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Even if you haven’t heard of Dolores Huerta, you’ve heard her famous slogan “Sí, se puede.” After meeting and working with Cesar Chavez to found United Farm Workers of America in 1962, Huerta has lived a long life of activism, fighting for labor rights, leading boycotts, and organizing women for the past five decades. Age has never stopped her. At 58, Huerta was assaulted by police in San Francisco. The officer broke four ribs and damaged her spleen while she was protesting then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. She was awarded the most prestigious civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Her organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation has continued to push for civic change across the country. In 2014, she came to Colorado to fight against one of the most restrictive abortion propositions in the country. If passed, one line in the Amendment 67 would have made women subject to a criminal investigation if they had a miscarriage.
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We sat down with Huerta to understand the lessons she wants to pass on to the next generation before her address at the History Colorado Center’s Bold Women Change History series.
5280: You grew up in New Mexico and have a lot of family in Colorado. What is your impression of our state?
Dolores Huerta: Colorado is one of the fastest growing states. It’s a reflection of the country. With so many people and Latinos moving in, it’s definitely not a red red state and it’s not a blue blue state. It’s kind of in the middle.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the Women’s Movement in your lifetime?
In the 1990s, I was traveling around college campuses trying to get women to run for office and it was like pulling teeth. It was amazing how so many women were hesitant about running for office. And when you compare that with what happened in the last election, after the #MeToo movement and after the Women’s Marches, we have great numbers of women that were elected, not only to the U.S. Congress, but to various state legislatures. It’s just amazing. In Nevada, women have all of the power in the legislature. We’ve seen this tremendous surge of women running for office and getting elected.
What do you think has spurred that change?
I think when Hillary Clinton was defeated, the way she was treated by the press, everything that they did to defeat her, including the Russian interference, and the many lies that have been told about her, women just got fed up with it. They were angry. And they said, you know, we gotta change that.
What’s your advice for women running for office?
Well, I think you have to build a base. It’s always going to be harder for women to raise money. Women have one advantage that they’re more believable than men when they run for office, so in that respect, you’re ahead of the game. But you can’t expect people to vote for you just because you are a woman. It all comes down to organizing. Listen to yourself. Don’t listen to what others say, because if try to please everybody, you can’t.
What is your biggest focus right now?
We’re really concerned about people getting counted during the Census. We are doing a lot of education telling people not to be afraid, because we know that the Trump administration did a big attack on Latinos. We are doing a lot of outreach—passing out leaflets and getting people to sign a pledge card to commit to being counted.
What has been the most difficult challenge during your life of activism?
The biggest challenge we have in organizing is overcoming fear. Getting people to understand that they have power and that they shouldn’t be afraid to use their power or afraid to be active and engaged. I think what really strikes me is the fact that a lot of people just don’t really know what’s going on. People are busy with family, student and work business. So unless somebody is there campaigning to tell them, look, this is what’s happening, they just don’t know. This is why you have to get involved and do outreach and organizing. We know that in a democratic society, democracy doesn’t work unless people are engaged.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned?
Well, I think the main thing that I’ve learned just by doing this work is you just have to keep at it. We just have to keep organizing and organizing women.
If you go: Dolores Huerta will speak at the Bold Women Change History speaker series on Thursday, December 12, from 7–8 p.m. at the History Colorado Center, 1200 N Broadway; $25.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.