On Monday afternoon in Quincy House, a large audience of Harvard students and faculty was spellbound by a five-foot-tall, 79-year-old mother of 11 children. Dolores Huerta, president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America—although delicate in appearance—exudes the calm passion and power that distinguishes leaders of her incredible historical stature. The daughter of a waitress and a coal miner, Señora Huerta’s lifelong fight for social justice is, as David G. Hernandez ’09 puts it, a “testament to the power each one of us possesses to make a positive difference.” Her acceptance of the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian of the Year Award, given by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, is a fitting celebration of increased opportunity for Chicanos, Latinos, women, and workers. It also commends the struggle for equal rights and a better life for all, the struggle for the American dream.
The Humanitarian of the Year Award is presented by the students and faculty of the Harvard Foundation to individuals who have exceptionally contributed to the humanitarian cause and whose works exemplify the mission of the foundation. No one fits that description better than Dolores Huerta. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi, Dolores Huerta and César Chávez mobilized a massive nonviolent movement that empowered impoverished, abused, and disenfranchised people to fight against injustice.
Huerta was instrumental in organizing the migrant farm workers of California’s fields and co-founded the UFW in 1962. Later that year she pushed for legislation repealing the inhumane Bracero Program, which legally exploited the labor of Mexican nationals. In 1965, she directed the UFW’s national grape boycott, which communicated the worker’s suffering to the consumers in order to end subhuman wages, worker abuses, poor living conditions, and the use of toxic pesticides, among other atrocities. Her efforts culminated in a three-year collective bargaining between the UFW and the entire California grape industry in 1970, a monumental and unprecedented triumph.
Since then, Huerta has not ceased to selflessly serve the disadvantaged of America and the wider world. As she spoke at the podium on Monday, clad in purple, a customary symbol of the grape boycott, one could not help but admire her rare yet perfect combination of joyful charisma, fearlessness, and selflessness. She has been arrested 22 times for participating in non-violent civil disobedience strikes, but she still wears a smile that shines with hope, promise, and opportunity.
Opportunity is exactly what she has given to both migrant and nonmigrant Latinos in the United States. The families and communities of many Latinos at Harvard have been directly affected by the work of Dolores Huerta. At Harvard, we call it a Latino community. At home we may call it something different, but no matter what it is called Dolores Huerta has always represented a community of hardworking people. In her ongoing fight to improve living conditions and treatment for laborers, Huerta represents the family who spent days in the fields under the scorching sun with no place to use the restroom or drink clean water. She represents the mother who labored tirelessly to send her children to school and the child who saw the pain and suffering of the family. She represents the generations who fought hard so that one day their children and children’s children could be in a better position to help the world in their own right.
Her contribution to equal opportunity for women and Latinas in particular deserves special recognition. Huerta enacted social change at a time when female labor leaders were not treated with equality or even respect. Her work with the UFW and more recently as a board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation has empowered women of color across the country. She has improved the lives of thousands of women who may never have the chance to meet her—as many Harvard Latinas did on Monday—but who owe her an insurmountable debt, a debt that should be paid by a continued commitment to social justice and human rights.
In her speech on Monday, Huerta echoed the importance of continuing “La Causa”: our work is not yet done. Workers are still being mistreated and underpaid, and the voices of minorities and women are still being marginalized. Fittingly, she ended her speech with two rallying cries for solidarity. The first was a Zulu cry, “Wozani!” (“People together!”), often used in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. The second was the traditional UFW chant: “¡Sí Se Puede!” This cry was eventually translated into “Yes, We Can!”, the slogan of President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
There is, indeed, much work left to be done. Thankfully, we all have a model, a lucerito to follow, in the celebrated person of Dolores Huerta.
Raúl A. Carrillo ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies