Civil rights and labor activist Dolores Huerta lead students in chants of “Si se puede” Wednesday after inspiring them to organize around immigrant, labor, and women’s rights issues. Huerta coined the term in 1972, long before it came to be used both in English (“Yes we can”) and Spanish during Barack Obama’s election campaign, during one of her many efforts as an activist for Mexican immigrant rights.
University students, Huerta said, need to travel out of Illinois in order to get the congressional support needed for immigration reform issues. “We can march in California and Chicago until doomsday, and it’s not going to change anything,” Huerta said. “Go out into some of those states [with Republican senators]; go out and start organizing.”
Huerta, who worked alongside Cesar Chávez in demanding labor rights for migrant farmworkers beginning in the mid-1950s, founded the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) and led contract negotiations and a national grape boycott in 1965.
“Nothing was going to change unless they did it. Nobody was going to come in and change things for them,” said Huerta, who helped organize and inspire workers to unite.
She brushed aside worries about illegal immigrants “borrowing” Social Security numbers and not paying taxes, adding that those immigrants who use the Social Security numbers of another person are also paying that person’s taxes. Mexican immigrants, she said, are sustaining the Social Security system.
“If you want to read the real crime report, go to the business page,” Huerta said.
She recently stepped down from her role as vice president of the UFW in order to devote more time to the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which focuses on women’s empowerment and develops leaders to lead community organizing around social justice issues.
Dolores called the model she used to organize a “Tupperware” model, where small groups gather at the homes of community residents. Her foundation hopes to share this model with younger organizers in order to solidify her legacy.
“If we’re going to be a strong country, we’ve got to have our women be strong,” said Huerta, who is also on the board of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Huerta encouraged Latino students to educate their families and communities on gay rights and a woman’s right to choose. Huerta, who is Catholic, has faced criticism from the Latino Catholic community, which is largely pro-life and voted in favor of Proposition 8, which ended gay marriage in California.
Huerta added that even though she herself has 11 children—“I could have my own picket line,” she said—she firmly believes that women should be able to make their own decision as to whether to have a child.
“An education of the heart means that you’re also going to use your education to help people,” Huerta said.
Attendees concluded the night by singing “Happy Birthday” to Huerta, who turns 79 Friday.