“Let’s teach kids, at the kindergarten level, what the contributions of people of color were to building the United States of America.”
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I am featuring this strong woman who inspired millions to carry on the movement of human rights. One of those inspired is President Obama who used her slogan, “Yes We Can” in his 2008 Presidential campaign. And Yes, he did!
“Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, ‘Si, se puede.’ Yes, we can,” Obama said during the Medal of Freedom ceremony today. “Knowing her, I’m pleased she let me off easy, because Dolores does not play,” he joked.
President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dolores Huerta, a labor union founder whom he credited with coining the “yes, we can” that marked his 2008 campaign.
Huerta, with Cesar Chavez, founded the United Farm Workers. “Without any negotiating expertise, Dolores helped lead a boycott that forced growers to agree to some of the country’s first farm worker contracts,” Obama said during the ceremony today. “And ever since, she has fought to give more people a seat at the table.”
Huerta was born on April 10, 1930, in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. She is the second child and only daughter of Juan Fernández and Alicia Chávez. Juan Fernández was born in Dawson to a Mexican immigrant family, and worked as a coal miner. Later, he joined the migrant labor force, and harvested beets in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. When Huerta was young, she would hear her father tell stories about union organizing. After her parents divorced when she was three years old, she seldom saw her father. He stayed in New Mexico, and served in the state legislature in 1938.
Chávez raised Huerta and her two brothers in the central California farm worker community of Stockton, California. Huerta’s mother was known for her kindness and compassion towards others and was active in community affairs, numerous civic organizations, and the church. She encouraged the cultural diversity that was a natural part of Huerta’s upbringing in Stockton. Alicia Chávez was a businesswoman who owned a restaurant and a 70-room hotel, where she welcomed low-wage workers and farm worker families at affordable prices and sometimes gave them free housing.
Huerta was inspired by her mother to advocate for farm workers later on in her life. In an interview Huerta stated that “The dominant person in my life is my mother. She was a very intelligent woman and a very gentle woman.” This prompted Huerta to think about civil rights. Her mother’s generous actions during Dolores’s childhood provided the foundation for her own non-violent, strongly spiritual stance. In the same interview she said, “When we talk about spiritual forces, I think that Hispanic women are more familiar with spiritual forces. We know what fasting is, and that it is part of the culture. We know what relationships are, and we know what sacrifice is.”
Huerta’s community activism began when she was a student at Stockton High School. Huerta was active in numerous school clubs, and was a majorette and dedicated member of the Girl Scouts until the age of 18. She remembered a school teacher accusing her of stealing another student’s work and, as a result, giving her an unfair grade, an act she considers to be rooted in racial bias. Having experienced marginalization during childhood because she was Hispanic, Huerta grew up with the belief that society needed to be changed. She attended college at the University of the Pacific‘s Stockton College (later to become San Joaquin Delta Community College), where she earned a provisional teaching credential. After teaching elementary school, Huerta left her job and began her lifelong crusade to correct economic injustice:
“I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”
In addition to organizing, Huerta has been active in lobbying for laws to improve the lives of farm workers. The laws that she supported included the following:
- 1960 bill to permit Spanish-speaking people to take the California driver’s examination in Spanish
- 1962 legislation repealing the Bracero Program
- 1963 legislation to extend the federal program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), to California farmworkers
- The 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act
As an advocate for farmworkers’ rights, Huerta has been arrested twenty-two times for participating in non-violent civil disobedience activities and strikes. She remains active in progressive causes, and serves on the boards of People for the American Way, Consumer Federation of California, and Feminist Majority Foundation.
In September 1988, in front of the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, Huerta was severely beaten by San Francisco Police officer Frank Achim during a peaceful and lawful protest of the policies/platform of then-candidate for president George H.W. Bush. The baton-beating caused significant internal injuries to her torso, resulting in several broken ribs and requiring the removal of her spleen in emergency surgery. The beating was caught on videotape and broadcast widely on local television news. Later, Huerta won a large judgment against the SFPD and the City of San Francisco for the attack, the proceeds of which she used for the benefit of farm workers. As a result of this assault and the suit, the SFPD was pressured to change its crowd control policies and its process of officer discipline.
History repeating itself, some communities much better at dealing with it, with some still needing better community reform. Dolores’ influence and contribution to civil rights is sealed and delivered. We all owe her our debt of gratitude. From the farm workers who process our foods to the current movement of women’s rights, she raised the bar.
Following a lengthy recovery, Huerta took a leave of absence from the union to focus on women’s rights. She traversed the country for two years on behalf of the Feminist Majority’s Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the year 2000 Campaign encouraging Latinas to run for office. The campaign resulted in a significant increase in the number of women representatives elected at the local, state and federal levels. She also served as National Chair of the 21st Century Party, founded in 1992 on the principles that women make up 52% of the party’s candidates and that officers must reflect the ethnic diversity of the nation.
“Sí, se puede,” Stay Loud!
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