Amplify: Dolores Huerta
As a writer, and as a fierce supporter of HerStory blog, I was grasping at ways to contribute to the blog in a meaningful way. As a straight, white, middle-class female, I felt deeply that using this platform to tell my stories over and over was incredibly selfish - my voice does not need to be amplified. As a woman? Yes. As a straight, white, middle-class person? Nope.
HerStory’s entire premise is to share the stories of women. Their stance from the beginning is that women have been underappreciated and under-represented throughout history. As I was ruminating on what HerStory stands for and why Julia created this story-sharing platform in the first place, I was struck with the idea for this column! As a white feminist, the best thing I can do for a female-identifying community is try to amplify the stories of women throughout history whose narratives have been muffled by history books and/or the men who worked with them.
While this little intro serves as the explanation of a motive, it is also an open invitation for feedback. Suggestions, criticisms, questions, corrections - I want it all! I’m trying to help educate the HerStory community on the badass women of our past, but I still have a lot to learn myself
Our first Amplify feature is Dolores Huerta. Huerta has worked, and continues to work, tirelessly for the rights of farmworkers. She is the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, she is in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. At 87 years old, she has far surpassed “living legend” status. In a September 2017 NPR article, Huerta was referred to as a “living civil rights icon.” Huerta is an activist, a mother (11 children!), a feminist, and all-around fierce protector of the downtrodden.
Throughout her youth, Huerta was involved in her community, and was a Girl Scout until the age of 18. Huerta graduated high school in 1947, married, had two children, divorced, and went back to school to earn her teaching certification. While Huerta was teaching, she was distraught by the conditions many of her students were living in and just how little they had, being the children of farmworkers with very few rights. Huerta felt she could make more of a difference if she was advocating for the rights of farmworkers, so she left her teaching career behind and started her career in activism at just 25.1 The Community Services Organization (CSO) was where Huerta landed her first political organizing job in 1955; she started the Stockton Chapter with Fred Ross and the CSO was also where she met her dear friend and fellow activist icon, Cesar Chavez.
Huerta worked alongside Cesar Chavez for many years. In 1960, Huerta founded the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA); in 1962, Huerta and Chavez left the CSO to start the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Gilbert Padilla. By 1965, the AWA & the NFWA combine to eventually become known as the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Because they worked so closely, Chavez’s legacy overshadowed much of Huerta’s work. In recent years, Huerta’s contributions have been highlighted, most notably in a recently-released documentary, Dolores, directed by Peter Bratt. The UFW’s slogan, Si se puede, was coined by Huerta, but is frequently attributed to Chavez (and to answer your question, yes, that was also the rallying-cry for the cheerleaders of the oft-forgotten 2002 Disney Channel original movie Gotta Kick It Up!).
Huerta was responsible for the passage of many laws, but I’d like to highlight what Huerta did for women, specifically. Huerta was inspired to be a feminist because her mother’s independent and entrepreneurial spirit.3 Huerta met Gloria Steinem while she was organizing the first National Boycott of California Table Grapes while she lived in New York, and learned of the similar ideas her & Steinem shared. After that meeting, Huerta made a more concerted effort to challenge gender discrimination within the farm workers’ community.
Huerta advocated for early childhood education, as a means for both women to participate in civic life and to make sure children were actually getting educated, while their parents worked to create a better life. In an NPR interview, Huerta elaborated on this stance:
“[W]e have to advocate for early childhood education for all of our children. To make sure that they're taken care of but also educated in the process. Because we do need women in civic life. We do need women to run for office, to be in political office. We need a feminist to be at the table when decisions are being made so that the right decisions will be made.” 2
Huerta goes on to talk about the availability of childcare in the farmworkers union, because when the men went to participate in marches, the women often had to stay behind to hold the picket lines and care for their children.
In the same interview, Huerta discusses how she felt women had more specific challenges when it came to working in the fields. The exposure to broad range of pesticides and other chemicals contributed to fertility issues and birth defects in their children. She notes that a specific chemical, chlorpyrifos, was found to pose a risk to consumers by the EPA (under President Obama) and they had proposed a ban, but the final decision wasn’t made until March 2017, after the Trump Administration took over and decided to not follow through with the ban.
The farmworkers movement was strictly a non-violent movement, because Huerta wanted men, women, and children to have the ability to participate. Of course, this didn’t mean the UFW wasn’t subject to brutal violence. Throughout their history, the UFW had violent run-ins with Teamsters and the police. In 1988, Huerta was beaten within inches of her life by the San Francisco police; she had 6 broken ribs and a ruptured spleen requiring an extensive recovery.
There is so much more to Dolores Huerta, and here at HerStory we’re working to just introduce you to the women of our past (and present, in Huerta’s case). I’ve linked the referenced articles throughout the column, and I’ll link them all directly following the column as well. Please share with us any interesting facts you might learn (or already know) about Dolores Huerta throughout the month, and we’ll share them with our HerStory community! Please take the time to review the Dolores Huerta timeline we’ve put together and additional links to the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
In the aforementioned NPR article, Huerta was asked about her long-time stance on not taking credit for her work, and it’s a quote I’d like to leave you, dear reader, with:
“When we had our first constitutional convention for the National Farm Workers Association and we were having elections and Cesar [Chavez] was running the meeting, he stepped down from the dais and came up to me. He said, ‘Who's going to nominate you for vice president?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don't have to be on the board. I just want to serve all the women out there.’ How many of us have thought that way?
“And he said, ‘You're crazy.’ So I did — I grabbed somebody to nominate me. But if Cesar hadn't told me to, I wouldn't have thought about it. And I think that's a problem with us as women — we don't think we need to be in the power structure, that we need to be on those boards where decisions are being made. Sometimes we think well, I'm not really prepared to take that position or that role. But I say [to women out there]: Just do it like the guys do it — pretend that you know. And then you learn on the job.” 2
Huerta’s Activist Timeline
timeline assembled using sources 1 & 3
1955 - started at Community Services Organization (CSO) as a political organizer
1960 - started Agricultural Workers Association (AWA)
1962 - Co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Cesar Chavez & Gilbert Padilla
1965 - AWA & NFWA combine, to eventually become known as the United Farm Workers
1975 - The 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act passes, after Huerta helped coordinate a national lettuce boycott, which helped push forward the first law to acknowledge the rights of farm workers to bargain collectively.
1980s - Served as Vice President of the UFW and co-founded the UFW’s radio station
1988 - Huerta was nearly beaten to death by San Francisco police while protesting the policies of the then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush - she suffered 6 broken ribs and a ruptured spleen
1993 - Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (Cesar Chavez dies in 1993 as well)
1998 - Received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award
1999 - Steps down from position with UFW
2002 - Received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship, which included a $100,000 reward that she used to start the Dolores Huerta Foundation
Ashlee lives in Pittsburgh, PA's northside and works as an office manager. When she's not at work, she can be typically be found in yoga class, cuddling with George the cat, or enjoying new Pittsburgh restaurants with her boyfriend.