In the numerous works written about César Chávez and how he formed the first farm workers’ union in America, there’s little mention of Dolores Huerta, although she was his equal partner and co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.
On April 10th, Dolores Huerta will celebrate her 87th birthday. The Weekly Issue/El Semanario dedicates this week’s edition to her decades of endless work, compassion and sacrifice for our communities.
A new documentary, simply titled, “Dolores”, by director Peter Bratt, magnificently chronicles her life that highlights her triumphs, but also the tremendous sacrifice of activism.
The film sheds light on this intensely private woman who is among the most important activists in American history. With unprecedented access to both Dolores and her children, the film reveals the raw, personal stories behind the public figure. It portrays a woman both heroic and flawed, working tirelessly for social change even as her eleven children longed to have her at home.
The film is currently touring select cities across the country, go to doloresthemovie.com to get updates for your area.
“I hope that this movie will inspire people when they see that farm workers who were the most discriminated and the most poverty-stricken people in our country, had the courage to stand up and to fight for their rights, to organize. That way we’ll inspire other people to say, hey, if those poorest of the poor could do it, then maybe we could do something great also,” said Huerta in an interview with NPR in January, after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Festival.
Dolores Clara Fernández was born on April 10, 1930 in Dawson, a small mining town in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Her father Juan Fernández, a farm worker and miner by trade, was a union activist who ran for political office and won a seat in the New México legislature in 1938. Dolores spent most of her childhood and early adult life in Stockton, California where she and her two brothers moved with their mother, following her parents’ divorce.
According to Dolores, her mother’s independence and entrepreneurial spirit was one of the primary reasons she became a feminist. Dolores’ mother Alicia, was known for her kindness and compassion towards others.
Alicia’s community activism was reflected in Dolores’ involvement as a student at Stockton High School. She was active in numerous school clubs, was a majorette, and a dedicated member of the Girl Scouts until the age of 18. Upon graduating Dolores continued her education at the University of Pacific’s Delta College in Stockton earning a provisional teaching credential. During this time, she married Ralph Head and had two daughters, Celeste and Lori. While teaching, she could no longer bear to see her students come to school with empty stomachs and bare feet, and began her lifelong journey of working to correct economic injustice.
Dolores found her calling as an organizer while serving in the leadership of the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO). During this time, she founded the Agricultural Workers Association, set up voter registration drives and pressed local governments for barrio improvements. It was in 1955 through CSO founder Fred Ross, Sr. that she would meet a likeminded colleague, CSO Executive Director César E. Chávez. The two soon discovered that they shared a common vision of organizing farm workers, an idea that was not in line with the CSO’s mission.
As a result, in the spring of 1962 César Chávez and Dolores resigned from the CSO, and launched the National Farm Workers Association. Dolores’ organizing skills were essential to the growth of this budding organization.
The first testament to her lobbying and negotiating talents were demonstrated in securing Aid For Dependent Families (“AFDC”) and disability insurance for farm workers in the State of California in 1963, an unparalleled feat of the times. She was also instrumental in the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. This was the first law of its kind in the United States, granting farm workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions
While the farm workers lacked financial capitol, they were able to wield significant economic power through hugely successful boycotts at the ballot box with grassroots campaigning.
“When we started organizing the farm workers, people would say, how are you going to organize the workers? They don’t speak English. They’re not citizens. They don’t have any money.
“But we would say to the workers, you have power. And they would say, what kind of power do we have? It’s in your person. And it is in your person. And you, together with other people, other workers, you can make the difference. But you have to remember that nobody is going to do it for you. If you don’t get out there and try to solve your own problems, it’s never going to change,” explained Huerta in a PBS interview.
“And that same message applies to everyone. Every one of our segments of society that are trying to make positive change or fighting for social justice, this is what we have to do, come together, organize, push back, take that direct action, and then we can make the world a better place.”
As the principal legislative advocate, Dolores became one of the UFW’s most visible spokespersons. Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary moments before he was shot in Los Angeles.
As much as she was César’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.
Early on, Dolores advocated for the entire family’s participation in the movement. After all it was men, women and children together out in the fields picking, thinning and hoeing. Thus, the practice of non-violence was not only a philosophy but a very necessary approach in providing for the safety of all. Her life and the safety of those around her were in jeopardy on countless occasions. The greatest sacrifice to the movement was made by five martyrs all of whom she knew personally.
At age 58, Dolores suffered a life-threatening assault while protesting against the policies of then presidential candidate George Bush in San Francisco regarding pesticide use. A baton-wielding officer broke four ribs and shattered her spleen. Public outrage resulted in the San Francisco Police Department changing its policies regarding crowd control and police discipline and Dolores was awarded an out of court settlement.
Following a lengthy recovery, she took a leave of absence from the union to focus on women’s rights. She traversed the country for two years on behalf of the Feminist Majority’s Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the year 2000 Campaign encouraging Latina’s to run for office. The campaign resulted in a significant increase in the number of women representatives at the local, state and federal levels. She also served as National Chair of the 21st Century Party founded in 1992 on the principles that women make up 52% of the party’s candidates and that officers must reflect the ethnic diversity of the nation.
At 87, Dolores Huerta continues to work tirelessly developing leaders and advocating for the working poor, women, and children. As founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she travels across the country engaging in campaigns and influencing legislation that supports equality and defends civil rights. She often speaks to students and organizations about issues of social justice and public policy.
“My favorite quote is by Benito Juarez, the former president of México,” Huerta noted. “He said, ‘Respecting other people’s rights is peace’ and that’s just what I do.”
For more on Dolores Huerta, doloreshuerta.org.