One thing and one thing only has slowed the relentless pace of Bakersfield’s most famous living citizen. Not age, not funding, not ebbing demand for her attention. Dolores Huerta, the iconic social activist, is 90 today — and laying low at her daughter’s house in Bakersfield, waiting out the COVID-19 crisis.
Today Dolores Huerta hits a noteworthy life milestone, 90, in quarantine rather than out soaking up new accolades.
And what accolades. Already she has nine honorary doctorate degrees. Thirty-one IMDb acting credits. Twenty-two arrests. Her name is attached to two government holidays, 12 schools, innumerable streets and parks, one Presidential Medal of Freedom and one asteroid.
And the praise never seems to slow.
“Our heroes unite us — the best among us who inspire us to find the best in ourselves,” actress Rene Zellweger told a national television audience in February at the Academy Awards, upon receiving the Oscar for Best Actress for “Judy.” “They unite us. When we look to our heroes, we agree, and that matters. Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Dolores Huerta …”
Each platitude over the years has been gratefully acknowledged from the modest, four-story, 100-year-old office building on 19th Street in downtown Bakersfield, leased to the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
Huerta isn’t binge-watching Netflix during this giant pause in normal life — she is, as she has almost always done, still championing the role of farmworkers. They have always been essential to the U-S economy. Now, in this time of crisis, they are still on the job, in the fields, and indispensably so. But they are also at risk — tremendous risk.
“They’re not being given the type of equipment that they need to make sure that they stay safe,” Huerta said this week in an interview via Zoom. “I think the people in the packing sheds have to work close together. I don’t think they’re being supplied with masks. A lot of the farmworkers, in some of the occupations like when they pick the oranges, they’re OK — they each have their own tree.
“But in some of the other crops, they do have to work together side by side. They haven’t been provided the masks they need and the farmers themselves are really kind of worried about this. They’re asking us to, you know, let people know that they also need protection.”
In times of great crisis, farmworkers have always been soldiers of a sort. During World War II, Huerta notes, the Bracero program brought farm laborers up from Mexico to put food on the table of a nation fighting to preserve democracy. Now, things are much the same, though the enemy is unseen.
“Now our farmworkers, here they go, they’re responding to this (pandemic) by being out there” in the fields,” she said.
Huerta accepts birthday well-wishes with grateful acknowledgement, but she makes it clear that she has no intention of retiring.
There is more work to do, farmworker rights to secure — 48 of the 50 states, for example, do not offer full unemployment insurance. Then there’s the question of eligibility for the federal stimulus checks going out this spring. And more.
“Well, I can’t retire, unfortunately, because we still have too much work to do,” Huerta said. “Get out there and organize people and really empower people to fight for their rights and improve their communities. And once they know that they can do it, of course they will keep on doing that. That’s the mission that we have.”
Huerta says she is healthy and is using this break in her hectic schedule to re-energize.
“I feel great,” she said. “I feel wonderful actually. And now that I’m homebound, I’m not doing as much traveling … I’m able to get more rest.
” … There’s this saying in Spanish: It says ‘No matter how bad things are, something good will come out of it.’ And I’m sure that out of this crisis, people are going to do a lot of reflection and think about their own lives, think about our country and see what we can do to make it better.”
Huerta is skipping the birthday party, but don’t feel bad for her. Today, she’s celebrating by rolling out Dolores Huerta Day Education Curriculum, a set of lessons on civic activism created for each grade level that meets state standards.
Members of Congress and guests threw her a big reception in Washington on March 5, the same day she appeared on the cover of Time magazine as one of 100 women of the year.
And she is having a virtual birthday party on May 30 — a two-hour-long celebration with celebrity guests to be named later.
So admirers still have time to pick out a card.
The May 30 event will also officially kick off the capital campaign for the $20 million Dolores Huerta Peace and Justice Cultural Center. The cultural arts complex, at 21st and H streets in downtown Bakersfield, will include an art gallery, an outdoor amphitheater, a daycare center and the foundation’s new headquarters. The center is scheduled to be completed in late 2022.