Dolores Huerta Little-known militant icon with a big part in history

She was a comrade-in-arms of Cesar Chavez, the famous leader of farm worker protests.

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American labour leader Dolores Huerta visits the graves of Cesar and Helen Chavez in Keene, California, on January 31, 2017 play

American labour leader Dolores Huerta visits the graves of Cesar and Helen Chavez in Keene, California, on January 31, 2017

(AFP)
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"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 told AFP. Fonda, who had organized the protest, has frequently crossed paths with the indefatigable militant 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.

Women's role minimised

US President Barack Obama awarded Dolores Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a 2012 ceremony in the East Room of the White House play

US President Barack Obama awarded Dolores Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a 2012 ceremony in the East Room of the White House

(AFP)

"Hopefully it will inspire more women to get involved."

"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 (UFW), 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.

Arrests and beatings

Jane Fonda joined Dolores Huerta to protest against Wells Fargo during a rally in Hollywood, on December 21, 2016 play

Jane Fonda joined Dolores Huerta to protest against Wells Fargo during a rally in Hollywood, on December 21, 2016

(AFP/File)

This mother of 11 children (she was twice married, and also had children by Chavez's brother Richard) marched for abortion rights alongside Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem.

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..."

The documentary also shows the sacrifices made: those who lost their lives, were beaten or jailed after clashes with police, the children who sometimes had to raise themselves as their mother criss-crossed the country on behalf of her many causes.

American labour leader Dolores Huerta points to a photograph of her with Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross, during an interview with AFP in Bakersfield, California, on January 31, 2017 play

American labour leader Dolores Huerta points to a photograph of her with Cesar Chavez and Fred Ross, during an interview with AFP in Bakersfield, California, on January 31, 2017

(AFP)

"But it is very satisfying to think we've built a strong movement," she said, speaking from the monument to Chavez at UFW headquarters on a bucolic property in the town of Keene.

The UFW's influence has faded, however, since Chavez died in 1993.

But enough about the past, says Huerta.

The subject of "Dolores" would have liked for the documentary to "be less about the past and more about the future."

She mentioned the many works of her foundation, including a door-to-door campaign to register people to vote, anti-discrimination work in schools, and the defense of gays and lesbians in the very conservative region around Bakersfield.

With the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, Huerta -- whose hectic days feature an unending series of protest rallies, training sessions and meetings with VIPs -- 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.

"A lot of people are going to march and protest, but at the end of the day you have to translate that to voting."

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