Dolores Huerta
Photo by Jonathan Brown

How Punk Rock Led to a Boyle Heights Intersection Named for Dolores Huerta

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L.A. poet Nikki Darling, and musician Alice Bag, were essential in founding the newly designated Dolores Huerta Square, honoring the California labor leader and civil rights activist.

“What would it be like to drive down a street named Dolores Huerta?” Nikki Darling asks in her 2017 poem “A Street Called Dolores Huerta.” Last Saturday, as the L.A.-based poet read her work to a crowd gathered in Boyle Heights, her voice cracked with emotion when she gave the answer:

“It would be like taking a journey down a road I knew was meant for me
A road I knew had been traveled before my arrival
A street that, although at times difficult, would lead me someplace finer
And that, most of all, perhaps my traffic would demand new and better roads.”

There are no streets in L.A. named after the famed civil rights activist — at least not yet. Thanks to poetry and punk rock, though, Dolores Huerta Square now sits at the intersection of 1st and Chicago Streets in Boyle Heights. The new designation was unveiled on June 22 in a ceremony that brought together intersectional feminism with neighborhood history, poetry and music.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti was one of many dozens of people who packed into the newly named Dolores Huerta Square in Boyle Heights to commemorate its new designation. Photos by Jonathan Brown.

Huerta, who co-founded United Farm Workers (UFW) and coined the slogan, “, se puede,” spoke to the crowd on Saturday and explained the significance of the square’s location. Although best known for organizing farm workers in the Central Valley, Huerta spent time with the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Boyle Heights, who had an office near this intersection. It was there that she and Cesar Chavez began working on what would eventually become UFW. In Boyle Heights, she says, the two learned organizational tactics from activists and community leaders like CSO co-founder Fred Ross.

“Those lessons that Fred Ross taught us here are the ones that Cesar and I took when we started United Farm Workers, the same ones that I use today with the Dolores Huerta Foundation as we continue to work to bring justice to people in the Central Valley of California,” she told the crowd. “We know now, more than ever, we need those lessons today.”

Those lessons reach beyond labor issues. In recent years, the Dolores Huerta Foundation has advocated for voting rights, education equality and the LGBT community primarily in rural, Latinx communities in the Central Valley. Huerta’s legacy has impacted subsequent generations. Darling noted this onstage when she shared her own family’s story. She spoke of how, in the 1950s, her grandparents had briefly moved from New Mexico to California, where her grandfather was a migrant worker.

“I grew up around stories about how terrible that was,” Darling told the crowd. “I grew up hearing that if they had stayed, things might have changed because of a woman named Dolores Huerta.”

L.A. punk rocker Alice Bag performs a song inspired by Nikki Darling’s 2017 poem “A Street Called Dolores Huerta.” Writing the song was the first step in her advocacy for renaming a street after civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. Photo by Jonathan Brown.

Darling wrote her poem for an event, curated by West of Rome Public Art creative director Emi Fontana, at Lincoln Heights’ Church of the Epiphany, another L.A. civil rights landmark. It was inspired by a drive down Cesar Chavez Avenue when Darling noticed the lack of streets named for trailblazing women. She Googled historic women, like Susan B. Anthony, and couldn’t find any roads bearing their names.

“We live in a culture where we’re continuously bombarded by slights and take them as the way things are,” Darling says. But, she also has a motto: “Just because something is, doesn’t mean that it’s supposed to be that way.”

Alice Bag, the author, artist and musician who herself is a trailblazer as a founding member of the seminal L.A. punk band The Bags, had heard Darling read the poem at the home of a mutual friend. “I was really touched by it and thought we had to make this a reality,” Bag says.

But, there was a catch: How do you get a street named for Dolores Huerta?

“I didn’t know how to make it happen,” Bag says. So, she asked Darling if she could write a song based on the poem. Darling said yes and the result, Bag’s “Dolores Huerta Street,” was performed at an event at The Mayan. The Dolores Huerta Foundation caught wind of it. So did Leda Ramos, chair of the Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies at Cal State Los Angeles. This led to Bag performing at the department’s 50th anniversary. Then, “Dolores Huerta Street” and the desire for an actual thoroughfare with that name came to the attention of L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights.

With a little help and much cheering, Dolores Huerta unveils the official sign declaring the founding of the square named after her. Photo by Jonathan Brown.

“Councilman Huizar told me, ‘this is a place-holder, we will get the street,’” Bag says.

Huizar seemed to indicate the same onstage when he told the crowd that, “the square is just the beginning here in L.A.”

Bag performed “Dolores Huerta Street,” which incorporates lines from Darling’s poem, at Saturday’s event; along with her songs “White Justice,” which was inspired by the Chicano Moratorium; and the anti-rape anthem “No Means No.” There was a spirit of empowerment in the air, from Bag’s set to a performance from local band Trap Girl’s frontwoman Drew Sands, which included a rousing rendition of Lesley Gore’s 1964 hit “You Don’t Own Me.” It was very much in the spirit of the work that Huerta continues to this day. It was also totally punk.

“Punk is all about not letting the fact that you don’t know how to do something stop you, whether it’s getting on the stage and playing a guitar that you’ve never played before or singing when you’ve never sang or writing a song when you’ve never done it,” Bag says. “We didn’t know how to make a street. We just knew that we wanted to make it. So, we did what we could and made noise, brought awareness to it and, suddenly, we’ve got a square.”

Which circles back to the legacy established by Huerta, who told the crowd, “we can never wait for somebody to come and bring justice, or fight for justice for us. We have to do it for ourselves.”

Los Angeleno