Who is Dolores Huerta? How the Chicana activist changed the world

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Portrait of labor activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers group, in the 1970s with a union flag that reads "Viva La Causa."

Sí, se puede!

Or, as it translates in English: "Yes, it is possible" or, roughly, "Yes, one can." It has been a battle cry for the United Farm Workers labor union since it was founded in 1962. Chicana activist Dolores Huerta, 86, has been chanting it the loudest and proudest for the past 50 years.

As one of the co-founders of UFW, alongside the late César Chávez, the mother of 11 children and of the California labor movement has dedicated a good part of her life to ensuring fair working conditions for migrant farm workers. Yet her herculean efforts seem to be mostly overlooked in our history books, with Chávez garnering the bulk of the acclaim.

Until now.

The lifelong freedom fighter is the subject of "Dolores," a documentary film that corrects the historical record and highlights her contributions to labor equality. Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and closing out the seventh annual Athena Film Festival at New York's Barnard College on Sunday night, the doc reminds us that women have stood at the front lines of social justice for quite some time.

"We've got the power! We've got feminist power," Huerta proclaimed while sitting on a panel at Athena, a weekend-long festival of feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women's leadership in real life and the fictional world.

Alongside her sat Gloria Steinem, 82, a social and political activist who went on to become a leader and a spokeswoman for the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Grabbing the baton from Huerta and Steinem, Women's March on Washington National Co-chair Carmen Perez and Artistic Director Paola Mendoza also contributed to the panel. "Six million people marched on that day," Perez said. "When people come together, you'll see change. We are passionate about moving the next generation of feminist activism forward."

"Think about how many [television] shows instruct women on how to marry a millionaire versus how to fight for equal pay," Steinem said. "Eliminate should from your vocabulary and just do it. Just like Dolores did. And still does."

And, yes, Dolores did.

Co-produced by brothers Peter and Benjamin Bratt, with musician Carlos Santana acting as the executive producer, the documentary jumps right into Huerta's history, starting with her writing proposed legislation as part of California's progressive Community Service Organization at just 25 years old.

Thereafter, she went on to co-found the Agricultural Workers Association, which would eventually become the United Farm Workers. Their immediate goal was the unionization of the predominantly undocumented non-English speaking Mexican field laborers in California, who had long endured extremely long hours, low pay, no bathroom breaks plus verbal and physical assault.

Huerta and Chávez saw this as a modern form of slavery.

By the mid 1960s, Huerta decided to put it all on the line and dedicate herself to the movement. As she became more consumed with work, her personal life suffered. Her marriage ended, and her then seven children saw less and less of her. But the intolerable working conditions that laborers endured needed change. She knew the race-based power structure of white farmer owners at the top and Mexican farmers at bottom had to end.

Then on Sept. 8, 1965, Filipino-American grape workers decided to strike against the Delano, California, growers, protesting years of poor work conditions. This group partnered with Latino farm workers from UFW, with Huerta and Chávez at the helm.

A 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, acted as their grand gesture of solidarity, which grabbed the attention of the American people.

Once American citizens got wind of the disenfranchised workers, a country-wide grape strike began. And by 1970, the grape boycott was heralded as a success. Table-grape growers signed their first union contracts, granting workers better pay, benefits and protections.

Huerta became a symbol of female empowerment for many of her followers, especially women. However, having divorced twice, and beginning a new relationship with Richard Chávez (César Chávez's brother), who fathered four of her children, she became the topic of ridicule for others.

But she persisted.

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Dolores Huerta at the Women's March at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Huerta went on to fight for women's rights and ethnic studies in the classroom -- with her picket signs in tow every step of the way. But in September 1988 at the age of 56, the woman who always worked nonviolently was severely beaten by San Francisco police officers outside an event hosting then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. Huerta suffered a ruptured spleen and fractured ribs, leaving her in medical recovery for years to come.

But that didn't slow Huerta down; she later went on to work for the Feminist Majority Foundation's "Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the Year 2000" campaign, which encouraged Latinas to run for public office.

Today she is the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which she founded in 2002.Through her foundation she encourages civic engagement, policy advocacy and youth development. 

Because of Huerta's lifelong dedication to service, former President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. He noted that his 2008 campaign slogan "Yes, we can," was directly borrowed from UFW's "Sí, se puede." 

After the screening of the film wrapped, Steinem addressed the audience of mostly women under 25 and said "the world wouldn't have known what was happening right on our farms if it wasn't for Dolores."

However, the forever humble Huerta was just trying to do the right thing.

"My favorite quote is by Benito Juarez, the former president of Mexico," Huerta noted. "He said, 'Respecting other people's rights is peace' and that's just what I do."

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