Dolores Huerta is a household name for advocacy organizers. Her activism transcends decades and at almost 91 years old, she is still a force to be reckoned with. She was the keynote speaker at the annual California State University, Monterey Bay IGNITE! social justice event.
Bianca Tonantzin Zamora of the Otter Cross Cultural Center introduced Huerta by listing some of her awards and actions. Huerta began the event with recognizing that we are in a critical moment in history. She noted people are “craving change” and this has inspired a rise in activism. She discussed President Biden’s new COVID-19 aid bill, emphasizing the importance that some of the funding from the bill will go to undocumented people, as many are essential workers.
Huerta also discussed the new Voting Rights Act which was passed by the House. It is a landmark bill that rolls back some of the oppressive voter suppression laws that many Republican state Houses have passed. Huerta stressed the importance of voting, but stated voting is not enough – action must be taken by the individual. She urged people to call their senators demanding the Voting Rights Act be passed in the Senate. Taking it a step further, she wanted people to have conversations with family members, especially those in other states, and ask them to join the fight to get this bill, along with immigration reform and other bills supporting the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community, successfully implemented into law.
Quoting a Broadway show by Michael Moore, Huerta said in the morning, “we wash our face, brush our teeth, and call our congressmen.” Huerta believes it is everyone’s responsibility to take action to get progressive bills passed.
Huerta also thanked the protestors of the past year, noting they have “created the climate to make sure these powerful laws” are “actually passed and signed by the president.”
She also mentioned the people have the power to demand change from their elected representatives and it’s necessary to apply pressure to make sure officials don’t change or alter their campaign promises once elected. This is especially important when so many issues revolve around racial and economic inequality and disparities.
Huerta spoke for about 15 minutes, then the floor was opened up for questions. During this session of the event, Huerta was asked about why she became an activist. She said she was inspired to involve herself in activism organizing after witnessing the inequalities farm workers faced and the harmful ways they were treated.
She noted in the beginning, she was witnessing the economic disparity that caused white farmworkers to live in poverty. She was shocked to see a family’s residence with dirt floors and orange crates for seating. As a teacher, she witnessed first-hand the conditions these children lived in, and it broke her heart.
“I had to fight to try to get them shoes from my principal, and school lunches,” Huerta said.
Growing up, Huerta’s friend group was diverse and included Black individuals, Philipinx individuals and other Asian individuals. Huerta noted this drew the attention of police and they were constantly harassed, especially when they were also hanging out with white women. Her tendency to gravitate towards all people led her to build community coalitions with other people of color, as well as varied religious and labor unions. This was important to Huerta because she knew she could empower herself and others to demand fair treatment. She also knew their fight would be stronger with more numbers.
Huerta was asked if she faced imposter syndrome. She revealed she did, and that at times she still does, especially after becoming well-known. To remedy this, Huerta advised folks to remember “we have to have confidence in ourselves, we know what we are doing is sincere … we’re trying to help people, we’re trying to help our community.”
Her mother offered her sound advice to be oneself and never try to be anybody else. Longtime collaborator Cesar Chavez also reminded Huerta that if the farmworkers had autonomy and their rights recognized, they wouldn’t need help, but they did, and Huerta was one of the people instrumental in gaining farmworker’s rights.
Huerta recalled Coretta Scott King, who said we need more women in power. Huerta has adjusted that quote by specifying that the need is for more feminists of power, as feminists can be of any gender. As far as advising people how to organize within the constraints of a conservative environment, Huerta says it’s necessary to find allies. She said she often organized in people’s living rooms. She also wants people to have difficult conversations with others about why oppression exists and how oppressive systems can be changed. Huerta advised people to attend school board meetings and demand ethnic studies be required, as one way to begin eliminating the racism present throughout the K-12 system.
Huerta provided participants with advice on many things, from how to eliminate and call out machismo within one’s family, to honoring the people fighting for civil rights, as some have been killed by those they were fighting against their efforts. The event was emotional, inspiring and full of calls to action.
Huerta also explained that self-care is necessary to continue the fight against white supremacy and labor exploitation. She ended with words of encouragement for how to get through the pandemic and notified viewers that her birthday was coming up. She said her birthday wish is for everyone who can get vaccinated to get vaccinated.