SANTA CRUZ — As tourists on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk rode roller coasters in the sun, 91-year-old civil rights icon Dolores Huerta spoke to some 300 people listening to the Latino Role Models conference, speaking Saturday from the Beach Flats Community Center on inequity, youth leadership and women’s rights.
The symposium — hosted by the nonprofit Senderos, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and Cabrillo College — aims to empower Santa Cruz students from sixth grade through college.
For more than 60 years, Huerta has been a force in civil rights, labor rights and social justice. She, along with César Chávez, founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962. Huerta received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Huerta spoke to young adults about the importance of civic engagement, voting, and anti-racism.
“No one can take your education away from you,” Huerta said through a translator. “It’s important for parents to help their children get to college and university.
Huerta said she was especially worried about Latino girls, who might be barred from going to college.
“I’m sad when our daughters get scholarships to go to college, but it’s common for our Latino parents to deny them that opportunity because they’re women,” Huerta said.
The union leader also spoke about women’s autonomy and the right to choose, at a time when abortion rights laws are being removed or weakened in the United States.
Before ending his remarks, Huerta – who spoke for more than 40 minutes – issued a call and response. In a swollen voice, she asked the crowd “quien tiene el poder?” or “who has the power?” The room replied confidently, “nosotros hacemos”, – in English, “we do”.
In an interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Huerta said that in her lifetime she has seen more young Latinos attend and earn college degrees.
“I’m going to be 92 in a few weeks (April 10) and I look back and I remember when I went to college, there were only a handful of Latinos in college. Now, we see a lot of young people in college, and many organizations are “Hispanic and have maybe 40 to 50 percent Latino kids,” Huerta said.
She added that more resources need to be devoted to establishing pathways for young people of color to go to college, especially within the black community.
“There is still a lot of progress to be made,” Huerta said.
Asked about the state of farmworker rights, Huerta – who left her job at United Farmworkers in 2002 – spoke about her decades of work in this area.
“Caesar said to me, ‘We have to organize the agricultural workers and form a union, I want you to help me do that,'” Huerta said. “I thought he was joking at first, I even started to laugh. He said ‘No, I’m serious. But we’ll never see a national farm workers’ union, because the farmers are too rich and powerful, they’re too racist and they’re too greedy. It always happens,” Huerta said.
While United Farmworkers serves the country, its members are strongest in California, Oregon and Washington, according to its website.
The state of the agricultural workers’ union is weak, largely due to a persistent power imbalance between agricultural workers and producers. Huerta said, “We need to eliminate the racism that exists in our society. There is no reason for these companies to get away with not paying workers a living wage.
Huerta also spoke about environmental justice and said it’s critical that Latinos and people of color be at the forefront of California’s transition from oil to renewable energy.
When asked if she could distill her wisdom into a single mantra for young people of color, Huerta replied, “The future is theirs.”
She added that the success of these young adults remains an uphill battle: “They have to fight for their future,” Huerta said. “Unless they fight for themselves, it won’t happen.”
Omar Mendoza, a nursing student at Cabrillo College, who attended Saturday’s conference, said he was particularly struck that Huerta stood up for LGBTQ rights.
“Knowing how my culture can be with this topic, and that she’s 92 and supporting and accepting her, I was like ‘wow, she’s a woman we should all know about,'” said said Mendoza.
Senderos Executive Director Gabriela Cruz spoke about Huerta’s advocacy work nationally for communities of color in California, but noted that Huerta remains rooted on the Central Coast.
In 2015, Huerta stepped up to preserve the Beach Flats Community Garden when it was threatened by development.
“She is welcomed back into the community several years later and the garden is still there thanks to her advocacy with local organizers. It’s a really special moment,” Cruz said.
For Senderos co-founder Nereida Robles Vasquez, the day was a boost of encouragement.
“We have to keep working and engaging our young people to be leaders, to become leaders, because they are the future,” Robles Vasquez said.