By Chanel Ward
“There are many layers to the bold work that Dolores Huerta has done; she’s a feminist, she’s a Chicana, she’s a community organizer, she’s a leader and she is a labor organizer,” said Colorado State Representative Daneya Esgar [D-Pueblo] who shared the history of Dolores Huerta, to a sold-out crowd Bold Women. Change History. speaker series at the History Colorado Center on December 12.
“I remember when we were growing up, my mother always told us that we had to help people, even if they didn’t ask for our help that, that was an obligation that we had as human beings and that we should never, ever ask for anything back.”
Civil rights activist and community organizer for nearly half a century, founder of the United Farm Workers Union with right hand man, César Chávez, recipient of numerous awards including the Eleanor Roosevelt Humans Rights Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in addition to being a mother of 11, Dolores Huerta isn’t showing any signs of slowing down at 89 years young.
History Colorado and The Women’s Foundation of Colorado organized the public forum where other extraordinary women looked on to hear their idol speak and shed some light on such a dark period in history. Attendees included former State Representative, and former First Lady of Denver, Wilma Webb; former Senator Polly Baca and first female Senate president in Colorado, Joan Fitz-Gerald, just to name a few.
Another first of her kind, Colorado’s Secretary of State, Jena Griswold began, “I’m only the 10th woman elected to the constitutional offices of governor, AG, Secretary of State or Treasurer since Colorado was a territory!”
“Dolores fought for families like ours, she fought for working people,” said Griswold. “She organized and she was able to be a change in our history. And that change, it’s not done, we still have to fight for workers’ rights, we still have to fight for women, but she paved the way for all of us here and the new generations of leaders who are emerging.”
Griswold ended, “She inspires me to be bold like her as secretary of state, bold in my fight to protect our voting rights in the fight against special interest and dark money and for ensuring that everyday people have their voice heard in our democracy.”
With an evening spotlighting the woman who changed history, it was only appropriate for Associate Professor of History at Regis University and one of the founding members of History Colorado’s State Historian Council, Dr. Nicki Gonzales to accompany Huerta on stage and help lead the conversation.
The entire room chanted Huerta’s famous words as she was escorted to the stage, “¡Sí se puede! ¡Sí se puede!”
Gonzales began by thanking History Colorado and the crowd for making the evening possible, “I’m very star struck to be honest with you, this is a dream come true,” stated Gonzales, before diving right into the questions; the first question to Huerta, “What influenced you as a young girl?”
“I think it was my mother and the fact that I was born in New México in a little town called Dawson, and my mother, like many people in New México and I think probably Colorado, they were very big devotees of St. Francis Xavier,” explained Huerta.
“I remember when we were growing up, my mother always told us that we had to help people, even if they didn’t ask for our help that, that was an obligation that we had as human beings and that we should never, ever ask for anything back, because if you ask for something in return: quid pro quo.”
The 89-year old legend didn’t skip a beat and had the entire crowd on their toes just to keep up with the witty, yet deliberately forward activist.
Huerta was adamant about giving altruistically. “When you ask for something in return you actually take the grace of God away from helping people and that’s the way we were raised as kids,” said the humanitarian.
Huerta recalled her upbringing, as well as her mother being charitable adding, “Of course she was the big influencer of my life, because she was a business-woman, she divorced my dad and took us kids to California and worked two jobs. She worked in the daytime as a waitress and at nighttime in the canneries.”
“We used to see my mother come home and change uniforms; from her waitress uniform to her cannery uniform, until she saved enough money to start her own business,” explained Huerta.
“She had a restaurant, it was a very good restaurant and of course we all had to help,” Huerta recalled about her childhood and having to wash dishes and fill napkin holders.
One of the things many people may not know about Huerta is her long history as a Girl Scout. “I was a Girl Scout from the time I was eight until I was 18,” she remembered, crediting her scout leader for influencing her path. “And by the way, I think over 60% of the women in Congress were former Girl Scouts, so Girl Scouts in the audience, okay!” she encouraged, as woman began raising their hands in solidarity with the shared pastime of scouting.
A pastime not often shared, was Huerta’s story about a man named Fred Ross, Sr., who she said only Polly Baca would remember, “but was such a great organizer that nobody knows who he is; because as organizers, what the job is, is to try and enable other people or to get other people to take leadership and to keep yourself in the background and that’s what Fred Ross did.” She credits Ross for teaching Chávez and herself how to do grassroots organizing.
“I’d like to say that the Godfather of the Chicano movement was Fred Ross, an Anglo, how about that?” Huerta challenged the audience.
Gonzales asked Huerta about her relationship with César Chávez, she replied: “César was a genius – again Polly Baca is our authority here if the people want to know more – very mild mannered, very soft spoken. When they talk about César Chávez being charismatic, he wasn’t really all that charismatic, I don’t think; but his message was always so important,” she explained. Adding that he was so humble and devoted to the farmworkers that not only did he pass up many opportunities presented to him, but also his annual income was only $6,000 a year because he wouldn’t take any money for himself.
“César never went to high school,” informed Huerta, “he only went to the eight grade and when you think about the César Chávez’s that are out there today, but no one ever knows who they are, or never gives them that boost that they need to know what they can do; the way that Fred Ross did with César,” she added.
“We have a lot of César’s out there, but I believe he was a very unique human being, I would definitely put him in the category with Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi,” Huerta full-heartedly expressed to a cheering crowd.
“I’m more like Mother Jones,” she compared herself. At 89 years young, Huerta is redefining what being a senior citizen and a great grandmother means.
Huerta immediately left the stage to take photos with hundreds of eager admirers; while posing for every photo she managed to receive hugs, handshakes and cheerfully listen to each guest.
The History Colorado ‘Bold Women, Change History’ Speakers’ Series continues throughout 2020, starting with pioneering female astronaut, Susan Helms and Humans Rights Advocate, Carol Anderson just to name of few. Each event provides complimentary childcare with the purchase of a ticket, which are now on sale and can be purchased through http://h-co.org/BoldWomen.
For more information on History Colorado: www.historycolorado.org or call 303-447-8679.
Chanel Ward is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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