STORIES
Women

Dolores Huerta

by Rachel Parsons from Woodland Hills, California in United States

¡Sí se puede!

 

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On a September day in 1988, 58-year-old Dolores Huerta was beaten by San Francisco police officers outside a hotel where then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was speaking. She was participating in a peaceful protest handing out literature about pesticides used in farming. According to Huerta, the police targeted several in the crowd. She was hospitalized with multiple fractured ribs and a ruptured spleen.

Although it was the most violent attack she had faced, Dolores Huerta was no stranger to intimidation and threats. She had dealt with them for decades as a social and political community organizer.

If you don’t recognize the name Dolores Huerta, you might recognize this one: Cesar Chavez.

Chavez became the face of a movement to unionize farm workers in the western United States in the 1960s and ‘70s. But what many people still don’t know is that Huerta worked side-by-side with Chavez for most of their careers. They co-founded the United Farm Workers Association and together led a mission for workers’ rights that people often credit only to Chavez. Indeed, even Chavez’s obituary in the The New York Times did not mention Huerta at all.

Today, at 87 years old, Huerta is still a galvanizing force in social and political activism. She has come to the forefront of feminism as well as civic mobilization. Now, a dynamic documentary about her life will show a new generation what a hero looks like.  

 

Early Life

Dolores Huerta was born Dolores Fernández to activist parents in Dawson, New Mexico, a small mining town near the Colorado border. Her mother and father porced when Dolores was a small child and her mother moved to Stockton, California, with her children. There, Huerta lived a middle-class life, belonged to the Girl Scouts, and did well in school, though she was sometimes subject to anti-Latino racism, according to reports.

An an adult, she became a school teacher and started a family but the lessons of her parents, especially of her mother, taught her to be engaged with her community and be an active force for good. This led Huerta to volunteer for a Stockton social activism group called the Community Service Organization (CSO). She became a full-time unpaid volunteer while teaching and raising her young children. She met Chavez at the CSO.  

 

Forming the United Farm Workers Association

Huerta began to see the need for agricultural workers to organize for labor rights as a teacher. Many of her students, who were children of migrant workers, told her stories of their parents’ working conditions, such as long days in fields with no toilets or cold drinking water.

In 1962 she and Chavez decided there was a real need for a formal organization to work for these overlooked people. She left her job in Stockton to move to Delano, California, which became the base of the UFWA.

“In Stockton people thought I was crazy,” Huerta told an audience at the National Portrait Gallery in an interview in 2015. “Leaving a teaching job, I was in the middle of a porce, leaving a job, taking my children down to Delano. It was like running away to join the circus. People thought I had just gone completely nuts … I had a lot of criticisms from family and friends for years.”

The pair worked for no money, relying on gifts from supporters and using dues the members could pay—sometimes only a few cents per month—to make the work move forward. They worked for three years to organize field workers in the California Central Valley before they joined a coordinated strike with another group. It was this strike that would make Chavez famous, but not Huerta.

The process was grueling. “The strike went on for years. It started in 1965,  it didn’t end until 1970,” she told the Portrait Gallery. Her determination was tested, but her mission was stronger than the threats she received from farm owners and opposition. She knew that unless someone showed the workers they had the power to change their circumstance, it might never happen.

“One of the things about people when they’re oppressed,” she said in the 2015 interview, “Is that they start accepting their condition and they often kind of blame themselves … with the farm workers, [there was an idea] of that’s the way it was and they didn’t think they could make a difference … so our job was to convince them that they could make a difference and they had the power to do it. But they had to take the responsibility to make it happen.”

The strike and a parallel boycott of table grapes grown in California eventually did bring some improvements to the working conditions of field workers. For the first time in many cases, they got access to toilets, cold drinking water, rest periods, and unemployment insurance.

 

¡Sí se Puede!

 

When President Barack Obama campaigned for his first term in office, he used a Spanish phrase that many in America had not heard in a long time. Sí se puede—yes you can—was a rallying cry for the farmworkers’ movement. It is often attributed to Chavez, but it actually came from Huerta. It was her reply to a group of Latino community leaders who told her that she might be able to organize in California, but that it wouldn’t happen in Arizona. They told her in Spanish, “no se puede,” and her response became the slogan for an entire culture and generation.

 

Today

 

After a lifetime of leading a movement that touched so many while raising a family of 11 children, she has justly come out of the shadow of Cesar Chavez. Now in her 80s, Dolores Huerta is still an active, engaged organizer who works tirelessly for civil rights and social justice. The Dolores Huerta Foundation is committed to these principles and continuing Huerta’s lifetime of heroic work.

 

My Hero suggests

Dolores Huerta, "Living Self-Portrait" interview (2015) from the National Portrait Gallery.

Page created on 10/8/2017 7:04:22 PM

Last edited 4/10/2019 5:03:54 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Cesar Chavez Obituary - from The New York Times

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