BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — On April 10, 2019, California is celebrating Dolores Huerta Day for the first time.
For decades, Dolores Huerta’s life of activism sparked change, but it didn’t come without controversy.
“We had no choice. We had to keep on going forward,” said Huerta.
Co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become the united Farm Workers Association, Dolores worked alongside Cesar Chavez for the rights of farm workers throughout the country.
Now decades later as California celebrates the first ever Dolores Huerta Day on her 89th birthday, Huerta says she doesn’t plan on slowing down soon.
“There’s still a lot of people to organize and a lot of people to talk to. People that we can get committed. Make them understand that they have the power. That they can be activists,” said Huerta.
Huerta says her passion for activism came early on.
“In my family, I think that was kind of a tradition. That you had to be involved in the community,” she said.
As a school teacher in Stockton, it was there Huerta says she saw the impact that educators could make.
“They can either inspire them or they can put them down. And I think that the work that I saw as a teacher….I cared about the kids that I was teaching,” said Huerta.
She says those years in education inspired her to change course.
"Because I saw that not all the teachers felt the way that I did about the kids, especially the farm worker children and the things that they needed. And so that’s kind of what motivated me to quit being a teacher and to become and organizer.”
She began with the Community Service Organization in the 1950’s, lobbying for changes in California for Latinos
"We passed a law that you could vote in Spanish, that you could get your driver’s license in Spanish, that you could get disability insurance for farm workers,” said Huerta.
It was through that early activism work she met Cesar Chavez.
“At that point in time when we started organizing, farm workers were only earning 50 cents per hour. And you know they didn’t have the right to organize. No bathrooms in the fields. No cold drinking water for them. No restrooms,” said Huerta.
That is when her focus shifted.
“But then when we started the United Farm Workers, it was a whole different story. Because then you were talking about conflict, right? You were talking about workers organizing better wages, the right to have a union. And then it became a different story.”
A mother of eight children, Huerta’s work with Chavez meant moving from Stockton to Delano.
“It was a very, very hard decision because in Stockton I had all my family there. I had my own house there. My kids were in school. It was a very difficult decision but it was one that internally just felt driven that I had to make that decision,” she said.
Chavez and Huerta organized farm workers for years to demand better labor conditions.
“We organized people in their homes. House by house, house by house, all over the San Joaquin Valley. Starting all the way from Bakersfield to Stockton,” said Huerta.
In 1965, thousands of workers went on strike. The next year, workers embarked on a 340 mile march to Sacramento to fight for their rights.
Eventually, they gained the support of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy.
“It really brought national attention to the organization when we needed it,” said Huerta.
Kennedy became a close friend to Huerta and an ally to the farm workers.
He even came to Delano and went head-to-head with Kern County’s Sheriff Leroy Gaylen about the arrests of workers on strike.
Huerta was by Kennedy’s side in 1968 the night he claimed victory in the state’s Democratic Presidential Primary. It was the same night he was killed.
“When we were coming down from the podium, you know he was supposed to come with me and we were going to the ballroom where all the farmworkers were waiting for him. We had a big mariachi waiting for him and instead they said ‘No Senator come this way.’”
Kennedy was taken through the hotel a different way without Huerta, where he was assassinated.
"The thing that I felt guilty about was that we didn’t have any security with him,” she said. “It wasn’t just a tragic loss for the farm workers, it was a tragic loss for all of the United States of America and for all of the world.”
But Huerta and the farm workers continued on.
In 1970, for the first time in U.S. history, the United Farm Workers signed contracts with growers that ended the grape boycott.
“I think that was the ultimate goal. It was to be able to get the workers the type of benefits that other union workers have and the farm workers had been deprived for how many years?” she said. “It gave them the chance to negotiate with their employers, negotiate for better wages, negotiate for better working conditions.”
It’s a victory that Huerta says she regrets not rightfully taking more credit for.
“Now I had organized the boycott. I negotiated our contract. But the day it came to take our picture and the signing of the contracts, I was sitting next to Cesar and one of our VP’s came up to me and he said, ‘Would you mind if I sit there where you are sitting?’ So I got up and walked away and gave him my seat,” said Huerta. “And then when the pictures came out I said, ‘oh my goodness’ I don’t show up in any of those pictures. There are no women in that picture.”
Today Huerta continues her work as an activist and organizer through a foundation of her own, The Dolores Huerta Foundation.
“I wanted to come back and do grassroots organizing,” said Huerta.
Huerta says advocating for women is just part of what DHF’s mission is.
“I think us as women, sometimes we don’t take credit for our leadership and I have been guilty of that myself,” she said. “But we have to do that because so many young women they are kind of in the same space and we have to teach them to stand up and take credit for the work that they do.”
In recent years, DHF has spearheaded controversial change in Kern County.
DHF was behind a lawsuit to change Kern’s Latino majority districts and changing school discipline policies that DHF claims discriminated towards black and Latino students.
But Huerta says she hopes the legacy she’ll be remembered for is helping people find their voice.
“I am an organizer. And I hope more people will become organizers because I think that we are the ones who will go out there and teach people that they have power,” said Huerta. “That they can make a change but that they have to become activists.”
It’s because of future leaders Huerta says she has hope for the future, and why she says she can’t slow down.
“This is what we want to do is develop those people at the ground so that they can improve their communities because they shouldn’t have to wait for someone to come in and do it for them,” said Huerta. “They have to understand that they have got the power to do it for themselves.”