Honoring Dolores Huerta’s Legacy

Honoring Dolores Huerta’s Legacy

At 92 years old, the iconic labor activist continues to fight for workers’ rights.

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Maria Elena Durazo, California State senator

When I became the first woman of color to lead the Hotel Workers Local 11 of Los Angeles, Dolores Huerta was there to support me. When I became the first woman of color to lead the 800,000 workers of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Dolores was there to encourage me. And when I became a California State senator, Dolores was there to inspire me.

Dolores knew who I was because she knew the world I come from. I grew up in a family of farmworkers. All of us worked in the fields, picking peaches and grapes and cotton, from the time I could walk. I never understood how it could be that our family all worked so hard, and yet never emerged from poverty. In that world of rural California, it was the grape strike and the boycotts that taught us that the only way to end that poverty and stop injustice was to organize together to change it. It was the United Farm Workers who taught us that. For me, Dolores was the best teacher among many good ones, teaching me the power of the union and nonviolent action.

Over the years, Dolores became my friend and mentor. In her I could see a woman of color who became a union leader—a leader of our movement for social justice. She never backed down or wavered. If she could do it, so could I.

Dolores Huerta turns 92 on April 10. Amazingly (or maybe not), she is still organizing, still fighting, still challenging us all to stand up, organize and make this world a better place. The best way we can celebrate this extraordinary woman is to join her. Every speech I’ve ever heard her give ends with her getting us all to shout out, “Si, se puede!” So let’s shout it out with her now—Si, se puede!

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Chicano & labor studies professor, UCLA

Long before the Delano Grape Strike began in 1965, Dolores Huerta earned her stripes as an organizer working with the radical Filipinos of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in her native Stockton, even recruiting Larry Itliong, the veteran Filipino organizer of the canneries and fields of the Pacific Northwest. The migration of the indigenous people of Oaxaca, which brought myself, Rufino Dominguez, and other radicals into the California fields, came in the 1980s. By then Dolores was a legend, but to us someone who shared our ideas about organizing and radical social change.

Dolores Huerta’s life is part of our collective history of resistance. She is a living link between radical ideas for social change that have defined today’s movements for racial justice, worker rights and feminist thought.

We even owe her the chant that all of us know and use almost daily, regardless of what part of the movement we come from. In May 1972, the Arizona legislature passed a growers’ bill denying farm workers the right to strike and boycott. When Cesar Chavez started a fast to protest, it fell to Dolores to build people’s resistance in the streets. Everyone told her resistance was futile. In a moment of inspiration Dolores responded, ¡Si, se puede! (Yes, it’s possible!). Ever since, when we need to show our strength and knowledge that we’ll eventually win, we all shout out, ¡Si, se puede!

¡Que viva Dolores Huerta!

David Bacon, writer and photographer

Last fall I walked from Poplar to Delano, Calif., in honor of Larry Itliong, who started the 1965 grape strike and boycott there, with Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers (UFW). She was 91 then, and I had a hard time keeping up. She sent me a note afterward that ended, “Sí Se Puede con El Rojo Tocino.” It was a beautiful joke.

Sí Se Puede” are three words we all use now, but she invented this confident way of saying “Yes We Can!” “Tocino” was the nickname the union gave me in the years I worked as an organizer—it means “bacon,” my last name. And calling me “El Rojo,” or “The Red,” in this way honored my politics.

When I came back from a solidarity work brigade in Cuba in the 1970s, I landed in New York City with no place to sleep. I called Dolores’s daughter, Lori, a friend from California. Not only did I get space on the floor of the NYC boycott’s headquarters, but Dolores and her partner, Richard, César Chávez’s brother, took us out to eat. Over pizza I enthused about the island. I had stars in my eyes, for both Cuba and Dolores, and still do. I went to work for the UFW as an organizer a few months later. There was often tension in the union about radical politics, and being called a red was sometimes the route out the door. But for Dolores and Eliseo Medina, stalwart leaders of the union, being a good organizer was the bottom line—doing what the workers needed.

Over the years, long after I had left the UFW and worked for other unions and then as a photojournalist, I would see Dolores again and again. Going to Watsonville to cover the organizing drives of strawberry workers or to Salinas for the strikes in the vegetable fields, I knew she’d be there. It was a profound experience to watch her in union contract negotiations—this diminutive woman facing off against the beefy growers across the table—and see the sense of power it gave workers.

Returning from Iraq, where I photographed workers after the 2003 US invasion, I took her picture in the front line of marchers against the war. When we were in Sacramento trying to stop the anti-immigrant, anti-affirmative-action, anti-bilingual initiatives, she was the first to speak out.

So when she called me El Rojo Tocino, I thought, “What a compliment!” I hope I live up to it.

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