Female Badasses in History: Dolores Huerta (1930)

by spaceinvaderjoe


Author’s note: This post was written by a friend of mine know around the internets as Monotreme Extraordinaire. Thank you for your contribution and I am really happy to be able to put something by somebody else on this blog.


Dolores Clara Huerta was born on April 10, 1930 in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. She was the second child and only daughter of Juan Fernandez and Alicia Chaves Fernandez. Her parents divorced when she was three years old and her mother relocated Dolores and her two brothers to Stockton, California in the predominantly agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Her mother worked as a cook in two restaurants to support Dolores, along with her two brothers, and later two sisters, during the Great Depression. Alicia later purchased two hotels, one from a Japanese family who was relocated to a concentration camp, and a restaurant. She allowed farm workers to stay at her hotel for free. Alicia taught Dolores the importance of community activism.

Dolores stayed in contact with her father. To supplement his wages as a coal miner, he became a seasonal farm worker, traveling to Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. He was unhappy with working conditions and became active in labor unions. He eventually returned to school to earn a college degree. In 1938 he won election to the New Mexico state legislature where he worked for better labor laws. His union activity inspired Dolores’ own work.

Dolores received a teaching certificate from the University of the Pacific’s Delta Community College. She was the first of her family to receive a higher education and one of few women to graduate from college at that time. After graduating, she taught grammar school but decided to resign from teaching because, in her words, “I couldn’t stand seeing farm worker children come to class hungry and in need of shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach their hungry children.” In 1955, Dolores quit her teaching job and became founding member of the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization (“CSO”), a grass roots organization started by Fred Ross. The CSO battled segregation, police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services in Latino communities throughout the State of California and fought to enact new legislation. The CSO played a leading role in electing the first Latino in over one hundred years, Ed Roybal, to the Los Angeles City Council.

Recognizing the needs of farm workers while working for the CSO, Dolores organized and founded the Agricultural Workers Association (“AWA”) in 1960. She became a fearless lobbyist in Sacramento at a time where few women, not to mention women of color, dared to enter the State Capital and National Capital to lobby legislators. She obtained the removal of citizenship requirements from pension and public assistance programs for legal residents of the United States and California State disability insurance for farm workers, passage of legislation allowing the right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the drivers license examination in their native language. In 1962 she lobbied in Washington D.C. for an end to the “captive labor” Bracero Program. In 1963 she was instrumental in securing Aid for Dependent Families (“AFDC”), for the unemployed and underemployed.

It was through her work with Fred Ross and the CSO that Dolores met Cesar Chavez. It was Fred who recruited and organized both Dolores and Cesar and trained them in community organizing. While working with the CSO, both Cesar and Dolores realized the immediate need to organize farm workers because of their dire conditions. In 1962 after the CSO turned down Cesar’s request to organize farm workers, Cesar and Dolores resigned from their jobs with CSO in order to do so. At that time she was a divorced mother with seven children. She later joined Cesar and his family in Delano, California where they began the National Farm Workers Association (“NFWA”), the predecessor to the United Farm Workers Union (“UFW”).

Dolores directed the UFW’s national grape boycott that resulted in the entire California table grape industry signing a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the United Farm Workers. She negotiated the first NFWA contract with the Schenley Wine Company. This was the first time in the history of the United States that a negotiating committee comprised of farm workers and a young Latina single mother of seven, negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with an agricultural corporation. The grape strike continued and the two organizations (“AWA” and “NFWA”) merged in 1967 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (“UFWOC”). As the main UFWOC negotiator, Dolores successfully negotiated more contracts for farm workers, she also set up hiring halls, the farm workers ranch committees, administrated the contracts and conducted over one hundred grievance and arbitration procedures on behalf of the workers. She obtained many “firsts” that had been denied to farm workers: toilets in the fields along with soap, water and paper towels, cold drinking water with individual paper cups, the Robert F. Kennedy medical plan that covered farmworker families, the Juan de la Cruz pension fund (paid for by employers), job security, seniority rights, rest periods, paid vacations and holidays, and protections from pesticides in union contracts. Dolores and Cesar also formed the National Farm Workers Service Center which today provides affordable housing with over 3,700 rental and 600 single family dwelling units, and educational radio with over nine Spanish Speaking Radio Stations throughout California, Washington and Arizona.

Dolores directed the consumer boycott of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wines which resulted in the enactment of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law of its kind that grants farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. In 1974 she was instrumental in securing unemployment benefits for farm workers. In 1985 Dolores lobbied against federal guest worker programs and spearheaded legislation granting amnesty for farm workers that had lived, worked, and paid taxes in the United States for many years but unable to enjoy the privileges of citizenship. This resulted in the Immigration Act of 1985 in which 1,400,000 farm workers received amnesty.

In 2002 Dolores was the second recipient of the Puffin Foundation/Nation Institute Award for Creative Citizenship (visit http://www.nationinstitute.org) that included a $100,000 grant which she utilized to establish her long time dream, the Dolores Huerta Foundation’s Organizing Institute. The Foundation’s mission is to focus on community organizing and leadership training in low-income under-represented communities. Dolores serves as President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Dolores Huerta speaks at colleges and organizations throughout the country about public policy issues affecting immigrants, women, and youth. Dolores is a board member for the Feminist Majority Foundation (visit http://www.feminist.org) that advocates for gender balance. She teaches a class on community organizing at the University of Southern California. Dolores is also Secretary-Treasure Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW). She has 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Video of Dolores Huerta on YouTube

The Delores Huerta Foundation