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James T. KeaneMay 23, 2023
Dolores Huerta at the 1973 United Farm Workers Union founding convention (Bob Fitch photography archive/Stanford University)

Writing in The Catholic Worker in January 1969, Dorothy Day noted the difference between theorizing about advocacy for Gospel values and seeing advocates for those values in action. “We like to write about individuals in these movements for social justice, because, in a way, they are the word made flesh,” she wrote. “We talk about what ought to be done, and here are the people doing it, putting flesh on the dry bones of principles and ideals. There must be the idea, the theory of the personalist and communitarian revolution, but the idea must be clothed with flesh and blood.”

She was writing about one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century: Dolores Huerta.

Dorothy Day on Dolores Huerta: "We talk about what ought to be done, and here are the people doing it, putting flesh on the dry bones of principles and ideals."

A worker’s advocate, feminist leader and civil rights proponent whose work continues today at the age of 93, Dolores Huerta was along with César Chávez the inspiring force behind the formation of the United Farm Workers union and other worker’s rights groups that made great strides toward economic justice on behalf of agricultural workers in California and across the United States from the 1950s onward.

Born in 1930 in Dawson, N.M., Huerta was raised in Stockton, Calif., where she earned a teaching credential to become an elementary school teacher. Her career as an activist began when she co-founded a local chapter of the Community Service Organization, planning voter registration drives and working for economic rights for Latinos. In 1962, she and Chávez (whom she had met through a C.S.O. associate) founded the National Farm Workers Association, which would later merge with other labor groups to become the United Farm Workers. Huerta would serve as U.F.W. vice president until 1999.

Huerta was central to the planning of the 1965 Delano strike against grape growers as well as the ensuing boycotts, also serving as a chief representative of workers in the contract negotiations that followed the strike. Another series of strikes—once again combined with a grape boycott—in 1973 eventually led to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which codified collective bargaining rights for California’s farmworkers in state law.

In the decades that followed, Huerta added to her advocacy for workers’ rights with further campaigns on behalf of women’s rights and greater Latino political representation. Throughout these decades, however, her legacy was often mentioned only in reference to Chávez or other leaders; rarely was she acknowledged on her own to have been a prophetic voice for worker justice. (The picture above? I had to crop Chávez out of it.)

“Why don’t today’s farmworkers remember Dolores Huerta?” Antonio De Loera-Brust asked this question in America in 2017 in a review of a PBS documentary on Huerta, “Dolores,” that was directed by Peter Bratt and produced by musician Carlos Santana. “Although the documentary at times feels like a made-to-order response to the age of Trump, the film’s real purpose is confronting older injustices, chief among them Dolores Huerta’s relative obscurity,” De Loera-Brust wrote. “In doing so it invites us all to reflect on the politics of memory: What do we remember, what do we forget, and why?”

After all, “Huerta’s lack of recognition is certainly not due to a lack of proximity to power; she stood alongside giants of American history,” De Loera-Brust wrote. “She was thanked by name by Robert Kennedy as she stood beside him on the night he was assassinated. She was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who concedes that it was Huerta who first uttered the phrase si se puede, which Obama translated into ‘yes we can’—the slogan of his 2008 campaign.”

Barack Obama commented that it was Huerta who first uttered the phrase si se puede, which Obama translated into ‘yes we can’—the slogan of his 2008 campaign.

The sexism Huerta faced at work and on the picket line was reflected in media coverage of her advocacy even at the time. In stories about the United Farm Workers strikes throughout the late 1960s and ’70s, Huerta was not often mentioned except in relation to Chávez, a phenomenon reflected in the pages of America, where male union leaders and “labor priests” were usually the subject of coverage of labor disputes. One notable exception was an October 1973 article by Johanna von Gottfried that focused specifically on women arrested in a huge strike by the United Farm Workers in Fresno County, Calif., two months previous in August 1973.

Almost 3,000 strikers were arrested, including dozens of priests and nuns who rallied in support—as well as Dorothy Day, who told her fellow strikers that “prison was a good place for an old person to rest.” Two months later, America published von Gottfried’s diary entries telling the story of 99 women arrested outside Parlier, Calif., for picketing during the strike despite a local court order prohibiting it, including many nuns. Among those who appeared in support of the imprisoned women were two other leading civil rights activists. Von Gottfried wrote:

This afternoon Joan Baez came and sang to us, and Daniel Ellsberg expressed his solidarity with ‘the victims of violations of the same Amendment’ that had been violated by his persecutors. Joan described our place of incarceration as a ‘summer camp,’ which was descriptively accurate. She sang De Colores, the beautiful cursillo movement song, and announced that she will sing it on the next record she cuts.

Von Gottfried wrote of the solidarity felt by those arrested but noted that the lay women were “under a strain more personal than might be imagined. Unlike the religious, who are new to this situation, they expect justice later rather than sooner. They all know some horrible experience of injustice, their own or a relative’s. They are also very anxious for their children.” It was a story familiar to Dolores Huerta, who was a single mother with seven children by the time of the 1973 strikes. In fact, she noted later in life that her advocacy for worker justice was born of a desire to see better educational and economic prospects for the children of California’s underclass.

In recent years, Huerta has received somewhat greater recognition for her prophetic witness than in previous decades. In addition to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012, Huerta was also recognized in 1998 by President Clinton, who awarded her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. Schools around the American Southwest have been named in her honor, including a middle school in Burbank, Calif.. In 2002, she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation with some of her award money; the organization is dedicated to developing community organizers and national leaders. In California, April 10 is Dolores Huerta Day.

Sadly, the decades since the triumphs of the U.F.W. and its leaders like Huerta have not always offered a continuation of their legacy, however. In the neoliberal economic and political climate of the 1980s and 1990s, many of the gains earned by farmworkers in the 1960s and 70s were lost. Farmworkers today toil for wages far below California’s minimum, and even safe working conditions (including protection against pesticides, a particular concern of Huerta) remain hard to find in many parts of the nation’s breadbasket. “If Chávez, Huerta and the U.F.W. were so successful, why are farmworkers still so marginalized today?” De Loera-Brust wrote in 2017. “The Central Valley is still a land of agriculture, small towns and racial inequity hidden behind the veneer of ‘progressive’ California. The story of Dolores Huerta inspires me to imagine a world where that will not be the case…Dolores Huerta’s final legacy will depend on how the next generations, including my own, receive, carry and ultimately pass on the torch of her struggle.”

“Dolores Huerta’s final legacy will depend on how the next generations, including my own, receive, carry and ultimately pass on the torch of her struggle.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is the 2023 Foley Poetry Contest Winner: “Letter to Myself While Learning to Read,” by Laurinda Lind. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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