Dolores Huerta gets her due.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY DAVID MONT­GOMERY david.mont­gomery@wash­

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.


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