Long-overdue accolades for the brilliant labor organizer and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, now 89, are slowly trickling in. On Saturday, Los Angeles city leaders renamed the intersection of Chicago and First streets in Boyle Heights, home of what is now Boyle Heights City Hall, Dolores Huerta Square.
“You know when we think of Boyle Heights... This is where the Chicano Movement started,” she said, speaking to a crowd gathered to celebrate the intersection being named in honor. “Everything that Caesar [Chavez] and I did—we learned it here in Boyle Heights.”
But Huerta is still vastly under-honored in Los Angeles, and California in general, compared to Chavez. Why should the city publicly honor a labor leader many people have sadly never heard of? For one, the slogan “Yes we can.”
It is a Huerta original.
It was May 1972. Huerta, then the vice president of the United Farm Workers, was in a meeting with Chavez, then president of the UFW, and a group of Latino leaders in Arizona. The situation was dire.
Chavez was on a water-only fast protesting a new law (still on the books) that essentially denied the rights of Arizona farmworkers to organize, and he was getting weaker and weaker. Local political leaders tried to convince Huerta and Chavez that the fast was futile, that fighting the government was pointless. “No, no se puede,” Huerta recalled them saying in a 2010 interview with Tribune Business News.
Huerta, who a colleague once summed up as “Mother Teresa [who leads] like General Patton,” wasn’t having any of it. “Sí, se puede!” she responded. “Yes, yes, it can be done.”
The slogan would become Huerta’s rallying cry from that moment to the present day. It would be appropriated by many powerful people, including Barack Obama, whose iconic “Yes we can” refrain helped propel him to the presidency in 2008.
“Dolores was very gracious, when I told her I had stolen her slogan,” he joked while presenting Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Huerta was born in 1930 in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. After her parents divorced, her mother, Alicia, moved the family to the multi-cultural city of Stockton, in the farm-filled Central Valley of California. Huerta rarely saw her father, Juan, an itinerant farmworker who traveled the West in search of work. But she would inherit his progressive, organizing spirit. Juan would become a leader in local unions and eventually be elected to serve in the New Mexico legislature.
But according to biographer Debra A. Miller, her real role model was her mother. “Mom was a women’s libber before her time,” her daughter Alicia remembered. “She felt very strongly that women should get out and work and participate in the community.” Because of these beliefs, Huerta explained, “I never really understood what it was like to take a back seat to a man.”
Huerta was a happy, intelligent and outspoken child, who excelled in school. Her first real exposure to the plight of the West’s seasonal farmworkers came during World War II, when her mother bought a 70-room hotel in Stockton from a Japanese-American family who had been forced into an interment camp for the duration of the war.
The hotel catered to migrant farmworkers and their families. When farmworkers were unable to pay, Alicia let them pay in fruits and vegetables they had harvested, or simply let the rent slide.
In her late teen-years, it appeared Huerta was heading for a conventional, middle-class life. She married her first husband, had her first two children (she would eventually give birth to 11), and graduated from the University of the Pacific’s Delta College. She became a teacher, working with the children of seasonal farmworkers, but she found the work unfulfilling and heartbreaking.
“I couldn’t stand seeing farm workers’ children come to class hungry and in need of shoes,” she remembered. “I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach hungry children.”
She got her chance in 1955, when she met Fred Ross, an organizer who had cofounded the Community Service Organization. The group focused on expanding and protecting Mexican-American rights in Boyle Heights in 1947 and 1948.
“There were women that were also involved [in the CSO], and they are the ones that started the first voter registration drives here. They brought the streetlights, the sidewalks, the clinics right here to Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles,” Huerta says. “And of course it was the great Fred Ross Senior that showed people here how to do that work, how to organize house meetings, house to house, door to door. How to register voters, how to get them out to vote.”
The CSO soon achieved real results, forcing City Hall to improve infrastructure in East LA, and helping send police who had beat up Chicano veterans to jail. Ross wanted to expand the CSO’s reach by opening a branch in Stockton. When Huerta met him at an informational meeting, she was inspired.
“When I went to a house meeting in Stockton, and [Ross] told me about what they had done in Los Angeles, about how they had sent police to prison for beating up Mexican American kids, I said I want to belong to that organization,” Huerta recalled. “That meeting changed my entire life.”
It changed the movement’s trajectory as well. Ross immediately pegged Huerta as a natural leader and organizer and tapped her to help found the new Stockton office.
“This was, of course, something I had been looking for all my life,” Huerta remembered. “I just felt like I had found a pot of gold!”
Huerta threw herself into her work with a tireless, obsessive energy; for many years she slept an average of four hours a night. Soon Ross and the CSO hired her to lobby in Sacramento for Mexican-American Rights. According to Miller, who wrote Dolores Huerta: Labor Leader, in mostly male Sacramento, Huerta became known as a tough, persuasive advocate for the rights of minorities, helping pass 15 bills that improved Hispanic lives in California.
“Her efforts were key in passing legislation giving Spanish speakers the right to take driver’s license exams in their native language,” Miller writes. “In 1961, she successfully lobbied for landmark legislation that allowed Mexican workers who had legally entered the United States and were residents of California to receive old-age security pensions and state disability insurance.”
But Huerta never forgot the particularly dire plight of the migrant farmworkers of California. These farmworkers, at the mercy of big-agriculture, were paid below the poverty level even though they worked backbreaking jobs in the hot California sun, often without bathroom breaks or drinkable water.
As early as 1958, Huerta and the CSO started working to organize farmworkers, visiting their homes, which were little more than rudimentary shacks. “We would see their dirt floors, the wooden boxes for furniture,” Huerta said. “They had no money for food and worked so hard.”
For many years, her work had put her on a parallel track with the charismatic and soft-spoken Chavez, another protégé of Ross, who she had first met at a fundraising dance in 1956. In the early ’60s, at the Chavez home in Boyle Heights, the idea to form a union for the powerless farmworkers of the West took shape.
“Cesar lived right here on Folsom and Fickett, right here in Boyle Heights,” Huerta told a crowd at Cal State Los Angeles in September. “He called me one day. It was a Sunday. And he said, ‘I need to talk to you’. So I went over to his house and we were there with his wife Helen, at her kitchen table, and he said, ‘We have to start the union. Farm workers will never have a union unless you and I do it... So if we commemorate that moment, that the birth of the United Farm Workers, the union, the Chicano movement, it’s all here [in Los Angeles].”
The future union heads were soon on the move. Chavez decided to relocate his family to the grape-growing farming community of Delano in Kern County, about 30 miles from Bakersfield. Huerta and her growing brood soon joined the Chavez clan, and the two began to organize a new union.
Though you wouldn’t know it from the union’s current website or many written histories, Chavez did not start the National Farm Workers Association (now the UFW) on his own. As is explained in the 2017 documentary Dolores, Huerta was an equal partner every step of the way, organizing behind the scenes while Chavez became the new Union’s public face. According to Miller, on September 30, 1962, the NFWA was officially formed at a convention that the two had organized in Fresno.
The NFWA went immediately to work, convincing fearful farmworkers to join the union, and organizing a credit union. Their first real test began in March of 1965, when they organized a strike to protest low wages being paid to those working in the rose fields in the town of McFarland. According to Miller, Huerta went to great lengths to make sure the strike was a success:
When Huerta saw a group of workers awake and dressed, apparently ready to go to work, she drove her car into the driveway where they were staying, blocking their car. Thanks to Huerta’s vigilance and quick action, the strike went forward as planned.
But it was the Delano Grape Strike in the fall of 1965 that would bring national attention to the NFWA.
Huerta organized the picket-line, encouraging non-violent civil disobedience similar to the strategy being implemented by Martin Luther King Jr., who would become an ally of the NFWA. This peaceful approach to conflict would prove more and more difficult over the years, as powerful farm owners made deals with the Teamsters Union, and local sheriffs used unnecessary, often brutal force.
“It was like a war, a daily confrontation,” Huerta has said. “We never slept. We’d get up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and then we’d go till 11:00 p.m.”
One of the ways Huerta combated this violence was by activating women to join the picket line. “Women in the union are great on the picket line,” she explained. “More staying power, and we’re nonviolent. One of the reasons our union is nonviolent is that we want our women and children involved, and we stay nonviolent because of the women and children.”
The strike would last over five years, and reap enormous wins for Central Valley farmworkers, as more and more agricultural companies began to come to the table to negotiate. The NFWA’s chief negotiator was none other than Huerta, who quickly became an expert in negotiating collective bargaining agreements.
She and Chavez also began the novel tactic of a creating a nationwide boycott of table grapes, with Huerta going all over the country to speak on behalf of the boycott. The boycotts made a profound impact on an increasingly socially conscious America, including young Chicana's like LA punk rock legend, feminist and Chicana activist Alice Bag, then a young girl in East LA.
“Even as a child, I had a very basic understanding that I was giving up a delicious fruit that I loved because I was trying to help a group of people who looked like me have better working conditions,” she remembers. “That idea—that we could harness the power of community to create change—was even sweeter than the taste of the grapes we refused to buy.”
Chavez became a national hero, and Huerta also had her admirers, including Robert F. Kennedy, who often joined the NFWA during their non-violent activities and advocated for them in the government and press.
In 1968, Huerta stood on a crowded stage with Kennedy at LA’s Ambassador Hotel, as he accepted his win in the California Democratic Presidential Primary. He acknowledged Huerta’s work in support of his campaign and was on his way to hold a press conference with her when he was shot in the kitchen of the hotel. For Huerta, the assassination was the “death of our future.”
But Huerta never gave up. In 1972, the NFWA became a member of the AFL-CIO union and changed its name to the United Farm Workers of America. The ’70s were a turbulent time for the union, and many conflicts arose between Huerta and Chavez, who reminded many of bickering siblings.
“Dolores is the only one I fight with… She’s absolutely fearless, physically as well as psychologically,” Chavez once said of Huerta, who was often dismissively referred to in the media as his secretary—or even his girlfriend.
Not only had she been arrested 22 times, she also had to deal with the machismo attitudes of many of the growers she negotiated with, who called her “dragon lady,” and even with her male allies in the Union. Tired of her colleagues’ sexism during meetings, she started keeping a record.
“At the end of the meeting, I’d say, ‘during the course of this meeting you men have made 50 sexist remarks.’ Pretty soon I got them down to 25, then ten and then five,” she remembered in the book Dolores Huerta Stands Strong: The Woman who Demanded Justice.
This marginalization, and her work with feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis, made Huerta increasingly interested in empowering women and young girls of all races.
“In the sixties and seventies, many of us were working hard to get justice for la raza, not for women,” she recalled. “We should have been doing more for women at the same time. We’ve had to do a lot of catching up.”
Conversely, Steinem credits Huerta with opening her eyes to the plight of minorities in America. “I know she set me on fire about racial justice,” Steinem said in the documentary Dolores. “I would not be able to see what’s hidden in the fields of our country without Dolores.”
During the ’70s and ’80s, Huerta frequently lobbied congress, pushing for amnesty for Mexicans who had worked in the fields for many years. In 1985, almost 1 million Mexicans were granted amnesty by the Immigration Act of that year.
But in 1988, Huerta’s voice was almost silenced forever when she was brutally beaten by a San Francisco policeman while protesting outside out of a rally for presidential candidate George Bush.
Huerta sustained life-threatening injuries, including a ruptured spleen. Amid public outrage, she was paid around $800,000 in an out-of-court settlement. The San Francisco Police Department was also forced to change its policies regarding crowd management.
When Chavez died suddenly in 1993, his legend only grew, reaching well-deserved mythical status. But Huerta found herself increasingly marginalized by the male leaders of the UFW and turned more and more to teaching young women how to advocate for themselves. She has served as a regent for the University of California system and is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
To this day, she continues a punishing schedule of speeches, protests, marches, and campaigning for causes and politicians she believes in. Recently she has been using the “Me Too” movement to shine a light on the sexual abuse and assault female farmworkers often suffer in silence.
“This is a time when you’ve gotta tap into people’s frustrations, their anger, really turn it into a strong nonviolent movement,” she told Vogue in 2017, speaking of the current political moment. “We have the power to make a difference; we have to act on that power. If we don’t act on it, it’s wasted.”
So why do Angelenos know so little about Huerta’s epic life, while most know of Chavez’s work and legacy? The woman herself has one answer. “I call it HIS-tory,” she said during a 2017 rally in North Dakota.
There are some places in Los Angeles where Huerta is honored. The Dolores Huerta Elementary School opened on East 31st Street in 2010, and the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute is part of the Los Angeles Community College District.
In September, Huerta was honored by Cal State Los Angeles. At the ceremony, Bag sang her new song ‘Dolores Huerta Street,’ which Bag says is “about the need to see the names of women in public areas, in the same way that we see the names of important men.”
Bag says Huerta, and women like her, deserve much more public recognition, especially in Los Angeles, which was where the flames of the CSO and UFW were lit.
“Naming public streets and places for people is not only an honor, it provides inspiration for people who live in those neighborhoods,” Bag says. Driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard or Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Angelenos are reminded of these great men’s words and deeds. But where are the inspirational, important women? Bag asks.
“Women (and especially young girls) also need to be reminded of the great deeds and ideas of women like Dolores Huerta,” Bag says. “We need to be able to see ourselves in that greatness so that we can rise to their example.”
Even though Saturday’s celebration in Boyle Heights was all about honoring Dolores, she devoted her speech to honoring others and telling people how to organize today. “We can never wait for somebody to come and bring justice or fight for justice for us,” she said. “The only way we can get the justice—we have to do it for ourselves.”