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'Dolores': The Labor Activist Behind 'Yes We Can!'

  • Penelope Poulou

“Yes We Can,” President Barack Obama's famous catch phrase, was borrowed from a petite fiery American Latina named Dolores Huerta. Not many people know Huerta’s name, or her contributions to American civil rights, but a new documentary, Dolores, by filmmaker Peter Bratt reveals 70 years of her rich life and work as an American union leader and activist.

In the late 1950s, Dolores Huerta, a community organizer and activist in California gave voice to disenfranchised Latinos in America. “I had seen the miserable conditions of farm workers," she said. "Cesar Chavez said we have to organize a union.” So, Huerta and the American labor leader founded the National Farm Workers Association in California.

“We had benefits. We had a life insurance plan. We had an office we started a credit union, the first farm worker credit union in the history of the United States of America where people could get loans. We had a cooperative store we did services, we did immigration work we did their income taxes, we had like a five-year plan to have a national strike in the Central Valley because we wanted all of the growers to negotiate together,” says Huerta.

Voting rights

Uniting farmworkers in Delano, California, in the '60s, was one of many of Dolores Huerta’s contributions. She told the Voice of America how she helped change voter registration in California, leading to a larger voter turnout in the state.

“One of the major bills that we passed was that you could register voters door to door in California. Before that, you had to go down to the courthouse from Monday to Friday 9-5 to register to vote, and of course, working people couldn’t do that because they were working at those particular hours.” As a result, she says, it’s easy to vote in California today.

Huerta says the film Dolores underscores the significance of social activism in the United States. “It became really apparent that the racism that touched the black people was the racism that touched other groups. So, (we) were marching for everybody,” she says.

Through her social activism, Dolores Huerta also became an icon of the feminist movement. African-American activist Angela Davis says Huerta, a woman in a sea of men, energized the labor movement. She united the workers, she staged protests against discrimination and inspired African-American activists, men and women alike. “There was a time when rarely could you discover women of color who would identify as feminists because it was assumed to be a question simply of gender. And if it was a question simply of gender that gender was white,” says Davis.

“It became really apparent that the racism that touched the black people was the racism that touched other groups," Huerta explained. "So we were marching for everybody.” As for being considered a feminist icon, she admits, “I think I kind of evolved into that.” Raised Catholic, Huerta gave birth to 11 children who she often left behind as she pursued her union work. Today, she realizes the significance of a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion if she needs to.

Labor union contributions

As for the state of the labor union movement today? Huerta says, though progress has been made, there is still a lot of racism and discrimination in the country. “I believe a lot of the issues we have in the United States right now is because people do not know the contributions of people of color, that indigenous Native Americans were the first slaves, that African slaves built the White House and the Congress. That it was the people from Mexico, the people from Asia, that built the infrastructure of our country. Because of labor unions, we have the eight-hour day, we have the weekends, we safety standards, we have unemployment insurance, disability insurance, we have public education, we have social security, all of this was fought for by people in labor unions."

Unfortunately, says Dolores filmmaker Peter Bratt, many Americans do not know this part of history. “Stories like Dolores’s often times get marginalized and even Dolores is kind of painted as a foreigner. She is as American as apple pie or chips and salsa and her story is an American story and it should be told.”

Dolores Huerta also coined the famous slogan “Yes We Can,” that defined Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “We were organizing in Arizona," she recalled. "When I met with some of the professional Latinos, they told me in Spanish, ‘In California you can do all that; In Arizona, no se puede.' And my response was to them was 'Si, se puede! Si, se puede!'”

In 2012, Dolores Huerta was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, at age 87, she is continuing her community work with the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

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