Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta is 87 with no plans to retire

PERSPECTIVE | Ordinary people have the power to make change, she says

Dolores Huerta. (KK Ottesen for The Washington Post)

Photograph and interview by KK Ottesen.

Dolores Huerta, 87, rose to prominence as an organizer, labor leader and civil rights activist in California. In 1962, she and Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers), through which they led boycotts and negotiated better conditions and pay for farmworkers. Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

I was actually very shy as a child, but my mother was always pushing me to get out there and be active. So I got involved in a lot of organizations in our community: the Girl Scouts, a church club called the Teresitas after St. Teresa, a club called Azul y Oro. We would sing at the hospital, do dances and raise money, and then give out Christmas and Thanksgiving baskets. In high school I organized a teen center. A lot of my friends were poor and didn’t really have money to go places. We brought in a jukebox, table tennis, just trying to create a space where kids could come together and socialize. But the police shut us down. They didn’t want the interracial — we were a very multiethnic group. We had white kids, African American friends and Asians, Filipinos and Mexicans, all together.

All the time I’d been doing the social organizing and never being able to do anything that I thought really changed things. But in college, one of my professors invited me to this house meeting with a man named Fred Ross. Mr. Ross was organizing the Community Service Organization, CSO. He showed us how they had brought streetlights and clinics into East Los Angeles, how they had organized to get a Latino elected to the City Council, how they had sent these police to prison for beating up Mexican Americans. That meeting transformed my life. I had to belong to that organization. I set up house meetings, would register voters, went to Sacramento to lobby. I became the legislative advocate and then political director. We took on all different issues with CSO, but the farmworker issue was the one that really got me. The fact that ordinary people — poor people, farmworkers — have that power to make changes in the community. Both Cesar Chavez and I wanted to organize a farmworkers union, and CSO didn’t support that, so we left CSO.

Talk about a big moment: I’m going through a divorce — my second husband was not very supportive of the work I was doing — I had seven kids by then. And I make a decision to go to Delano to start the union with Cesar, leaving a job with stable income and not knowing literally where our next meal was coming from. The only thing that worried me was my kids. Because I had a wonderful middle-class upbringing — music lessons, dance lessons, able to go to movies and all that. And my kids, we had really come down to the poverty level of the farmworkers. Cesar’s wife, her sister would go down to the food bank and get the beans and rice, oatmeal and cornmeal so that we could eat. But the end result inspires you.

I’m 87 years old. People say, “Why don’t you retire?” Well, if I can reach more people and get them involved in organizing to make a change in their lives, I think that’s worth every single additional year that I can live.

This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post Magazine.