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History Shorts: Dolores Huerta Organizes a Movement

History Shorts: Dolores Huerta Organizes a Movement

Dolores Huerta: The Civil Rights Icon Who Showed Farmworkers 'Sí Se Puede'

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta at the Delano grape workers strike in Delano, Calif., 1966. The strike set in motion the modern farmworkers movement. Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield hide caption

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta at the Delano grape workers strike in Delano, Calif., 1966. The strike set in motion the modern farmworkers movement.

Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield

At 87, Dolores Huerta is a living civil rights icon. She has spent most of her life as a political activist, fighting for better working conditions for farmworkers and the rights of the downtrodden, a firm believer in the power of political organizing to effect change.

And yet, her role in the farmworkers movement has long been overshadowed by that of Cesar Chavez, her longtime collaborator and co-founder of what became the United Farm Workers of America union. That's true even when it comes to credit for coining the movement's famous slogan, Sí se puede — Spanish for "Yes, we can" — which inspired President Obama's own campaign battle cry and has often wrongly been attributed to Chavez. (Obama acknowledged Huerta as the source of that phrase when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She talks about its origins below.)

Dolores, a new documentary from director Peter Bratt, aims to finally set the record straight. The film chronicles Huerta's evolution from a teenager outraged by the racial and economic injustices she saw in California's agricultural Central Valley to a key architect of the nationwide boycott of grapes that led to the first farmworker union contracts. At its height, an estimated 17 million people stopped buying grapes.

Huerta was 25 when she became the political director of the Community Service Organization, run by influential community organizer Fred Ross. That's where she met Chavez, and in 1962 the two teamed up to form what became the UFA, organizing farmworkers who toiled for wages as low as 70 cents an hour, in brutal conditions.

"They didn't have toilets in the fields, they didn't have cold drinking water. They didn't have rest periods," Huerta tells NPR.

In 1965, the grape workers struck, and Huerta was a leading organizer. 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.

Now grown, her children provide some of the most moving accounts in the film. They speak with great admiration for their mother, but are also candid about the price her tireless dedication to the cause exacted on the family. As one daughter puts it, "The movement became her most important child."

Huerta organizes marchers in Coachella, Calif., in 1969. She's been an outspoken activist for the rights of farmworkers and the downtrodden for much of her life. George Ballis//George Ballis/Take Stock/The Image Work hide caption

Huerta organizes marchers in Coachella, Calif., in 1969. She's been an outspoken activist for the rights of farmworkers and the downtrodden for much of her life.

George Ballis//George Ballis/Take Stock/The Image Work

As she approaches nine decades of life, Huerta remains outspoken and indefatigable. Through her Dolores Huerta Foundation, she continues to work with agricultural communities, organizing people to run for office and advocating on issues of health, education and economic development.

Huerta recently stopped by NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she spoke to us about the new film, her life's work and her ongoing activism. Excerpts of our conversation are transcribed below, edited for brevity and clarity.

After the grape workers went on strike, you directed the national boycott of grapes. What kind of day-to-day conditions did farmworkers in the field face at that time?

Well, the conditions were terrible. The farmworkers were only earning about 70 cents an hour at that time — 90 cents was the highest wage that they were earning. They didn't have toilets in the fields, they didn't have cold drinking water. They didn't have rest periods. People worked from sunup to sundown. It was really atrocious. And families were so poor. I think that's one of the things that really infuriated me. When I saw people in their homes — they had dirt floors. And the furniture was orange crates and cardboard boxes. People were so incredibly poor and they were working so hard. And the children were [suffering from malnutrition] and very ill-clothed and ill-fed. I said, "This is wrong," because you saw how hard they were working, and yet they were not getting paid anything.

One thing that struck me while watching the documentary was the violence directed against farmworkers during the strike. Were you subjected to this violence?

Oh, many times. We had violence directed at us by the growers themselves, trying to run us down by cars, pointing rifles at us, spraying the people when they were on the picket line with sulfur. And then we had violence by the Teamsters union with the goons that they hired at that time — and by the way, I have to say that the Teamsters union are OK today. [Editor's note: In 1970, the Teamsters union signed a deal with growers for access to organize farmworkers, undercutting the efforts of the United Farm Workers.] They came at us with two by fours. We had a lot of violence, definitely. And then I was beaten up by the police San Francisco [in 1988], which also is shown in the film. [During that incident, several of her ribs were broken and her recovery took months.]

In the documentary, we hear a lot of moving testimony from your children. And they obviously have a great deal of respect and admiration for you. But they also talk about the toll that the work took on the family when they were growing up. Was that something that weighed on you — the fact that you were very much a pioneer, but the time that you spent on activism meant time away from your children?

I think that's something that all mothers have to deal with, especially single mothers. We work and we have to leave the kids behind. And I think that's one of the reasons that we, not only as women but as families, we have to advocate for early childhood education for all of our children. To make sure that they're taken care of but also educated in the process. Because we do need women in civic life. We do need women to run for office, to be in political office. We need a feminist to be at the table when decisions are being made so that the right decisions will be made. But you know, actually, in the farmworkers union — and the film doesn't really show this — we always had a daycare for children. Because when we did this strike, and especially when all of the people went on the march to Sacramento, the women had to take over the picket lines.

Because the men were marching to Sacramento?

Yeah, the women had to take over the strike. The women had to run all the picket lines. They had to do all the work that we were doing in the strike.

Do you feel that women working in the fields faced special challenges when you were organizing?

The Salt

EPA Decides Not To Ban A Pesticide, Despite Its Own Evidence Of Risk

Oh absolutely, especially on the issue of pesticides. Because you know, the pesticides in the fields really affect women even more than they do men. They affect children and they affect women more than they do men. But we have had so many women that have cancer, so many children have been born with deformities. And men also that have died because they were spraying pesticides in the field and they died of lung cancer. This is a really, really big issue to this day for farmworkers. Because even though we were able to get many of the pesticides banned, they keep inventing new ones. And it was actually just a couple of months ago that a group of farmworkers working in a field near Bakersfield were poisoned. And one of the pesticides that affected them was one that was recently taken off the restricted list by President Trump. [Editor's note: The Environmental Protection Agency, under President Obama, had concluded that the pesticide chlorpyrifos could pose a risk to consumers and proposed banning it. But a final decision was not made until March, when the Trump administration's EPA reversed course and said it would keep the pesticide on the market.]

One of things in the documentary that stayed with me is that you say that for a long time, you didn't think it was right to take credit for your work.

You know what? I've thought about that a lot. When we had our first constitutional convention for the National Farm Workers Association and we were having elections and Cesar [Chavez] was running the meeting, he stepped down from the dais and came up to me. He said, "Who's going to nominate you for vice president?" And I said, "Oh, I don't have to be on the board. I just want to serve all the women out there." How many of us have thought that way?

And he said, "You're crazy." So I did — I grabbed somebody to nominate me. But if Cesar hadn't told me to, I wouldn't have thought about it. And I think that's a problem with us as women — we don't think we need to be in the power structure, that we need to be on those boards where decisions are being made. Sometimes we think well, I'm not really prepared to take that position or that role. But I say [to women out there]: Just do it like the guys do it — pretend that you know. And then you learn on the job.

The slogan " se puede" — "Yes, we can" — that was you. How did you come up with that?

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. se puede.

History Shorts: Dolores Huerta Organizes a Movement - HISTORY

Introduce Dolores Huerta. Consider creating a brief power point to share with students. (extra resources from the Dolores Huerta Foundation)

Was born on April 10 th , 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico

Her father was a farm worker, miner, and union activist. Her mother was active in their community, welcoming low-wage workers to rent rooms at her hotel.

Dolores became an organizer under the Stockton Community Service Organization. She founded the Agricultural Workers Association soon afterwards. During her time with Stockton CSO, she met Cesar Chavez and they launched the National Farm Workers Association together.

“Huerta was able to secure ‘Aid for Dependent Families’ and disability insurance for farm workers in California in 1963. She was also active in the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. The ALR Act allowed farm workers in California the right to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions.”

Huerta is also instrumental in the feminist movement after encountering Gloria Steinem in New York while she was directing the first national boycott of California Table Grapes. Huerta then began to test gender inequality within the farm workers’ movement.

In 2012, President Obama awarded Dolores Huerta with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Huerta’s response (taken from her website): “The freedom of association means that people can come together in organization to fight for solutions to the problems they confront in their communities. The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action. It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the equality movement for our LGBT brothers and sisters are all manifestations of these rights. I thank President Obama for raising the importance of organizing to the highest level of merit and honor.”

Next, show students a clip and read some excerpts of Dolores Huerta speaking in Sacramento after a march with the National Farm Workers Association, threatening to strike if the Governor of California does not allow the farm workers to collectively bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.

Questions for students to answer while reading the excerpts:

Why did the farm workers march to Sacramento?

Why is important that the National Farm Workers Association be funded by the farm workers?

What specifically does Huerta want Edmund Brown (California Governor) to do?

How will the National Farm Workers Association respond if Governor Brown does not meet their demands?

Students should work in pairs to answer the questions. Tell them to underline or highlight in the text where they found their answers.

Once students have finished answering the questions, collect their sheets and debrief the excerpt questions. Make sure students are stating where they found their answer in the text.

Did the Sacramento march work? Were the farm workers able to collective bargain for better wages and working conditions? (yes, but not until 1975 – from lecture)

In a brief construction response, explain whether Huerta or Chavez had the most impact on the farm workers’ rights movement in California and why. Use evidence from our primary sources to support your claim.

Lesson Extension: Ask students to write a blog post about Huerta’s legacy of activism and include a minimum of one picture.

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

D3.3.9-12. Identify evidence that draws information directly and substantively from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in evidence in order to revise or strengthen claims.

Dolores Huerta Coined "Sí Se Puede,” Carrying Legacy Advocating for Farmworkers and the Downtrodden

Dolores Huerta is one of the most influential labor activists and civil rights leaders of the 20th century. As stewards facilitating this incredible project to connect SoCal and Central Valley farmers to hunger relief agencies, we are immensely humbled and inspired by the ongoing legacy of larger-than-life community organizer Dolores Huerta.

She has been involved with the farmworkers movement since the 1960s and Huerta, who worked alongside César Chávez to form the National Farmworkers Association (today United Farmworkers), remains unwavering in her devotion to improve the lives of marginalized people in California’s agricultural communities.

At 90 years old, Huerta is fearless! If you thought former President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes, We Can” was originally his doing, think again! It was Huerta’s.

Source: George Ballis//George Ballis/Take Stock/The Image Work

Huerta organizes marchers in Coachella, Calif., in 1969. She's been an outspoken activist for the rights of farmworkers and the downtrodden for much of her life.

As a teenager, Huerta became outraged by the racial and economic injustices she saw in the Central Valley, and eventually was a central figure in the nationwide boycott of grapes, which led to the first farmworker union contracts. At the height of the boycott, it was estimated 17 million people stopped buying grapes. First, the farmworkers were striking but that did not work, so the boycott was the next move. It lasted five years. It worked and got the union contracts signed.

Some farmworkers were afraid to fight for their rights. They would tell Dolores “no, se puede” (no, you can’t) about fighting the system.

“So my response to them was ‘sí se puede, sí se puede,” Huerta told Good Morning America last year.

From there, she teamed up with her mentor Fred Ross and Chávez to form the UFW. Farmworkers, mainly of Mexican and Filipino descent, toiled for wages as low as 70 cents an hour, in harsh conditions. They didn’t have running toilets or cold drinking water in the fields. Achieving farmworkers rights was a first in the country, and Huerta was key in fighting injustice peacefully.

Source: Jon Lewis/Courtesy of LeRoy Chatfield on NPR

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta at the Delano grape workers strike in Delano, Calif., 1966. The strike set in motion the modern farmworkers movement.

Well, almost peacefully. When in San Francisco protesting former President George H.W. Bush’s false statements that pesticides were safe to use on farms, Huerta, age 58 at the time, and other activists were brutally beaten by police. She had four broken ribs and a pulverized spleen from being hit so hard by police.

After healing and spending more time with her family after 30 years of intense activism, it was from there Huerta pivoted to advocate for women’s rights. To this day Huerta knows the fight is never over.

“We’ve just got to sacrifice a little bit to make our world a better place,” she says.

We’re thrilled to highlight the work of Huerta and more incredible, pioneering leaders during Women's History Month! We’re in awe as we learn about the work of great leaders like Huerta. Let their vision inspire you to accomplish the change you want to see in the world, and in our mission, food justice!

Civil Eats: Dolores Huerta is Still Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights

NPR: Dolores Huerta: The Civil Rights Icon Who Showed Farmworkers 'Sí Se Puede'

Dolores Huerta

1. Dolores Huerta was a member of Community Service Organization ("CSO"), a grass roots organization. The CSO confronted segregation and police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services and fought to enact new legislation. Dolores Huerta wanted to form an organization that fought of the interests of the farm workers. While continuing to work at CSO Dolores Huerta founded and organized the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960. Dolores Huerta was key in organizing citizenship requirements removed from pension, and public assistance programs. She also was instrumental in passage of legislation allowing voters the right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the driver's license examination in their native language. Dolores Huerta moved on to working with Cesar Chavez. Dolores was the main person at National Farm Workers Association ("NFWA") who negotiated with employers and organized boycotts, strikes, demonstrations and marches for the farm workers.

2. Possibly when Dolores Huerta first started working and really was unknown. Employers were not intimidated by her. Dolores would hear sexist comments and would ignore them. Dolores soon proves to anyone who doubted her why she was the negotiator and why she was important to the United Farm Workers union. Once she was heard people started to respect Dolores. Soon enough Dolores Huerta was given the nickname "Dragon lady," because she was a fierce negotiator and organizing the rights of farm workers.

3. Dolores Huerta was the main negotiator during the Delano grape strike. In 1965 Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were approached by Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee ("AWOC"). AWOC wanted higher wages from the Delano are grape growers. AWOC wanted to negotiate new contracts with their employers but they needed the help of Huerta and Chavez. The NFWA was still new and growing although Huerta thought that NFWA was not ready to attack corporate America she could not refuse to help AWOC. The two unions formed into one union called United Farm Workers union. Under this the union Dolores began the battle with the Delano grape growers. Dolores organized over 5,000 workers to walk off their job and to strike until they could reach an agreement with their employers. Dolores negotiated the contracts and administered the contracts and conducted over one hundred grievance procedures on the workers behalf. There have been no successors who have followed in the footsteps of Dolores Huerta.

4. Dolores Huerta created the motto for UFW. "Si se puede," which means yes we can. Dolores never thought that the UFW could not do something. On the contrary Dolores thought that the union could do anything they put their mind and soul into.

Dolores Huerta: little-known militant icon with a big part in history

Small, slender Dolores Huerta, with her soft but firm voice, was whipping up a crowd at a Los Angeles rally against an oil pipeline in North Dakota. Dozens of people boisterously echoed her words.

“She’s an icon,” actress Jane Fonda told AFP. Fonda, who had organized the protest, has frequently crossed paths with the indefatigable militant Huerta, an activist in an impressive array of movements: for union, feminist, ecologist and human rights — and for nonviolence.

At 86, the inspiration for Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan — he awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor — remains largely unknown to the wider public.

She was a comrade-in-arms of Cesar Chavez, the famous leader of farm worker protests. Yet while he has had streets named after him and a monument raised in his honor, Huerta remains largely in the shadows.

But now, a documentary called “Dolores,” previewed at the Sundance Film Festival last month, wants to give Huerta her proper place in history.

The film, co-produced by guitarist Carlos Santana, has “an important message that women’s participation in history also has to be recorded and memorialized,” she said in an interview from the offices of her foundation in Bakersfield, in the heart of California farm country.

“Hopefully it will inspire more women to get involved.”

“I call it HIS-tory,” she said. “It’s easy to see in the last election — we had a woman that was superbly qualified to be president of the United States that was not elected even if she won the popular vote, and you had a man who had no experience in governing at all that was elected.”

“It shows how women in our societies are devalued and disrespected,” Huerta said.

Director Peter Bratt says Huerta, the descendant of Mexican immigrants who was raised by a single mother during the Depression, “has impacted our democratic evolution in the last 50 years.”

“Dolores” traces the birth of the United Farm Workers (UFW), co-founded in the 1960s by Huerta and Chavez.

It revisits their struggle for the basic human rights of farm workers: fresh water, functioning toilets, safe working conditions, regular rest breaks, unemployment insurance and a minimum wage.

Huerta and Chavez organized strikes, spectacular marches on the California legislature, and a nationwide grape boycott to protest the poor conditions facing vineyard workers, notably their exposure to toxic pesticides.

This mother of 11 children (she was twice married, and also had children by Chavez’s brother Richard) marched for abortion rights alongside Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem.

She has been arrested more than 20 times, has been beaten, and was seriously wounded by the police during a 1988 protest in San Francisco.

Twenty years earlier, she stood on a podium alongside Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother, just minutes before he was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968.

That incident left her with a fierce commitment to nonviolence and a passionate dislike for firearms.

“It was very emotional for me to see the movie,” she said. “I relived a lot of things.”

She added: “Many issues it addresses are still relevant, like police violence, discrimination against women, the use of pesticides…”

The documentary also shows the sacrifices made: those who lost their lives, were beaten or jailed after clashes with police, the children who sometimes had to raise themselves as their mother criss-crossed the country on behalf of her many causes.

“But it is very satisfying to think we’ve built a strong movement,” she said, speaking from the monument to Chavez at UFW headquarters on a bucolic property in the town of Keene.

The UFW’s influence has faded, however, since Chavez died in 1993.

But enough about the past, says Huerta.

The subject of “Dolores” would have liked for the documentary to “be less about the past and more about the future.”

She mentioned the many works of her foundation, including a door-to-door campaign to register people to vote, anti-discrimination work in schools, and the defense of gays and lesbians in the very conservative region around Bakersfield.

With the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, Huerta — whose hectic days feature an unending series of protest rallies, training sessions and meetings with VIPs — is girding for “many, many fights.”

She fears the new administration could roll back gains on environmental protection, women’s right to abortion, gun control, minimum wages and more.

“We’ve faced tremendous obstacles with President Nixon, Reagan when he was governor of California, the agribusiness,” she said, adding: “This is the nature of struggles: You take two steps forward and one step back. But you keep going.”

Huerta’s parting message for her fellow citizens: “Get yourselves organized, go to your neighborhood, talk to people, get involved.

“A lot of people are going to march and protest, but at the end of the day you have to translate that to voting.”

Growing Up With an Activist: A Valuable Legacy

En español | Through self-sacrifice, a commitment to nonviolence, and their spirituality, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta changed a nation. Together they founded the farm worker movement, fought against agribusiness, and organized thousands of laborers so they could earn a living wage and have just working conditions. In 1962, they launched the National Farm Workers Association, which preceded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) union.

To advance la causa, they led selfless lives. Both forfeited time with their large and loving families to defend the human rights of farm workers they lived in voluntary destitution so as not to drain resources from the movement. They also lived in jeopardy their lives threatened many times.

With their passion and strength, Chávez and Huerta endured the hardships and passed along their values of service and community to their children.

Today Huerta continues la lucha, as do her children, their families, and Chávez’s children. They continue to believe in the words, spoken by Chávez, which marked the movement: “It is my deepest belief that only by giving life do we find life.”

The Chávez Children
Raspadas and Leaflets

Eleven years after Chávez’s death, his children remember a kind, nurturing man.

Paul, one of eight children Chávez had with wife Helen, is president of the National Farm Workers Service Center Inc. (NFWSC), the nonprofit organization founded by Chávez and Huerta in the 1960s. “We learned from an early age that we needed to share our father with his larger family. Of course, there were times that we wished we had him around,” Paul, 47, explains. “We didn’t grow up with him taking us to Little League baseball games because he was on the road or on different campaigns. But what he did was find ways to involve us in his work and the work of the movement that allowed us to spend time together. He was very creative like that.”

Paul recalls the early days, when his father didn’t have staff and needed to pass out leaflets. “He would take my brothers and sisters and my cousins…and pile us into the station wagon and we would go and leaflet. It was hard work, but at the end of the day he would take us to get raspadas [snow cones] and take us to the park and play softball.”

Sharing the light moments was special. “As we get older, I see the sacrifice that my dad made and I know that it was hard, so it’s hard to sit in judgment of him, knowing that he didn’t do it out of neglect. He did it out of the simple sacrifice.”

After Paul graduated from high school, his father assumed a different role: boss. Paul remembers how Chávez encouraged him to take on different positions throughout the UFW. He first worked in the print shop and then moved on to organizing workers. After that, he served as a negotiator and the union’s political director and lobbyist in Sacramento, California, and Washington, D.C. Without his father’s constant encouragement—which made him believe in himself—he doesn’t think he could have taken on the diverse challenges. Eloise Chávez Carrillo, a payroll supervisor at Delano High School in California, remembers encountering harassment at school and in the community because of her father’s work. “It was very hard. In school, kids were just awful,” she says. “I remember I used to tell my dad, ‘Can’t you be a regular dad, have a regular job? People talk about you.’ ”

Townspeople and schoolchildren would call her father lazy and a communist, and claim he was taking people’s money. “He used to feel bad when we would share those stories with him. He would always tell us, ‘Turn your cheek. We’ll pray for them.’ ”

At Delano High School, “even the administration seemed very antiunion,” the now 52-year-old recounts. “The growers dominated this place back then. A lot of [the growers] had kids in school who were our age. There used to be a lot of picketing and activity, and of course, when we would go back to school on a Monday, we’d hear about it.”

Chávez Carrillo, a middle daughter in the family, explains that her strength to cope came from her parents. “My father always reminded us to turn the other cheek and that there were a lot of people who would say things to try to hurt you….If you just prayed and had faith, then one day they’d realize that the union was here and that it wasn’t going anywhere.”

The Huerta Children
Enriching Activism

At age 74, Huerta, a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, continues to inspire activism. Her second-eldest daughter, Lori de León, is a program developer at the foundation named after her mother. “I became very aware at a young age that there were needs of people that were not being met. I would travel with my mother to [farm workers’] homes and see dirt floors and cardboard and chicken wire, and newspaper-stuffed walls. I knew [my mother] was very special because she was helping them,” says the 52-year-old.

She recounts the difficulty of sharing her mother with the movement: “We didn’t have an upbringing. We were on our own. At a young age all my brothers and sisters realized the importance of her work.” She recalls when her mother missed her 13 th birthday, at the time a very special birthday to de León, to instead help organize orange pickers who worked for Minute Maid in Florida. Huerta told her young daughter that by sacrificing her personal needs and wants for that day, thousands of farm workers and their children, could benefit. “How could anyone argue with that?” de León recalls.

The values her mother impressed upon her were demonstrated through Huerta’s activism. “There are more important things than money, like people,” says de León, repeating her mother’s teachings: “People come first. Every person has a value and must be valued.”

The high profile of Huerta, Chávez, and their work meant the threat of violence loomed large. The children feared for their parents’ safety—and with good reason, de León says. “Minutes before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, my mother had been standing at his side on stage during his acceptance speech. He acknowledged her work and that of the farm workers who helped him win the California primary. Minutes later, he was shot.” Huerta also survived attacks in her home and on the picket line. She was once taken hostage. Learning to maintain self-control in the face of violence made them more committed to nonviolence, de León reflects. “We, my siblings and César’s children, all realized the treasures we had in César and my mother. All my siblings were willing to lay down our lives to protect my mother and César.”

Emilio J. Huerta, 47, the second-eldest son, is the NFWSC general counsel. He admits the financial strain the family endured was painful, but says his mother’s activism enriched his upbringing. As she followed the workers across the nation, Dolores Huerta took her children with her.

“In one sense it was tough because we had to move a lot…. But at the same time, we saw a lot of this country that we probably would not have otherwise seen,” he says. “We lived in San Francisco and New York City. We got to travel to places like Chicago, up and down California. We got to experience living in different communities, living among different kinds of people…. We got to be on the front line and witness firsthand a lot of the social changes that took place.”

Their mother provided a strong foundation for all 11 of them.

“She always encouraged me to use my intellect and my wit. She conveyed to me that I was smart, and encouraged me to use my skills to help people as she did,” he recounts. “At one time her dream was to have all of us become labor organizers or activists. In our own way we did. She always encouraged us to be of service to others. I’m an attorney, my brother’s a doctor, and my sister’s a nurse. We gravitated toward those careers that would help people improve their lives. That was her theme all the time as we were growing up.”

History Shorts: Dolores Huerta Organizes a Movement - HISTORY

Co-founder of the United Farm Workers Association, Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta is one of the most influential labor activists of the 20 th century and a leader of the Chicano civil rights movement.

Born on April 10, 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico, Huerta was the second of three children of Alicia and Juan Fernandez, a farm worker and miner who became a state legislator in 1938. Her parents divorced when Huerta was three years old, and her mother moved to Stockton, California with her children. Huerta’s grandfather helped raise Huerta and her two brothers while her mother juggled jobs as a waitress and cannery worker until she could buy a small hotel and restaurant. Alicia’s community activism and compassionate treatment of workers greatly influenced her daughter.

Discrimination also helped shape Huerta. A schoolteacher, prejudiced against Hispanics, accused Huerta of cheating because her papers were too well-written. In 1945 at the end of World War II, white men brutally beat her brother for wearing a Zoot-Suit, a popular Latino fashion.

Huerta received an associate teaching degree from the University of the Pacific’s Delta College. She married Ralph Head while 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 seeing so many hungry farm children coming to school, she thought she could do more to help them by organizing farmers and farm workers.

In 1955 Huerta began her career as an activist when she co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), which led voter registration drives and fought for economic improvements for Hispanics. She also founded the Agricultural Workers Association. Through a CSO associate, Huerta met activist César Chávez, with whom she shared an interest in organizing farm workers. I n 1962, Huerta and Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor of the United Farm Workers’ Union (UFW), which formed three year later. Huerta served as UFW vice president until 1999.

Despite ethnic and gender bias, Huerta helped organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 grape workers and was the lead negotiator in the workers’ contract that followed. Throughout her work with the UFW, Huerta organized workers, negotiated contracts, advocated for safer working conditions including the elimination of harmful pesticides. She also fought for unemployment and healthcare benefits for agricultural workers. Huerta was the driving force behind the nationwide table grape boycotts in the late 1960s that led to a successful union contract by 1970.

In 1973, Huerta led another consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Huerta worked as a lobbyist to improve workers’ legislative representation. During the 1990s and 2000s, she worked to elect more Latinos and women to political office and has championed women’s issues.

The recipient of many honors, Huerta received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. As of 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.

A Life ofꂬtivism

In 1960, 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&aposs tests. During this time, Dolores met Cesar Chavez, a fellow CSO official, who had become its director. 

In 1962, both Huerta and Chavez lobbied to have the CSO expand its efforts to help farm workers, but the organization was focused on urban issues and couldn’t move in that direction. Frustrated, they both left the organization and, with Gilbert Padilla, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). The two made a great team. Chavez was the dynamic leader and speaker and Huerta the skilled organizer and tough negotiator.

In 1965, the AWA and the NFWA combined to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (later, simply the United Farm Workers). That year, the union took on the Coachella Valley grape growers, with Chavez organizing a strike of all farm workers and Huerta negotiating contracts. 

After five hard years, the United Farm Workers (now affiliated with theਊmerican Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) signed an historic agreement withꀦ grape growers that improved working conditions for farm workers, including reducing the use of harmful pesticides and initiating unemployment and healthcare benefits. Around this time, she was credited with coining the phrase "sí se puede," or "yes we can," as a means of spurring union members onward through tough times. 

In the 1970s, Huerta coordinated a national lettuce boycott and helped create the political climate for the passage of the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law to recognize the rights of farm workers to bargain collectively.

During the 1980s, Huerta served as vice president of the UFW and co-founded the UFW’s radio station. She continued to speak for a variety of causes, advocating for comprehensive immigration policy and better health conditions for farm workers. 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.

Women’s Liberation

As much as she was Cesar’s right hand she could also be the greatest thorn in his side. The two were infamous for their blow out arguments an element that was a natural part of their working relationship. Dolores viewed this as a healthy and necessary part of the growth process of any worthwhile collaboration. While Dolores was busy breaking down one gender barrier after another, she was seemingly unaware of the tremendous impact she was having on, not only farm worker woman but also young women everywhere.

While directing the first National Boycott of California Table Grapes out of New York she came into contact with Gloria Steinem and the burgeoning feminist movement who rallied behind the cause. Quickly she realized they shared much in common. Having found a supportive voice with other feminists, Dolores consciously began to challenge gender discrimination within the farm workers’ movement.

Watch the video: Dolores Huerta (December 2021).