Dolores Huerta is an activist and labor leader who co-founded what would become the United Farm Workers. Dolores Clara Fernandez was born on April 10, 1930 in Dawson, a small mining town in the mountains of northern New Mexico. She was the second child of Juan and Alicia (Chavez) Fernandez. The young family struggled, and by the time Dolores was three, her parents divorced and her mother moved Dolores and her two brothers to Stockton, California. When the family first arrived in Stockton, Alicia worked two jobs to provide for the family. Dolores’s grandfather, Herculano Chavez, took care of the children, serving as the children’s adult male figure. Dolores maintained a relationship with her father, who later became a union activist and a New Mexico state assemblyman. Juan’s own political and labor activism later proved inspirational to Dolores.
According to Dolores, her mother’s independence and entrepreneurial spirit was one of the primary reasons she became a feminist. She was an active participant in community affairs, involved in numerous civic organizations and the church. Alicia encouraged the cultural diversity that was a natural part of Dolores’ upbringing in Stockton. Alicia worked hard to provide music lessons and extracurricular activities for Dolores and her brothers. Dolores played violin and piano and took dance lessons. A good student, she was also a Girl Scout up until she turned 18, and she won second place in a national essay contest. Despite her achievements, Dolores experienced the racism many Mexicans and Mexican Americans suffered from, especially those who were farm workers. At school, she was sometimes treated with suspicion and scorn. She was once accused by a teacher of stealing another student’s work because the teacher was convinced that Dolores was incapable, due to her ethnic origin. However, with time, her family’s economic conditions improved. Upon graduating Dolores continued her education at the University of Pacific’s Delta College in Stockton earning a provisional teaching credential. During this time, she married Ralph Head and had two daughters, Celeste and Lori. While teaching she could no longer bear to see her students come to school with empty stomachs and bare feet, and thus began her lifelong journey of working to correct economic injustice.
Determined to help, in 1955, she and Fred Ross started the Stockton chapter of the Community Services Organization (CSO), a grassroots group that worked to end segregation, discrimination and police brutality and improve social and economic conditions of farm workers. She met a likeminded colleague, CSO Executive Director César E. Chávez. The two soon discovered that they shared a common vision of organizing farm workers, an idea that was not in line with the CSO’s mission. As a result, in the spring of 1962 César and Dolores resigned from the CSO, and launched the National Farm Workers Association. The two made a great team. Chavez was the dynamic leader and speaker; and Huerta the skilled organizer and tough negotiator.
The first testament to her lobbying and negotiating talents were demonstrated in securing Aid For Dependent Families (“AFDC”) and disability insurance for farm workers in the State of California in 1963, an unparalleled feat of the times. She was also instrumental in the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This was the first law of its kind in the United States, granting farm workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.
During the darkest days of the labor movement, it was common for Latino leaders to say that the government was too powerful and that no matter how hard they fought, farm workers would never receive better working conditions. Huerta and Chavez often heard “No, no se puede!” which means “No, no it can’t be done.” On one occasion, Huerta responded, “Si, si se puede!” or “Yes, yes it can be done.” Her words quickly became the rallying cry for farm workers everywhere.
While the farm workers lacked financial capitol they were able to wield significant economic power through hugely successful boycotts at the ballot box with grassroots campaigning. As the principal legislative advocate, Dolores became one of the UFW’s most visible spokespersons. Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary moments before he was shot in Los Angeles. Throughout the years she has worked to elect numerous candidates including President Clinton, Congressman Ron Dellums, Governor Jerry Brown, Congresswoman Hilda Solis and Hillary Clinton. At age 58 Dolores suffered a life-threatening assault while protesting against the policies of then presidential candidate George Bush in San Francisco. A baton-wielding officer broke four ribs and shattered her spleen. Public outrage resulted in the San Francisco Police Department changing its policies regarding crowd control and police discipline and Dolores was awarded an out of court settlement.
Following a lengthy recovery she took a leave of absence from the union to focus on women’s rights. She traversed the country for two years on behalf of the Feminist Majority’s Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the year 2000 Campaign encouraging Latina’s to run for office. The campaign resulted in a significant increase in the number of women representatives at the local, state and federal levels. She also served as National Chair of the 21st Century Party founded in 1992 on the principles that women make up 52% of the party’s candidates and that officers must reflect the ethnic diversity of the nation.
Dolores Huerta has been honored for her work as a fierce advocate for farm workers, immigration and women. She received the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award and was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. That year proved bitter-sweet for her as she also experienced the passing of her beloved friend Cesar Chavez. In 1998, she received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award, a year before she stepped down from her position at the United Farm Workers. In 2002, she received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. The $100,000 award provided her the means to create the Dolores Huerta Foundation, whose purpose is to bring organizing and training skills to low-income communities. Huerta continues to lecture and speak out on a variety of social issues involving immigration, income inequality and the rights of women and Latinos.
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