Today’s post, from Alyssa Manfredi in the National Archives History Office, is in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month and looks at labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.
A co-founder of the Chicano movement, Dolores Huerta is an activist who continues to fight for the rights of laborers, women, and immigrants. She is credited for coming up with the rallying cry “Sí, se puede,” which means “yes, it is possible” in Spanish, and co-founding the predecessor organization for the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
Dolores Clara Fernández Huerta was born in New Mexico on April 10, 1930. Her father was a part of the migrant labor forces that harvested beets and told stories to the young Huerta about union organizing. Her parents divorced when Huerta was three, and she was raised primarily by her mother, Alicia Chávez. Chávez owned a hotel and restaurant that welcomed farmworkers and lower-wage workers and offered them affordable or free lodging and meals. Much of her mother’s compassion bolstered Huerta’s nonviolent acts of resistance later in her life.
Huerta went to the University of the Pacific and earned a degree in teaching. She taught the farm workers’ children but left soon to join the Community Service Organization (CSO) in an effort to correct economic injustices. “I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes,” she said. “I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”
Huerta quickly took on more responsibilities within the organization due to her enthusiasm for the cause, subverting roles usually held by White men. During the same time, Huerta began to advocate for Spanish-language voting ballots and driver’s tests. She organized drives for voter registration and lobbied local governments to improve Hispanic neighborhoods in the area.
At the CSO, she met the director of the organization, César Chávez. Together, Huerta and Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association. They began defending the rights of underpaid farm workers and educating them on civil rights, striking, and unionization.
In 1965, Filipino farm workers went on strike in Coachella Valley for a 40-cent raise, bumping their hourly wage up to $1.40. When the same workers moved south to Delano for their grape-picking season, they discovered they would make $1.20 per hour, which was below the minimum wage.
Leading the National Farm Workers Association, Huerta and Chávez organized the strike for Hispanic and Filipino workers against the grape corporations in Delano like Schenley Industries and DiGiorgio Corporation. Huerta led the consumer boycott of grapes that came from the Delano grape farms. The merger of ideas expanded the scope of the National Farm Workers Association, and combined with the Filipino organizing committee to form the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).
In the end, the strike lasted five years and led to a successful union contract. Huerta was the lead negotiator in getting the final contracts. The contracts ensured the elimination of harmful pesticides, safer working conditions, timed pay increases, and health benefits.
It was during her time in the United Farm Workers of America that she came up with the slogan “Sí, se puede.” In 1972, the Governor of Arizona moved to pass a bill that kept the UFW out of the state, criminalizing boycotts, and preventing the unionization of farm workers. In an act of nonviolent protest, Chávez fasted for 25 days. Huerta’s simple phrase became a rallying cry for the UFW, immigration reform groups, and labor unions across America. The empowering phrase continues to inspire people today to bring about positive change against all odds.
Today, Huerta continues to work toward the advancement of laborers’, women’s, and immigrants’ rights in the United States. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. She continues to lead her eponymous nonprofit, which uses a grassroots approach for community organizing. The Dolores Huerta Foundation follows in the footsteps of Huerta, advocating for all social justice movements from civic engagement to LGBTQ+ rights.
To learn more about the Farm Worker Movement, read Thomas Richardson’s El Movimiento blog post.