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Dolores Huerta turns 94. Here's a look at the civil rights icon's legacy.

Looking back at Dolores Huerta's legacy as the civil rights icon turns 94
Looking back at Dolores Huerta's legacy as the civil rights icon turns 94 05:24

STOCKTON — She's considered one of the most respected and influential labor leaders of our time. Dolores Huerta broke more than a glass ceiling; she led a revolution in the farm fields of California's Central Valley.

The Stockton native is showing no signs of stopping. We spoke with the civil rights icon about her lifetime commitment to social change and the phrase she made famous.

Sí, se puede - yes, we can.

Huerta turned that phrase into a battle cry and was destined to define a moment.

"My dad was a farmworker. He was a mine worker," Huerta said. "Then he ran for the state assembly in New Mexico, and he was elected as an assemblyman.

"My mother worked two jobs, actually, when we were young. So she saved up enough money to start her own business."

Her mother moved the family to the Central Valley.

"I consider Stockton my hometown," Huerta said.

Huerta excelled so much in school as a young girl that her teachers accused her of cheating.

"To this day, I have trouble writing," she said. "You know, it's just such a big, psychological blow, I think."

She would go on to college and become a school teacher.

"You would see so many of the farmworker kids would come into the classroom, and you could see that they were malnutrition, that they didn't have good clothes or good shoes to wear," she said.

All that poverty was found in the fields of Stockton, some of the richest ag land in the United States.

So Huerta took a leap of faith. She quit her teaching job and became a community organizer, mobilizing the workers in the farm fields of the Central Valley.

She credits her mentor, Fred Ross, Sr., an influential labor organizer in Southern California, for teaching her how to get it done.

"When I saw the presentation that Fred Ross gave us, I thought, 'This is the way that you make changes, right?' " she said.

Now an activist, Huerta started to fight for the rights of Mexican farmworkers and their families.

In 1962, she moved on to work alongside Cesar Chavez. Together, they started the United Farm Workers (UFW) association.

"We were both very like-minded when it came to the mission of the organization to empower people, to empower farmworkers," Huerta said of her and Chavez.

Serving as the vice president of the UFW and raising 11 children, Huerta negotiated contracts, advocated for safer working conditions in the fields and challenged the machismo culture at the time.

It was Huerta who convinced Chavez to boycott grapes in the late 1960s.

"Cesar wanted to boycott potatoes, and I told him that when people think of potatoes, they don't think of California. They think of Idaho," she said. "So yeah, I won that argument."

She would go on to successfully lead a national grape boycott that resulted in the 1975 CALRA Act – California legislation allowing farmworkers to form unions and bargain for better wages.

Even though she and Chavez were equal partners at the UFW, she regrets one thing.

"When we started the union, Cesar asked me if it would be OK for him to be the spokesman. And I said, 'Of course, Cesar,' but looking back, I probably would have said, let's do 50/50," she said with a laugh.

Huerta influenced people in power, often standing next to them, like Robert Kennedy moments before his assassination. She would continue leading demonstrations, including one in San Francisco where a cop hit her with a baton.

"He hurt me pretty bad and broke my ribs and my spleen was pulverized. I couldn't even find it, and he hit me so hard that it just burst," Huerta said.

After a lengthy recovery followed by the death of Chavez, Huerta left the UFW in 2002. She created the Dolores Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield years after she first uttered the phrase "Sí, se puede."

"So we still have a long way to go when it comes to taking care of the farmworkers in our country," she said.

President Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"And on a personal note, Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, 'Si se puede, yes we can.' Knowing her, I'm pleased that she left me off easy because Dolores does not play," Obama said at the time, with laughter.

Dolores Huerta celebrates her 94th birthday on Wednesday. Through her foundation, she continues to advocate for farmworkers, immigrants, women's rights, the LGBTQ+ community and other causes.

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