Powerful Ladies of the 80's: Dolores Huerta
22nd September 2017
Activist and labor leader Dolores Fernández, better known as Dolores Huerta, was born April 10, 1930, in Dawson, New Mexico, 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. 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.
Dolores Huerta became an activist in high school. She participated in school clubs and was a dedicated member of the Girl Scouts until she was eighteen. After graduating from Stockton High School, in 1947, Dolores Fernandez went through a marriage, the birth to two children and a divorce. After a series of unsatisfying jobs, she returned to school and eventually completed a teaching degree at Stockton College, part of the University of the Pacific. She briefly worked as an elementary school teacher but resigned because she was so distraught over the poor living conditions of her students, many of them children of farm workers. 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. During this time, Dolores married Ventura Huerta, another labor activist. The couple would go on to have five children.
In 1960, Dolores Huerta started the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA). She set up voter registration drives and lobbied politicians to allow non–U.S. citizen migrant workers to receive public assistance and pensions and provide Spanish-language voting ballots and driver's tests. During this time, Dolores met Cesar Chavez, a fellow CSO official, who had become its director. In 1962, both Huerta and Chavez lobbied to have the CSO expand its efforts to help farm workers, but the organization was focused on urban issues and couldn’t move in that direction. Frustrated, they both left the organization and, with Gilbert Padilla, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The two made a great team. Chavez was the dynamic leader and speaker; and Huerta the skilled organizer and tough negotiator.
In 1965, the AWA and the NFWA combined to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (later, simply the United Farm Workers). That year, the union took on the Coachella Valley grape growers, with Chavez organizing a strike of all farm workers and Huerta negotiating contracts. After five hard years, the United Farm Workers (now affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) signed a historic agreement with 26 grape growers that improved working conditions for farm workers, including reducing the use of harmful pesticides and initiating unemployment and healthcare benefits. In the 1970s, Huerta coordinated a national lettuce boycott and helped create the political climate for the passage of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law to recognize the rights of farm workers to bargain collectively.
During the 1980s, Dolores Huerta served as vice president of the UFW and co-founded the UFW’s radio station. She continued to speak for a variety of causes, advocating for a comprehensive immigration policy and better health conditions for farm workers. In 1988, she nearly lost her life when she was beaten by San Francisco police at a rally protesting the policies of then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush. She suffered six broken ribs and a ruptured spleen.
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 into 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.
From Dolores we can take courage to believe in ourselves and champion for issues we care deeply about.