, whose “Dolores” airs Tuesday on PBS.

A folk hero that
many of us had never heard of; her colleague's name is now on street
signs and schools and more. “History tells us that Cesar Chavez
transformed the U.S. labor movement, (but) he did not do it alone,”
said Marie Nelson, a PBS vice-president. “He had a partner, an
equal partner.”

That was Huerta, now
87. In 1962, the two of them created what would become the National
Farmworkers Union. Back then “everybody just assumed that men
always had to take the leading role,” she said. So “Cesar said to
me, 'One of us has to be the spokesperson. Is it OK if it's me?'”

“And I said, 'Of
course.' And looking back, I think I would have said, 'You know what,
let's go 50/50.'”

Huerta had grown up
in New Mexico and – after her parents' divorce when she was 3 –
Stockton, Cal. Her dad, the son of Mexican immigrants, was a miner;
her mom owned a restaurant and hotel. She went to community college,
taught elementary school briefly and headed to a middle-class life.

She had long
American roots; ancestors, she said, fought in the Civil War (for the
Union), World War II and Korea. “But that doesn't make any
difference if you're a person of color.”

Added was another
bias. One labor leader told her “farm-labor organizing was no place
for a woman,” Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval wrote in “The
Fight in the Fields” (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

But Huerta
persisted. It was tough, she said, “to leave the job as a school
teacher, with a safe, secure position, and to go down and organize
(with) no income and seven children.”

Three years later,
her group launched a national grape boycott. Ronald Reagan called it
“illegal and immoral”; Richard Nixon said, “I stand firmly
against it.” But Robert Kennedy backed it; on June 5, 1968, he
stood alongside Huerta as he spoke to a Los Angeles crowd.

“He was actually
supposed to go with me to a ballroom,”she said. “We had a
mariachi waiting.”

That's when he was
killed. “It was very devastating to everyone .... A lot of people
became very cynical and stopped being engaged in political activity.”

She didn't have that
luxury. “We were right in the middle of a big fight with the grape
boycott and the farmworker momement, so we had to continue. There was
no way we could stop.”

Two years later, the
strike ended; as chief negotiator, Huerta got benefits for
farmworkers. “Many of them now have a pension plan and a medical
plan and they got the toilets that they needed in the field.”

She also had major
successes as a lobbyist, in California (benefits for non-citizens)
and nationally (the 1986 immigration amnesty bill).”We actually had
to cut many, many chapters of Dolores' work,” Bratt said of his
film. “Her work in the LGBT community started way back with

Huerta was slower to
align with feminists. “Like many Latinos, I was very much
influenced by the Catholic church, in terms of thinking of abortion
as being a sin.” She eventually marched with Gloria Steinem and
favored choice. “It was a difficult decision for me.”

Her own life has
included 11 children from two marriages and then a long relationship
with the late Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother. Some have struggled;
others include a doctor and lawyer.

When Cesar died in
1993, Huerta was passed over for presidency; in 2002, she resigned
with a warm speech. Cesar Chavez “didn't have the privilege of
saying goodbye,” she said. “I have that privilege.”

She was 72 then and
promptly started a new foundation, plunging back into community
organizing. She resisted movie and TV ideas – until a star called.
“You can't say no to Carlos Santana.”

He produced
“Dolores”; Bratt directed and his younger brother (actor Benjamin
Bratt) consulted.

“We were raised by
an activist mother (a Peruvian native), who actually marched with
Dolores,” Peter said. “We were shocked that people didn't know
who (Huerta is).” Now they might.

-- “Dolores,”
9-11 p.m. Tuesday on PBS, under the “Independent Lens” title

-- Previously won
awards at five film festivals and was nominated at the Sundance