She’s a political and cultural icon in Latino community… And, now Dolores Huerta is the recipient of the nation’s highest civilian honor.
President Barack Obama presented the 82-year-old Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist with the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday at a special ceremony at the White House.
Huerta—one of 14 recipients of the award this year, including novelist Toni Morrison, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low—co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with César Chávez. It later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).
“I’m deeply gratified in receiving the Medal of Freedom. The freedom of association means that people can come together in organization to fight for solutions to the problems they confront in their communities. The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action,” said Huerta about receiving the honor and her experience as a civil rights leader. “It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, the equality movement for our LGBT brothers and sisters are all manifestations of these rights. I thank President Obama for raising the importance of organizing to the highest level of merit and honor. It is a unique honor and privilege to be included in this group of distinguished individuals being honored here today and the communities they represent.”
Huerta’s sense of justice developed from an early age. Raised in Stockton, Calif., Huerta watched her father work for little pay in the fields, while her mother managed a hotel that often let poor migrants stay for free, according to the Daily Beast.
Using strikes, marches, boycotts and hunger strikes, the UFW has defended the interests of farm workers, including many immigrants, and pressured businesses to sign collectively bargained contracts. The union’s tactics often met resistance. Huerta has been arrested 22 times and been beaten for her activism.
Despite her run-ins with the law, Huerta has been influential in passing far-reaching legislation. Her accomplishments as a labor rights activist include helping pass California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 and helping secure disability insurance for California farmworkers.
Today, the UWF boasts 27,000 members, powerful political allies, and is active in the states of California, Oregon and Washington.
Huerta’s special award— presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States—comes just two weeks after the farm workers union celebrated its 50th anniversary.
In 2002, Huerta launched the Dolores Huerta Foundation with the mission of supporting community organizers and budding political leaders.