Dolores Huerta gets her due.
Dolores Huerta stands at the center of an exhibition hall at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and listens to a curator tell the story of her life in pictures. At 85, with little sign of slowing down, Huerta has a lot to tell. She founded the United Farm Workers with César Chávez in 1962; helped refine the tactics — marches, boycotts, hunger strikes — now commonplace in progressive organizing; was dubbed the “Dragon Lady” by the male grape company negotiators who knuckled under to their diminutive female adversary’s contract demands; raised 11 children, who gave her 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
And she coined the rallying cry that is now ubiquitous in picket lines, presidential campaigns and sporting events: “Sí se puede.” Yes we can.
“That was amazing,” Huerta says when curator Taína Caragol finishes a preview of the new exhibition, “One Life: Dolores Huerta,” which runs through May 15, 2016. “I guess the only thing missing ismy mug shot.”
There may not be a police booking photo from one of Huerta’s two dozen arrests — mainly for nonviolent protest activity — but the exhibition does include a picture of her in a hospital bed after a beating by San Francisco police that ruptured her spleen and broke several ribs in 1988, when she was 58.
For the Portrait Gallery, which is dedicated to relating the story of the United States largely through single images of key characters, most nolonger living, the periodic“One Life” exhibitions are an opportunity to go deeper with a “visual essay” on someone, Caragol says. Huerta joins such previous subjects as Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine and Elvis Presley — with the notable difference that she is still with us.
Caragol pushed for a display on Huerta because the curator thinks her story deserves greater national attention. In a recent Chávez biopic, for example, a male lawyer is depicted as negotiating a groundbreaking labor contract for farm workers, when, according to Huerta, she was the negotiator. Also, Caragol says, the exhibition recognizes that the farm labor movement and Huerta’s persona served as prototypes for later, better-known efforts.
“Dolores integrated her family into her organizing,” Caragol says. “Thanks to that new model of womanhood, she became very much an icon of feminism for mainstream feminists like Gloria Steinem, and she also became a very important icon for Chicanas within the Chicano movement.”
Soft-spoken in a green suit, the Dragon Lady doesn’t breathe fire. She seems slightly embarrassed by the attention. But she’s here, after all, patiently posing for pictures and giving interviews. It’s another moment to serve the movement, and the heat that those grape guys must have felt reveals itself as a slow, subtle burn, as Huerta sweetly makes her points about the simplest human decencies that are not granted— they are fought for.
“Toilets and cold drinking water in the fields,” she says. “We got that in our first union contract in1966. It became law in California in 1975. Atthe national level it was mandatory in 1982.”
The exhibit marks the 50th anniversary of the Delano, Calif., grape strike in 1965, when workers walked out of the fields in California’s Central Valley. It grew into a national boycott and launched the farm workers movement. Victory came five years later in the form of collective bargaining agreements between workers and major growers in that state. Caragol assembled photos, videos and objects that concentrate on the decisive first 15 years of the movement.
For Huerta, every picture in the exhibit tells a story. One image shows her holding aloft a homemade poster with taped letters that spell out “huelga,” or “strike,” in Spanish.
“I’m standing on a car at the Schenley [growers] field” in Delano, 1965, she says.
Later, she continues, in 2010, at a White House state dinner for the president of Mexico, by chance “sitting next to me this gentleman told me the story of how he had [represented] this company called Schenley.” The man was a lawyer, “and they sent him down to Delano to see why the people were striking.”
Over dinner, the lawyer recounted to her that he advised the field bosses to stop charging the workers a huge fraction of their hourly wages for water.
Who was this serendipitous dinner partner at the White House?
“Justice [Anthony] Kennedy of the Supreme Court,” Huerta says. “Justice Kennedy was in Delano! Who knew?”
Another picture shows the strikers marching from Delano to Sacramento in 1966.
“This portrait is about the power of organizing,” Huerta says. “There were only 70 farm workers when we started the march. . . . When we got to Sacramento [25 days later] there were 10,000 people.”
It was right in the middle of that march, she says, “when we got the phone call that Schenley wanted to negotiate.”
For all the victories portrayed in the exhibit, Huerta’s slow burn intensifies over what is yet to be won. The farm workers’ gains in California have hardly been equaled in many other states, she says.
These days she is no longer a union official. Through her foundation and personal efforts, she still works on a range of other issues, from immigration reform to LGBT rights to genetically modified food labeling.
“All movements start from the bottom,” she says. “I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it. We just have to continue working.”
Dolores Huerta tours a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that explores her career as a union co-founder, lobbyist and contract negotiator. Curator Taína Caragol says the “One Life” show recognizes that the farm labor movement and Huerta’s persona served as prototypes for later, better-known movements. RIGHT: Huerta holds aloft a poster, with taped letters that spell out “huelga,” or “strike,” in Spanish in 1965.
BELOW: Huerta, with children at a United Farm Workers hall in the late 1960s.