This month in Kickass Women, we raise a glass to Dolores Huerta, the labor and civil rights leader who became nationally known for her work with the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and who continues to kick ass today. It was Dolores who coined the slogan “Si se puede,” (loosely translated as “Yes we can” or “Yes you can”) a phrase often misattributed to Cesar Chavez and later adopted by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign.
Dolores was born in 1930 in Arizona. She spent most of her childhood in Stockton, California, where her mother raised her to value community activism, education, and hard work. She became an elementary school teacher but quit to focus full time on economic justice when she saw farm workers struggling with low wages, unsafe working and living conditions, and lack of resources:
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.
Once Dolores discovered community and labor organizing, she had a mission that defined the rest of her life. Dolores is most famous for her work with the United Farm Workers, a group she co-founded along with Cesar Chavez. Originally, she and Cesar founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 in hopes of securing better pay and work conditions in the fields of California. Eventually, they formed the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), a primarily Mexican American group. She led the grape boycott in 1965 along with Filipino workers which eventually led to a collective bargaining agreement between the UFW and grape growers.
Since then, Dolores has been instrumental in fighting for the rights of farm workers through nonviolent activities. She has been arrested multiple times for acts of civil disobedience and in 1988 was beaten so badly by police that she almost died. Her job as an organizer was a calling and nothing induced her to slow down or stop.
In the documentary Dolores, she stated that if she hadn’t been an organizer she might have been a dancer, “but then I discovered that I love people more than dancing.”
My primary source for this post was the documentary Dolores. I highly recommend this documentary, which looks at Dolores’ personal and professional life as well as how her life shaped and was shaped by other women. The documentary talks candidly about the toll Dolores’ work took on her children, and about her often contentious relationship with the male-dominated UFW. The organization, like many others at the time, had women doing the majority of the volunteer work (including Cesar’s wife, Helen), but the leadership roles were held by men. Dolores was the only woman on the board, and she faced sexism both in and out of the union, which did not encourage other women to take visible leadership positions.
I appreciated that the documentary takes time to address the philosophical changes that occur in a lifetime of work. Initially, Dolores and the UFW opposed illegal immigration because they feared that illegal immigrants would undercut efforts to raise wages. Over time, the organization and Dolores herself shifted that position and today Dolores is a supporter of immigrant rights. She credits her friendship with Gloria Steinem and other feminists for helping her change her views on abortion and by encouraging her to challenge sexism within the UFW. In turn, Gloria Steinem credits her friendship with Dolores as instrumental in helping her move towards a more intersectional feminism that addressed the rights of women who are economically disenfranchised (for a good explanation of what intersectional feminism is, see IWDA.com)
Delores took on another area of activism when the UFW decided to fight pesticide use. The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson increased awareness of the dangers certain pesticides caused to the environment and to the health of consumers. Meanwhile, the UFW became aware that farm workers were being sprayed directly with pesticides This pesticide exposure made farm workers sick and increased birth defects among their children. This prompted Dolores to become active in the environmental justice movement, which addresses the disproportionate toll that environmental problems take on disenfranchised communities.
Today, Dolores, who is in her eighties, is the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. This foundation helps rural communities organize, with a focus on LGBTQ equality, personal and environmental health, civic engagement, and education and youth. One of her daughters is the CEO and another is the Development Coordinator, and another is the Business Manager. Clearly Dolores’ mission will continue for another generation.