“Who’s got the power?”, US Presidential Medal awardee Dolores Huerta asked the audience gathered at Radcliffe Yard in Harvard University, Massachusetts. “We’ve got the power!” the audience shouted back in unison with Huerta. She continued by asking the crowd of hundreds, “What kind of power?”, without missing a beat, the audience exclaimed, “People power!” The political activist ended the chant with the slogan“¡Sí se puede!” This was when Huerta received the Radcliffe Medal from Harvard University. The medal is awarded to individuals who have had a transformative impact on society.
Coming back to the phrase “¡Sí se puede!”, it is often heard at protests or written on signs. This chant has become a slogan of unity and democracy, but where did it originate from? The phrase, which is Spanish for “Yes, we can!”, was coined as a slogan for the farmworkers movement by Huerta, in which she played an indispensable part. Former US President Barack Obama attributed the slogan to Huerta when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Launching the National Farm Workers Association with Chávez
The daughter of a farmworker and miner father, Dolores Huerta was born on April 10, 1930, in a small village in New Mexico. Growing up, Huerta admired her mother’s independence. She was an active participant in community affairs and tried to emulate her mother’s sense of compassion. After teaching at the University of Pacific’s Delta College for a while, Huerta realised her passion while in the leadership of the Stockton Community Organization (CSO). It was there that she met CSO Executive Director César E. Chávez, and the two formed the National Farm Workers Association after resigning from CSO.
Huerta directed United Farm Workers (UFW)’s national boycott during the Delano Grape Strike. Huerta tells National Public Radio, “They didn’t have toilets in the fields, they didn’t have cold drinking water. They didn’t have rest periods. People worked from sunup to sundown. It was really atrocious. And families were so poor. I think that’s one of the things that really infuriated me.” The farm workers’ plight and seeing the conditions in which they and their families were being forced to live motivated Huerta to help them. This boycott and Huerta’s support of it resulted in the whole of California’s grape industry signing a three-year-long collective bargaining agreement with the United Farm Workers.
While she was directing the first National Boycott of California Table Grapes, she came into contact with American journalist and social activist Gloria Steinem, who opened Huerta’s eyes to the feminist movement. After this encounter, Huerta started challenging gender discrimination within the farm workers’ movement.
The Dolores Huerta Foundation
In 2003, Huerta founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation using the proceeds she received from being awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2002. Her youngest daughter, Camila Chávez, has been the Executive Director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation ever since. The mission of the organization is to “inspire and organize communities to build volunteer organizations empowered to pursue social justice.” Dolores herself volunteers at the foundation, in addition to her duties of serving on the boards of People for the American Way, Consumer Federation of California, and Feminist Majority Foundation. The Dolores Huerta Foundation works to promote Education, Health and Safety, LGBTQIA+ rights, Equality and Civic Engagement.
Dolores, a documentary from filmmaker Peter Bratt depicts her journey from being a young girl helping out her community to the architect of a nationwide boycott that led to the first farmworker union contracts. Huerta has been arrested a total of 22 times for her overt participation in non-violent civil disobedience movements and strikes, but nothing has slowed her down.
Today, at age 91, Huerta is still fighting injustice and continues to be a voice for those who have been silenced for far too long.