Pres. Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Dolores Huerta, the 82-year-old activist who, along with the late Cesar Chavez, led a successful campaign to organize American farm workers.
It was the least the president could do, though, because without “Si, se puede” – the Chavez-Huerta duo’s iconic slogan – there would’ve never been “Yes, we can.” (Move over, MLK.)
Huerta is a present-day Eleanor Roosevelt, or a Jane Addams reincarnated, or a Latino Nelson Mandela. She’s probably all three, and that’s not an exaggeration.
Having had several of her ribs broken by police batons during a 1988 protest of the polices of then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush, and subsequently having her spleen removed after it ruptured, Huerta is not afraid of bearing the dolores that accompany the push for social equality.
The issues she has lent her voice to run the gamut from farmers’ rights and fairer immigration reform to LGBT rights and poverty relief. Through the Dolores Huerta Foundation, founded in 2002, this feminine paragon of social justice is actively engaged in advancing the causes for education reform and youth development, women’s rights, civic participation, health, environmental conservation and leadership training.
It seems as though wherever there’s a group of people getting the raw end of a deal, Doña Dolores is there to defend them, megaphone in one hand and the other raised in a firm fist.
As was outlined when Pres. Kennedy established the award in 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is given “to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” Among this year’s 13 recipients – former State Secretary Madeline Albright, author Toni Morrison, astronaut John Glenn and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, to name some – none is more deserving than Huerta, who fully embodies the principles that the award represents.
Huerta has dedicated the better part of her long, courageous existence to the defense and advancement of freedom, specifically, the freedom to assemble and demand that the government make right certain wrongs. She is an American citizen par excellence.
It’s more than a bit shameful that it’s taken the United States so long to honor one of its most phenomenal citizens. Why, for instance, wasn’t Huerta awarded the medal when it was posthumously bestowed on her partner-in-protest in 1994? It could be that the timing of her bestowal is indicative of the work still unfinished in Huerta’s lifelong campaign for equal rights.
Or perhaps it’s because Chavez had been dead a year by the time he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, and that Huerta is still kicking (and yelling) makes it riskier for a sitting president to pay tribute to such a controversial figure. Huerta’s career as an activist has not been without controversy.
Most recently, she caused temporal arteries to bulge with indignation when she told a gathering of high school students that “Republicans hate Latinos.” (She would’ve been better off making her comment more Bill Maher-esque: “If you hate Latinos, you’re probably a Republican.”)
No matter what the cause for delay, Huerta is now a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another American living who better exemplifies the civic virtues that the medal is meant to promote.
2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony