Born April 10, 1930
Dawson, New Mexico
Union organizer, lobbyist,
and political activist
Born and raised among poor immigrant laborers, Dolores Huerta devoted her life to improving the lives of working people. An energetic and courageous activist, Huerta helped start the first national union for farmworkers. She sought to ensure passage of many laws to protect the lowest paid and least powerful workers. Along with tireless union organizing and raising eleven children, mostly as a single mother, she worked on many other social issues. These included civil rights, women's rights, environmental protection, and support for the poor. Although she was beaten up and arrested for her political activism and fought her way back from serious illness, Huerta continued to devote herself to the fight against injustice. In 2004, she won a $100,000 Creative Citizen Award from the Puffin Foundation. She donated the entire amount to starting a foundation for training young activists in how to continue the work that she and others began during the 1960s.
"I would like to be remembered as a woman who cares for fellow humans. We must use our lives to make the world a better place to live, not just to acquire things. That is what we are put on the earth for."
Growing up among workers and activists
Huerta was born in 1930 in a Mexican American community in a small mining town in New Mexico. Her parents divorced when she was only three years old. Dolores and her mother, Alicia Chávez, moved to the city of Stockton, in the agricultural heart of California. Chávez worked as a waitress until she was able to start her own restaurant and small hotel. Young Dolores learned about both hard work and community service by helping out in the family business. Her mother often provided food and lodging to poor farmworkers for free. Dolores learned about tolerance and appreciation of diversity by growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood, surrounded by many first- and second-generation immigrants.
Huerta also remained close to her father, Juan Fernandez, who worked as a coal miner and farmworker in New Mexico while attending classes to obtain his college degree. She was inspired by her father's commitment to education and by his political career. He was elected to the New Mexico State Legislature in 1938. Fernandez used his position to try to improve the condition of working people, just as his daughter would do two decades later.
Unlike many working-class Chicanas (Mexican American women), Huerta attended college. She graduated with a teaching certificate from the Delta Community College of the University of the Pacific in the early 1950s. She then went to work teaching elementary school in Stockton, California. Before long, however, she was overwhelmed with both sympathy and anger regarding the poverty of her students, many of whom were children of farmworkers. She began to feel that she must help them.
Organizing for the rights of farmworkers
Huerta met a California activist named Fred Ross, who had founded a group called the Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1949. The CSO worked to end segregation, the legalized separation of whites and blacks, and racism against Mexican Americans in California. It was a grassroots organization, which means that it was locally organized by working people who usually volunteered their time. Huerta was interested in Ross's ideas and appreciated his commitment to working in Chicano communities. In 1955 she helped to start a Stockton chapter of the CSO.
During the 1960s, many ethnic and racial minorities began to protest against the discrimination and prejudice they experienced. They began to demand protection of their civil rights. These different minorities inspired and learned from each other, especially from the successful and energetic African American civil rights movement. The Chicano struggle was one of these important progressive movements
The origin of the word Chicano is unclear. Some historians believe that it arose during the early 1900s, from the Spanish-language custom of using a "ch" sound to indicate affection or familiarity. Thus, the familiar form of Mexicano (Mexican man) became Mechicano, which was soon simply shortened to Chicano. Although some Mexican Americans disliked the term, which they considered crude, political activists of the 1960s adopted it as a symbol of racial pride.
Many Chicanos had long called the United States home, although not as the United States. Much of the southwestern United States, including California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, were once part of Mexico. In these areas lived thousands of Chicano families that had been American for generations. But Mexican Americans of the 1960s often found themselves treated as unwelcome guests in a land that had belonged to their ancestors. They were discriminated against in education, in employment, and in the institutions of government. As English-speaking Americans came to dominate Chicanos' ancestral lands, Chicanos were often expected to give up their language and customs in order to blend with "Anglo" or non-Latino society.
Activists of the 1960s and 1970s began to speak out about these injustices. They worked to change racist laws, organized voter registration drives, and promoted pride in Chicano identity. Leaders such as Reies López Tijerina (1926–), Rodolfo Gonzales (1928–), César Chávez (1927-1993), and Dolores Huerta drew national attention to the Chicano cause. They convinced lawmakers to pass legislation to protect minorities and helped to found Chicano Studies departments in schools and universities.
For the next five years, Huerta worked in the CSO. However, she began to feel that the group was not doing enough to help farmworkers. Such farmworkers are laborers who travel throughout the agricultural regions of the country during harvest season picking fruits, vegetables, and cotton. They work long hours in the hot sun for very little pay. New immigrants and illegal immigrants often work as pickers on farms and in orchards. When Huerta began her work, farmworkers often labored under very bad conditions and had no legal protection of their rights as workers. They often had to live in bare shacks with no electricity or water. Those who owned the farms and orchards sometimes cheated workers by refusing to pay them. Huerta began to think that farmworkers needed a union that could help improve their working conditions.
While working in the CSO, Huerta had met a young farmworker named César Chávez (1927–1993) who was also interested in organizing a union. When the CSO refused to help form a union, Huerta and Chávez left the organization in 1960 and formed the Agricultural Workers Association. It soon became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). With Chávez as president, Huerta as vice president, and a staff of five people, the union began to reach out to those who picked the crops. They encouraged workers to join the union and fight for their rights. Although many people later associated only the name of César Chávez with the farmworkers' union, he and Dolores Huerta worked side by side in the union for many years, becoming as close as brother and sister.
Following in the footsteps of her politically involved father, Huerta spent much of her time over the next several years at the California state legislature. She worked to get legal protection for farmworkers. She became a very successful lobbyist, someone who talks to legislators to try to convince them to vote for certain laws. Between 1960 and 1962, Huerta successfully lobbied for the passage of fifteen bills of law. Among them were laws that granted public assistance money and retirement benefits to non-citizens who work in California. She also worked for laws that required voting and driver's license tests be given in Spanish as well as English. In addition, Huerta urged for laws that extended disability insurance to farmworkers.
UFW goes national: boycotts and pickets
Though the UFW had been very active in recruiting members and lobbying the legislature, no grower had yet signed a labor contract with the union. This situation changed in 1965. When Filipino grape pickers went on strike for better wages in Delano, California, the UFW joined the effort. On September 16, 1965, five thousand farmworkers went out on strike in Delano. The strike lasted five years. Striking workers marched in front of the vineyard where grapes were grown and the stores where they were sold, carrying union signs asking workers not to pick the grapes and shoppers not to buy them. Huerta became director of these picket lines because of her skill in encouraging workers to leave their jobs and join the strike. According to Barbara L. Baer in Progressive, Huerta would call, "Don't be a marshmallow," to those who passed her picket line. "Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk. Stop being vegetables. Work for justice. Viva the boycott!"
In 1968, as the strike continued, the UFW decided to try a new tactic. The group called for a national boycott of non-union grapes. The farmworkers' union would ask people all over the country not to eat grapes until the owners of the vineyards agreed to pay the farmworkers a decent wage. Huerta directed the national grape boycott, which became the largest and most successful boycott in U.S. union history. After two years of the boycott, the California grape growers signed a contract with the UFW, the first time an agricultural business had accepted a labor union of its workers.
Changes in the federal law and
The farmworkers' union membership soared. By the late 1970s, membership had reached seventy thousand, and four hundred staffers worked in UFW offices. During the mid-1970s, Huerta led two more successful national boycotts, one of head lettuce and one of Gallo Wine. As more growers signed contracts with union workers, Huerta continued to lobby the legislature on such issues as toxic chemicals used in the fields and amnesty for illegal immigrants who had worked in the United States for many years. In response to Huerta's work, the U.S. Congress passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which officially gave farmworkers the right to unionize. Congress also approved the Immigration Act of 1985, which allowed many longtime illegal immigrants to apply for legal status.
During the 1980s, as U.S. government policies became more conservative, the UFW experienced a decline in membership. However, Huerta continued to work with Chávez and other union leaders for "la causa," the cause of the farm-workers. In 1984 she was honored with the California Outstanding Labor Leader award. However, Huerta's constant challenges to those in power were not always appreciated. She was arrested twenty-two times for her union activities. In 1988 she was badly beaten by a San Francisco police officer when she attended a rally for presidential candidate George H. W. Bush to protest the use of pesticides.
Even into her seventies, Huerta continued to work for civil rights and justice. Although her primary cause was the rights of farmworkers, Huerta also worked throughout her life for many other causes. As a Mexican American woman, she has fought strongly against racism and sexism. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Huerta's courage and dedication were rewarded with many other awards, including the American Civil Liberties Union Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty in 1993 and the Ms.Magazine Woman of the Year in 1998. She was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from three universities and served on many state and federal commissions. In 2002, the Dolores Huerta Center for Workers' Rights was established in Las Vegas, Nevada, to provide help and information to poor working people.
For More Information
De Ruiz, Dana Catharine, and Richard Larios. La Causa: The Migrant Farmworkers' Story. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1992.
Dunne, John Gregory. Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike. New York: Farrar, 1976.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard, and Richard A. Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Perez, Frank. Dolores Huerta. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996.
Baer, Barbara L. "Stopping Traffic: One Woman's Cause." Progressive (September 1975).
"Dolores Huerta: Biography." United Farm Workers.http://www.ufw.org/dh.htm (accessed August 2004).
"Dolores Huerta: The UFW's Grand Lady of Steel." LaRed Latina.http://www.lared-latina.com/huerta.html (accessed August 2004).