Dolores Huerta, the Mexican American Activist Who Invented 'Yes We Can,' Is Still Fighting

A new documentary seeks to set the record straight on the 4'11" feminist foremother's tremendous contributions.

by Marina Garcia-Vasquez; photos by Amanda Lopez
Nov 3 2017, 4:00am

Photo by Amanda Lopez

Dolores Huerta is one of America's most important and under-appreciated activists. Though her name isn't as widely recognized as that of her co-partner Cesar Chavez, the 87-year-old Mexican American woman was essential in leading the California farm workers union in the 1960s to fight for adequate wages and healthy living conditions. Her work transcended the plight of Mexicans in America to champion the civil rights of all people, which is why she was called on by legendary women like Gloria Steinem to incorporate feminism in her social justice platform and Coretta Scott King to petition for a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. She's so significant, Barack Obama even translated her signature slogan "Sí, Se Puede" to "Yes, We Can" for his historic presidential campaign in 2008. And while she was making all of this history, she managed to raise 11 children who've gone on to work as politicians and community organizers themselves.

A new documentary titled Dolores seeks to set the record on the 4'11" feminist foremother's tremendous contributions. Director Peter Bratt and executive producer Carlos Santana offer powerful archival footage of Huerta with picket signs boycotting grocery stores, getting arrested for demonstrating, and addressing crowds with poignant messages to repeal the long-standing and abusive Bracero program. Unlike many of her contemporaries who get biographical documentaries like Bratt's made about them many years after they've passed away, Huerta is still here with us fighting the power. In 2002, she established the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which teaches young people how to organize their own communities. Whether it is LGBTQ rights, DREAMers, or juvenile offenders, Huerta wants to keep encouraging the youth to push for change.

This tireless commitment to the movement has long been an inspiration to me. So I reached out to Huerta to talk about how she became an activist and what insight she has for the next generation seeking to make a difference.

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta organizing marchers on the second day of March Coachella in Coachella, CA 1969. © 1976 George Ballis

VICE: What was it that drew you to activism in your early 20s?
Dolores Huerta: I was a Girl Scout from the time I was eight to the time I was 18 years old. And as a teenager, I belonged to my local church clubs, and I formed my own teen groups. But what really propelled me into becoming a full-time organizer was when I met the [community organizer] Fred Ross. He is the one who taught us we could easily make policy changes, which is something I had never even imagined was possible. Our tax dollars actually pay the salaries of the politicians. They work for us. I think a lot of us don't think about that. People actually work for us, and we have not only a right but a responsibility to tell them the things that we need, the issues that are important to us, and the things that we need to change.

How did you educate yourself on labor laws so that you could serve others?
You have to actually go out there and do the work. By doing the work, you learn how to make those policy changes. You learn the procedures: how to draft legislation, how to write resolutions the city councils pass, how to connect with those legislators... And if the [legislators don't do what you want], then you have to get people elected who will. You have to take over the power. You have to take over the decision-making bodies. We've got to get our people elected to those positions.

Dolores Huerta at the Delano Strike in 1966. Photo by Jon Lewis. Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield

As a Mexican American, born and raised in this country, how did you decide you wanted to advocate for immigrant workers and families?
It was a natural progression. The Community Service Organization (CSO) was the first grassroots group that I belonged to. I was mostly working with Spanish-speaking people. Fred Ross was one of the people who organized the group who filed the Mendez vs. Westminster federal court case against the segregation of Mexicans in public schools in Orange County. He worked in East Los Angeles to elect the first Latino, Edward Roybal to the city council of Los Angeles.

How did you stay motivated when the men pushed back against your organizing efforts?
The goals we were trying to achieve were so important that you don't let them stop you even though they make the work difficult for you at times.

Much of your life's work was alongside Cesar Chavez and United Farm Workers union. How important is recognition as a co-founder of that movement to you?
When we think about women's issues, I think it's important for women to take credit for the work that they do. I think they make a big deal about that in the movie, but I didn't select anything in the movie. That was all done by Peter Bratt. That has never been my complaint.

Dolores Huerta press conference (1975). Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs Wayne State University

You have 11 children. That's 11 years of pregnancy. Did that affect your mobilizing efforts?
Not really. The only decision that the doctors made for me is when I was getting ready for the New York boycott. The doctor told me that I couldn't get on the plane because the baby that I was carrying was sideways. That was my son Ricky. I was already two or three weeks away from delivery, and they said that I could go into contractions on the plane. I was in danger of losing my life and the baby's life, so I had to stay in Delano.

The Obama presidential campaign translated the slogan "Sí, Se Puede" that you penned and made a mantra for a whole movement of solidarity. How did it feel to hear it adapted and used for a greater population?
I think that's awesome because "Sí, Se Puede" has such a strong message. It isn't only talking about individual power, but it's also about collective power. You can say to school kids, "You can do this. You can complete this algebra class." And then we can say to the DREAMEers out there, "Sí, Se Puede. You are going to be able to stay in the United States of America." To me, it's a collective slogan for action on the individual level to build self-confidence and then on the collective level, to reach our goals that we need to reach.

Dolores Huerta. Photo by Amanda Lopez

The mission of the Dolores Huerta Foundation is to address the youth. Why?
One of the things that we want to do is to distribute or make available our organizing model. How can we teach other people the questions that you were asking me earlier? How do we grow people into leadership? How do we change policies? How can we teach people or show people how they can change the policies in their community? How can they get on those school boards, water boards, city councils, and boards of supervisors to make a difference?

At 87 years old, what is the greatest learning you can pass on to a 20-year-old?
Get involved. Get active. Volunteer to work on a campaign. Regardless of what issues they have in their personal life, they can deal with those issues when they're active in the public/political life. It's like living in another dimension. When you're actually making changes in civic life, your own personal issues become secondary. You can deal with [those personal issues] when you know that you are using your life to help other people.

Are you saying this from personal experience?
When I came to Delano to start organizing farmers, I was leaving my job as a teacher. I was going through a divorce, and I had seven children. I was a single parent leaving a secure job as a teacher to work as an organizer for no money. But I was able to do it because the greater good was more important than my personal good.

Dolores Huerta. Photo by Amanda Lopez

Screenings of Dolores are listed on the film's website.

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