Dolores Huerta: Written Out of History

 

Dolores Huerta is an 88-year-old grandmother with kind eyes and a booming voice. Though she stands at hardly 5 feet tall, the power of her words is enough to command the respect of an entire auditorium of people. Her name might sound unfamiliar to some, but we have all felt the impacts of her lifetime of work.

 

Barack Obama’s iconic campaign slogan “Yes We Can”--which he first used in a New Hampshire speech in 2004--was modeled after Huerta’s “Si Se Puede” which served as the motto for the United Farm Workers (UFW). Her words championed not only the farmer’s rights movement in the 1970s but also led Barack Obama to his historic presidential win in 2008. Even though she served as the co-founder for UFW, working as an equal to Cesar Chavez we can scarcely find her name written in even the more progressive history books.

 

I, as a 19-year-old college student, can admit that until I was within feet of this civil rights icon, didn’t know much about her. While I had learned briefly about the Workers’ Rights Movement (specifically in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement, as it took place at approximately the same time), I had almost no specific details. What little I did know about the movement, I associated with Huerta’s longtime partner in activism, Cesar Chavez.

 

I think if I had realized, in walking into my local Performing Arts Center, who exactly Dolores Huerta was, I would’ve been appropriately star-struck. But given her friendly, almost teacher-like demeanor and the complete gap in my education about her, it wasn’t until she started speaking that I grasped the weight of her accomplishments.

 

Huerta spent the majority of her career fighting alongside farm workers. She helped create the first farmers union and believes fiercely that in order to serve a group of marginalized people, you must live like them first. For this reason, she and her 11 children lived in relative poverty for the majority of her career. Not only had she successfully negotiated a contract between farm workers and Schenley Industries (a grape company), she also led an extremely successful boycott on grapes.

In her later years, Huerta was badly beaten by police officers at a protest. Huerta--along with a group of brave activists--protested outside of a Union Square Hotel as then Vice President George Bush gave a speech. Despite the fact that Dolores Huerta was an agent for radical change, she largely goes untalked about in American textbooks.

 

Some attribute the total erasure of Huerta from history books to her “unconventional lifestyle”. The film Dolores explores her complex relationship with her children, as she often found herself in the unwinnable position of choosing between her children and the movement. Though her children understood that their mother’s absences were largely for the good of a bigger whole, journalists clung onto this idea that Huerta prioritized her work over her family. Although in her personal life this was a dilemma Huerta wrestled with throughout her career, even Cesar Chavez wasn’t grilled to this extent on the choices he made concerning his home life. While we can acknowledge that any activist will have character flaws (they’re human, just like us), Huerta’s life was scrutinized with the inherently sexist purpose of devaluing her work as a community organizer.

 

In more recent years, Huerta joined Arizona students in their fight against the Ethnic Studies ban in 2007. Huerta, who is as passionate as she is empathetic, delivered speeches (not free of political bias) urging especially Chicanx students to learn about their ethnic background and fight for their rights to be fully educated. When the Ethnic Studies ban was put in place, Tom Horne (then State Superintendent of Public Instruction) was quick to dismiss Huerta as "an old girlfriend" of Cesar Chavez. At the very least, this is an egregious example of the sexism Huerta faces on a regular basis as a woman of color; at its worst, this is a violent erasure of a pivotal historical figure.

 

As a young woman, I find myself disenfranchised with movements that don’t fully support or understand my intersecting identities. Often times, in a room where I don’t see myself represented, it’s easy to want to slink off to what feels like my “designated” place, even if that means giving up the fight for justice. Dolores Huerta--a fierce, kind, passionate, driven woman of color who found herself at the very center of a movement largely directed by men--is an essential role model for women. Her career-long fight for marginalized people, from women to farmers to the LGBTQ+ community, reminds us that there is power in our voices.

 

Although Cesar Chavez is worthy of the highest praise, attributing Huerta’s body of work to her male coworker is an act of aggression. With news articles then and history books now pushing powerful women to the sidelines of history, it sends a subliminal message to young women now that our voices will eventually be forgotten. That no matter how hard we work, how empathetic, how driven, how central to the movement we are, our words and actions will not be held in high regard.

 

Of course, I’d like to say that Dolores’ story of erasure is an isolated event. But it is, unfortunately, part of a troubling pattern we’ve seen throughout history. Margaret Keane--a now famous artist--was subject to this trend in a more direct way when her husband Walter took credit for her distinctive paintings. This practice is so common in the science world it has a name: the "Matilda Effect". Arguably the most famous victim--Rosalind Franklin--was left completely out of the discovery of the structure of DNA.

 

While this erasure is both crushing and isolating, women like Dolores remind me why it’s important that we continue to fight. Despite years of sexism from the media and even within the movement itself, Dolores remained grounded and central to this historical movement. Simply with the power of her own voice, Dolores (and her children) fight to tell her story every day. Rather than retiring comfortably, Dolores founded The Dolores Huerta Foundation which centers around educating youth. In the face of a culture pushing to erase her, Dolores continues to make her voice heard.

 

While it’s easy to let erasure further disenfranchise us, we must fight for the voices of powerful women to be heard. In a society that wants women to feel like there’s no place for us--whether that’s in the political sphere, the business world, or at the front of social movements--it is on us to elevate the stories, struggles, and triumphs of women. Though often an uphill battle, fighting for our right to these spaces is essential. Without the work of Dolores and every woman like her, our society would lack the justice and humanity women bring to the spaces they occupy.