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UFW founder Dolores Huerta receives Medal of Freedom


President Barack Obama presents Dolores Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (From White House video)

President Barack Obama on Tuesday presented Dolores Huerta, one of the founders of the United Farm Workers, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Huerta received the medal at a ceremony in the East Wing of the White House, as did musician Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, astronaut John Glenn, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and USDA Assistant Secretary for Administration Pearlie Reed were in the audience as Huerta, 82, received the honor.

Before placing the medal around Huerta’s neck, Obama explained Huerta’s role in joining Cesar Chavez in 1962 to form the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers of America union.

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta
Huerta was a single mother of seven when Chavez suggested they start a farm labor union in California, the president noted. Huerta thought Chavez was joking, Obama said, “But Dolores had been an elementary school teacher and remembered seeing children come to school hungry and without shoes. So in the end, she agreed — and workers everywhere are glad that she did.”

“Without any negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide grape boycott that forced growers to agree to some of the country’s first farm worker contracts,” Obama continued. “And ever since, she has fought to give more people a seat at the table. ‘Don’t wait to be invited,” she says, “Step in there.”

The president also thanked Huerta for allowing him to use the UFW’s call to action.

“Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, ‘Si, se puede,’ ‘Yes, we can,’” Obama said. “Knowing her, I’m pleased that she let me off easy —because Dolores does not play.”

A White House biography noted that in addition to founding the UFW, Huerta was influential in securing the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, and disability insurance for farm workers in California.

In 2002, she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation, an organization dedicated to developing community organizers and national leaders. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights.

Huerta said in a statement on her foundation website that she is “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,” she said.

“The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action,” Huerta said. “It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women's movement, and 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,” she said. “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.”

Solis on Tuesday issued a statement noting that Huerta had inspired her to become “the best public servant I could be.”

United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul F. Chavez issued a statement of congratulations, noting that Chavez once described Huerta as “completely fearless, both mentally and physically.”

“We congratulate Dolores on receiving the nation’s highest civilian honor,” Rodriguez and Chavez said. “No one is more deserving after a lifetime of self-sacrifice and deep dedication to defending the poorest and most abused people in our country”