Dolores Huerta, an organizing legend who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, was a Girl Scout growing up in Stockton. She took seriously the idea that people should help one another and try to make things better. Something that particularly angered her was police officers stopping her and her Latino friends — but not the white people they knew — on their way home from a basketball or football game.
Huerta met legendary organizer Fred Ross when she worked at Stockton’s Community Services Organization. When she saw what he had done in Los Angeles — getting sidewalks and street lighting and — most importantly to her — jailing police for beating up Latinos, she realized the power of organizing. Ross introduced her to Chavez and together they started the country’s first union for farmworkers.
Now Huerta, 87, and still doing grassroots organizing, is the subject of a new documentary, Dolores, executive-produced by musician Carlos Santana. When the movie screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year, Huerta talked about some things she has learned from her decades in activism.
1. Ask for help
In the 1960s, most of the lobbyists in Sacramento were white men. But Huerta, a young Latina didn’t let that stop her, and she helped pass major legislation including Aid for Families with Dependent Children and disability insurance for farm workers in 1963.
“I found out that I could go to the law library there in Sacramento, and I could do the research on the laws I wanted to change,” Huerta said. “Once I found the section of the law I wanted, I would go to one of my friends in the Capitol like the great Philip Burton from San Francisco. They would give me a letter and you go down to the Legislative Council’s office, and they would draft the bill for you.
“It was awesome!”
2. Think big
Huerta was the director of the national grape boycott that ended after more than five years with the farmworkers getting contracts that included benefits such as pay raises, medical insurance, and paid vacations.
3. Work together
The United Farm Workers won the grape boycott, Huerta says, by going outside the labor movement and joining with nonprofits, community groups, racial justice organizations and feminists. She urges activists now to get out of their silos and unite.
4. Take credit for your work
Huerta was the only woman on the UFW Executive Board, and she came up with the famous slogan, often attributed to Chavez, “Sí, se puede,” which Barack Obama used as “Yes, We Can!” in his presidential campaign. Huerta used to remain quiet, but she says over the years she has come to see the importance of speaking up.
Huerta loves dancing and music, and she dreamed of becoming a professional dancer before becoming an organizer. Now in her 80s, Huerta is still the last one on the dance floor. In the film, activist Angela Davis says “Despite the fact that Dolores didn’t follow her passion to become a dancer, she is a dancer on the stage of justice.”
— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter