Activist, Social Justice Leader Dolores Huerta Speaks to Dominican University Community
A standing ovation and shouts of “sí se puede!” greeted lifelong activist and social justice leader Dolores Huerta as she took the stage as a special guest of Dominican University this month.
Before a packed and enthusiastic Lund Auditorium crowd on March 14, Huerta, a leader in the Chicano civil rights movement, sat down for conversation with Dominican University Librarian Estevan Montaño during an event entitled “Weaving Movements Together.”
It was a return visit for Huerta, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which helps communities build volunteer organizations pursuing social justice.
“I’m very proud to come back to this university because the Dominicans have always been courageous fighters for women, especially children,” Huerta said.
For the next hour, the 92-year-old labor activist recounted her time as co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez; her grassroots, one-on-one union organizing in the homes of workers; and the successful consumer grape boycotts that led to improved conditions and rights for workers as companies saw their profits plummet.
As Chavez embarked on a 25-day fast in 1972, opposing an Arizona law denying farm workers the right to strike, it was Huerta who responded to labor and political leaders who said nothing could be done to overturn the law.
“I was told ‘no se puede.’ My response was ’sí se puede,’” Huerta said. “Now it’s a rallying cry all over the country.”
She recalled a meeting with President Barack Obama, who honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Obama used the English translation “Yes we can” as his 2008 campaign slogan.
“He told me, ‘I stole your slogan.’ I said, ‘yes, you did,’” Huerta said with a laugh. “But it worked for him.”
She and Montaño also discussed a myriad of topical issues, including the continued fight for workers’ rights, voting, representation of women in government, Latine representation, the 1986 federal act that legalized most undocumented immigrants, feminism, reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights and societal divisions.
“This generation is going to make things right,” Huerta said, commenting that political divisions and racist, sexist and homophobic policies are challenging the nation today. She also shared insights for a new generation of activists, encouraging them to find organizations that need volunteers to help do their work.
“We can talk about social justice, but when we get physically engaged, we learn by doing,” Huerta said. “It gives the emotional fortitude [activists] need.”
“Being a leader is not so much that you’re in front of the crowd,” she added. “You have to recruit other people to help do the work because none of us can do it by ourselves.”
The event ended with Huerta encouraging the audience to rise from their seats and, in unison, chant “¡sí se puede!”
Huerta's appearance on campus resonated with students who came to hear her speak.
“She is a very good representation of myself,” said Dominican sophomore Ingrid Bustos. “Not only is she Hispanic, but she’s a woman, and I feel like Latina women don’t get the same representation as men. It was very important for me to go see her.”
Bustos is involved in her own activism. As a Schmitt Scholar, she helps undocumented Chicago high school students apply to colleges and find scholarships. During the fall semester, she brought a group of students to Dominican’s campus for a tour.
Huerta’s words, Bustos said, give power to others who want to take an activist role.
“She mentioned the fact that you can’t do it alone,” Bustos noted. “You need to reach out to people and empower them, even when they are scared. Being scared is not the way to live. We need to stand up for ourselves and give ourselves the power.”
First-year student Eddie Rivera called Huerta an inspiration to “follow what Dominican is all about: Making a global impact.”
“That’s what she has done in her work with immigrants, farm workers and others,” he said. “To me, she’s more important than any celebrity. She makes me feel represented and motivated to help others.”
Huerta’s appearance was presented by Rebecca Crown Library, Center for Cultural Liberation, and the Center of Teaching and Learning Excellence, with Dominican University Siena Center.