Dolores Huerta (born 1930) is a labor activist who worked with the late Cesar Chavez to organize and run the United Farm Workers.
Cofounder and first vice president of the United Farm Workers, Dolores Huerta (sometimes referred to as Dolores "Huelga, " Spanish for "strike") is the most prominent Chicana labor leader in the United States. For more than 30 years she has dedicated her life to the struggle for justice, dignity, and a decent standard of living for one of the United States' most exploited groups-the men, women, and children who toil in the fields and orchards picking the vegetables and fruits that stock grocery stores. The recipient of countless awards from community service, labor, Hispanic, and women's organizations as well as the subject of corridos (ballads) and murals, the vibrant and charismatic Huerta is a much-admired role model for Mexican American women.
Born April 10, 1930, in the small mining town of Dawson in northern New Mexico, Dolores Fernandez Huerta was the second child and only daughter of Juan and Alicia (Chavez) Fernandez. On her mother's side of the family, Huerta is a third-generation New Mexican. Huerta's father was also born in Dawson but to a Mexican immigrant family. The young couple's marriage was a troubled one, and when Huerta was a toddler, her parents divorced. Her mother moved her three children first to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then to Stockton, California, where Huerta spent the remainder of her childhood.
As a single parent during the Depression, Alicia Chavez Fernandez had a difficult time supporting her young family. To make ends meet, she worked as a waitress during the day and in a cannery at night, relying on her widowed father, Herculano Chavez, to watch her children. Despite the hardships, it was a loving and happy household. The gregarious Huerta was very close to her grandfather, who called her "seven tongues" because she talked so much. (Such verbal skills would serve her well later in life.) As she once recalled in an interview, "My grandfather kind of raised us….He was really our father…. [His] influence was really the male influence in my family." But Huerta also maintained sporadic contact with her father, a miner and migrant worker whose own political and labor activism later proved inspirational to his daughter.
The family's economic fortunes took a turn for the better during World War II. Alicia Fernandez ran a restaurant and then purchased a hotel in Stockton with her second husband, James Richards, with whom she had another daughter. During summers in particular, Huerta and her brothers helped manage these establishments, which were located on the fringes of skid row and catered to a working-class and farm-worker clientele. She relished the experience and believed it taught her to appreciate all different types of people. "The ethnic community where we lived was all mixed, " she explained. "It was Japanese, Chinese. The only Jewish families that lived in Stockton were there in our neighborhood…. There was the Filipino pool hall…, the Mexican drug stores, the Mexican bakeries were there."
In the early 1950s, Alicia Fernandez Richards divorced her husband, whose strained relationship with Huerta had been a source of tension, and married again, this time to a man named Juan Silva. Their union was a happy one that produced another daughter and endured until Alicia's death. Huerta speaks admiringly of her mother's entrepreneurial and personal spirit and her expectations for her children. "My mother was always pushing me to get involved in all these youth activities…. We took violin lessons. I took piano lessons. I took dancing lessons. I belonged to the church choir….I belonged to the church youth organization. And I was a very active Girl Scout from the time I was eight to the time I was eighteen." Mother and daughter enjoyed a caring relationship that extended into Huerta's adult years.
Although Huerta counted her mother and grandfather as the primary influences in her life, she also credits her father with inspiring her to be an activist. Like most people in Dawson, Juan Fernandez worked in the coal mines. To supplement his wages, he joined the migrant labor force, traveling to Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming for the beet harvests. The inferior working conditions, frequent accidents, and low wages he encountered as a farm worker sparked his interest in labor issues. Leaving Dawson after his divorce from Huerta's mother, Fernandez continued his activism, becoming secretary-treasurer of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) local at the Terrero Camp of the American Metals Company in Las Vegas, New Mexico. In 1938, using his predominately Hispanic local union as a base, he won election to the New Mexico state legislature. There he worked with other sympathetic members to promote a labor program, including a piece of legislation known as the "Little Wagner Act" and a wages-and-hours bill. Due to his outspoken independence on many issues, Fernandez lasted only one term in the state house.
After her parents' divorce, Huerta saw her father only occasionally. Once she reached adulthood, however, she met up with him more frequently, especially after he settled in Stockton. There he lived in a labor camp for a while, worked in the asparagus fields, held other odd jobs, and returned to school for a college degree. Huerta remained proud of her father's union activism, political achievements, and educational accomplishments, and he in turn supported her labor organizing. But their relationship remained aloof and distant, partly because he disapproved of her personal lifestyle.
After graduating from Stockton High School, Huerta-unlike most Hispanic women of her generation-continued her education at Stockton College. A brief and unsuccessful marriage that produced two daughters prompted her to abandon her studies for a while, but after divorcing her husband, she returned to college and earned her associate's degree with financial and emotional support from her mother.
Huerta held a variety of jobs in Stockton before, during, and after her marriage. Before her marriage, for example, she managed a small neighborhood grocery store that her mother had purchased. (It eventually went bankrupt.) Then she obtained a job at the Naval Supply Base as the secretary to the commander in charge of public works. During and after her divorce, she worked in the sheriff's office in records and identifications. Dissatisfied with these kinds of jobs, Huerta resumed her education and earned a provisional teaching certificate. Once in the classroom, however, she quickly grew frustrated by how little she could really do for those students who didn't have proper clothing or enough to eat.
Huerta's frustration eventually found an outlet in the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican American self-help group that first took shape in Los Angeles in the years after World War II and then spread across California and the Southwest. She joined up during the mid-1950s and became very active in the CSO's many civic and educational programs, including registering voters, setting up citizenship classes, and lobbying local government officials for neighborhood improvements. Huerta showed particular talent for the latter, so much so that the CSO soon hired her to handle similar duties for the group at the state level in Sacramento.
During the course of these activities, Huerta met and married her second husband, Ventura Huerta, who was also involved in community affairs. Their relationship produced five children but gradually deteriorated because of incompatible temperaments and disagreements over Dolores Huerta's juggling of domestic matters, child care, and civic activism. "I knew I wasn't comfortable in a wife's role, but I wasn't clearly facing the issue, " she later remarked in the Progressive. "I hedged, I made excuses, I didn't come out and tell my husband that I cared more about helping other people than cleaning our house and doing my hair." A series of trial separations eventually led to a bitter divorce, and once again, Huerta turned to her mother for financial and emotional support so that she could continue her work for the CSO.
During the late 1950s, as Huerta was struggling to balance a failing marriage, her family, and a job with her commitment to social activism, she found herself drawn to the plight of Mexican American farm workers. She soon joined a northern California community interest group, the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA), which had been founded by a local priest and his parishioners. It later merged with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)-sponsored Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), for which Huerta worked as secretary-treasurer.
It was around this same time that Huerta first met Cesar Chavez, another CSO official who shared her concern for migrant workers. The two worked together to bring rural labor issues to the attention of the more urban-oriented CSO. When they could not interest the CSO in expanding its focus, both Chavez and Huerta left the group to devote their time to organizing this overlooked segment of American society. In 1962, from their base in the town of Delano, they changed the course of agricultural and labor history in California when they founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the precursor to the United Farm Workers (UFW).
The full extent of the Chavez-Huerta collaboration has only recently been documented as correspondence between the two and others becomes available. For instance, in a 1962 letter to activist Fred Ross, his CSO mentor, Chavez remarked, "Dolores was here [in Delano] for one and a half days. I filled her in on all the plans and asked her to join the parade…. While here we did some work on the list of towns to work in throughout the valley…. Also she, Helen [Chavez's wife], and I decide [sic] on the name of the group. 'Farm Workers Assn."'
Ever since the founding of the union, Huerta has held decision-making posts and maintained a high public profile. As second in command to Chavez until his death in 1993, she exerted a direct influence on shaping and guiding the fortunes of the UFW. In the famous 1965 Delano strike (the one that first attracted national attention to the union and launched the table grape boycott), she devised strategy and led workers on picket lines. She was also responsible for setting up the UFW's contract negotiation department and served as its director in the early years.
In these and other positions in the union, Huerta had to battle both gender and ethnic stereotypes. Commenting on her uncompromising and forceful personality, for example, one grower declared, "Dolores Huerta is crazy. She is a violent woman, where women, especially Mexican women, are usually peaceful and calm." But she was able to hold her own against hostile Anglo growers who resented the fact that any Mexican American-and a woman, no less-would dare challenge the status quo.
Another major undertaking for Huerta involved running the table grape boycott in New York City in the late 1960s, an effort that eventually expanded to include the entire east coast, the primary distribution point for grapes. The leadership she provided in 1968 and 1969 as the east coast boycott coordinator greatly contributed to the success of the national boycott. Huerta mobilized other unions, political activists, Hispanic associations, community organizations, religious supporters, peace groups, student protestors, and concerned consumers across racial, ethnic, and class lines in a drive to show support for farm workers and keep media attention focused on their cause. Their efforts finally paid off in 1970 when the Delano growers agreed to contracts that ended the five-year-old strike.
It was also while she was living and working in New York that Huerta met feminist Gloria Steinem, who made her aware of the emerging women's movement. Huerta then began to incorporate a feminist critique into her human rights philosophy.
During the early 1970s, Huerta once again found her expertise in demand in New York, where she directed not only the continuing grape boycott but also boycotts against lettuce and Gallo brand wine. As before, the strategy was to maintain nationwide pressure to force changes in California. Victory came in 1975 when the California state legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), the first law to recognize the collective bargaining rights of farm workers in California.
In the midst of her busy schedule, Huerta began a third relationship, this time with Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother. Their liaison produced four children. Reflecting on the sacrifices all 11 of her children have had to make given her frequent absences from home, Huerta admitted, "I don't feel proud of the suffering that my kids went through. I feel very bad and guilty about it, but by the same token I know that they learned a lot in the process."
During the late 1970s, Huerta assumed the directorship of the UFW's Citizenship Participation Day Department (CPD), the political arm of the union. In this role, she lobbied the California state legislature to protect the new farm labor law. During the 1980s she became involved in another ambitious UFW project, the founding of KUFW-Radio Campesina, the union's radio station. Meanwhile, Huerta also continued to devote a great deal of her time to various other UFW activities, including speaking engagements, fund raising, publicizing the renewed grape boycott, and testifying before state and congressional committees on a wide range of issues, including pesticides, health problems of field workers, Hispanic political issues, and immigration policy.
Huerta's activism has come at great personal cost to her and to her family. Besides the extensive travel that keeps her away from home most of the time, she has been arrested on more than 20 occasions. In 1988, she suffered a life-threatening injury at a peaceful demonstration against the policies of George Bush, who had made a stop in San Francisco during his campaign for the presidency. Rushed to the hospital after a clubbing by baton-swinging police officers, Huerta underwent emergency surgery for removal of her spleen. (She also suffered six broken ribs in the incident.) She later sued the city and settled out of court, receiving a record financial settlement. In addition, as a direct result of the assault on Huerta, the San Francisco police department was forced to change its rules regarding crowd control and police discipline.
After recovering from her injuries, Huerta gradually resumed her work for the farm workers in the 1990s. It was an especially difficult time for the UFW; the political climate had shifted more toward the conservative point of view, the farm workers' cause no longer seemed as pressing, and the union itself was in turmoil as it went through a process of internal reassessment and restructuring. The sudden death of Cesar Chavez in 1993 was also a severe blow, one that some people thought might signal the end of the UFW as well.
Huerta insists, however, that the UFW legacy remains strong in the Hispanic community and beyond. She herself continues to commit her energies to the union as an outspoken leader, executive board member, administrator, lobbyist, contract negotiator, picket captain, and lecturer. And she is very proud of what has been accomplished so far and is still hopeful for the future. "I think we brought to the world, the United States anyway, the whole idea of boycotting as a nonviolent tactic, " Huerta once told an interviewer. "I think we showed the world that nonviolence can work to make social change…. I think we have laid a pattern of how farm workers are eventually going to get out of their bondage. It may not happen right now in our foreseeable future, but the pattern is there and farm workers are going to make it."
The current president of the United Farm Workers, Arturo Rodriguez-who happens to be married to Cesar Chavez's daughter-agrees that the road ahead is challenging. The union has had a tough time holding on to contracts in the grape vineyards and citrus orchards, but it is fighting to reorganize there while also reaching out to new groups such as the rose and mushroom workers. Like his father-in-law before him, Rodriguez depends on Huerta's tireless enthusiasm to help boost membership and hammer away at the growers on issues such as pesticide use. "Early in 1970, Cesar Chavez said [Huerta] is totally fearless, both physically and mentally, " Rodriguez recalled in a chat with a reporter for Hispanic magazine. "A quarter of a century later she shows no sign of slowing down. [Huerta] is an enduring symbol of the farm worker movement."
Further Reading on Dolores Huerta
Day, Mark, Forty Acres: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers, Praeger, 1971.
De Ruiz, Dana Catharine, La Causa: The Migrant Farmworkers' Story, Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1993.
Dunne, John Gregory, Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike, Farrar, 1976.
Levy, Jacques, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa, Norton, 1975.
Matthiessen, Peter, Sal Si Puedes: Cesar Chavez and the New American Revolution, Random House, 1969.
Perez, Frank, Dolores Huerta, Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1996.
Telgen, Diane, and Jim Kamp, editors, Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale Research, 1993.
Delano Record, April 28, 1966, p. 1.
Hispanic, August, 1996.
Ms., November, 1976, pp. 11-16.
Nation, February 23, 1974, pp. 232-238.
Progressive, September, 1975, pp. 38-40.