Dolores Huerta may only be five feet tall and weigh 100 pounds, but she is a powerhouse for social change. Born in New Mexico in April 10, 1930, she has spent her life fighting to improve the standard of living for farm workers and battled discrimination. Huerta co-founded the nation’s largest farm workers union and was the first woman in U.S. history to organize and lobby on behalf of migrant workers. Now, in her mid-eighties, Huerta shows no sign of slowing down and still makes the headlines in her fight for labor equality and civil rights. To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are some facts about the extraordinary woman behind the words “Yes, we can.”
Labor organizing, politics, and humanitarianism were part of Dolores Huerta’s life from the beginning.
Her father, Juan Ferånández, was a union activist who successfully ran for a seat in the New Mexico legislature in 1938. At the age of three, her parents divorced and she moved with her mother and siblings to Stockton, California. Her mom held two jobs to support her family and afford Girl Scouts and music lessons for her daughter. She eventually ran a small hotel where many of her customers were low-wage workers, whose fees were often waived out of her kindness for the less fortunate.
Huerta was a teacher before she was a labor organizer.
Dolores Huerta got a teaching certificate at the University of Pacific’s Delta College in Stockton. But her time in front of the classroom was difficult for her to bear: Her students routinely arrived with empty stomachs and bare feet. Huerta soon left teaching because she felt she could affect more change outside of the classroom. She once explained: “I quit because I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”
She helped create the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez.
In 1955, Huerta met Cesar Chavez while working at the Stockton Community Service Organization (where Chavez was the Executive Director). In her spare time, she also founded the Agricultural Workers Association and lobbied on behalf of the poor. When it became clear that both she and Chavez shared a passion over farm-workers rights, the two left the CSO and started the organization that would one day become the United Federation of Workers.
She coined the phrase “Si se pueda!”
During the darkest days of the labor movement, it was common for Latino leaders to say that the government was too powerful and that no matter how hard they fought, farm workers would never receive better working conditions. Huerta and Chavez often heard “No, no se puede!” which means “No, no it can’t be done.” On one occasion, Huerta responded, “Si, si se puede!” or “Yes, yes it can be done.” Her words quickly became the rallying cry for farm workers everywhere.
She helped organize a nationwide boycott of abusive grape growers.
In September 1965, over 5,000 Filipino-American grape-pickers from vineyards in California began a strike in protest of low-wages. A week later, Hispanic farm workers (led by Chavez and Huerta) joined the strike, in a protest that came to be known as the Delano Grape Strike. Huerta helped organize a large-scale boycott of California grapes, sending representatives to cities like Chicago and Boston to expand the boycott by convincing people to buy wine only if it had a union label. By 1970, grape growers agreed to accept contracts which unionized most of the industry, adding 50,000 UFW members — the most ever represented by a union in California agriculture.
She was nearly killed by the police.
On September 16, 1988 Huerta was distributing brochures to a crowd outside San Francisco’s Union Square hotel, where the then Vice President George Bush was making a speech. When police came to break up the crowd, Huerta endured a hail of blows from a police baton. Her injuries included six broken ribs and a pulverized spleen. She required more than a dozen blood transfusions.
She has fought not only for farm workers, but women everywhere.
After a long recovery from her injuries, Huerta took a hiatus from union organization to focus on women’s rights. She spent two years traveling the country on behalf of the Feminist Majority’s Feminization of Power, working to encourage more Latinas to run for office. As a result of her work, there was a significant increase in the number of women representatives at the local, state and federal levels.