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Viva la Causa! Dolores Huerta and Hispanic Heritage Month

During Hispanic Heritage Month, we remember Americans of Hispanic heritage who have positively shaped the society of the United States. Dolores Huerta is definitely a highlight on that list—and hers is a name prominent on lists of civil rights, women’s rights, immigration rights, and labor rights activists as well. If you listen to Ms. Huerta talk about her activism and views, you will find that she feels all people should be treated fairly and equally – and that all who can vote should vote in every election.

The flag of the United Farm Workers union, containing the Huelga (or Welga) Bird on a white disc on a red field. Photo by Aztecas Califas. (30 September 2018). Used under Creative Commons license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0

Dolores Huerta was born in Dawson, New Mexico in 1930, but after her parents divorced when she was three, her mother and siblings moved first to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then to Stockton, California, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Her mother’s community activism and her brother’s brutal beating for wearing a Zoot suit influenced her views in her youth. She began her activism in Stockton when she started teaching high school. Many of her students were children of migrant farm workers, and often came to school hungry and barefoot. Her frustration on behalf of her students led to her community activism with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican-American support group. Through her CSO work, she was drawn to the plight of agricultural workers, and got involved doing service work for them. While doing this work, she met César Chávez, who was a leader in the CSO. Together, they co-founded the United Farm Workers in 1962, when the CSO could not extend their assistance to agricultural workers. She started by lobbying hard for legislation to repeal the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program, which started as an agreement (56 Stat. 1759) in 1942 between México and the United States  to provide much-needed farm labor in the U.S., formalized in 1951 by Public Law 82-78, finally ended in 1964.

Huerta and Chávez planned a number of strikes to protest the working conditions for farm workers, most notably workers on farms that produced lettuce, grapes, and wine. Huerta coordinated a national lettuce boycott in the early 1970s. In 1973, she organized a major boycott against grapes. California recognized her work as “instrumental in the enactment of the [California] Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. …the first law of its kind in the United States, granting farmworkers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.”  Huerta “… negotiated contracts with growers, lobbied in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., organized field strikes, directed UFW boycotts, and led farm worker campaigns for political candidates. She negotiated the Union’s first contract with a grape grower, faced down burly company goons on tense picket lines… “  She has argued for the end of the use of pesticides; she has lobbied for better wages, disability insurance, and toilets in the fields for farm workers– and got them.

Her activism has been a passion with some consequences. She has been arrested over 20 times. In 1988 while handing out leaflets in San Francisco, police beat her with enough force to break her ribs and shatter her spleen. She has gone on hunger strikes, most recently in March of this year. Chávez said of her, “Dolores is totally fearless, both mentally and physically.” She bore and raised 11 children while continuing with her activism. Many people would consider these repercussions as costly sacrifices, but Ms. Huerta has said, “You can’t make change unless you’re willing to give something up.” Dolores Huerta is not a lawyer, but she has made a profound effect on the law and society. The California and Nebraska legislatures have honored her with state days of service named for her. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 for her civil rights activism. She continues to work for her causes through her foundation that she started in 2003. It is possible that she is most famous– even if she is not always credited– for her slogan, “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!); it is a summation of her work ethic as well as the slogan of her movement.

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