Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta stands as one of the most influential activists and labor organizers of the 20th century.
Together with labor leader Cesar Chavez, Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers in 1962. As the Black civil rights movement was gaining serious momentum, their work spotlighted the ongoing civil and human rights struggles of the largely Latino farm worker community. In addition to helping organize the five-year Delano grape strike, she directed the successful national grape boycotts that, in 1970, forced California growers to pay higher wages and offer better working conditions to farm workers.
Her decades-long fight for economic justice for farmworkers remains just part of her legacy. Huerta has pursued civil rights gains for all marginalized groups, while breaking down barriers for women activists with her tenacious work as a labor leader, community organizer, negotiator, lobbyist and anti-discrimination champion.
When President Barack Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, he summed up her accomplishments this way: “She has fought to give more people a seat at the table.”
Huerta’s Mother Set Her on Her Activist Path
Huerta, who has called herself a “born-again feminist,” credits her mother for sparking her unflinching desire for justice.
After a divorce, independent-minded Alicia Chavez Fernandez left northern New Mexico and moved three-year-old Dolores and her two brothers during the Great Depression. They landed in Stockton, in California’s Central Valley farm country, at the time teeming with dirt-poor, exploited and abused farmworker families. The activist and entrepreneur bought and ran a 70-room boarding house for farm laborers. During particularly hard times, she let some stay for free.
She urged her daughter to be sensitive to the poor and to follow the religious calling of service to the needy. By example, she shaped Dolores into a bold, confident young woman with a talent for organizing people around community causes. Dolores got a teaching credential in college, uncommon for a Mexican American woman at the time. She taught elementary school briefly—until her outrage drove her out of the classroom.
Her students came to school hungry and barefoot. At home visits during voter registration drives, Huerta just saw dirt floors, no wood or linoleum. Families used orange crates as chairs and tables. Huerta realized she could help them more—and they could help themselves—if they organized to fight for change.
“I thought, this is wrong because these people are working very, very hard out there, picking our food every day and yet they can’t even afford to live decently,” Huerta recalled of that time in a 2012 interview with PBS NewsHour. “And that’s when I made up my mind that I was going to quit teaching.”
Organizing on the Labor Movement’s Front Lines
After working in two other labor organizations that disagreed on strategy or that ultimately didn’t consider farmworkers a priority, Huerta and Chavez started what would become the United Farm Workers in 1962. Through the UFW, they fought for better wages, unemployment compensation, rest periods and things as basic as cold drinking water and toilets in the fields.
In an interview done as part of the University of California, San Diego Farmworker Documentation Project, Huerta says she soon realized the “racist mentality” they faced. In public and private talks and in legislative hearings in Sacramento, she said, growers stated that workers didn’t know how to use toilets, so putting them in the fields was pointless. They justified paying workers so little, she added, because in their mind, giving a job to people they called “degenerates,” “alcoholics” and “winos” performed a public service. Some growers said they liked to hire Mexicans and Filipinos because they were “close to the ground,” she said, and viewed the children as ideal for picking prunes because they were even closer.
Soon after starting the UFW, Huerta lobbied for—and secured—Aid for Dependent Families and disability insurance for farmworkers in California in 1963. She helped organize the five-year Delano grape strike and spearheaded the consumer table grapes boycott to pressure more than 20 growers to agree to pay higher wages and improve working conditions. Huerta served as the lead UFW negotiator for the three-year collective bargaining agreement signed after the strike.
Together with Chavez’s second hunger strike to bring attention to the conditions of farmworkers, Huerta was also instrumental in achieving California’s landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The pioneering legislation gave the state’s farm workers the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining.
Politics and Police Encounters
She also involved herself in politics—another important way, in her view, to make change. Huerta and the UFW canvassed in Los Angeles to back the presidential bid of Robert F. Kennedy. The former attorney general had come to Delano to support the grape strike and had admonished local police for their treatment of picketing farm workers.
Huerta stood beside Kennedy on the speaker’s platform when he delivered his victory speech for the California Democratic Party primary in June 1968—minutes before he was gunned down in a kitchen pantry just off the Ambassador Hotel ballroom. “His assassination was the death of our future,” she lamented years later in an interview with NBC News marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s killing. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Huerta formally placed Hillary Clinton’s name into nomination.
Huerta has been arrested more than 20 times at nonviolent activities and strikes during her years as a labor leader and civil rights activist. In September 1988, a police officer broke several of her ribs and pulverized her spleen during a peaceful protest in San Francisco against then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush’s policies and platform.
After a lengthy recovery, she took a leave of absence from the UFW, turned her attention to women’s rights and embarked on a successful national effort to get Latinas to run for office. She used a $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship she received in 2002 to establish the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which trains leaders in community organizing and civic engagement. Following Huerta’s vision of cross-pollinating the movements seeking justice and civil rights, the foundation weaves the rights struggles of women, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, workers and people of color into a common thread. She believes the most lasting change is rooted in community organizing, which she has pursued for decades.
“Ordinary working people, once they understand that they can make the changes, and you get them involved and then they commit their time, they commit their resources to be able to make those changes, I think this is what keeps me going,” Huerta said.
Recognition for Her Efforts
Huerta has been awarded more than a dozen honorary doctorate degrees. At least eight schools in four states bear her name. She has received numerous awards and recognitions for her work on labor rights, voting rights, women’s rights and other causes. Musicians have composed corridos, a traditional Mexican song, to tell her story.
When President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Honor, he remarked on how he borrowed the Huerta’s signature UFW rallying cry —“Sí, se puede” or “Yes, we can”— for his 2008 presidential campaign.
“On a personal note, Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan...,” he said to laughter from the audience at the ceremony. “Knowing her, I’m pleased that she let me off easy—because Dolores does not play.”