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'Dolores' Tells the Story of a Rights Activist Still at It in Her Eighties
March 27, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Dolores Huerta would tell you that you can’t win ‘em all. The thing is, she was hardly expected to win any of ‘em.

Dolores, a two-hour documentary that airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) in the PBS Independent Lens series, recounts the life of one of the most dogged and successful social activists of the last 60 years.

Dolores Huerta worked alongside Cesar Chavez in the long table grapes boycott of the late 1960s, helping shape the strategies that finally forced California grape growers to raise wages, improve safety and give the pickers a contract that provided vacation and health benefits.

Through her years with the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), she also realized something else: that even though union officials were fighting for the right thing, they were practicing their own internal discrimination.

Specifically, the UFW was like most organizations of its era: controlled by men. Men were seen as the ones who make the decisions, women the ones who help carry them out.

Huerta had little patience for that tradition. She was a mother of 11 and had therefore spent some of her earlier years raising children, but she felt just as qualified as the men – up to and including Chavez – to calculate and implement resistance strategies.

Dolores, directed by Peter Bratt, traces her early life from the conformist society of the late 1940s into the activist surge of the 1950s.

Encouraged by Chavez and another tireless activist, Fred Ross, she moved from teaching into community organizing. She was particularly drawn to the plight of migrant and immigrant workers, many Latino and Latina, and she was a cofounder of what would become the UFW.

They won recognition for that union by the unlikely tactic of launching a national boycott of California table grapes. The campaign took years, but caught on and eventually proved successful.

Several years later, after meeting Gloria Steinem, Huerta shifted much of her activist energy to women’s causes, arguing the widespread tradition of male domination was not the only and often not the best way to go.  

She joined in protests for a wide variety of causes over the years, racking up arrests and almost dying when police clubbed her so hard that it ruptured her spleen during a demonstration against presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Her recovery forced her to have family time instead of activist time, her children joke, but when she recovered she went back on the line. She remains active in women’s and other causes today at the age of 87.

The individual threads in the arc of Huerta’s activism aren’t unique. What’s most impressive is her unwavering commitment and her lifelong refusal to take “no” for an answer, whether her adversary is a farm owner or a union board member.

Dolores paints Huerta as one of the great activists of modern times, a woman who simultaneously managed to inspire tens of thousands of people while flying under the radar that made household names out of people like Chavez or Dr. Martin Luther King.

It’s a story that should be told, and the fact it’s being told while Huerta is still among us makes it all the more satisfying.

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