When we think about Latina trailblazers, one name comes immediately to mind: Dolores Huerta. The American labor leader and civil rights activist has become a sort of mantra for many Latinas fighting against inequality — whether at home or organizing community efforts in the streets.

And no wonder. 

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After all, Dolores Huerta co-founded the United Farmworkers Association alongside Cesar Chavez. The association later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to become the United Farm Workers (UFW). However, Huerta came to the forefront at the Delano grape strike in 1965 in California. The historic social movement that guaranteed farmworkers’ rights.

At the time, Huerta coined the now-historic phrase “Sí se puede” and became a role model to many in the Latino community.

In the preamble to her 94th birthday, Dolores Huerta talked with FIERCE about her journey, the importance of Latinas in social movements, and the work that still needs to be done.

Dolores Huerta in conversation with FIERCE.

A socially conscious woman, born and raised

Social activism and political conscience have been a part of Dolores Huerta’s life since birth. In 1938, when she was only eight, she saw her father, Juan Fernández, run for political office in the New Mexico legislature and win. He was a miner by trade and a union activist by passion, but he was also the first example for young Dolores of how change begins at home.

After her parents divorced, she and her two brothers moved to Stockton, California, with their mother, Alicia. There, she learned what being a feminist meant from her mother’s independence and entrepreneurial spirit.

“I do believe that women set the standard and the policies in the family. So when the mother and grandmother are engaged, and their children and grandchildren see them out there doing the work, they will follow that lead.”

“So, having women at the frontline of the movement is extremely important,” she said.

Watching her mother offer affordable rooms in her small hotel to people in need after working so hard to acquire the business while simultaneously participating actively in community and civic organizations shaped Dolores into the young and socially engaged woman she’d become.

She was part of numerous school clubs, a majorette, and a Girl Scout until she turned 18. She earned a provisional teaching credential at the University of Pacific’s Delta College, married, and had two daughters.

Dolores Huerta just starting out as a young community organizer in 1959.

And then, her lifelong calling knocked at the door

While teaching, Dolores Huerta would see her students come to school with empty stomachs and bare feet. She realized something had to change and found her calling as an organizer.

Huerta began serving in the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO) leadership. Then, she founded the Agricultural Workers Association to organize voter registration drives and press the local government for improvements.

“I found out you could actually make a difference by getting people to come together with direct, collective action,” she told FIERCE over 70 years later.

“[I realized] that you could pressure the people in power to make them do the right thing and enact the policies that actually affect our lives,” she reflected.

Credit: George Ballis.

Becoming a lobbyist made her understand her power

In 1955, CSO founder Fred Ross, Sr. introduced Dolores Huerta to CSO Executive Director César E. Chávez. They soon understood they shared a common vision for the future of farm workers, which was far from the CSO’s mission. They quit and launched the National Farm Workers Association in the spring of 1962.

Dolores’ organizing skills made the Association grow despite feeling her colleagues didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman.

“Being a now (ahem) experienced lobbyist, I am able to speak on a man-to-man basis with other lobbyists,” she once wrote jokingly to Chávez.

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library.

In 1963, she secured Aid For Dependent Families (AFCD) and disability insurance for farm workers in California. Huerta was also instrumental in enacting the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This first-of-its-kind law granted farmworkers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.

With her grassroots work, Huerta made farmworkers understand they could wield significant economic power through massive boycotts at the ballot box and grassroots campaigning.

Dolores Huerta became such a key figure that Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her in helping him secure the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary just moments before he was shot in Los Angeles. 

Dolores Huerta and Robert F. Kennedy. Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library.

Over seven decades of hard work — and still going

For Dolores Huerta, helping others understand they could create “a powerful collective political force” was like “finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

“Like many of us, they see racism and sexism growing up,” she said. “And you didn’t really know there was anything you could do about it. You just had to take it.”

“But then, once you find out you don’t, [that you could] actually make policies to end some of the discrimination [you understood] that’s the whole idea of governance,” she explained. “By the people, for the people.”

“But if people do not engage and do not act, then it doesn’t work,” she added, hinting at the importance of this year’s presidential elections.

“We know there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” Dolores explained. “Especially right now, that our country is going through a democracy crisis. Our job as organizers is to make people understand they have the power to make things happen.”

Credit: David Bacon.

Dolores Huerta is convinced this is the time for Latinos to rise to the occasion

After years of leading the fight for equality and civil rights, Dolores Huerta is aware of the new wave of change that’s coming.

“As Latinas and Latinos, we know our time has come, so to speak,” she said. “We are now the deciders. We could decide what is going to happen to our democracy because of our numbers.”

“We’re not criminals. We are actually the bedrock of our society right now,” she vehemently said. “But again, if we do not use our vote and our voice, we might as well continue to be invisible. And we can’t be invisible any longer.”

Credit: The Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Dolores reflected in the power of millions of Latinos available to vote. But she also reminded us of our impact on our country, “our economic and cultural contributions.” She remembered the lives of the Latino migrant workers who died in the collapse of Baltimore’s Key bridge.

“They were the example of the many sacrifices Latinos make to our country,” she said. “And often people do not appreciate that.”

But at the same time, Dolores Huerta has a message for our community: “You’ve got to step up your game, all right? You’ve got to get involved. This is not the time to be invisible. We’ve got to be out there on the front lines and do the work that needs to be done to make our voices heard, to make our ideas heard, and to have our contributions respected.”

Credit: The Dolores Huerta Foundation.

And if you want to celebrate Dolores Huerta’s 94th birthday, this is the only thing she wants

“The best way to celebrate my life is for mothers and grandmothers to set the example for the family and the community,” she said. “That would be a great offer for me, wouldn’t it?”

Dolores knows what she’s talking about. Her legacy lives on through The Dolores Huerta Foundation, which organizes and engages new generations in civic work.

“We have one very overwhelming policy in the House of Representatives right now. That is the Equal Rights Amendment for Women. If passed, it will be the 28th Amendment to the Constitution,” she said.

Dolores stressed the importance of pressuring Congress representatives to sign the petition to bring the Amendment for a vote. 

If passed, the Amendment would explicitly prohibit sex discrimination. 

Credit: The Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Finally, the social activist said her work this year is focused on getting as many people registered to vote as possible.

“This year is going to be a vote for democracy,” she concluded, sending a message to Latinas who want to engage in civic work.

“We all have personal problems, whether it’s work, home, or school… But when we get involved in civic and political work, you know, it takes our mind off of our personal problems,” she said jokingly. “Our personal problems will get resolved one way or the other. But if we could use the resources that we have, [we should use them to] call people up and remind them it’s important for them to vote.”

And with the same strength as many years ago, she said farewell with her phrase, “¡Sí se puede!”