At 89, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta isn’t slowing down

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Dolores Huerta (right) with Eunice Gonzalez (left), who grew up in Santa Maria where her parents worked in the strawberry fields. Courtesy of Dolores Huerta.

Dolores Huerta has spent her life advocating for social justice, primarily farmworkers’ rights. She started the phrase “Si se puede.” And along with Cesar Chavez, she co-founded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

UFW made labor history in the 1960s and 70s by organizing poor and exploited farmworkers across California and the Southwest.

Huerta is now 89 years old and still working through the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which recruits and trains activists in rural, agricultural areas of the Central Valley.

She was recently awarded the Social Transformation Medal by the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara.

KCRW spoke with her before the event.

KCRW: What are some early memories you have from organizing along the Central Coast?

Huerta: We did some grassroots organizing in Oxnard before we started the United Farm Workers. There is a place in Oxnard called ‘La Colonia,’ where a lot of the Latinos live, and they were trying to redevelop it and knock it all down. We were able to stop that, so that was one of the big victories that we had way back in the day. 

Of course, when we started the United Farm Workers, we did a lot of organizing in the citrus and strawberry fields in Oxnard and Santa Maria. And to this day, the United Farm Workers has contracts with [local] strawberry and veggie workers.

In what ways has it gotten easier to work as a farm worker here in California since you started your work?

We were able to bring in toilets. This was a really big deal for farmworkers, especially for farmworker women, to have porta potties in the field, to have drinking water, to have rest periods, to have protection from the heat. 

Having unemployment insurance is a big deal because farmworkers, when the season ends, they have to migrate to other places. But this allows families to stay in one place and collect unemployment insurance so their kids can stay in school. 

The other thing, of course, is having the right to organize. Unfortunately, there are only two states in the United States where farmworkers have the right to organize and have unemployment insurance. That's California and Hawaii.

Are there ways in which it's gotten harder to be a farmworker?

The attacks on Latinos by President Trump and members of the Republican Party have made it very difficult for farmworker families, especially for children, when they see that they are being attacked because of who they are. 

Then we've had these mass deportations. It's just been a very, very difficult time for all of the Latinos, especially the farmworker families.

There are hundreds of thousands of farmworkers in California, but only a small percentage of them are unionized. The United Farm Workers has had trouble keeping their membership numbers up. Why is that?

Well, it's because you have this incredible racism from part of the growers who refuse to recognize farmworkers as equal partners in the work that they do. 

The amount of money that they have spent fighting the workers’ right to have a labor organization, they could have given them health benefits. They could have given them pension benefits, you know?

It's just very difficult for the union to be able to get contracts. So the laws are in place, but the employers do everything they can to fight the workers having their own union.

At 89 years old, what's one thing you still want to see in your lifetime?

I would love to see our educational system really teach the history of the United States, the history of slavery, the history of genocide in this country, and to fight the racism that exists in our country.

We are a nation of immigrants. We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us. We were here before the border.




Kathryn Barnes