Through tearful eyes, today, I proudly watched as the leader of our nation placed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States of America, around the neck of my personal hero—Dolores Huerta. She joins the ranks of other luminaries throughout history, including Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa, who have received this much-deserved honor.
As a young girl growing up in La Puente, California, I was mesmerized by images of Dolores Huerta. I remember seeing in the newspaper the iconic photo of her holding up the HUELGA sign; and on television, standing behind Robert F. Kennedy just seconds before he was assassinated.
I thought she was beautiful, with a mane of raven-colored hair, eyes that literally danced, and a soft, sweet voice that carried an extraordinary message whenever she spoke to crowds. But for me, her true beauty came from the inside. She lived an authentic life, in service to others. Her passion was and is justice. She has for more than half a century dedicated her life to helping the men and women who harvest America’s fields. She has advocated for non-violent protest and has taught people that they have both the personal power and responsibility to work together to improve their lives.
I don’t know if Dolores inspired me to become a public servant, but I do know that she inspired—and insisted—that I become a the best public servant I could be. We got to know each other in the early 1990s, when I was in the California State Legislature. Wherever there was injustice . . . Dolores was there. I remember one of our first meetings as if it were yesterday: I was serving in the State Senate and working with a group of female farm workers who were organizing a union. There were reports of violence during the campaign and Dolores came to my office in Sacramento to see me. She showed me a video of a man brutally throwing an entire crate of strawberries on the head of a woman working in the fields. When the video concluded, she looked up at me and simply said: “We need to do something. Let’s get to work.” And we did, crafting legislation and collaborating closely with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in California. Our efforts made a difference.
Raised by a single mother in the farm worker community of Stockton, California, Huerta observed the unhealthy and inhumane conditions faced by many migrant farm workers as a young girl. Subsequently, she dedicated her life to helping the men and women who harvest America’s fields. She accomplished this through her steadfast commitment to non-violent protest and by teaching individuals that they have both the personal power and responsibility to work together to improve their lives.
Dolores stood side by side with Cesar Chavez and together, they did what people said could not be done. They protected the grape pickers. They got disability insurance and family aid to protect farm workers who got hurt in the California fields. They pushed—and passed—the first law giving farm workers the right to bargain and negotiate for safer conditions and better wages. And together, they taught the doubters a lesson.
No politician was too powerful. No farmer was too rich. No cause was too difficult. When some people said, “No, no we can’t.” They said, “Yes, we can” Si, se puede.
Dolores is a luchadora who endured arrests, death threats and beatings — a fearless woman who at the age of 58, was beaten and nearly killed by a San Francisco police officer during a non-violent and lawful protest. She suffered broken bones, but never a broken spirit. I’m proud to call her my teacher, my role model, and mi hermana.
Dolores embodies the meaning behind this prestigious honor. Through her courage and devotion, she has not only served as a source of inspiration for millions, but she has made the world a better place.
At 82 years young, she still continues to empower people through the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which organizes low-income immigrant communities in the Central San Joaquin Valley for better access to education, health care, fair lending and a cleaner environment. Her passion for justice has expanded to include women’s equality, reproductive rights and lgbt issues. Her dancing eyes and sweet voice continues to inspire people across the country and around the world, just like they did for a young girl from La Puente who grew up to be the first Latina in a President’s cabinet. Today, she is my mentor, advisor and wonderful friend. And she is still beautiful.