Dolores Huerta: One of the Most Influential Labor Activists of the 20th Century
Dolores Huerta is the living portrait of the great changes that can be achieved through non-violent constant resistance. Accompany me as I explore the life of this passionate by blood feminist, and Union Rights founder and defender.
“Pero digo [a las mujeres]: Simplemente háganlo como lo hacen los hombres—pretendan que saben. Y luego aprenden sobre la marcha.”—Dolores Huerta.
“But I say [to women out there]: Just do it like the guys do it—pretend that you know. And then you learn on the job.”
Immigrant by heritage, Dolores Clara Fernández—known as Dolores Huerta—was born on April 10th, 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico. She spent her childhood in Stockton California after her parents divorced.
Her parents were her primary examples of hard work, empathy, and hunt for justice. Her father, Juan Fernández, was a farm worker, miner, and activist elected to the New Mexico legislature in 1938. Her mother, Alicia Chávez, was widely recognized in her community for helping other farmworkers by offering them free lodging when needed.
Dolores Huerta assures her feminism and leadership were born from the years she spent living alone with her mother after her parents divorced. Her mother Alicia taught her to be compassionate, brave, and to accept diversity to help those in need.
If nowadays feminism is still a topic that makes some people uncomfortable, imagine what people thought of it back in the 60s. Dolores was judged for her living situation—divorced twice and mother of 11 children. To others, the conditions for her children were not the best, but what other people would think of her did not make a difference. She made sure her kids were properly educated so they could aspire to greater things and brighter futures.
No politician or opposition has been able to change what Dolores’s children think of her. They admire her beyond words, and they get inspired by her honest labor and her dedication to others.
Dolores undoubtedly recognized the hardships of working mothers, so she made sure that they had daycare at the Union to keep children safe while mothers participated in boycotts and protests.
Before she made the firm decision of dedicating her life to civil rights movements, she graduated as a teacher from the University of the Pacific’s Delta College in Stockton. That was the turning point for what her life would become.
The Origin of a Leader
“We need a feminist to be at the table when decisions are being made so that the right decisions will be made,” says Dolores about the importance of feminism in every civil rights movement.
Teaching children of farmworkers changed her mindset and made her see the relevance of labor activism. Her students lived in such precarious conditions being children of farmworkers. She saw the reality of their lives outside of school, she watched them arrive at school hungry and wearing ripped clothes.
As a result of what she had witnessed, and at only 25, she began leading the Community Service Organization (CSO), where she met César Chavez, the executive director. The CSO seeked to improve Latino’s economic situations as well as stop police brutality against them.
With similar objectives, César and Dolores founded the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) in 1960. Their job was to organize voter registration drives.
Striving for Equality
After realizing their goals didn’t meet those of CSO, César and Dolores left the organization in 1962. The launch of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) boosted the duo’s search for justice for working immigrants. It outraged them that the workers endured conditions such as lack of toilets, water to drink, and rest periods, let alone a salary above 90 cents an hour for them to feed their families properly.
Recently, she has also brought up the damage that pesticides in the fields caused to all workers, especially women and children. Risk of cancer and babies born with malformations were only some of the side effects.
As NFWA, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez supported grape workers in their strike for a wage increase in 1965—known as the first National Boycott of California Table Grapes.
Leading the boycott, Dolores couldn’t escape from violence and sexism from the growers and politicians she was striking against. She was widely criticized and frowned upon for being a woman leading a revolt. During this time, she met Gloria Steinem and her own feminist movement. Then, Dolores realized how important it was to protect women during the fight for labor rights.
She claims non-violence is their strength, which her movement proved when the first boycott resulted in the first farmworker union contracts. As the movement gained strength, in 1966 the NFWA merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), becoming the United Farm Workers of America (UFA).
Read more: Mobilizing Support for La Causa
Dolores knew that the farmworkers she was supporting had responsibilities and families to take care of, too. She made up her mind to help everyone they had an impact on, realizing that women were at risk of sexual violence and their children were nearly condemned to work from a young age.
Determined to solve these issues, she was finally able to get vulnerable families and disabled laborers work insurance by securing Aid For Dependent Families in 1963.
The Union Does Not Back Down
The fight was far from over, as in 1973 Dolores decided they needed another “boycott of grapes.” Her role was conspicuous in the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, granting farmworkers the right to organize and negotiate peacefully for fair wages and proper conditions.
Dolores has never known to give up. Her tirelessness brought her some consequences when the police beat her up once in 1988, the year of George Bush’s presidential campaign. They had to take her to the emergency room and she needed months of recovery. However, as she recovered, she decided to focus more on women’s rights than the union.
After all the adversities, hard work, persecution at times, and endless labor, it’s quite surprising that people have given far more credit to Cesar Chavez than to Dolores Huerta. Many have referred to her as “Chavez’s sidekick,” instead of acknowledging that countless workers and families’ lives changed thanks to Dolores’s constant efforts.
Owning a distinct reputation, she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2003. The Foundation’s actions were directed to promoting the organization of communities to build united fronts, as well as finding potential leaders for the future of such groups. She wished to leave behind legacies of groups that fought for change and justice through non-violence, dialogue, and resistance.
As a constant supporter of her cause, President Bill Clinton decorated Dolores Huerta with the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998.
An ally of minorities, former President Barack Obama was prompt to recognize Dolores’s perseverance in her movements through the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. In her acceptance speech, Dolores added,
“The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action. It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today.”
In 2013, the US National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her as the first Latina to have earned such mention.
Dolores’s history of activism has earned her more awards and honorable mentions. Here are a few of them.
- Ms. Magazine’s One of the Three Most Important Women of 1997
- Ladies Home Journal’s 100 Most Important Woman of the 20th Century
- The Puffin Foundation’s Award for Creative Citizenship, Labor Leader Award 1984
- The Kern County Woman of The Year Award from the California State Legislature
- The Ohtli Award from the Mexican Government
- The Smithsonian Institution, James Smithson Award
- Nine Honorary Doctorates from Universities throughout the United States
While being nationally and internationally recognized with awards and medals is quite fair for someone like Dolores Huerta, she’s also grateful to the communities she has helped over the years to recognize her work.
Yes, We Can (Sí se puede)
Her slogan Sí se puede has resonated in vulnerable communities and movements for civil rights. It even inspired former President Obama’s campaign.
She says it resulted from a meeting she once held with a group of professionals in Arizona from whom she needed help. She wanted to fight against a law that prohibited the words “boycott” and “strike” as anyone who used those words wound up in prison. When they told her “In Arizona no se puede,” she quickly responded, “No, in Arizona ¡sí se puede!”
Regarding more honorable mentions, there are six schools across the nation named after Dolores Huerta; four of them are in California, her homeland.
She works through the Dolores Huerta Foundation, organizing groups of people that share her background to run for office in order to speak in favor of changes in health, education, and economic development while holding positions of power.
In 2017, Peter Bratt directed her documentary called Dolores. The film approaches Dolores Huerta as more than an activist as it brings up how her upbringing shaped her into the persistent and empathetic feminist that changed other people’s vision of immigrants, women, and poorly-treated workers.
Touring the country, she encourages students and worker organizations to get informed about civil rights, discrimination, and social justice, and to act upon it. It haunts her that nowadays we can still find working immigrants that are unaware of laws that can benefit and protect them.
Dolores Huerta is 91 years old, but she can rest assured that her name is still relevant and that her struggles and fights were not in vain.
Expand Your Vision
While there are many activists whose names are worth remembering, very few of them are like Dolores Huerta—a young fighter that worked her way up in an oppressing society.
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