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Dolores Huerta (1930-   ), labor and civil rights activist, advocate for immigrants

Dolores Huerta (1930- ), labor and civil rights activist, advocate for immigrants

“Democracy can only work if the people take power,” says Dolores Huerta, and she has dedicated her entire life to addressing labor and social problems and then helping the people involved take appropriate power.

Huerta was born in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico.  Her father was a miner as well as a union activist and state assemblyman, but he and Huerta’s mother, Alicia Chavez, divorced when Huerta was only three.  Chavez moved her children to Stockton, California to be near extended family, and she started a restaurant and soon expanded to running a 70-room hotel. Many farm workers lived in Stockton, and Huerta’s mother was active in community organizations to help them.

Dolores Huerta graduated from college and taught school. She also volunteered for causes that were important to her.  In 1955 she co-founded the local chapter of the Community Service Organization (a Latino civil rights organization), and in 1960, she co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association and set up voter registration drives.

Hungry Kids Motivated Her

In 1962 she left teaching, saying: “I quit because 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.”

That year she and César Chávez began working together and co-founded the National Farm Workers Association so that workers could advocate for a decent work environment.  Among their requests were to have clean drinking water available during the work day, toilets in the fields, sanctioned rest periods, and provisions for work-related disability.  During 1965 the United Farm Workers took their issue to the consumers and 17 million people stopped buying grapes, which was enough to bring the farm owners to the bargaining table.  In 1970 a three-year collective bargaining agreement was signed by the California grape industry.

Huerta also led a campaign against toxic pesticides that are bad for workers, consumers, and the environment.  The early agreements required growers to stop using dangerous pesticides in the fields.

With RFK in Los Angeles

On June 5, 1968, Huerta was on the speaker’s platform at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles with Robert F. Kennedy during his victory speech following his win for the California Democratic presidential primary campaign.  The group was ushered down into the kitchen to exit, and Huerta was just a few people behind him when Robert Kennedy was killed and five other people were wounded.

Huerta advocated the use of non-violent civil disobedience when necessary. She was arrested 22 different times. In San Francisco In 1988 during a lawful and peaceful protest of the platform of candidate George H.W. Bush, she was severely beaten. Several ribs were broken and she was hospitalized for emergency surgery.  The incident was caught on tape which led to a ruling in Huerta’s favor against the San Francisco Police Department.  The money she received went directly to benefit farm workers.

After a period of time for recovery, Huerta began to focus on women’s issues and by 2000 she was traveling the country encouraging more women to run for political office.

Huerta has received numerous honors for her work including the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights.  The California State Senate honored her with the Outstanding Labor Leader Award (1984) and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.  That same year she received the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award; and the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award, and the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award.

She is also the recipient of several honorary degrees and has received the Consumers’ Union Trumpeter’s Award. In 1998 she was one of three honored as a woman of the year by Ms. Magazine. She also appeared on the Ladies Home Journal’s, “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.” 

Huerta was married twice and divorced twice; she is the mother of 11 children her last four children were by her companion, Richard Chávez, Cesar’s brother.

Today Dolores Huerta is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, started in 2002.  It is a 501c3 organization that organizes at the grassroots level and encourages civic engagement and local leadership to further civil and labor rights.


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