© 1976 George Ballis / Take Stock / The Image Works

Dolores Huerta, seen in a 1969 photo on the second day of March Coachella.

A few hundred people walked through Mission Hills and Pacoima on March 31 in the annual Cesar E. Chavez March for Justice, a day designated by California to honor the late civil rights leader.

Participants held posters with images of the man known for his marches, boycotts and fasts. They also carried posters denouncing President Donald Trump and his treatment of immigrants and others, while advocating for workers’ rights.

Among them were Meldrick Quiroz and Rachel Tobar, students from Poly High School in Sun Valley, who were attending the event for the first time.

Quiroz, 17, said Chavez was a symbol “of freedom and the rights of people.” For her part, Tobar, 18, said “What he (Chavez) stood for had a very huge influence in the Latino community.”

The teenagers carried signs praising Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW), the union Chavez led for nearly 30 years.

But Chavez did not bring the UFW to prominence all by himself.

Fighting side-by-side with him was Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the organization, who deserves the same accolades.

And that’s exactly what California is doing for the first time, after former Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed Assembly Bill 2644 designating April 10 as Dolores Huerta Day.

The date, which falls on her 89th birthday, is not a state holiday but it is to recognize Huerta’s lifelong work as a community and union organizer and civil rights activist. Today she is  president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

She is the first and only living person to be honored this way in California. The state law encourages schools to teach their students about Huerta and her life.

“I am grateful to be so honored because this is a testament to the power of people organizing at the grassroots level to achieve social justice,” said Huerta in a statement sent to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.

“I have been blessed to have been in the forefront of the struggles and victories of workers, women, students, our LGBTQ community, and environmentalists to gain social justice. These recognitions come from the participation of many activists and supporters,” Huerta added.

An Activist Life

Just like Chavez, Dolores Clara Fernandez comes from humble origins. Born in the small mining town of Dawson, New Mexico, her father, Juan Fernandez, was a farm worker and miner by trade, as well as a union activist who won a seat in the New Mexico state legislature in 1938.

Huerta spent most of her childhood and early adult life in Stockton, where she and her two brothers lived with their mother after their parents divorced. Huerta’s mother ran a 70-room hotel, where she welcomed low-wage workers, often waiving the fee for them. She was also involved in numerous civic organizations.

Huerta worked as a teacher before becoming an organizer with the Stockton Community Service Organization, where she founded the Agricultural Workers Association. There she met Chavez, who was the executive director of the organization. They both resigned from the organization in 1962 and launched the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the UFW.

As second-in-command in the UFW, Huerta was instrumental in the organization’s activities. During the famous 1965 Delano strike (which gained the union national attention for the first time and led to the grape boycott), she devised strategy and led workers on picket lines. She also set up the UFW’s contract negotiations department and served as its director in the early years.

As such, she fought not only Anglo growers but also stereotypes, challenging the status quo. Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW’s former president, told Hispanic Magazine that “early in 1970, Cesar Chavez said [Huerta] is totally fearless, both physically and mentally. A quarter of a century later she shows no sign of slowing down. [Huerta] is an enduring symbol of the farm worker movement.”

“Sí se Puede”

No, she’s not slowing down. This past weekend Huerta was in her native New Mexico participating in a march and event honoring her and Cesar Chavez. And she is a permanent presence in political and voting campaigns, as well as immigration fights.

A mother of 11 children, grandmother to 14 and with six great-grandchildren, Huerta has received numerous awards throughout the years, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honor, which she received from former President Barack Obama in 2012.

It was a fitting tribute from Obama, who in his run to the White House used the well-known rallying cry of “Sí se Puede” (“Yes, we can!”) — a phrase coined by Huerta in the 1970s.

California is not the only state to designate a day for her. So has New Mexico and Washington.

“Workers everywhere are indebted to @DoloresHuerta for her passion, determination and hard work. I have been inspired by her work for labor rights throughout my entire career,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrote on his Twitter account.

In addition, several school districts across the country have declared an extra holiday for their students, the Cesar Chavez-Dolores Huerta Day of Service.

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