On Thursday, March, 4, the Burbank Board of Education renamed David Starr Jordan Middle School as Dolores Huerta Middle School, in honor of the legendary organizer and social justice advocate.
Huerta was born in Dawson, New Mexico, and relocated to Stockton, California at six years old following her parents’ divorce. She spent her free time with a diverse friend group in her Stockton neighborhood, which was made up primarily of first-generation immigrants.
“I was really fortunate that I grew up in Stockton because we had a very diverse community,” Huerta said. “My next-door neighbors on one side were Italian. The ones across the street were Greek…My neighbors on my right hand side were African American and across the street, my Filipino friends, Chinese friends and my Japanese friends… I got my ethnic studies firsthand.”
Some major influences in Huerta’s early years included her Girl Scout leader, Katherine Kemp, friend Charlsea Craft-Sattlerfield, who introduced her to African American culture, and her mother, Alicia Chavez. Huerta’s mother worked two jobs to provide for her family and purchase a local hotel, where she often allowed low-earning workers to stay for little to no fees.
Prior to her extensive passion for social justice, Huerta took an interest in music and dance, which she first learned from teachers of the Works Project Administration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s post-Depression Era employment initiative.
“I got my first lessons [in] how to play the violin in grammar school, and I got my first tap dancing lessons in grammar school,” Huerta said. “I have all of these great artworks that were done by people that were hired by the government to do the artwork.”
Following graduating from Stockton High School, Huerta began her collegiate studies, but left when she married and had her first two children. After the end of her first marriage, she initially planned on returning to school to become a social worker, but instead decided on obtaining her teaching credential so she would maintain the same daily schedule as her children.
While devoting her free time to door-to-door voter registration, Huerta witnessed the shocking living conditions of local farm workers in California’s Central Valley. In addition, her classroom students, the children of these workers, often came to school malnourished. These circumstances pushed her in the direction of community organization and activism in order to gain rights for agricultural laborers and their families.
“I came to a home of some farm workers and they didn’t have any type of coverage on the floor,” Huerta said. “It was a dirt floor. Their furniture was orange crates and cardboard boxes. And you could see that they worked very, very hard, but they just weren’t paid very much money.”
Few people would listen to Huerta’s initial pleas to aid farm workers when she was still employed as a teacher. Her school’s principal refused to give students school lunch vouchers and work conditions remained poor for their family members. This included no toilets, drinking water, or unemployment insurance for California’s hard-working farm laborers. Later, when she moved into her role as an organizer, Huerta would hear disparaging remarks directed at agricultural workers from farm growers in Sacramento court hearings.
“I heard [growers] saying,…‘Oh, well, we’re doing these people a favor. They’re all degenerates and…so we do the public a favor by employing them,’” Huerta said of criticisms from agricultural employers. “So they would denigrate the farm workers in the public and then out there in the fields.”
Once Huerta made the decision to get involved in social justice work, Community Service Organization founder, Fred Ross, educated her on organizing tactics as she got involved in the CSO’s Stockton chapter. This consisted of gatherings at local houses in which Huerta would discuss the issues plaguing community members, who would then make united plans in fighting for positive changes in the area.
A few years into joining the CSO, Huerta was introduced to fellow organization member, César Chávez. Huerta recalls Chávez being reserved, as the two didn’t even have a conversation with one another until three years into her volunteerism at the CSO. An early interaction consisted of Chávez complimenting Huerta on a speech she gave at a CSO program convention.
“My first impression of César was he was so shy that we met him for a quick minute and then he disappeared,” Huerta recalled. “We had been working on one of the [CSO] programs, and I made a speech…Afterwards he approached me. He said, ‘I really liked the speech that you made and the things that you guys are doing in Stockton.’”
Soon after this exchange, Huerta and Chávez gathered for lunch with Ross and activist Saul Alinsky. Huerta and Chávez discovered their shared desire to organize farmworkers, which Huerta was already actively pursuing by co-founding the Agricultural Workers Association, which ended up being turned over to the The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. Following the AWA’s dispansion, the two together formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later became the United Farm Workers.
“Cesar said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to organize the farm workers ourselves,’” Huerta said. “And that’s what we did.”
In her leadership role with the UFW, Huerta was instrumental in scoring many landmark rights for farm workers in California. These include disability insurance, Aid For Dependent Families, and the historic 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. This measure was the first ever of its kind, which allowed farm workers to organize and seek better working conditions and higher wages.
Joining in solidarity with agricultural workers resulted in Huerta relocating to Delano, CA, where she experienced the same living conditions as local workers. Since the UFW lacked sufficient funding at the time, Huerta’s family wasn’t well off and often used food bank vouchers for provisions. She says, however, that this was a necessary part of fighting for workers’ rights, as it demonstrated their dedication to the cause.
“You cannot say to folks, ‘I want you to go out there and do the 300-mile march,’ and not go with,” Huerta said. “When I left Stockton, where I grew up in California, to come to Delano, I really had to live pretty much like the farmworkers did.”
An historic movement was led by Huerta starting in 1965, when farm workers began to strike in protest of the Delano grape growers’ mistreatment of farm workers. Eventually, the UFW adjusted their mission by turning the strike into a boycott. Huerta moved to New York to cover the East coast, where she led volunteers in spreading the word on banning Delano-grown grapes. Chàvez simultaneously organized the West coast end of the boycott.
“We were able to get the people to boycott grapes and get the stores not to carry grapes,” Huerta recalled. “Then eventually 17 million people did not buy or eat grapes.”
The movement ended in victory when, after 5 years of dedicated efforts, Delano grape growers were forced to sign contracts which improved working conditions and raised the salaries of their employees. Huerta’s organizing talents proved to be extremely effective in how she was able to teach workers about people power, the power which they had within themselves to enact significant changes.
“It’s really different when you are doing something for them, [versus] when you are organizing them to do something for themselves,” Huerta said of collaborating with farm workers. “Once you can get people to fight for themselves, that’s where your leadership develops because the leadership has to come out of the people.”
Around this time, Huerta became acquainted with feminist leader Gloria Steinem, who extended invites to Huerta for women’s rights rallies. Although at first hesitant in supporting abortion rights, Huerta shifted her perspective as she became inspired by the work of Steinem and fellow feminist, Eleanor Smeal.
“I was able to get my head around the fact that women do have the right to control their own bodies,” Huerta said. “And [women] can decide how many children they want to have and if they want to have an abortion, that it is a human right that women have to have.”
In the late 60s, Robert F. Kennedy became involved with the UFW, lending his support to workers as he embarked on his Presidential campaign. Huerta backed his candidacy and was standing next to Kennedy as he gave a 1968 speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, following primary victories in California and South Dakota, just moments before he was tragically assassinated. Huerta says Kennedy’s power in his authentic passion for helping underprivileged Americans made him a threat to institutional politics.
“He connected on a very personal level with people that were in poverty or people that were being discriminated against, and he didn’t do it in a patronizing way,” Huerta said of Kennedy. “It was a very, very direct connection. Even though he had been raised in a very wealthy family, he still had that ability to care about poor people, people that were suffering. And I guess that’s what made him so dangerous that they felt that they had to kill him because… people followed him because of his compassion.”
A career of public advocacy has not been without significant dangers, as Huerta has seen close friends killed as a result of their heroic dedication to activism. She herself experienced police brutality firsthand when, in 1988, a San Francisco police officer assaulted Huerta during a peaceful protest, breaking four of her ribs and shattering her spleen. Huerta, however, has never been in fear during her work in activism, and instead embraces the opportunities to lead by example and protest on front lines while encouraging others to do the same.
“I really wasn’t [ever scared] because you have to be on the front lines if you want people to be with you on the front lines,” Huerta said. “Otherwise people will not do what they’re supposed to do in terms of fighting for themselves. And so you have to give the example…and you have to be right there with the people or the people in the struggle.”
Among her many accomplishments, Huerta is credited with coining the now-famous rallying cry of “Si, se puede,” meaning “Yes, we can,” in English. Her proclamation of this phrase emerged during meetings with Latino political leaders in Arizona in 1972. Laws in the state prohibited workers from even mentioning a potential boycott, for which they could face jail time under the restrictive regulations. When these leaders told Huerta that California workers’ rights couldn’t be gained in Arizona, her reply resulted in the inspirational “Si, se puede” phrase.
“They told me, ‘You can’t do all of that. This is in Arizona,’” Huerta said. “My response to them [was] ‘Yes, you can,’ and that’s how that came to be.”
Huerta’s list of awards and achievements for her outstanding work in organizing and activism is substantial. Among these are being inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2013, named as one of the “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century” by the Ladies’ Home Journal, and bestowed with the The Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2012. While Huerta’s accomplishments in her social justice leadership roles have broken barriers for women and people of color, her focus has always remained on the task at hand rather than personal accomplishments.
“I was just focusing on the end goal,” Huerta said. “I guess when you do this work, you’re not thinking about making history or anything of that. You’re just focused on the work.”
In 2002, Huerta received the Puffin/Nation prize for Creative Citizenship, which came with a $100,000 benefit. She used this sum to create the Dolores Huerta Foundation, an organization whose mission is “to inspire and organize communities to build volunteer organizations empowered to pursue social justice.”
The DHF team has been instrumental in educating the public on civic engagement strategies, partnering with the state to provide farm workers with COVID vaccine doses and masks, as well as eliminating Kern County’s school-to-prison pipeline. The county expelled over 2,000 students, the majority of whom were students of color, in a recent annual tally. After the foundation took legal action, this sum decreased to a mere 21 expulsions. Next on the agenda is building a Dolores Huerta Peace and Justice Cultural Center, a campus for the foundation which will include an art gallery, outdoor amphitheater, and community organizing training academy.
The wide-ranging, meaningful work of the foundation is a demonstration of Huerta’s belief in the results that can materialize from active community engagement.
“Democracy works when people participate and when they take the power and are willing to advocate for their needs,” Huerta said. “This is why we do this work, because it’s so heartening. Many of the people that have been part of our organization…have developed into [community] leaders. We want to make it… so that people can understand that if they want to see change in the community, they have to work for it. They have to advocate, but then they can make it happen.”
Burbank’s Board of Education chose to rename Jordan Middle School in 2019. Prior to selecting Dolores Huerta Middle School as their new title, the board took into consideration a number of the recommendations from the School Facilities Naming Committee. While the board found value in several other options, the opportunity to name their school after a groundbreaking leader who is a woman and a person of color, both firsts for the school district, was the greatest choice for the community.
“In choosing the name of Dolores Huerta Middle School, we are honoring a woman of impeccable character who has devoted her life to serving others,” Burbank Board of Education President, Steven Frintner, said in a statement. “She has fought for better pay and working conditions for farmworkers and for the rights of the underprivileged and underrepresented. She is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. Ms. Huerta is a great role model for our students and her well-known phrase “Si se puede” (Yes, we can) is something that will continue to motivate them.”
Burbank is the seventh location to name a school after Huerta, who says she feels thankful for the City’s appreciation of her service to social justice.
“I feel very honored,” Huerta said of Burbank’s new namesake middle school. “I am very grateful to learn that the school has been named after me. I’m very grateful to [The Burbank Board of Education] and also to…Superintendent [Matt Hill].”
Now settled in Bakersfield, CA, Huerta hopes to travel to Burbank’s Dolores Huerta Middle School in person once COVID-19 guidelines allow for a safe visit. As she reflects on over six decades in activism, Huerta’s focus remains on passing along the wisdom to others that they have the ability to change their environment through taking charge and organizing together.
“I would hope that I could be remembered as a community organizer that empowered the people and helped them develop their leadership,” Huerta said.