Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta is a living human rights hero for several Latinos, especially for women. She spent the majority of her life as a political activist who strived to get better working conditions for farmworkers. Her focus was to help out the conditions of the families of farmers. Her main help towards The Farmworkers’ Movement has been dominated by Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez was her lifetime colleague and co-founder of what someday would become the United Farm Workers of America labor union. When it came to the campaign’s well-recognized slogan, Sí Se Puede, which stands for ‘Yes, we can’ in Spanish, it has often been wrongly assigned credit to Cesar Chaves. This catchphrase inspired President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. President Barack Obama did recognize Huerta as the creator of the phrase in the year 2012 when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for all of her work toward the Hispanic community. She still maintains her name in the headlines today in her fight for civil rights and labor equality for people who work in the fields.
Dolores Huerta was born on April 10, 1930, in Dawson, New Mexico. Her parents were Alicia and Juan Fernandez. She was the second of three children. Debra Michals says, “Dolores parents divorced when Dolores was three years old, and her mother moved to Stockton, California with her children. Dolores’s grandfather helped raise Dolores and her two brothers while her mother juggled two jobs as a waitress and cannery worker until she could buy a small hotel and restaurant”. Dolores admired her mother, the way her mother would encourage her and her brothers to get involved in youth activities and to strive to become something. “Dolores was an excellent student who worked hard. Despite her achievements, Dolores experienced racism many Mexicans and Mexican Americans suffered from, especially those who were farmworkers. At school, she was sometimes treated with suspicion and scorn. She was once accused by a teacher of stealing another student’s work because the teacher was convinced that Dolores was incapable of doing it on her own, due to her ethnic origin”. After graduating from Stockton High School in 1947, Huerta continued her education. She received an associate teaching degree from the University of the Pacific’s Delta College. She married Ralph Head while still being a student and had two daughters, though the couple soon divorced. She subsequently married fellow activist Ventura Huerta with whom she had five children, though that marriage also did not last. Huerta briefly taught school in the 1950s, but after seeing so many hungry farm children coming to school, she thought she could do more to help them by organizing farmers and farmworkers. Determined to help, Dolores began her career as an activist when she co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO) with Fred Ross in 1955. The CSO was a grassroots group that would work to end segregation, police brutality, discrimination and improve the economic conditions of farm workers.
As Biography.com editors say, “In 1960, Dolores Huerta started the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA). She set up voter registration drives and lobbied politicians to allow non–U.S. citizen migrant workers to receive public assistance and pensions and provide Spanish-language voting ballots and driver’s tests. During this time, Dolores met Cesar Chavez, a fellow CSO official, who had become its director”. In 1962, Dolores and Chavez tried to get the CSO to expand its effort to help farmworkers but the organization was too focused on urban issues and could not move its direction. Frustrated, they both left the CSO and together with Gilbert Padilla they co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).
The two made an excellent team; Caesar would be the vigorous leader and speaker and Dolores would be the tough negotiator and skilled organizer. The AWA and the NFWA combined to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFW) in 1965. Dolores served as the Vice President of the UFW until 1999. As Biography.com editors say, “That year (1965), the union took on the Coachella Valley grape growers, with Chavez organizing a strike of all farm workers and Huerta negotiating contracts”. Together Huerta and Chavez accomplished many things.
Dolores was the main leading organizer. Maria Godoy said, “She faced violence on the picket lines and sexism from both the growers she was staring down and their political allies and from within her own organization. At one point, a lawmaker is seen referring to Huerta as Chavez’s ‘sidekick.’ At a time when the feminist movement was taking root, Huerta was an unconventional figure: the twice-divorced mother of 11 children. ‘Who supports those kids when she’s out on these adventures?’ one of her opponents is shown asking in historical footage”. Her children would speak highly of their mother, but her dedication to the movement often left her family and children neglected. One of her daughters put it as if the movement had become her most important child. Despite the countless disparaging/disrespectful comments made about her ethnicity and gender, Huerta overcame the offensive comments and still helped organize the 1950 Delano strike of five-thousand grape workers. She was the lead negotiator for the worker’s contract that followed. Through her work with the UFW, she organized workers, advocated for safer working conditions and negotiated contracts. She fought for unemployment and healthcare benefits for the farmworkers. She was the driving force behind the nationwide table grape boycotts in the 1960s. Those events led to a successful union contract in 1970.
Biography.com states that “After five hard years, the United Farm Workers (now affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) signed a historic agreement with 26 grape growers that improved working conditions for farmworkers’. In this agreement it included the reduction of harmful pesticides, initiating unemployment and healthcare benefits.
In an interview with Maria Godoy, Dolores recalled and said, “We were in Arizona. We were organizing people in the community to come to support us. They had passed a law in Arizona that if you said, ‘boycott,’ you could go to prison for six months. And if you said ‘strike,’ you could go to prison. So we were trying to organize against that law. And I was speaking to a group of professionals in Arizona, to see if they could support us. And they said, ‘Oh, here in Arizona you can’t do any of that. In Arizona no se puede — no you can’t.’ And I said, ‘No, in Arizona sí se puede!’ And when I went back to our meeting that we had every night there … I gave that report to everybody and when I said, ‘Sí se puede,’ everybody started shouting, ‘Sí se puede! Sí se puede!’ And so that became the slogan of our campaign in Arizona and now is the slogan for the immigrant rights movement, you know, on posters. We can do it. I can do it. Sí se puede”. Her brave words encourage people and allowed them to move forward.
Dolores did not stop there, in the 1970s, she organized a national lettuce boycott that helped create the political climate for the passage of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law to recognize the rights of farmworkers to bargain collectively. Huerta continued to speak for a variety of causes such as advocating for comprehensive immigration policy and better health conditions for farmworkers. In 1988, she nearly lost her life when she was beaten by San Francisco police at a rally protesting the policies of then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush. She suffered six broken ribs and a ruptured spleen.
Despite that tragic, senseless event, Huerta has been recognized and honored for all of her hard work as a fierce advocate for farmworkers, women, and immigrants. She has received the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award and was placed in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. That same year, she suffered the passing of her beloved friend and partner Ceasar Chavez who died of natural causes. She also received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998. In 2000, she received the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
By 2015, she was a board member of the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, and the President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, an institution rooted in community-organizing which she founded in 2002.
Huerta continues to live and even in her mid-eighties, she shows no sign of slowing down. Huerta is a living Latina icon and a powerhouse for social change. She co-founded the nation’s largest farmworkers union. She has had four elementary schools in California, one in Fort Worth, Texas, and a high school in Pueblo, Colorado named after herself. She was the first woman inU.S history to have been able to organize and lobby on behalf of migrant workers. In 2018 She walked the red carpet alongside many A-list celebrities at the Academy Awards. She took the stage with nine other activists during the performance of Common and Andra Day’s Oscar-nominated song “Stand up for Something.” In 2017, she became the subject of the documentary named Dolores. She continues to be an advocate for social issues involving immigration, income inequality and the rights of women and Latinos.