Chicago honors labor hero Dolores Huerta through art
Chicago is embracing iconic civil rights and labor leader Dolores Huerta this fall through a series of film screenings and art exhibitions honoring her life’s work.
Huerta, 87, launched what is now the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez in 1962 and is best known for organizing California farm workers to demand improved labor rights.
The mother of 11 worked as an organizer, lobbyist and negotiator who helped secure financial assistance to children whose families had low or no income and disability insurance for farm workers in California.
“She really hasn’t gotten enough recognition for all the great contributions she’s made to labor rights and equity and more recently, with getting Latinas to run for office and be involved in politics,” said Emily Dreke, vice president of development at the Chicago Foundation for Women. “It would be remarkable today and it is remarkable, but in the ’60s and ’70s, even more so.”
Huerta helped enact the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which granted farm workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.
In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who borrowed her “Si se puede” or “Yes we can” slogan with her permission during his senatorial and presidential campaigns.
As a vocal leader of the labor movement, Huerta broke gender stereotypes but is often overlooked in conversations about the civil rights movement, Dreke said.
“I’d like to see streets and holidays names after her just like Cesar Chavez,” she said. “She’s just remarkable.”
The Gene Siskel Film Center is screening a documentary about Huerta called “Dolores” through Thursday. In the film, director Peter Bratt highlights Huerta’s work as a lifelong champion of social justice for Latinos, migrant workers, immigrants and women. He also details her high-profile alliances with Coretta Scott King, Robert Kennedy, Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem and the complicated relationship she has with her 11 children.
Columbia College is hosting ¡Sí, Se Puede!, an art exhibition in the university’s Glass Curtain Gallery that connects the legacy of Chavez and Huerta and their work with the United Farm Workers Movement to current artistic practices centering on education, history, acts of resistance and community work in Chicago.
For the exhibition, five artists immersed themselves in United Farm Workers archives to use the documents, images and publications they found as springboards for creating new works, according to Meg Duguid, curator of the exhibit.
“Right now, Chicago is interested in Huerta and those activities because everyone is trying to figure out what was done before because so much needs to be done now,” Duguid said referring to the current political climate. “Huerta has been an amazing advocate, but she’s not taught about in public school education the way Cesar Chavez is. We’re talking about a society that doesn’t always see women’s voices as equal to men’s.”
A selection of photographs by Victor Aleman, Chavez’s personal photographer, is also included to provide historical context of the United Farm Workers movement.
Artist Nicole Marroquin recreated what the Chicago office of the UFW Illinois Boycott looked like in the 1970s, originally located two blocks south of the Glass Curtain Gallery at 1300 S. Wabash Ave.
“Chicago was integral in a lot of the boycott efforts,” Duguid said. “Every call to action was a call for collaboration. There’s something really clear in the way that Huerta and Chavez and the UFW ran the organization to make sure people were involved and were able to leave their mark.”
Participating artists also include William Estrada, Ian Kerstetter, Victoria Martinez and Gloria “Gloe” Talamantes.
Two new murals by Hector Duarte and Sam Kirk are being painted along the Wabash Arts Corridor and stretches west to partners in Pilsen and Little Village. Duarte will complete a mural on 11th Street near Michigan Avenue by Oct. 10.
On Thursday, Kirk finished painting the final touches of a Huerta-inspired mural, which depicts a young woman of color wearing a red United Farm Workers shirt, her fist in the air, on 13th Street near Michigan. Huerta’s “Si se puede” quote is written at the bottom in bright yellow paint.
Kirk said she wanted to honor Huerta’s legacy on a “grand scale” in order to spark conversations about women and their accomplishments.
“I don’t think women are recognized enough. That’s the reason I do a lot of public work, it’s to get people to talk about things that we’re not talking about enough,” Kirk said. “The image does one thing but putting words or quotes down helps bring that conversation forward.”
The Chicago Foundation for Women will honor Huerta and Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza during their 32nd annual luncheon and symposium Oct. 19.
Huerta and Garza will discuss ways to bring women from diverse backgrounds with different priorities together in a meaningful and authentic way to improve the lives of women and girls.
“It’s going to be a unique opportunity to do something that we need to be doing more of — sitting down and having conversations about all the wonderful things that make us different and where we can join together to see some opportunity for change,” Dreke said. “We’re really polarized in this country, and we need to figure out how to break down some of those divides.”
Dreke said it’s important for people, and especially young girls, to have role models like Huerta.
“Women are at the forefront of social change,” she said. “It’s really important for women who are achieving things to claim the credit that’s due to them. If they don’t do it, than what are young girls going to see? Who are they going to take after?”