June 17, 2024

Meet the 92-year-old activist for farmers who coined, “Sí, se puede” which means “Yes, we can.”
Meet the 92-year-old activist for farmers who coined, “Sí, se puede” which means “Yes, we can.”
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Meet the 92-year-old activist for farmers who coined, “Sí, se puede” which means “Yes, we can.”
Project CommUNITY is an ongoing initiative across Hearst Television to put a spotlight on diverse voices in our communities. The initiative is built around regular coverage of people who are working to make a difference and stories detailing the history of the battle for Civil Rights, inclusion and social change across America.
Only one 92-year-old can say they’ve been arrested 22 times, are the subject of an award-winning film and have been granted the medal of freedom from President Obama.
That person is Dolores Huerta, a hugely influential labor activist and union organizer.
Over the course of her life, Huerta has always lobbied for justice and equality and has successfully managed to change dozens of laws, impacting the lives of thousands of workers still to this day.
Despite her age, she is not giving up. In 2003, she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation for grassroots activism, and can still be spotted marching at protests, continuing her fierce fight for justice.
This clarified episode, which is part of a four-part series for Hispanic Heritage Month, delves into the life of Dolores, featuring the legend herself discussing her greatest wins and motivations for future fights against injustice.
Huerta began her life in Dawson, New Mexico. Her father was a coal miner who later became a strong union man and then ran for office, eventually winning a seat in the New Mexico legislature when she was 8 years old. Her mother was an entrepreneur who opened a restaurant and hotel serving the working class in Stockton, California, where the family moved to during Huerta’s childhood.
Even as a young girl, her spirit for equality showed itself. She described being disappointed with the charity work of one of her social clubs, “we would have dances, and then all of the money that we made would go into making charity baskets that we would pass out to poor people at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But I never felt that that was quite doing the job.”
Her experiences with racism also fuelled her; “ We were raised having faced a lot of racial discrimination, myself, and my friends, who were Asian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, my black friends, and we were always harassed by the police and discriminated by our teachers.”
After finishing high school, Huerta began a job teaching but quickly grew disillusioned by the amount of children who showed up tired and hungry to class without clean clothes. When she realized her efforts would be best served fighting the poverty the children faced, she quit her job and began what would become a storied and hugely impactful career in organizing.
At age 25, Huerta founded the Stockton Community Service organization, a group dedicated to fighting for the rights of citizens of the community. In this role, Huerta and her colleagues were able to pass a range of important laws, including a law allowing driving licenses to be in Spanish, getting voting ballots translated into Spanish and a law that helped illegal immigrants access public assistance.
At the organization, she was introduced through a colleague to Cesar Chavez, with whom she went on to found the United Farm Workers association in 1962. Their partnership resulted in decades of influential organizing, strikes and boycotts that made national headlines.
Both were passionate about the plight of farm workers, who worked long, hard hours on very low wages in extremely poor conditions. Many farmers lived in communal housing with dirt floors and crop crates used for furniture. The farm worker’s children were often undereducated as their parents would travel throughout the year, depending on the seasons, to chase work with the ripe crops. After witnessing such conditions, Huerta and Chavez, leading the United Farm Workers, organized a strike to begin in 1965 that would become one of the largest strikes in U.S. history.
The strike began in 1965 when Filipino workers from the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee walked off the job to protest their pay and conditions. The UFW, then known as the National Farm Workers Association, voted to team up with the AWOC strikers, and began protesting, too.
The strike lasted five years and employed a range of organizing tactics, from hunger strikes to picketing. Tens of thousands of protesters marched more than 300 miles from Delano to the California state capital of Sacramento to get the attention of the governor. Other farm workers spread their message by traveling across the country, going to schools and grocery stores to ask people to boycott California grapes from the table region. The grape strike received national attention, with the boycott being particularly successful given that by the end, 17 million Americans had stopped eating grapes.
The success of the strike also created strife, as several growers hit back against the workers.
“A lot of them were arrested, and Sen. Robert Kennedy then sent his attorneys to get them out of jail,” Huerta said in the interview with Clarified. Many protesters suffered when the police and growers disrupted peaceful demonstrations, with several killed.
“We had martyrs, five people that were killed in the farm worker movement,” said Huerta. “One young man named Rene Lopez who was killed, he was only in his 20s, and he was shot in the temple with a gun because he organized his company to vote for the union.”
The growers finally came to the table in 1970 to negotiate with the union, with Huerta leading the talks. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the negotiations had raised farmer wages from $1.10 an hour (around $8.40 today) before the strike to $1.80 an hour (around $13.72 today). The negotiations also resulted in the regulation of pesticides, grower investment into the health and benefits of employees, and the creation of a formal grievances protest.
More than 50 years on from the strike, Huerta is still active in the organizing space. In August 2022, she joined a group of protesting farm workers who had marched from Delano to Sacramento, recreating the pilgrimage workers took during the Delano grape strike.
It’s not just the farm work movement that she is an activist for. Her foundation has a broad range of focuses, from breaking the school-to-prison pipeline and running voter registration drives to environmental justice work and LGBTQ advocacy and support.
Huerta uses the same tactics to get people involved in organizing that she employed when she first started her career, taught to her and Cesar Chavez by activist Fred Ross.
“The way that we organize is something like a Tupperware party,” she said. “ We call them house meetings. So you get the six to eight people together and then you talk about their problems, then you talk about the solutions and you make people understand that they’re the ones that have to solve a problem, that nobody can do it for them, that they can’t wait for somebody to come in from outside.”
Empowering people with the confidence and knowledge of tackling issues of justice is a key part of her organizing technique, and one that hasn’t changed over time despite developments in technology and the advent of the internet.
“You have to show them pictures of people like them, and say, ‘well, if they were able to do this, then you can do it,’” said Huerta. “So it really is miraculous and amazing when people know that they have the power to take on the issues in their own community.”
What she managed to achieve in her lifetime is also miraculous, and she leaves a strong legacy behind her.
This video is the second of a four-part series by Clarified featured during Hispanic Heritage Month to educate viewers on the contributions, experiences and heroes of the Hispanic community.
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