Dolores Huerta received a belated birthday gift on Tuesday afternoon, just a little late for her 91st birthday.
“I’m sorry this is delayed, but this is going to be a little extra special,” Cal State Bakersfield President Lynnette Zelezny promised her.
All 23 campuses in the Cal State University system have in some way dedicated a piece of their campus to the labor and civil rights leader best known for her work organizing farmworkers. Last year on Huerta’s 90th birthday, April 10, the board passed a resolution calling her a “groundbreaking, fearless leader in the fight for civil rights” and a “champion of access to higher education.”
On Tuesday, CSUB dedicated a bench with a plaque that rests in front of a crape myrtle tree planted in her honor. It’s on the west side of campus near the Dreamers Resource Center in Rohan Hall.
But all of the other campuses across the state have their own dedications as well in the form of trees, brick walls and paintings. At San Jose State University, her image has been painted into an arch. Cal State Dominguez Hills has her image holding the sign “Si se puede!” painted into a mural titled “Manifest Destiny.”
The board memorialized each of these “moments” in a book that was put together for Huerta. She vowed to visit all 23 campuses, and it didn’t sound like an empty threat.
Representatives from both the CSU and UC systems were in attendance to mark the occasion, as well as family members and close friends.
Jean Picker Firstenberg, trustee with the California State University, said the university system wanted to come up with a way to honor Huerta throughout their system. But it was technically against the rules for the system to give out more than one honorary degree to her.
“This is unheard of to have each of the campuses honor one person like this,” said John Perez, chairman of the Board of Regents for University of California.
He called her a monumental force. He added that maybe the UC system might have to take a cue from the CSU system.
Huerta used her award to discuss the importance of education in what she said was a “chaotic time” for the country.
“Education is going to save our democracy,” she said.
She said bias against gender, LGBT status, anti-Semitism and anti-Arab sentiment have the same root.
“The only reasons we have these divisions in our country is because we have ignorance,” she said.
She said good education could help heal these divisions in the United States. She pointed out the irony of saying go back to Mexico when before 1848, much of the United States was Mexico, and long before that it was indigenous land.
“The true immigrants that came to the United States came from Europe,” she said. “But all of us have to come together and end these divisions.”
She said she would like to see every child go to a Cal State or a University of California institution.
“It will not just be limited to those who can afford it,” she said. “This is something we need to do today.”
Huerta pushed back on her “living icon” status, saying it’s antithetical to the grassroots work she continues to champion.
“We should not use the word ‘icon,’” she said. “As my son Ricky said, ‘You are not an icon but an ‘I can.’”
She thanked not only her family who made her work possible through the years, but also the many in the labor movement, including those who lost their lives in the movement: Nan Freeman, Nagi Daifallah, Juan de la Cruz, Rufino Contreras and Rene Lopez.
Andres Chavez, director of strategic initiatives for the Cesar Chavez Foundation and grandson of Cesar Chavez, said that at 91 years old, Huerta works harder than everyone.
“At a time when she’s being recognized, she’s still working,” he laughed.