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Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, said that with all the national issues brewing from reproductive rights to the minimum wage, we “have a huge amount of apathy in our society.”

She made a plea during a visit to Southern Illinois Tuesday for citizens to vote in the upcoming election and to get involved with candidates and causes important to them.

“I like to say Election Day is the most important day of your life — besides your birthday,” she said.

She said that with huge numbers of people — particularly young people — sitting out elections that “doesn’t bode well for the future of our country.”

Huerta spoke at Southern Illinois University on Tuesday evening in an event sponsored in part by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. She was the keynote speaker for the university’s 2014 Hispanic Heritage Month celebration that runs through Oct. 9.

According to her online biography, Huerta found her calling as an organizer while serving in the leadership of the Stockton Community Service Organization, of which Cesar Chavez was the executive director.

Chavez and Huerta found common ground in a shared goal of organizing farm workers and split from the organization. They went on in the spring of 1962 to form the National Farm Workers Association, later the United Farm Workers Union.

As the principal legislative advocate, Huerta, gifted at organizing, became one of the United Farm Workers’ most visible spokespersons.

In fact, Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary moments before he was shot in Los Angeles, her biography reads.

Huerta said one of the primary lessons she wants to pass on is that each individual person is inherently powerful, and there is even more power when people united for a common cause.

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“We would say to them, ‘The power is in your person,’” she said, adding, “You can’t do things by yourself. You’ve got to get with other people.”

Huerta said those lessons remain important as such things as women’s reproductive rights and labor fairness issues are under attack.

On the minimum wage, she said even the proposals floated by some to raise it to $15 “is not where it should be to keep up with the cost of living.”

She said the minimum wage should be closer to $30 an hour.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25.

Huerta is a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient; the award is the highest civilian U.S. award.

She is currently president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which she founded, and continues to work on behalf of social justice, civil rights and equality.

Her awards and achievements include selection as one of the “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century” by Ladies Home Journal magazine. There are six schools in California, Texas and Colorado named in her honor.

Edith Ortiz-Ruiz, an SIU student from Joliet, was instrumental in bringing Huerta to campus in her role as president of the campus’ Latino Cultural Association.

“It was very shooting at the starts trying to get her here,” Ortiz-Ruiz said. “We knew she was one of the bigger people known to the Latino community.”

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Reporter

Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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