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A 1965 photo of Dolores Huerta protesting in California, holding a sign “huelga,” which is the Spanish word for strike.

Dolores Huerta’s Story: Community Organizing, the Chicano Movement and Challenging Gender Norms

In this 2015 interview at the National Portrait Gallery, Dolores Huerta looks back at her upbringing in New Mexico and California, her work with César Chávez organizing farmworkers, and the origins of the union rallying cry, “¡Sí, se puede!” Through her example as a labor leader, Huerta became a symbol of female leadership in the U.S. and beyond.

As a young Latina growing up in the U.S. Southwest, Dolores Huerta heard people shout, “Go back to Mexico!” In fact, her mother’s great-grandfather was a New Yorker who fought in the Civil War. “They say we’re the newcomers,” she says, “but we’ve been here a long time.” Huerta’s entire life, however, would be devoted to ensuring equity for newcomers and vulnerable populations, like farm workers of California’s Central Valley. Some farm workers came from countries outside the U.S., including Mexico and the Philippines. Others were Puerto Rican, Mexican Americans, Black American, and white American workers.

They labored in the fields for 50 cents an hour, often without toilets or even water to drink. Huerta explains that, like today, in the 1940s and ’50s, Blacks, Latinos, and immigrants faced racial profiling, harassment from police, labor expolitation, and discrimination in their everyday lives. Many began to expect—and in some cases accept—this consistent racism as part of their everyday lives. When she and César Chávez founded the National Farmer Workers Union in 1962, they fought for a better quality of life and equity.

These are the conditions that exist,” she told them, “but you don’t have to accept these conditions. We have the power to change them.

“These are the conditions that exist,” she told them, “but you don’t have to accept these conditions. We have the power to change them.”

A strike by grape workers lasted five years, but ended with significant, if often unenforced, gains for the workers. Beyond the right to organize, they also secured new policies around family health insurance and pension plans. And when activists in Arizona told Huerta, “We can’t do that here,” she famously replied, “¡Sí, se puede!,” or “Yes, we can.”