Activist Dolores Huerta urges Santa Rosa Junior College students to organize, get involved

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In her first official visit to Santa Rosa Junior College, legendary labor activist Dolores Huerta emphasized the need for communities to organize and fight for their rights at a time when unions are being criticized in national politics.

“We are equal to whatever public official, whatever agency, because they are working for us,” Huerta said.

Huerta, who co-founded with Cesar Chavez the United Farmers Workers union in 1962, addressed about 200 students, teachers and visitors Monday afternoon at the Newman Auditorium. She spoke passionately about the rights of workers, women, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community, as well as stopping the school-to-prison pipeline and advocating for ethnic studies in schools.

“She’s such a legend and role model for so many people,” SRJC President Frank Chong said. “She’s a part of history that is so vital and significant to the labor movement, the human rights movement.”

In her talk, she quoted civil rights leaders like Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, Gandhi and Robert F. Kennedy, whom she stood beside at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, the night he was assassinated.

“Nothing is going to change unless you do it. We have the power,” Huerta told the audience.

Between her messages of hope and calls to action, she kept the crowd engaged and laughing with bold nuggets of wisdom. Her advice for women who felt uncertain about applying for a job they weren’t completely qualified for: “Just do it like the guys do it. Pretend!”

On the power of organizing, she said, “It’s not about Wonder Woman, it’s about wonder people.”

Huerta in an interview said humor is important for activists in dealing with heavy issues. She enjoys watching late night TV hosts like Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah.

“That way you can laugh at situations because they’re so ridiculous,” she said about the national political climate.

She ended her lecture with reminding the crowd that they had the power. As they gave her a standing ovation, they chanted “Sí, se puede,” or “Yes, we can,” a slogan she’s credited with coming up with in 1972.

“She’s still so dynamic. I love her speeches. She’s still able to move even the hardest person,” said Laura Larque, an SRJC instructor of social science. “To me, that is a true activist. She has never stopped and I don’t think she will ever stop.”

Larque brought students from her Mexican history classes to hear Huerta speak. She wants her students to understand their right to an education at the junior college.

“For them to see if Dolores Huerta can do it, so early in time, then they can do it, too,” Larque said. “For me, this was a beautiful moment to bring my students.”

Huerta listened intently when two students, both mothers and former farm workers in the college’s high school equivalency program, read aloud in Spanish poems they had composed about their immigrant experience.

Cecilia Gutierrez, who spent two years working in a Sonoma County vineyard, grew emotional when she read her poem to Huerta.

“I feel so tired, but I have to continue. Life is hard. God give me strength to live. I am an immigrant, I do it for my family,” Gutierrez said. Huerta hugged her afterward.

After Huerta’s speech, Rosa Colin, 21, waited in line to take a photo with the labor activist, who Colin said made her feel empowered for the future. Colin is studying social work at the SRJC Petaluma campus, and when she graduates she hopes to work on low-income housing issues in Sonoma County, where the need is great.

“My biggest takeaway is just that if we want a change, we have to start with ourselves,” Colin said. “We can’t just wait for somebody to come around and change anything for us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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