Latinas Who’ve Made a Difference: Dolores Huerta

by Latina Fatale on 12/08/2010 · 2 comments

in Latinas We Love

Dolores Huerta
Dolores Clara Fernandez, the fearless labor leader who is known today as Dolores Huerta was born on April 10, 1930 in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. Sometimes referred to as Dolores “Huelga,” which is Spanish for “strike,” Huerta followed in her parents’ footsteps: her father, Juan Fernandez, was a miner and union activist who served on the New Mexico state legislature and her mother, Alicia Chávez, was an active community leader who often took in low-wage farmworkers at her 70-room hotel. After her parents’ divorce, Huerta moved with her mother to Stockton, California, a farm community in the seat of the San Joaquin Valley, where she spent the majority of her young life.

In the early 1950s, Huerta earned her teaching degree and began working at a grammar school. But she felt out of place in the classroom, frustrated and discouraged by the large numbers of children who arrived each day with empty stomachs and threadbare clothes. Explaining why she left teaching, Huerta famously said, “I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” Huerta soon discovered that she was a natural organizer and, in 1955, she helped to establish the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO), through which she cultivated the leadership skills that would enable her to found the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960. During this time, she met César Chávez, a farm worker and fellow activist, and together they co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) after leaving the CSO in 1962.

Over the next few years, Huerta successfully lobbied for legislation that would extend Aid to Families with Dependent Children to California farmworkers as well as the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which secured workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. Then, in 1965, under Huerta and Chávez’s leadership, the NFWA joined the Filipino farm workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing committee in a historic partnership that became known as the Delano Grape Strike. It was from this union that the United Farmer Workers of America (UFW) was born in 1966.

As a labor leader for the UFW, Huerta negotiated several historic contracts with corporations like the Schenley Wine Company and secured unprecedented health and benefit plans for the Delano growers. At the same time, she lobbied hard in Washington and Sacramento to protect farmworkers against the brutal health effects associated with toxic pesticides like DDT and parathion. And in 1968, just minutes after being credited for her pivotal role in helping him win the California Democratic Presidential Primary, Huerta was steps away from Robert F. Kennedy when he was shot in the Ambassador Hotel.

In the 1980s, Huerta expanded the scope of her organizing and lobbying efforts to include women’s rights, environmental advocacy and immigration policy. Throughout the course of her 30+ years as an activist, Dolores “Huelga” was arrested 22 times, suffering severe injuries at a 1988 protest against George Bush, where she was beaten by San Francisco police. After recovering from her injuries, Huerta joined the Feminization of Power movement touring the country from 1988 to 1992 to encourage Latinas to run for office. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 21st century, Huerta has continued to advocate for farmworkers, women, and immigrants all over the nation. Today, she is the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation and serves as the Vice President Emeritus of the UFW. Her fierce, fearless commitment to la causa has made her one of the most influential and respected Mexican-American activists of all time.

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