The hallway intersection outside the fourth-floor administrative offices of the Dolores Huerta Foundation was congested with foot traffic.
Canvassers prepped to convince people of the importance of participating in the U.S. census were heading toward the elevator. One of them, her eyes glistening with emotion, paused as Dolores Huerta approached.
"Such an honor for me to be able to help," she whispered, and Huerta nodded warmly.
A moment later, a large young man with a television camera mounted on his shoulder attempted to navigate through the same space. He had been dispatched from an Albuquerque TV station to film a story on that city's decision to name a prominent street for the civil rights icon.
Administrative aides calmly squeezed through the tangle, evidently accustomed to such bustle.
And through it all glided Huerta, the relentless activist (or celebrity rabble-rouser, take your pick), a tranquil smile attesting to her comfort with this happy chaos.
Huerta, a longtime Kern County resident, is 5-foot-2, six weeks shy of her 90th birthday, and unassuming in so many ways. Mistake her for a pushover at your own risk.
Her resume offers abundant reasons.
She is the recipient of the 1998 Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights; the 2002 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship; the 2007 Community of Christ International Peace Award; and the 2013 Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged.
She has nine honorary doctorates and 31 IMDb acting credits. Her name is attached to two government holidays, at least seven public schools and one asteroid.
President Obama presented her with the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She has been arrested 22 times.
And she does not have a spleen.
"People tell me I have a lot of energy, that I'm committed, that I'm — well, some people call me fearless, and I like that one," she said. "Yeah, I think I kind of am."
Dolores Clara Fernandez was born to this.
She spent her earliest years in the northern New Mexico mountain town of Dawson. Her father was a farmworker, miner, union activist and, eventually, a legislator. Her parents divorced, and she and her two brothers were raised in Stockton by their mother, Alicia, a church and community volunteer who ran a hotel that welcomed low-wage workers.
"My mother told me something when I was very young. She said, 'Whenever you make a decision, think of what kind of an effect that's going to have 50 years from today,'" Huerta told me last week in the break room of her foundation's modest headquarters at 19th and Eye streets in downtown Bakersfield. "I've always tried to do that."
At Stockton High School she was a majorette and, straight through until graduation, a member of the Girl Scouts. She received a provisional teaching credential from Delta College, married fellow student Ralph Head, with whom she eventually had two daughters, and taught elementary school.
She witnessed so much evidence of dire poverty in the classroom, however, she ultimately changed course. She divorced Head, joined the Stockton Community Service Organization, founded the Agricultural Workers Association, set up voter registration drives and pressed local governments for improvements in the barrio.
In 1955, through CSO founder Fred Ross, she met the CSO's executive director, César Chávez. She was 25.
In 1962, she and Chávez resigned from the CSO and launched the organization that would evolve into the United Farm Workers union. Their first victory came the following year with two unprecedented achievements: creation of the Aid for Dependent Families program and disability insurance for farmworkers.
Timidity had no place in the UFW of Huerta and Chávez. There was strife and occasional violence on both sides of the union's long-running fight with growers over worker rights, safety and pay, as well as the drama of Chávez's three long fasts.
"Chávez was a genius," Huerta said. "He was very, very smart and very strong, very committed to the farmworker movement, very disciplined. Anyone who can go without food — two times for 25 days, the third time for 36 days – he went longer (during his lengthiest fast) than Gandhi."
Huerta has long exhibited her own kind of discipline, as well as a courage that belies her slight physical stature. She has jumped in between large, angry men about to start throwing punches, or worse, in multiple dustups with California growers and their allies.
"I remember once when we were on the picket line in Delano and some big guys from the AFL-CIO came down to help us," she said, recounting one harrowing confrontation in which she hurled her 100 pounds into the fray in an attempt to quell imminent violence. "Sometimes on the front lines there is danger. You can't run, you know, you've got to stand there, and sometimes you just have to act."
She never stopped working, even through tragedy — the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a potent and passionate ally; Chávez's unexpected death in 1993 at 66; and a savage beating in 1988 at the hands of San Francisco police.
Vice President George H.W. Bush, on a presidential campaign swing through California, had stopped for an event at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco, and Huerta was among the leaders of a noisy, raucous but nonviolent protest outside.
Janice Leber, reporting for radio station KPFA that September night, about seven weeks before the election, described the scene in a blog post: "Then, for some reason I still don't understand, the cops decided it was time to clear the sidewalk. Okay. No problem.
"Oh, except — problem. 'There are people in front of me, officer. I'm trying to clear the sidewalk, really I am, but there are people in front of me. And still, more people were pushing against me.' The crowd became so compacted I felt I could lift my feet off the ground and I would have remained upright."
Suddenly Leber felt the hard jab of a billy club in her back. With a burst of adrenaline, Leber wrote, she leapt over a concrete planter, darted under a barricade and ran across the street. Huerta, who had been standing nearby, was not so lucky.
"I was beaten ... almost to the point of death," said Huerta, who was then 58. "They fractured four ribs and I had my spleen — well, they never found it. The guy hit me so hard it just burst."
The entire thing was captured on police video.
San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos watched tape of the incident with Police Chief Frank Jordan. "We could see she was being very cooperative," Agnos told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We could even read her lips, saying 'I'm moving.'"
The ensuing public outrage prompted the SFPD to change its policies regarding crowd control and police discipline, and Huerta was awarded an $825,000 out-of-court settlement.
Huerta lives in a modest, two-story house in a working-class neighborhood near West High School "by design and by choice," Huerta said. "... I live on my Social Security, which is only $600 a month, and $2,000 a month that I get from my beating by the police in San Francisco. So that's $2,600 a month, and that's what I live on."
But what about all of those speaking fees? Huerta commands $20,000 per appearance, plus expenses, sometimes more, often less, occasionally free of charge, depending on the circumstances and nature of the organization she is addressing. Answer: The money goes straight back into the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that received its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 2004.
"That's how we raise money for the work that we do," Huerta said.
The foundation reported revenues of just under $1.6 million in 2017. Huerta, the president, draws no salary, nor do any board members — actor Martin Sheen among them — except Executive Director Camila Chavez, Huerta's daughter, who earned a relatively modest $56,000 that year. (The foundation, which according to Camila Chavez now has annual revenues exceeding $3 million, recently hired a consultant to assist in the process of reconfiguring and diversifying its board of directors in terms of expertise and background.)
The foundation, in fact, is very much a family affair. In addition to her two children with her first husband, Huerta has five children from husband Ventura Huerta, whom she also divorced; and four children from César Chávez's brother, her longtime partner Richard Chávez, who died in July 2011. Five of her 11 children work for the foundation: Besides Camila, Juana Chavez is director of business development; Emilio Huerta is general counsel (although he is on leave to run for 4th District county supervisor); Lori de Leon is business manager; and Alicia Huerta, named for her grandmother, is assistant to the president.
The foundation is involved in more programs and causes than I can list here, but very generally they include voter engagement, civic participation, youth and education, and environmental health — all focused, primarily but not exclusively, on low-income, disenfranchised families that may face racial or socioeconomic disparity. On the local front, for example, the foundation has demanded disciplinary reform at the Kern High School District, where expulsion rates have been overwhelmingly skewed against students of color.
"My mom is a visionary," said Camila, who transitioned at age 27 from a career in health care to management of the foundation in 2003, the year she and Huerta created it. "And I take care of the details. We have a joke around the office: Dolores says, 'I have an idea!' And the rest of us say, 'No, not another idea!'"
The foundation does it all out of a 100-year-old office building two blocks north of Bakersfield City Hall — although that is likely to change in the next two years. Plans are in the works for an ambitious 36,400-square-foot administrative building and cultural center on a $20 million city-block campus at 21st and Eye streets, and fundraising efforts are underway. (See sidebar.)
The foundation's work is directed at Kern, Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties, but Huerta and colleagues are all over the country — all over the world, sometimes.
In the last six months, to Huerta's best recollection, she has been in Iowa, Nebraska, Connecticut and, on at least three occasions, New York, as well as Washington, D.C., Kansas, and, just last week, Colorado, where she talked about the subject that is her most current priority: participation in the U.S. census.
The foundation has 40 full-time staff members and 100 canvassers working to promote the decennial population count in its four counties of focus.
“We have canvassers going door to door talking to people about why they have to participate in the census. ... (Undocumented) people are just afraid to get counted. And we're going to lose millions of dollars in the state of California, millions and millions of dollars (in federal funding), if people don't participate,” she said. “So we're working really hard to tell people, 'Don't be afraid. The census is confidential. People cannot share the information with anybody.' But it's gonna be hard to convince them."
Huerta does all of this while keeping an eye on national politics. She is, of course, a Democrat, and a prominent one at that. She introduced Hillary Clinton's name into nomination at the 2016 Democratic National Convention (and notes, proudly, that the late Merle Haggard supported Clinton's candidacy in 2008).
She said she will support the Democratic nominee, whomever it may be, but notes that she is a friend of Julian Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, as well as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is said to be considering Castro as a running mate should she win the nomination. Huerta also calls billionaire businessman-turned-presidential candidate Tom Steyer a friend and "a wonderful person."
What does a civil rights icon do in her spare time? Answer: What spare time? Huerta does manage to squeeze in a book now and then; Amy Tan is a favorite. And she loves music, especially classical and jazz.
"I go to the jazz workshop that they have at Temblor (Brewing Co.) when I'm in town," she said. "And I dance every chance I get — salsa, rock, everything. It's not very often but many times when I go to some of these conferences, you have a dance afterward and I challenge my friends to join me. But I really enjoy listening to jazz. My daughter, Lori, is on the board of the jazz workshop and she always knows when there's good music in town."
Huerta might have liked to be a musician herself — she played violin in the school symphony as a kid — but the philharmonic just wasn't in her future.
"There's a hypnotist here on this floor" who helps people quit smoking, she said. "And I asked him one day, 'Could you hypnotize me so I could remember how to play the violin?' He said he didn't think so. I didn't have any talent anyway."
Perhaps not with a violin bow, but talent she has, and so much of the world continues to demand it. And even at (almost) 90, Huerta still accepts those challenges. There's just still so much to do.