Illustration by Celia Fong

Tatanka Bricca was ready to go to jail before he met her in 1969. A recent college graduate, Bricca was working as a third-grade teacher in East Los Angeles when he decided to return his draft card for the Vietnam war.

In Northern California, ready to face the consequences for his act of civil disobedience, Bricca experienced a sort of divine intervention. He crossed paths with labor rights activist and United Farm Workers (UFW) leader Dolores Huerta, who needed help organizing a grape boycott.

“Most people don’t know who she is,” Bricca said, “but there would be no Cesar Chavez or farm workers’ union without Dolores.”

Bricca’s initial four weeks of volunteering turned into four years, and now, Bricca will be honoring Huerta on Nov. 13 in Santa Cruz with a celebration for her 85th birthday. Though her birthday is in April, the event is part of a series of year-long celebrations and will serve as a fundraiser for the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Co-sponsored by the Romero Institute, Barrios Unidos and Inner-Light Ministries, the event will recognize emerging leaders in Santa Cruz county who are continuing in her legacy.

“She likes to say ‘share the torch’ because she has every intention of continuing to work into her 90s,” said Executive Director of the Romero Institute Sara Nelson. “She’s very supportive of programs that develop leadership in young people and empower them with skills they need to make this a better world.”

During Tuesday’s Santa Cruz City Council meeting, Mayor Don Lane proclaimed Nov. 13 “Dance with Dolores Day.”

“It’s important to recognize Dolores Huerta’s exemplary leadership in the struggle for social and economic justice for workers and those who have been marginalized historically,” Lane said in a press release.

Born in New Mexico but raised in California’s Central Valley, Dolores Huerta co-founded the UFW with Cesar Chavez in 1962. She was successful in lobbying for voting rights for Mexican Americans and for allowing people to take the driver’s license exam in their native language.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by President Obama, previously served as a UC Regent and has nine honorary doctorates from universities across the country.

“The best way we can honor Dolores is to be leaders and have that room reflect the Santa Cruz County of the future,” Tatanka Bricca said, emphasizing the importance of including young women and communities of color as a part of the event.

From 1969 to 1973, Bricca worked full-time with the UFW alongside Huerta, Chavez and other organizers. He coordinated grape, lettuce and wine boycotts in the San Francisco Bay Area in hopes of improving labor conditions for farm workers.

“The average life expectancy of a farm worker when I started organizing was 49 and that’s because of pesticides being sprayed, that’s because of the hard work, because of the diets and poverty — it’s because all those things. That was not ok for me,” Bricca said. He was influenced to work with the UFW by the ideology of Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King and his Christian values.

Bricca sees Huerta as a teacher, from whom he learned about communities organizing to take responsibility for their own lives. He admires Huerta’s ability to rally others, entrusting people like himself — regardless of prior organizing experience — to convince consumers and growers to join the boycott.

“She was asking us to do the seemingly impossible,” Bricca said. “People would show up in churches in Boston or Miami, not knowing much of anything, and this convinced millions of people to support the boycott to bring the most powerful agricultural and political forces in California to the bargaining table with the poorest people. It was amazing.”

Sara Nelson, an organizer for 40 years, remembers working on the east coast with the National Organization of Women in the 1970s to address wage gaps and unionize women while Huerta was across the country fighting for labor rights in another fashion. Nelson was happy to participate in the event and appreciated Huerta’s support of other social movements.

“She has always understood that all of the peoples’ movements should be allies with one another because they are all working for better conditions and better policies for the people as a whole,” Nelson said. “But not everybody did.”

In the years after the agricultural boycotts of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Huerta’s activism expanded to other causes, recognizing the connective tissue between labor rights and human rights and the intersectionality of social justice issues.

“She was a champion for women early on, a champion for human rights, champion for LGBT rights, champion for environmental rights,” Bricca said. “She’s a champion for all of us”.

“An Evening with Dolores Huerta: Honoring the Struggle, Engaging a New Generation” will be held at the Inner Light Center (5630 Soquel Drive) from 6 p.m. – 11 p.m. on Nov. 13. Tickets are $10 for general admission, $5 for students and free for children 10 and under. 

Earlier that day, Huerta will be at UCSC for a lunch reception from 12 p.m – 1:30 p.m. at Namaste Lounge in College Nine. The event is co-sponsored by El Centro and Colleges Nine and Ten Cocurricular Programs Office.