Late Thursday morning in the balcony above the Kids Unlimited gym, an 88-year-old Latina woman posed for photos in front of a student-made poster. She’s a small woman; its orange letters spelling out “Si, se puede” — “Yes, we can” — reached almost as high as her head.
It seemed a fitting picture of the phrase labor activist Dolores Huerta championed for decades, and its impact, growing into a legacy much bigger than Huerta alone, but still inextricably tied to her.
The students holding up the sign and the staff taking photos were aware of Huerta’s reputation in a way that many people affected by labor union negotiations, farmworkers’ rights or pesticides are not. Despite her founding role in the United Farm Workers organization, her long history of organizing boycotts, negotiating contracts and winning awards as prestigious as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Huerta’s name is less frequently recognized than that of her co-founder, Cesar Chavez, for example.
“I feel like I’ve heard about her but not a lot,” said sixth-grader Valencia Butler. After learning more about Huerta’s work in class, however, Valencia said she had almost cried when meeting her.
Huerta is most known for her role in founding the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers, with Chavez. She organized the almost five-year coordinated grape growers strike and consumer boycott in 1965 and was the lead negotiator on the collective bargaining agreement that raised wages to meet the federal minimum wage for the first time. She was beaten by San Francisco police officers during a peaceful protest in 1988, lobbied for laws such as the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act and advocated for more Latina women to run for office.
She founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002, which continues to be active in social justice work, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
“If a man makes a difference, it seems like they get lots of attention,” Valencia said. “I think it’s important to know what she did for people.”
That opinion is shared by the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which is responsible for this appearance by Huerta, her second in the Rogue Valley in two years. Thursday evening, Huerta participated in a panel discussion following a screening of the documentary on her life, “Dolores.” The film festival screened the work for opening night last season, but decided to hold another screening at Kids Unlimited this year — and invite Huerta to visit the campus.
Peter Bratt, the documentary’s director, helped the festival connect with Huerta herself as a member of its honorary board of directors. The festival already had been considering partnering with Kids Unlimited, said Executive Director Richard Herskowitz, when it decided to invite Huerta back.
“It’s very helpful to the film festival to broaden our reach to a wider range of views,” Herskowitz said.
Half of the tickets to the documentary screening and panel were offered to students and one accompanying adult each. Tickets offered to the general public sold out.
Huerta’s activist work sprang from her exposure to farmworkers’ poor living and working conditions in California; her experiences as part of migrant worker and farming communities are ones that some of Kids Unlimited’s students can relate to. The charter school has a 24 percent migrant student population and the majority of its students are non-white.
Yaremi Mejia, a Kids Unlimited alumna and now a student teacher and basketball coach at the school, is facing an uncertain future with President Trump’s move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She called it “an honor” to meet Huerta and said it was important she visit the school.
“This is a home where you can make a difference,” she said.
Huerta said being at Kids Unlimited, “I get the feeling that Latino and farmworkers’ kids are really welcome here.”
“In many places, that’s not the case,” she said. “They’re made to feel like less of a human being. It’s important.”
She said it was “very humbling” to meet students recognizing her for her work.
“I get a lot of recognition, but there were thousands of individuals involved,” she said. “It takes everybody to make a difference.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter .