Martinez: Huerta’s impact should not be erased

Marissa Martinez, Opinion Editor

As soon as I saw the poster announcing Dolores Huerta’s Thursday night speech, I immediately entered the event into my calendar. I had learned about Huerta’s work as a labor leader and civil rights leader, but did not know much more about her history.

Huerta’s name is more unknown than the activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association: César Chávez. However, her rallying cry is something many can recognize instantly: Sí, se puede — yes, it can be done.

Huerta said her first bout with activism was when she was a young girl in Girl Scouts, but she fully enveloped herself in activism after she became a teacher, when she frequently encountered farm worker families. Huerta helped lead the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in California soon after, where she aided voter registration efforts and lobbied the government to improve the local neighborhoods.

When she realized workers’ rights were the most urgent issue to solve, she joined forces with another CSO leader, César Chávez, and founded the National Farm Workers Association. Thanks to the dedication of her and her fellow activists, the group was instrumental in securing aid and disability insurance for California farm workers, and fought for the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which allowed those workers to organize and ensure better working conditions. Something Huerta is most known for is her work on the nationwide boycott of grapes after she witnessed unfair working conditions in Central Valley, a boycott that reached up to 17 million people. She was arrested many times and was attacked by police during her peaceful protests as well.

And yet, many people today will never truly understand all she did for California workers’ rights, work that has affected millions across the country. Even though our nation still has yet to fully respect our agricultural workers, a majority of whom are Latinx, we are so much further than before thanks to her dedication.

But Huerta is a woman, constantly thought of as “Chávez’s sidekick,” when she’s even included in the conversation at all. Despite the amazing things she has created and accomplished through every obstacle in her way, Huerta experienced an incredible amount of sexism from both the people she fought and those she represented. In addition to being an organizer, Huerta was also a mother to 11 children, a fact that many counted against her.

During her speech, Huerta addressed this specifically. She said that we need to teach young women to support and protect themselves, thus building their own support system. “Prince Charming does not exist,” she joked. Additionally, Huerta called for feminists, not just women, to take power in government and help improve this country.

Her words about gender and activism were inspiring. While we are seeing more women take power in organizing roles since Huerta’s time, respect for their movements and words is still lacking.

But then she said names. Names I had never heard before. Nan Freeman, an 18-year-old killed while picketing at a sugar mill. Rufino Contreras, a 28-year-old shot by foremen. Nagi Daifallah, a 24-year-old killed by a sheriff. Juan de la Cruz, a 60-year-old killed on a picket line. Rene Lopez, a 21-year-old who died in protest.

The fact that it’s impossible to know every person killed for protesting in this country is a sad reality. But when names like the five Huerta mentioned, who are considered the martyrs of CSO’s movement, are barely discussed in U.S. History classes, that’s a problem. When Huerta herself is not mentioned next to Chávez’s name, that’s a problem. The organizing done by working-class Latinos is absolutely essential and absolutely deserves its place in the classroom.

We are doomed to repeat history if we are not taught about activists in the past. Huerta’s work, along with so many others, is so crucial to our country’s development, but we rarely learn about her and her movements. Like Huerta mentioned during her speech, our country is full of “abysmal” ignorance. Part of this stems from our nation’s children not being regularly taught activist history. Yes, progress is built by campaigning and doing door-to-door groundwork, but how are young people supposed to engage in politics if they have few leaders, especially leaders with similar backgrounds, to look up to?

Huerta is a powerhouse in the activist community, and she reminds me of my great-grandmother, who also faced incredible racism and sexism in her activism for Latinx youth. The two of them are some of my many role models and I hope to use their strength to power my own activism.

Latinos have been disrespected in this country for centuries. Huerta’s speech reignited a fire inside me, one that I will stoke as long as I can. Gracias, Dolores. Sí, se puede.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.