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Iconic civil rights, labor leader to visit Ventura County as exhibition to honor her legacy opens

Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.
Dolores Huerta leading a march in the 1970's.

Now 92, Dolores Huerta has been fighting for farmworkers rights since the 1960's.

Hollywood couldn’t create a story more amazing than hers.

Her single mother raised her, and her two brothers in Stockton.
She was a Girl Scout, and became a schoolteacher.

But, after seeing the way farmworkers lived, and were treated in the 1950’s and 60’s, she realized she had a higher calling, and that they needed help.

Dolores Huerta teamed up with Cesar Chavez to found what would become the United Farm Workers Union, the rallying point for farmworkers rights.

"Cesar said look, farmworkers are never going to really have a real union unless we organize it...and that's when we started the United Farmworkers," said Huerta.

Along the way, in the 1970’s, she coined a phrase we all know is a symbol of positivity. She introduced "Si Se Puede", which means "yes, we can" which is a message of affirmation that we can make changes for good.

The iconic civil rights, and labor leader’s life is being celebrated with a series of events at Cal State Channel Islands this week.

As a child, Huerta saw the struggles of farmworkers, as some stayed at a Stockton motel owned and run by her mother. Her mother would often give the workers discounted, or free rooms. So, when Huerta became a schoolteacher, she had special empathy for the struggling families.

She soon became active in civil rights efforts, organizing voting events and marches.

Her abilities as an organizer led her back to the plight of the farmworkers. She quit her teaching job, and in the early 1960’s fought to get them basic improvements in their horrendous working conditions.

She and Chavez start the union in 1962, and in 1965 led workers to a strike against the grape industry. Many consumers supported it by boycotting grapes. It led to growers signing a three year collective bargaining agreement with the farmworkers union, and the start of improvements in working conditions.

"Getting the toilets in the fields, the cold water, the hand washing facilities, getting rest periods, getting unemployment insurance...all of that came with the pressure of the strike," said Huerta.

The 92 year old activist says there’s still lots of work to be done. She says farmworkers in California face new challenges, with temporary workers taking some of their jobs. And, Huerta notes that in some other states, farmworkers don’t have many of the protections they do in California.

But, she feels honored to have helped make a difference.

"I'm proud of the work I did in the union," said Huerta. But, she said it was everyone working together, from farmworkers to the members of the public who boycotted grapes to force growers to open the door to the union.

Huerta has an amazing legacy. More than a half dozen schools around the country are named after her. Every April 10 in California is Dolores Huerta Day. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award from President Barack Obama.

Her legacy is being celebrated in Ventura County on Wednesday, with a number of events at Cal State Channel Islands. She’ll be on hand to speak, and take part in the opening of a visiting Smithsonian Institution exhibition about her life at the university’s library.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.