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Monday, May 16, 2016

'Dolores Huerta' has left the Smithsonian

Dolores Huerta, 1999, by Barbara Carrasco

Who was Dolores Huerta and why should we care? 

I am certain her image, perhaps the one above, will be on the cover of a U.S. postage stamp some day.

She is a living legend, someone not well-known in today's culture, someone who will gain fame over time.  

This is what you missed at the almost year-long exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery which closed yesterday:  A lady on a mission and brief history of a successful union workers' campaign 50 years ago.

At the exhibition I saw a label with her birth date which I knew had to be wrong for there was no way Dolores Huerta, who was present for the opening, could be 85.  How could the Portrait Gallery make such an error?

I was mistaken.  

There she was in a glamorous, dazzling teal suit wearing heels, a spry 85 last year (b. April 10, 1930), talking about her past, smiling, and answering questions about herself, the movement which became the United Farm Workers, and the 50th anniversary of the grape workers strike in California.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a strong UFW supporter, and Dolores Huerta at the end of Cesar Chavez' 25-day fast, March 10, 1967

 Dolores Huerta worked hard to improve working conditions and pay for field workers in California who were exposed to pesticides, had no toilets or cold drinking water, and lived in substandard housing. The average life span of a farm worker was 49 compared to 70, the U.S. national average life then.

Working alongside Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), Ms. Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association which became the United Farm Workers.  She led rallies, was arrested many times, was beaten by the police, hospitalized, and coined the phrase "Si se puede" ("Yes, we can!).

She led the fight for toilets and cold drinking water in the fields which became part of the first union contract in 1966, and then California state law by 1975, and federal law in 1982.

Had the effort occurred a little later, there is no doubt her name would be as well know now as Chavez' and it may reach that summit yet, among the pages of American history books, for she was and is a leader, a heroine, an iconic figure whose achievements President Barack Obama recognized in 2012 when he placed the Presidential Medal of Honor around her neck.
Ms. Huerta at a rally.
Dolores Huerta at the opening of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on June 30, 2015/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 Dolores Huerta at the opening of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, June 30, 2015/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Ms. Huerta stands beside a 1965 photograph of herself enlarged to introduce the exhibition.The Spanish word on the sign she held means "strike."/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 The United Farm Workers AFL-CIO flag emerged in 1966.  It was designed by Richard Chavez (1929-2011), the brother of Cesar Chavez, and a longtime companion of Ms. Huerta with whom he had four children/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Reflections of artifacts in the exhibition are seen in the case cover which protected the Presidential Medal of Honor bestowed on Ms. Huerta by President Barack Obama in 2012/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Dolores Huerta at the National Portrait Gallery June 30, 2015/Photo by Patricia Leslie
 Dolores Huerta, left, with her good friend and artist, Barbara Carrasco (b. 1955) who created the image above. For decades Ms. Carrasco was a volunteer artist for the UFW.  The exhibition label copy quoted her: "There are so many icons of men, and icons of women painted by men, that I wanted (as a woman) to create an iconic image of Huerta to recognize her as an equal of Cesar Chavez and, historically, the most important negotiator for the United Farm Workers." /Photo by Patricia Leslie
Dolores Huerta at the National Portrait Gallery June 30, 2015/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Dolores Huerta at the National Portrait Gallery June 30, 2015/Photo by Patricia Leslie

The mother of 11 children, Ms. Huerta still works tirelessly on issues she believes are important for a just society, those which require attention and warrant effort in today's world to improve conditions for all.  

And to keep up her regimen and good physical condition and appearance, she shared a few secrets:  Go veggie, young woman, go veggie. Eat fish, walk a lot, and dance, dance, dance! As long as you are able.  At least through your 90s.

patricialesli@gmail.com

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