A California Museum exhibit chronicles the overshadowed history of labor activist Dolores Huerta
Just after International Women’s Day, a California activist whose work has had an immeasurable impact on the balance of political power visited Sacramento to see a new exhibit focused on her life.
After years of fighting for change, Latina labor activist Dolores Huerta isn’t easily shaken. But seeing her life on display at the California Museum was, “a little overwhelming.” “The photos bring back a lot of memories,” she said.
Huerta championed workers’ rights as a union leader alongside Cesar Chavez starting in the 1960s. She often credits her mother, Fred Ross and the Central Valley for setting the course of her life.
Now 89, she continues to organize people through the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
“She is a powerhouse,” said Taína Caragol as she stood inside the museum, a block from the state Capitol, the destination of a historic farm worker march from Delano in 1966. “To be able to open this show here is so significant.”
Caragol works at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., where she curates painting and sculpture and Latino art and history. In 2015-16, the gallery featured an exhibit that focused on Huerta’s place in American history.
“Some people knew Dolores, many did not,” Caragol said.
Now, a bilingual touring exhibit takes Huerta’s story on the road. Dolores Huerta: Revolution in the Fields / Revolución en los Campos, which focuses on six large panels of photos and stories chronicling Huerta’s life and work in English and Spanish, opened at the California Museum on March 9 and runs through July 7.
After the exhibit leaves Sacramento, it will travel to six museums over the next two years. The next stop will be Haggin Museum in Stockton.
Born in 1930, Huerta was raised in Stockton by her single mom, Alicia. Huerta is often quick to bring up her mother’s generosity; she offered poor farm workers free rooms in her hotel.
“My mother was an equal-opportunity mother,” Huerta said. “My brothers, they had to do the dishes, they had to do housework.”
Huerta taught elementary school briefly, but thought she could do more for kids by improving their parents’ lives. She left to work with Fred Ross at Community Service Organization, which organized people to improve their neighborhoods. The CSO helped get officers with the Los Angeles Police Department convicted or suspended for their role in brutality against prisoners, including Mexican-American men.
Huerta was impressed. She became CSO’s political director and began drafting legislation and lobbying in Sacramento. Ross introduced Huerta to Chavez, and they began organizing farm workers throughout California. In 1962, they resigned from CSO to launch the National Farm Workers Association in Delano.
While Huerta sacrificed time with her 11 children, the union that later became United Farm Workers made history.
In 1965, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a union of mostly Filipino-American farm laborers, organized a walkout that NFWA joined. At the time, there were no protections for farm laborers, who were protesting poor pay and working conditions in Delano-area vineyards.
The walkout kicked off a five-year strike. The 300-mile march from Delano to the Capitol led by Chavez and Huerta drew national attention. The strikes and an international grape boycott, which Huerta organized on the East Coast, put pressure on growers to allow workers to unionize and seek healthier working conditions, including access to cold water, shade and toilets in the fields. By 1970, many grape growers signed union contracts.
As a Latina activist in the ’60s and ’70s, Huerta’s role was often overshadowed. Chavez, who was president of UFW, has been wrongly credited for coining the phrase, “Sí, se puede,” which inspired Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan, “Yes, we can!” and continues to be chanted in Spanish at protests today. It was Huerta who coined the term and made it the UFW slogan.
The 2017 documentary Dolores shows how, after Chavez’s death in 1993, Huerta’s role was sometimes disregarded. Even today, she’s mentioned far less on UFW’s website than Chavez. She resigned from the union in 2002.
“[Huerta] was up front, but history has not always given her that place,” said María del Carmen Cossu, project director for Latino Initiatives with the Smithsonian Institution. “It’s very important to hear it from the main actors in their own stories, especially when unacknowledged in history books.”
The exhibit largely focuses on 1962 to 1975, but includes moments from her early life and recent achievements. On the final panel, a photo shows Obama presenting Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the nation’s highest civilian award.
About an hour before the grand opening of the exhibit at the California Museum, Huerta, two of her daughters and a few others took a private tour. The museum borrowed mementos from Huerta’s personal collection, including an iconic red knitted sweater bearing the UFW logo. The exhibit also features posters from the Royal Chicano Air Force, a Sacramento-based Chicano arts activist group that helped promote the UFW.
Later, as Huerta stepped onto the auditorium stage, a voice called out, “¡Viva Dolores Huerta!”
The crowd loudly responded, “¡Viva!”
Huerta sat down with Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a documentary filmmaker and California’s first lady. They discussed her upbringing, police violence and her advice to women in any position: Own their role because they are as capable as anyone else.
“I’m grateful for all she’s done for society—women, children, men, no distinction. It was for everybody,” said Sarah-Michael Gaston, who attended the talk.
It’s work that Huerta continues today. Her foundation is organizing Kern County residents on issues such as education, economic development and the environment.
“Many people say, ’Oh darn it, I miss the ’60s,” she said. “Well guess what, they’re back.”