'Si, se puede'

Activist continues to inspire after 50 years

  • Dolores Huerta holds a sign that translates as "Strike" at a 1965 demonstration for grape pickers in Delano, California.

    HARVEY RICHARDS
  • Dolores Huerta (in black jacket) is front and center during a United Farm Workers union rally in Los Angeles in 2006.

    AP PHOTO BY RIC FRANCIS
 

NAME Dolores Huerta

AGE 78

OCCUPATION community organizer

KNOWN FOR co-founding the United Farm Workers union

LESS KNOWN FOR coining the phrase "Si, se puede!" and for her love of jazz, dancing and matchmaking

NUMBER OF TIMES ARRESTED 24

HOME BASE Bakersfield, California

When Dolores Huerta speaks to a packed classroom of teenagers at Clovis High School's Latino Forum in Clovis, Calif., she uses the word "we" 47 times. She talks about what "we" can fight for: more universities, fewer prisons in the area, and the legalization of undocumented farmworkers. She talks about how "all of us" can accomplish this: register voters, write to elected officials. Within 35 minutes, she's covered the history of farmworker policy in the West, argued that everyone should go to college, and encouraged Latina women to celebrate their dark skin. By the end of her talk, Huerta is wiping sweat from her face, her voice hoarse as she leads the clapping group to their feet to shout "Viva!" and "Si, se puede!" (yes, we can!) at the tops of their lungs.

Huerta, a petite 78-year-old with dark, fierce eyes, has inspired people to stand up for themselves for over 50 years. Though she says she was shy as a child growing up in Stockton, another city with many poor families and immigrants here in the San Joaquin Valley, today Huerta is bossy and quick to speak her mind.

"Disagree with me, it's OK. Tell me what you think," she urges the students. "It's why we go to school, right? To challenge things."

A former schoolteacher herself, Huerta quit her job in the mid-1950s to work as a union organizer for less than $5 a week, because she decided the best way to help her students was to make sure their parents made enough money to buy them food and new shoes.

To this end, she helped Cesar Chavez form the United Farm Workers, organizing strikes to obtain better wages and some of the first medical and pension benefits for workers in the history of U.S. agriculture. The UFW also fought to make growers stop using the pesticides DDT and Parathion. Today, the National Farm Workers Service Center, which Huerta helped create, provides 4,300 homes for farmworker families and sponsors nine Spanish radio stations throughout the West.

Huerta credits her mother, a divorced hotel and restaurant owner who fed and housed poor people throughout the Great Depression, for her own drive to help others. That drive, however, has come at a personal cost. Huerta's 11 children grew up traveling constantly, taking part in strikes from Arizona to New York and up and down the West Coast.

"We didn't sit around the dinner table like other families do. Time visiting with my mom was sitting in the car with her while she ran around to meetings," Huerta's 48-year-old daughter, Alicia, says. "My mother often says that just like working out, when your body feels sore, that's how life is. It can be uncomfortable, but if you know that's what you have to do to accomplish your goal, whatever it is, it's worth it."

At an age when most Americans are settling quietly into their golden years, Huerta is still at it. No knitting needles or RV parks for her: In 2003, she launched the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a nonprofit directed by her youngest daughter, Camila. To help fund the organization, which trains community organizers in the San Joaquin Valley, Huerta travels across the country to around 20 speaking engagements per month. In a typical week, she spends only two nights at home. Her ability to maintain such a pace is breathtaking -- even 32-year-old Camila says she can't keep up. Community organizing involves long hours and bad food, and people tend to burn out doing it. But Huerta says she has no intention of slowing down.

"When you organize people, when you bring them knowledge and hope, you raise their consciousness. They start learning about how to pressure politicians, and they see how they can make life better not only for themselves, but for others," she says, driving through the valley's inky night after yet another 11-hour day. Then Huerta does something rare for her: She mentions herself. "I love to see how this transforms people. I think it's so incredible."

The author, a former HCN associate editor, writes frequently about labor issues for national magazines.