Dolores Huerta, immigration rights activist and trailblazer marks her 82nd year appropriately enough with two new honors.
The first is the 50th anniversary gathering of the United Farm Workers union in Bakersfield, California. Huerta co-founded the union along with Cesar Chavez. The second award is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Huerta will receive the honor with 12 other recipients including Bob Dylan and Madeleine Albright at a ceremony later this month.
Huerta has been an activist her entire life and credits her Catholic upbringing with helping solidify her commitment to social justice. Her father was an immigrant farm laborer and her mother ran a hotel where she often housed poor immigrants for free. Huerta spoke about the experience to Sandra McElwaine of The Daily Beast.
The grinding poverty and hunger she saw in her classroom also helped inspire her lifelong crusade. “I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers that teaching their hungry children,” she says. First she established a community service program. When her fellow activist Chavez said, “We’ve got to start a union,” she thought he was teasing. “Then he got very serious,” she recalls. ”We were both passionate about farm workers. Seeing these people working so hard in the fields and seeing their children threadbare was so unjust, so very wrong.”
They started the National Farmworkers Association, which morphed into The United Farmworkers Union, the first in America. Chavez headed the all-volunteer group; Huerta became the political strategist and lobbyist, shuttling between Washington and Sacramento, shepherding through stunning amounts of legislation.
Among Huerta’s proudest accomplishments are legislative victories establishing Spanish-language ballots for voters, public assistance for immigrants, drinking water protection from pesticides, toilets in the fields and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which gave legal residency status to more than 1 million farm workers.
In today’s increasingly hostile and xenophobic climate Huerta’s accomplishments seem all the more remarkable, and I can’t help but wonder if she would have the same success today. The reforms ushered in by Huerta’s activism are under direct and deliberate attack and with that the people protected by those reforms–a fact not lost on Huerta either.
Photo from recubejim via flickr.