Dancing with Dolores Huerta

Daniel Enrique Pérez

In 2004, my first year as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, I had the privilege of meeting Dolores Huerta. She was invited to UNR to speak and was awarded an honorary doctorate—one of nine she holds. Huerta has been recognized for her life-long work as a grassroots organizer and the instrumental role she played during the civil rights movement. She remains at the forefront of so many important causes: workers’ rights, civil and human rights, the advancement of women, and the environment. Twice she received U.S. presidential awards: the Medal of Freedom (2012) and the Eleanor D. Roosevelt Human Rights Awards (1998).

Like many who have the privilege of meeting great leaders, when I first met Dolores Huerta, I was humbled by her presence. Very few Latino leaders and historical figures were recognized in my history books when I was a child, and even fewer Latinas, if any, ever appeared in them. But Dolores Huerta has in many ways been a hero and present throughout my life—even if my history books didn’t recognize her.  

As a former farmworker myself, Dolores Huerta and César Chávez are important figures of my heritage. They helped organize farmworkers in communities throughout the United States including Arizona, where I was raised and worked as a child. Whereas my parents never had the opportunity to attend school, I did. And were it not for the opportunities I was given to move from working in the onion fields to working in summer youth employment and training programs, I may have remained a farmworker my entire life. Dolores Huerta and César Chávez helped everyone, especially farmworkers, to recognize that we were first and foremost human beings and that we had the right and the power to improve our working and living conditions. It was that kind of leadership and organizing that helped many of our families and communities move forward. Their efforts literally paid off; our wages doubled after the formation of the United Farm Workers. We went from getting paid 12 cents per dozen for the green onion bundles we produced to 25 cents.

Approximately thirty years later, there I was, dancing cumbias, salsa, and merengue with Dolores Huerta. After receiving her honorary doctorate and delivering her speech at UNR, a reception was held in her honor. She was in her mid 70s at the time, and I was in my mid 30s. I remember being enthralled by the fact that I was dancing with a legend, but feeling as if I were dancing with a member of my family. I also remember that despite being forty years younger, I could not keep up with her. I was literally out of breath after we danced several songs in a row.

On September 6, 2014, Dolores Huerta returned to UNR. She was invited by the ASUN Center for Student Engagement to be the keynote speaker for the iLead Nevada Leadership Conference. Workshops throughout the day were designed to teach university students how to become successful leaders in their communities. One of my former students, Cynthia Esparza-Trigueros, was one of the conference organizers and spearheaded the effort to bring Huerta to UNR. As the assistant director of the ASUN Center for Student Engagement, Esparza-Trigueros has herself become an important leader in our community.

I had an opportunity to talk to Dolores Huerta before her speech during her latest visit. I learned that she had recently been in the Reno area to attend Burning Man. I was surprised when she mentioned that it was her third time attending the event. She participated in a camp called ¡Qué Viva!, which records the migration stories of Burners, wherever they and their families may have come from. She explained how they used the monarch butterfly as a symbol of migration and encouraged individuals to write and share their stories on the butterfly wings they made. In my own research, I have examined the monarch butterfly as a symbol of migration, beauty, resilience, transformation, and strength. I show how several artists and writers have appropriated the butterfly to facilitate a mariposa consciousness—an awareness of the social locations, social relations, and history of those who may identify with butterflies for various reasons. My conversation with Dolores Huerta reminded me of the importance of doing the type of work we do—work that is grounded on raising awareness and empowering individuals to facilitate social transformations.

In her speech, Huerta underscored the injustices that persist in the United States: the differences between wages earned by average workers and those earned by CEOs; the dismal number of women in congress and other leadership positions; the disproportionate suspensions from school and incarceration rates of Black and Latino males; and the racism that continues to plague our country. Her message was clear: we need better leaders and organizers to change public policies; we need individuals from all walks of life to step forward and do the work; we need to engage everyone in democratic processes, especially voting; and that all human beings have a shared heritage—“There is only one race,” she reminded everyone.

Dolores Huerta continues to lead by example. Now in her 80s, she shows no signs of slowing down. She remains active in all the causes she has been committed to virtually her entire life, and she is the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which is dedicated to organizing communities so that they can address issues of social justice and facilitate social transformation. And although there was no reception or music after her speech during her recent visit, I’m certain that if I had had another opportunity to dance with her, I would have struggled to keep up with her.

Dolores Huerta’s visit was an inspiration to the hundreds of individuals who were present that day. It was more than just an opportunity to hear and see a living legend, it was a reminder to the leader that exists in all of us that there is much work to be done, and that we must keep bringing people together in order to get it done.