More than 50 years ago, a determined young woman stepped up and created the iconic slogan "¡Sí, se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") that would lift up the voices of the voiceless and change the state of labor in the United States forever. That woman, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, would go on to co-found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Cesar Chavez.
The NFWA later became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) and, as vice president of that organization until 1999, Huerta helped launch the first farmworkers strike in the country, which kickstarted the fight for union rights and labor organizing in the agricultural sector in the U.S. and changed the lives of farmworkers forever.
"In my opinion, she is one of the most important American civil rights and labor rights leaders in the second half of the 20th century and into the new millennium," says Mario Garcia, author of "A Dolores Huerta Reader," in an email interview.
Early Life and Family History
Huerta was born April 10, 1930, in the town of Dawson, New Mexico. She was one of three children born to activist parents. Her father was a miner, farmworker and union leader who later went into state politics.
"Her parents, Alicia Chavez and Juan Fernandez, were early role models of activism," says Monica Brown, author of "Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez," in an email interview.
After her parents' divorce, Huerta moved with her mother to Stockton, California, where they lived in a diverse community of Mexican, Filipino and Japanese Americans. According to the book "Dolores Huerta: Get to Know the Voice of Migrant Workers," Huerta was a talkative, inquisitive young girl, and her grandfather nicknamed her "Siete Lenguas," Spanish for "Seven Tongues."
"When her family moved from New Mexico to Stockton, California, her brothers had to work in the fields, and [Huerta] as a teenager also wanted to join them. However, her mother forbade this because she did not want her daughter to work in the fields," Garcia says. Huerta's mother did permit her daughter to work in industrial packing sheds, but the working conditions there weren't much better than in the field. But what Huerta saw stuck with her.
"I think this early exposure to the harsh working conditions of farmworkers provided a context for Dolores later working to organize these workers to do away with the more exploitative aspects of farm labor," Garcia adds.
After graduating from Stockton High, Huerta married, had two children and began teaching elementary school children, many of whom were the impoverished sons and daughters of farmworkers. Although the marriage did not last long, the teaching had a profound impact on Huerta's desire to improve the lives of farmworkers.
"As a very young woman, Dolores was a teacher, and saw the children of farmworkers come to school with no shoes and hungry — this motivated her to work for change," Brown says.
Sarah Warren wrote the book "Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers." She adds by email that Huerta “was driven to do more for the children she planned to serve when she found out how their families were being abused.”
Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike
At age 25, Huerta became immersed in activism, joining a local activist group run by Fred Ross that advocated on behalf of Mexican Americans. There, Huerta began learning how to become a labor organizer.
"As a young adult she became involved with the Community Service Organization (CSO) which was an organization mobilizing Mexican Americans in civil rights work and voter registration in the 1950s," Garcia says.
At the CSO, Huerta met Cesar Chavez, who would go on to become one of the most widely recognized Mexican American labor leaders in U.S. history. Huerta and Chavez began to work together for improved working conditions and wages for farmworkers, who earned as little as 70 cents an hour at the time.
"Cesar recognized Dolores' talents as an organizer plus her own personal strength and so when he began to organize in the fields by 1962, he recruited Dolores to work with him," Garcia says.
Together, Chavez and Huerta founded the National Farmworkers' Association in 1962, which later became the United Farm Workers union. Huerta remained vice president of United Farm Workers until 1999. The two had a complex relationship, according to scholars. From one point of view, they were comrades in the fields, working for better conditions for the most marginalized workers in society.
"As Dolores once told me, they were comrades. They spoke to farmworkers on the backs of flatbed trucks and co-founded the United Farmworkers Union," Brown says.
"Dolores saw herself as equal to Cesar and he accepted this. Cesar didn't always agree with Dolores, but he learned from her," says Garcia. "She was one of the few persons in the union who was not afraid to criticize Cesar, which he appreciated."
Huerta and Chavez became most well-known for organizing the 1965 Delano grape strike and boycott, in which striking Filipino grape farmworkers — led by activists like Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz — sought the help of the emerging National Farm Workers Association, which largely represented Latino workers.
Huerta marched along with Chavez for workers' rights, brought together the Filipino and Latino workers on the picket line, and led a nationwide boycott of nonunion table grapes. In 1970, Huerta and Chavez's steadfast organizing paid off, resulting in union contracts, as well as better wages and working conditions for the grape workers.
"Dolores Huerta played a big role in getting farmworkers to participate in union activities, to boycott grapes and other produce, to picket farms, and become members of the union," says Stacey Sowards, author of "Sí, Ella Puede! The Rhetorical Legacy of Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers."
"Sí, Se Puede!"
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizing her, not Chavez, as the original source of the phrase "¡Sí, se puede!" Obama famously appropriated the slogan for his own presidential campaign, but Huerta's rallying cry had been used for years to organize farmworkers and inspire advocacy for other civil rights issues.
"Dolores Huerta first spoke the famous words, "¡Sí, se puede!" while speaking to a group of workers who kept saying "We can't organize the workers here. We can't. No se puede!" Dolores responded, "¡Sí, se puede! Yes, you can!" Brown says.
Huerta became an iconic activist and a source of pride for Mexican Americans and others within the Latinx community. Her organizing helped bring about the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to 1.3 million undocumented workers.
Legacy and Present-day Activism
Huerta celebrated her 91st birthday in 2021, and remains active on the front lines as a civil rights advocate and labor organizer. She holds media events and hosts TED Talks on how to speak out and become empowered through activism.
"Her legacy today is that she has become a social movement icon," Sowards says. "She has demonstrated how one moves from individual action and concern for community to working with other people on those issues to creating an entire social movement."
Huerta also founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2003. The nonprofit focuses on empowering and training grassroots organizers in lower-income and disenfranchised communities in California, including work on LGBTQIA issues.
Although farmworkers have more collective bargaining opportunities as a result of Huerta's work, they still experience widespread exploitation, harsh working conditions and wage theft. In recent years, Huerta has been vocal in pushing for immigration reform to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, who constitute a large share of farmworkers in the U.S.
Moreover, Huerta continues to boost the civic power of Latinos, specifically through efforts to turn out the vote. Latino voters played an important role in the 2020 election, turning out in record numbers.
"She has been very active in registering people to vote and getting people to the polls," Sowards says. "Her foundation works to get people more involved beyond voting, such as organizing voters to vote, but also to participate more fully on social justice issues in their communities."
Ultimately, Huerta's legacy endures through the important issues she raised as an activist and community organizer, which continue to resonate today.
"Her legacy of taking on issues of social justice, not only in the fields but in the fight for women's rights, civil rights, voting rights and for world peace, are all part of her legacy," Garcia says.