By Jenna Barnett 3-22-2017

During the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony for Dolores Huerta, Obama admitted to stealing her famous rallying cry from the labor rights movement in California. “Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, ‘Si, se puede — Yes, we can,’” he said. “Knowing her, I’m pleased she let me off easy, because Dolores does not play.”

Over Dolores Huerta’s more than 60 years of service to justice, she hasn’t had much time for play. Huerta was only in her twenties when she co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers alongside Cesar Chavez, whom history has more often highlighted.

Huerta started off as a teacher in California’s San Joaquin Valley, but she grew tired of seeing the children of farm laborers come into her classroom so malnourished. She wanted the United Farm Workers to change that. Through the unionization of the predominantly undocumented Spanish-speaking field laborers, Huerta hoped to put an end to extremely long hours, unlivable wages, rampant assault, and no bathroom breaks.

In Huerta’s eyes, to exploit a field worker is to bite the hand that feeds you. Chavez, who revered Huerta as “totally fearless,” explained why it is so important to value farm laborers: "It's ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves."

In 1967, she put financial pressure on the grape industry by becoming a leader in the table grape boycott, a movement that united many Filipino grape growers with the predominantly Latinx growers she worked alongside. The Delano Grape boycott included a 300-mile march to Sacramento, and after years of organizing, reaped huge rewards: By 1970, the grape industry signed a historic agreement that improved working conditions and increased wages.

The grape industry workers named Huerta “the Dragon Lady.” As belligerent as “Dragon Lady” sounds, Huerta is a lifelong proponent of nonviolent action. By the age of 70, Huerta had been arrested over twenty times, all acts of civil disobedience for social justice causes.

Huerta has many causes. After her work in labor organizing during the civil rights movement, Huerta became a leader in the women’s movement. She later went on to encourage Latinas to run for public office through her leadership in the campaign titled “Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the Year 2000.” And to this day, Huerta speaks out about injustices against black and brown bodies and LGBTQ people.

After decades of service, Huerta has finally begun to receive the recognition she deserves.

In 1993, Huerta became the first Latina inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. And in January, a documentary about her work, aptly titled Dolores, premiered at Sundance. 

Huerta once asked this of the American people: “Honor the hands that harvest your crops.” Similarly, we must honor the women who fight — so often nonviolently — for our rights.

Jenna Barnett is the Women and Girls Campaign Associate for Sojourners.

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