It’s a simple sentiment, but the phrase “sí se puede” or “yes we can” has powered demands for justice around the world ever since the United Farm Workers of America adopted it as its motto in 1972. The woman behind those words is Dolores Huerta, one of the most influential labor activists in America and the leader of the Chicano civil rights movement.
Of the motto she coined, Huerta said it still resonates for her.
“It means activism,” Huerta said. “It means that people can have the power to change things in their lives, change things politically, and it means that every person should feel their own power and know that they can make a difference.”
Huerta’s career as an organizer began in part to protest police brutality against Mexicans in California. She herself was beaten by police at a protest in 1988. She said it’s heartening to see young people engage with the system in recent years after the murder of George Floyd, but there’s one more step she would like to see young people take.
“We still have a lot of our youth that need to vote, unfortunately,” Huerta said. “I think we have a lot of our young people that, they love to protest and they love to march. They don’t realize that voting is the only way that we can change things. And I know that right now you have elections going on here in Chicago. And so, we want to see to all the young people out there. Please get out there and vote. It’s so important.”
Although she is best known for her labor activism, Huerta has been a vocal supporter of a number of human rights causes and consciously wove a feminist approach into her organizing.
“I always like to use the words of Benito Juarez that said ‘el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz,’ respecting other people’s rights as peace,” Huerta said. “However you feel about women’s rights and reproductive rights, however you feel about gay rights, we have to respect other people for who they are.”
At 92, Huerta is continuing her work as an activist through the Dolores Huerta Foundation. She said she hopes her legacy is one of inspiring others to take action themselves.
“I hope they remember me as an organizer and as someone that’s getting out there and saying to people, ‘You’ve got to get involved, you got to get engaged, you’ve got to vote,’” Huerta said. “If we want to keep our democracy, if we want to make changes, it starts with voting.”