Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta

(Co-sponsored by MCC, WRC, Unique Programs, & CFA)

About Dolores Huerta:

Dolores was born Dolores Clara Fernandez on April 10, 1930 in the mining town of Dawson, in northern New Mexico.  Her father, Juan Fernandez, was a seasonal farm worker, miner, union activist and later a State Assemblyman.   Her parents divorced when she was three years old and her mother, Alicia Chavez, relocated Dolores and her two brothers to Stockton, California in the predominantly agricultural San Joaquin Valley.  Alicia raised Dolores, along with her two brothers, and later two sisters.  Her mother worked as a cook in two restaurants to support her family during the Great Depression.  Through prudence she became a businesswoman when she purchased two hotel businesses and a restaurant. While her mother worked feverishly to support the family, Dolores and her siblings were cared for by her grandfather, Herculano Chavez.  He was a miner who became disabled in a mining accident in New Mexico in which he lost one of his sons, Marcial Chavez at age seventeen.   In helping to raise Dolores, Herculano would often say that Dolores had seven tongues because she spoke so fast.

Dolores and her siblings were raised in one of the two hotels, the 60-room Richard’s Hotel, that her mother purchased from a Japanese family that was being relocated to a concentration camp.  Her mother often put up farm workers and their families for free in the hotels.  Dolores and her siblings worked in the daily cleaning and renting of the rooms at the Richard’s Hotel.  Her mother taught Dolores the importance of community activism and supported Dolores, and her Girl Scout troop.  Dolores remained a girl scout until age 18 when she graduated from Stockton High School in 1947.  As a girl scout, Dolores’ troop took on many community endeavors including fundraising activities to support the USO during World War II.  Dolores’ troop was quite unique for its time in that it was truly representative of the international community of Stockton.  It was made up of girls from diverse ethnical backgrounds including African-American, Chinese, Filipino, Latino and Anglo at a time when racism was prevalent.  In fact it was as a teen-ager in high school when Dolores first experienced racism.  An annual national Girl Scout essay contest was held and Dolores was one of two girls who won, she placed second throughout the nation.  The second place prize was a trip to the Hopi Indian Reservation in Gallup, New Mexico.  When Dolores sought to seek the time off from school to go on this trip she was granted permission from all of her teachers but denied the time off from school by the Dean of Girls.  Dolores felt that this was because she was the first Latina to win this annual contest and many Anglo girls had previously been given the time off from school for winning the very same award.  Dolores also experienced more institutional racism when, in that same senior year of high school she was given a final grade of a “C” in English after receiving numerous “A’s on term papers, reports and essays.  When she approached the teacher in regard to her final grade, the teacher told her she gave her the “C” because she “knew” that the essays and reports were written by someone else because Dolores could not have written them herself. 

The day World War II ended, festivities were held throughout the town celebrating “VJ” (Victory over the Japanese).  Her brother Marshall dressed up in a Zoot-suit to go out and celebrate.  Dolores was going to meet up with him at a dance later in the evening.  As Dolores and her friend were walking to the dance they came upon a person huddled on the ground of a door stoop.  He was badly beaten with his clothes ripped to shreds.  The beating and ripped clothing was a result of racism against young Latinos, and their way of dress in the 40’s.    When Dolores stopped to help the young man up, it turned out to be her brother Marshall, who for the first time had dressed in a Zoot-suit. 

Alicia Chavez also instilled the love of the arts in her children.  She purchased season tickets for her children to the symphony and theatre to see live music performances of renowned artists, although she herself could not attend because she had to work.  Alicia enrolled Dolores in piano, violin, and dance lessons.  Dolores wanted to become a flamenco dancer when she grew up.  As a teenager, Dolores was a majorette and participated in many parades throughout the region along with her future sister-in-law, Rae Atilano.

Alicia Chavez taught Dolores how to be generous and caring for others.  Because of her mother’s community activism, Dolores learned to be outspoken.  After high school, Dolores attended college and received a teaching certificate.   She was the first of her family to receive a higher education.  She taught  grammar school but decided to resign from teaching because, in her words, “I couldn’t stand seeing farm worker children come to class hungry and in need of shoes.  I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach their hungry children.”

In 1955, she became founding members of the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization (“CSO”), a grass roots organization started by Fred Ross. Her mother later joined the organization as well and received an award for her community activism.

In recognizing the needs of farm workers while working for the CSO, Dolores organized and founded the Agricultural Workers Association (“AWA”) in 1960.  She became a fearless lobbyist in Sacramento, at the age of twenty-five (25), a time where few women, not to mention women of color, dared to enter the State Capital and National Capital to lobby legislators.  Her efforts paid off in 1961 when she succeeded in obtaining the removal of citizenship requirements from pension and public assistance programs for legal residents of the United States and California State disability insurance for farm workers.  

She was also instrumental in passage of legislation allowing the right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the drivers license examination in their native language.  In 1962 she lobbied in Washington D.C. for an end to the “captive labor” Bracero Program.  In 1963 she was instrumental in securing Aid for Dependent Families (“AFDC”), for the unemployed and underemployed,

It was through her work with Fred Ross and the CSO that Dolores met Cesar Chavez.  It was Fred who recruited and organized both Dolores and Cesar and trained them in community organizing.  The CSO battled segregation, police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services in Latino communities throughout the State of California and fought to enact new legislation.  The CSO played a leading role in electing the first Latino in over one hundred years, Ed Roybal, to the Los Angeles City Council.

While working with the CSO, both Cesar and Dolores realized the immediate need to organize farm workers because of their dire conditions.  In 1962 after the CSO turned down Cesar’s request, as their nation director, to organize farm workers, Cesar and Dolores resigned from their jobs with CSO in order to do so.  At that time she was a divorced mother with seven children.   She later joined Cesar and his family in Delano, California where they began the National Farm Workers Association (“NFWA”), the predecessor to the United Farm Workers Union (“UFW”).

By 1965 Dolores and Cesar organized farm workers and their families throughout the San Joaquin Valley utilizing the organizing techniques taught them by Fred Ross.  On September 8th of that year, Filipino members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (the successor of the “AWA” the same organization founded by Dolores) demanded higher wages and struck Delano area grape growers.  Although Dolores and Cesar had planned to organize farm workers for several more years before confronting the large corporate grape industry, they could not ignore their Filipino brothers’ request.  On September 16, 1965 the NFWA voted to join in the strike.  Over 5,000 grape workers walked off their jobs.   The strike would last five years.

In 1966, Dolores negotiated the first NFWA contract with the Schenley Wine Company.  This was the first time in the history of the United States that a negotiating committee comprised of farm workers and a young Latina single mother of seven, negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with an agricultural corporation.  The grape strike continued and the two organizations (“AWA” and “NFWA”) merged in 1967 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (“UFWOC”).  As the main UFWOC negotiator, Dolores successfully negotiated more contracts for farm workers, she also set up hiring halls, the farm workers ranch committees, administrated the contracts and conducted over one hundred grievance and arbitration procedures on behalf of the workers.

These contracts established the first medical and pension benefits for farm workers and safety plans in the history of agriculture.  Dolores spoke out early against toxic pesticides that threaten farm workers, consumers, and the environment.  The early UFWOC agreements required growers to stop using such dangerous pesticides as DDT and Parathyon.  Dolores organized field strikes, directed the grape, lettuce and Gallo Wine boycotts, and led the farm workers in campaigns for political candidates.  As a legislative advocate, Dolores became one of the UFW’s most visible spokespersons.  Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her, the farm workers, and Cesar’s help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary moments before he was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Dolores directed the UFW’s national grape boycott that resulted in the entire California table grape industry signing a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the United Farm Workers.

In 1973 the grape contracts expired and the grape growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters Union.  Dolores organized picket lines and continued to lobby.    The UFW continued to organize not only the grape workers but the workers in the vegetable industry as well until violence erupted and farm workers were being killed.  Once again the UFW turned to the consumer boycott.  Dolores directed the east coast boycott of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wines.  The boycott resulted in the enactment of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, the first law of its kind that  grants farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. 

In 1974 she was instrumental in securing unemployment benefits for farm workers.  In 1985 Dolores lobbied against federal guest worker programs and spearheaded legislation granting amnesty for farm workers that had lived, worked, and paid taxes in the United States for many years but unable to enjoy the privileges of citizenship.  This resulted in the Immigration Act of 1985 in which 1,400,000 farm workers received amnesty.

Dolores worked with Cesar for over thirty years until his death in 1993. Together they founded the Robert Kennedy Medical Plan, the Juan De La Cruz Farm Workers Pension Fund, the Farm Workers Credit Union, the first medical and pension plans and credit union in history for farm workers.  They also formed the National Farm Workers Service Center (visit www.NSWSC.org) which today provides affordable housing with over 3,700 rental and 600 single family dwelling units, and educational radio with over nine Spanish Speaking Radio Stations throughout California, Washington and Arizona.

In 2002 Dolores was the second recipient of the Puffin Foundation/Nation Institute Award for Creative Citizenship (visit www.nationinstitute.org) that included a $100,000 grant which she utilized to establish her long time dream, the Dolores Huerta Foundation’s Organizing Institute. 

The Foundation’s mission is to focus on community organizing and leadership training in low-income under-represented communities.

At age seventy-five (75), Dolores Huerta still works long hours serving as President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation leading the development of the organization and the Organizing Institute as well as the community organizing.  It is not unusual to find her traveling regularly to cities across North America educating the public on public policy issues affecting immigrants, women, and youth.  She speaks at colleges and organizations throughout the country in support of “La Causa”. 

Dolores is a board member for the Feminist Majority Foundation (visit www.feminist.org) that advocates for gender balance. She is also teaching a class on community organizing at the University of Southern California.

Dolores C. Huerta is also Secretary-Treasure Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW).  She is the mother of 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Thursday, March 20, 2008
7 p.m. 
University Ballroom, University Union