A small woman with a relentless spirit and a lifetime of sacrifice, Dolores Huerta has spent almost 60 years on the front lines of labor advocacy and civil rights. Her courage, wit and determination has not only helped improve the living and working conditions of countless families, but has inspired many others to take risks to achieve an “inheritance of justice.”
Dolores Clara Fernández was born in Dawson, New Mexico on April 10, 1930. Her father Juan was a farm worker and miner, his own journey of organizing and activism would lead to his future election as a state legislator. Her mother, Alicia provided a wonderful example of determination and compassion. After her parents divorced, Dolores moved with her mother to join their grandfather in Stockton, California. Insisting that Dolores was raised educated and cultured, her mother worked two jobs so Dolores could attend Girl Scouts, participate in community organizations and take classes in violin and dance.
Dolores attended the University of the Pacific’s Delta Community College where she got married and earned a teaching degree. As a young mother, she began teaching elementary school but found that many of her students were unable to focus and learn because they were dealing with the larger problems of hunger and poverty. Even though the student’s parents were working full time, they still could not provide basic necessities such as food, clothing and shoes.
The majority of her students were children of migrant farmer workers. Beginning during World War II the bracero program allowed corporate farms to bring temporary workers from Mexico to provide for the growing demand for food. However, having their legal status tied to their employment meant the farm workers were often treated poorly by their employers. Mexican braceros were given wages much lower than domestic workers, provided no public assistance and forced to live in crowded and dismal company owned camps. It was common for migrant workers to work incredibly long hours, in hot and unsanitary conditions to sometimes get paid only 60 cents for an hour of work. Many workers had family members living with them in the camps, and since voicing concerns over their treatment could lead to being fired or deported, many quietly endured the harsh conditions. Additionally, many families would have to migrate to different locations depending on the seasons, meaning their children rarely completed a year of school at one location.
Off of the Sidewalk and Into the Streets
Heartbroken and frustrated, Dolores Huerta resolved to find a way to help her students. She soon realized that the only way make a lasting impact would be to change their living conditions and improve the financial stability of their parents. Dolores resigned from teaching with a plan of standing with the dispossessed and advocating for their needs. Many of her own friends disagreed with her decision to sell her house and car, and sacrifice the stable teaching career that was supporting her own children.
“I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” – Dolores Huerta
Inspired by pictures of organized workers in Los Angeles, the 25 year old Dolores Huerta joined the civil rights organization Community Service Organization (CSO). One of the leaders of the CSO was Fred Ross Sr., who had taken the time to seek out and mentor young leaders like Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla and César Chávez. Dolores began running the CSO’s civic and educational programs and also worked alongside César Chávez, who had become the director. The CSO’s main objective was to combat police abuse, discrimination, and organize voter registration and increase educational opportunities for the disenfranchised.
However, the primary reason César and Dolores joined the CSO was their mutual desire to begin organizing farm workers. Most previous efforts to organize migrant farm labor across the country had failed. Many assumed it would be a lost cause. In 1962 Dolores and César resigned from the CSO to co-found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). Dolores served as the first vice-president and earned a reputation as an organizational genius and tough negotiator.
“We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. [Instead] we’ve got to jump right in there with both feet.” – Dolores Huerta
With César as the skilled speaker and dynamic leader, Dolores focused on negotiating contracts, running the hiring hall, organizing meetings and filling in wherever needed. Farm workers were specifically excluded from the rights protecting most workers under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Without these rights, the farm workers had no government protection while trying to organize, strike or picket. Farm workers were also exempt from mandatory rest, water and meal breaks and had no protection from overtime, injury, heat or pesticide exposure. Additionally, large agribusinesses often colluded to keep wages low and blacklist potential organizers.
While they quietly began meeting and organizing in homes, Dolores publicly began lobbying the government leaders to create laws to extend the NLRA protections to field laborers. She became instrumental in getting many new laws passed, including the Aid for Dependent Families, which provided disability insurance for farm workers. Other new laws allowed farm workers to access the public assistance programs which they had been supporting with their taxes and have voting ballots and driver’s tests available in their native language. The UFW was also successful in getting the wage for field workers raised to $1.60 per hour, the equivalent of domestic workers.
In the early 1970’s. Filipino farm workers, led by Larry Itliong, began to organize against the poor conditions they faced in the Delano grape fields. Dolores and César decided to merge their primarily Hispanic organization with the AWOC to form the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). Side by side the Hispanic and Filipino workers began a nationwide boycott of grapes. Dolores traveled to many states urging those who couldn’t join the marches and protest to participate simply by refusing to buy table grapes. While at a rally in Arizona, one of the men said “sure, you can do those things in California, but aqui no se puede (here we can’t).” Dolores responded with a loud and courageous “Si se puede!” Her response quickly became the rallying cry of the movement itself.
An Attentive Leader
As a core leader of the movement, Dolores Huerta used her position to advocate for the needs of entire families, since it was often the, women and children working together in the fields. After meeting Gloria Steinem and learning how often the needs of women were overlooked during social movements, Dolores also became more vocal about addressing gender discrimination in her own organization and the sexual harassment many female field workers were facing.
“Why do we have to be polite to people who are making racist statements at the table or making sexist comments? You have to call them at it because you’re also educating them in the process so they can stop that kind of behavior.” – Dolores Huerta
Organizing was not without risk, especially when boycotting became illegal. In 1973, many were beaten by police and sprayed with mace, others were attacked by Teamster goon squads. That same year, over 3,500 UFW workers were jailed and three had been shot and killed, including Juan de la Cruz who was with his wife on the picket lines. With courage and commitment, Dolores worked 18 hour days. Boldly leading marches while training workers on their legal rights and modeling principles of nonviolence.
Dolores’s legislative efforts and many years of striking and collective bargaining continued to bring success. In 1975 the Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed granting workers the right to collectively organize, bargain for wages and working conditions. The UFW was also able to start the Farm Workers Credit Union, providing medical and pension plans for farm workers, as well as projects to build affordable housing.
“We can’t let people drive wedges between us… because there’s only one human race.” — Dolores Huerta
By the age of 70, Dolores had been arrested 22 times, most for disobeying anti-picketing injunctions. The worst incident happened at age 58, where she had her ribs and spleen broken due to police brutality during a peaceful protest in San Francisco.
In 1999, Dolores officially stepped down from the UFW leadership, but she continues to sacrifice on behalf of immigrants, workers and women. Her relentless spirit and lifetime of heroic service has not only helped improve the living and working conditions of countless field worker families, but has inspired many others to continue risking their comfort for the sake of others.
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