Dolores Huerta
Dolores Huerta, the social activist who formed a farm workers union with César Chávez and whose ?Si, Se Puede? chant inspired Barack Obama?s 2008 presidential campaign slogan, is the subject of the new PBS documentary, ?Dolores.? Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2018, file photo, Dolores Huerta participates in the "Dolores" panel during the PBS Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. Huerta, the social activist who formed a farm workers union with César Chávez and whose "Si, Se Puede" chant inspired Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign slogan, is the subject of a new PBS documentary. The film "Dolores" examines the life of the New Mexico-born Mexican-American reformer from her time as a tireless United Farm Workers leader and a campaign volunteer for Sen. Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential run. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)
Richard Shotwell, Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

Dolores Huerta vividly recalls the day Robert F. Kennedy joined thousands of farmworkers in Central California to celebrate the end of Cesar E. Chavez's fast for nonviolence.

On March 10, 1968, Huerta greeted Kennedy at the airport and brought him back to an adobe brick building on the union's Forty Acres property, just west of the city of Delano. There, Kennedy spoke to Chavez, who had just completed a 25-day, water-only fast.

Then, Huerta was supposed to escort Kennedy to Memorial Park, where the farmworkers had gathered for the mass. But Kennedy needed to use the bathroom and she says she couldn't find one for him to use.

"We were just panicked," she says with a bright laugh. "We had to go to several houses because everyone had gone to the park."

She finally found a union staff member who was still home and provided a bathroom for the Senator.

1968: Cesar Chavez and Robert F. Kennedy shared a vision of economic justice

From there, Huerta and Kennedy went to the park, where farmworkers carried flags emblazoned with the union's black eagle logo. They were thrilled to see Kennedy.

"The minute he got up there, we were really panicked," Huerta says. "People were just surging. They wanted to touch him."

"We're going to crush Bobby Kennedy!" she recalls thinking.

Despite those hiccups, the event was historic. To Huerta, Kennedy's presence in the Delano park that day was emblematic of how he supported Americans fighting for economic justice.

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Dolores Huerta at the Delano Strike in 1966. Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield Dolores Huerta at the Delano Strike in 1966.
Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chat, Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chat

"This is how Bobby was," she says. "What can I do to help you? You tell me."

She also described him as being charismatic, having a great sense of humor and being very sincere.

Days after the Delano mass, Kennedy announced he was running for president. Huerta campaigned on his behalf and attended his election night party at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

But that evening, June 5, 1968, Huerta says she sensed something was amiss. She says Chavez had received death threats so she was acutely aware of security in those days.

When Kennedy shook the hands of supporters at the hotel, she recalls thinking, "he shouldn't be doing that. That's so dangerous." She stood on the podium with him as he made his acceptance speech. She heard a noise come from the microphone, so loud she thought it could have been a bomb. But she didn't say anything.

"I didn't want to spoil that moment of joy," she says. "He had won the California primary and he was going to win the presidency of the United States of America. How could I spoil that moment?"

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Labor organizer Dolores Huerta delivers a rousing speech in the documentary ?Dolores.? PBS Distribution Labor organizer Dolores Huerta delivers another rousing speech in the documentary "Dolores."
PBS Distribution, PBS Distribution

She describes that moment as "a dream come true, that we would have that intelligent, charismatic, committed type of leadership."

It became a nightmare minutes later, when Huerta thought she heard fireworks. They were gunshots. Kennedy was mortally wounded and died 26 hours later at Good Samaritan Hospital in LA.

"For years, I suffered with guilt because I didn't say anything," she says.

Huerta was born in 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico and spent most of her childhood and early adult life in Stockton, Calif. She and Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. More than 50 years later, she is still leading organizing efforts in California's Central Valley.

At 88 years old, she says her work is as important as ever.

"I'm an organizer," she says, as she sits in her office in Bakersfield. Turquoise earrings dangle from her ears. "This is an organizing opportunity."

She also continues to support the Kennedy clan. She has a saying about his family: "They bring you in through the front door. They don't bring you in through the back door."

In October, she recorded a YouTube message endorsing Robert F. Kennedy's son, Chris Kennedy, who unsuccessfully campaigned to be the Democratic candidate in the Illinois governor race.

“He is the one person who is going to continue that very great legacy of the Kennedy family to bring justice and opportunities to all of the people in Illinois,” Huerta says in the video. “Not just the few, but the many, especially those who are most in need of help, like the working families and the most vulnerable people in our society.”

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El Presidente Barack Obama presenta la Medalla Presidencial de Libertad a la activista de derechos Dolores Huerta durante una ceremonia el 29 de mayo de 2012. Provided by MANDEL NGAN US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to rights activist Dolores Huerta during a ceremony on May 29, 2012 in the East Room of the White House.
MANDEL NGAN, Provided by MANDEL NGAN

She's being recognized for her more than half a century of service. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She also inspired a 2017 film directed by Peter Bratt, called “Dolores.”

Today, Huerta remains passionate about combating racism, misogyny and homophobia and protecting the planet. She has a clear idea of what must be done.

"We must change the content of what we teach,” she says. "The values of Robert Kennedy need to be taught in every single school. The contributions of people of color have to be taught in every single school."

Rebecca Plevin covers immigration and equality for The Desert Sun. Contact her at rebecca.plevin@desertsun.com or @rebeccaplevin on Twitter.

For more stories from this transformational year, visit 1968.usatoday.com