Dolores Huerta, the celebrated civil rights activist and co-founder of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), was honored at a benefit on Sunday.
“I wanted to be in the Mission for this event because sometimes the Mission is forgotten,” said the 82-year-old labor organizer, who co-founded the UFW with César Chávez in the 1960s to fight for farmworkers’ rights, better working conditions and better pay.
The event, held at the Mission Language and Vocational School, recognized Huerta’s half-century commitment to civil rights. In May Huerta received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Obama.
Obama has credited Huerta for his signature 2008 campaign slogan, “Yes, we can,” taken from the Spanish, “Sí, se puede,” which was a rallying cry of the farmworkers’ movement.
“President Obama not only honored her when he gave her the Medal of Freedom; she honored the medal by accepting it,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who opened the event.
Saying she has known Huerta for decades, Pelosi acknowledged Huerta’s contributions to women’s rights over the years. “Is there a woman in the house?” Pelosi asked the audience. “There is a woman in the house: Dolores Huerta!”
Amid cheers, Huerta took the stage. “Organizing people on the grassroots level is how we build democracy. But it takes a long time,” she said, visibly energetic in her ninth decade. Whether it is civil, gay, women’s or workers’ rights, she said, “all change comes from the bottom.”
Huerta continues to work as president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF), a group that trains organizers in six rural communities in California’s Central Valley to engage public officials and press for the betterment of their communities. Sunday’s event was a benefit for the foundation.
Huerta told the audience that she does not receive a salary from the 10-year-old foundation, for which she thanked the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). “Back in 1988, I was beat up by the SFPD and that allows me to spend all my time working for the foundation,” said Huerta, referring to the $825,000 settlement she was awarded in 1991 after suffering broken ribs and a ruptured spleen during a protest against the policies of President George H.W. Bush in San Francisco.
“We are not anti-police,” said Huerta, but added that she expects law enforcement to be fair.
Foundation Executive Director Camila Chavez, who is Huerta’s youngest daughter, told the audience about the organization and the people it serves. “We’re hot in this room today, but it’s nothing compared to the heat farmers feel in the Central Valley,” said Chavez. “We work for their betterment and we teach them that election day is the most important day of their lives.”
Supervisor David Campos and State Senator Mark Leno were on hand to honor Huerta.
“Viva Dolores Huerta!” Leno said, thanking her for providing the country with “a moral compass and social conscience.”
“Huerta is an American hero and an institution in the Latino community,” Campos said in an interview with Mission Local. “It is an honor to have her here in the Mission, and we welcome her with open arms. We want to let her know how much she means to us. “
Emilio Victorio, a 58-year-old Mission resident and civil servant, beamed at the chance to see Huerta. “I feel honored because Dolores is like a mother for the Latino community,” he said. “She glows.”
Huerta began her career in the 1950s with the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO), setting up voter registration drives and lobbying local government for improved conditions for Latino communities in the city where she was raised. It was at the CSO where she met the like-minded César Chávez. Huerta and Chávez soon realized the need to organize farmworkers to bring about social and economic change for a traditionally voiceless group. It was a vision the CSO did not share, according to the DHF website.
The two left the CSO, eventually founding the National Farm Workers Association, where they would use the tactics of nonviolence in an effort to raise attention to the plight of uninsured farmworkers. The NFWA merged with the primarily Filipino group Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee to create the United Farmworkers Union.
Among the landmark advances Huerta helped secure was the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, a law that recognized the collective bargaining rights of farmworkers in California.