Prominent Chicana Labor Leader. Cofounder and first vice president of the United Farm Workers union, Dolores Huerta became the most prominent Chicana labor leader in the United States. For more than thirty years she dedicated her life to the struggle for justice, dignity, and a decent standard of living for one of the country's most exploited groups, the women and men who toil in the fields. The recipient of countless community service, labor, Hispanic, and women's awards and the subject of many newspaper articles, as well as corridos (ballads) and murals, Huerta became a singular role model for Mexican American women living in the post World War II era. Although Huerta became widely acclaimed and celebrated, her early history, family life, transformation from volunteer to labor activist, and career are barely known.
Background. Dolores Fernandez Huerta was the second child and only daughter born to Juan and Alicia (Chavez) Fernandez on 10 April 1930, in the small mining town of Dawson in northern New Mexico. On her mother's side of the family, Huerta was born as a third-generation New Mexican. Like her mother, Huerta's father was born in Dawson but to a Mexican immigrant family. The young couple's marriage was troubled, and when Huerta was a toddler her parents divorced. Her mother moved her three children--Juan, Dolores, and Marshal--first to Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then to Stockton, California, where she had relatives.
Childhood. As a single parent during the Depression in California, Alicia Chavez Fernandez experienced a difficult time supporting her young family. Describing her mother in an interview with this author, Huerta noted, "She was a very genteel woman, very quiet but very hard working," as well as very "energetic, motivated, and ambitious." To make ends meet, her mother worked at a cannery at night and as a waitress during the day. For child care, Alicia Fernandez depended on her widowed father, Herculano Chavez, who had followed her to Stockton. In the same interview, Dolores Huerta recalled his importance "My grandfather kind of raised us.... He was really our father.... My grandfather's influence was really the male influence in my family." The gregarious Huerta enjoyed a close relationship with her grandfather Chavez in a happy childhood with attentive supervision, respect for one's elders, Mexican corridos, and rosary recitations. Considering herself to be a dutiful but playful child, she remembered in the interview, "My grandfather used to call me seven tongues... because I always talked so much." Verbal skills would serve her well in later life.
Exposed to Different Cultures. The family's economic fortunes improved during the war years. Alicia Chavez ran a restaurant and then purchased a hotel in Stockton with her second husband, James Richards, with whom she had another daughter. Particularly during the summers, Dolores Huerta and her brothers helped run these establishments located on the fringes of skid row, catering to working-class and farm-worker clientele. Huerta relished the experience and believed she learned to appreciate all different types of people, as she conveyed in the interview:"The ethnic community where we lived was all mixed. It was Japanese, Chinese. The only Jewish families that lived in Stockton were there in our neighborhood.... There was the Filipino pool hall, . . . the Mexican drug stores, the Mexican bakeries were there." While Huerta was exposed to a vibrant community life, her relationship with her stepfather was strained, and eventually her mother's marriage ended in divorce.
A Mother's Influence. In the early 1950s, Alicia Chavez Richards married her third husband, Juan Silva. This happy union produced another daughter, Elen Silva, and endured until her mother's death. Huerta spoke admirably of her mother's entrepreneurial and personal spirit and her expectations for her children. Again she reminisced, "My mother was always pushing me to get involved in all these youth activities.... We took violin lessons. I took piano lessons. I took dancing lessons. I belonged to the church choir.... I belonged to the church youth organization. And I was a very active Girl Scout from the time I was eight to the time I was eighteen." Mother and daughter shared a caring relationship extending into Huerta's adult years.
Father's Labor Background. Although Huerta's primary family influences derived from her mother and grandfather, she did not lose contact with her father. His work history and activities inspired her. Like most people in Dawson, Juan Fernandez worked in the coal mines. To supplement his wages, he also joined the migrant labor force, traveling to Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming, for the beet harvests. Indignant over inferior working conditions, frequent accidents, and low wages, Fernandez also became interested in labor issues. Leaving Dawson after the dissolution of his marriage, he continued his labor activism becoming secretary-treasurer of the CIO local at the Terrero Camp of the American Metals Company in Las Vegas. Using his predominately Hispanic local union as a base, he won election to the New Mexico state legislature in 1938, representing San Miguel County. He worked with other sympathetic members to promote a labor program, including the proposal of New Mexico's "Little Wagner Act" and a wages-and-hours bill. Yet due to his independent demeanor and his outspoken temperament, he lasted only one term in the state house.
Labor Activism Connects Huerta with Father. After her parents' divorce, Huerta had only sporadic contact with her father, but as a sickly 11 year-old she spent a summer traveling around New Mexico with him while he made a living as a pots-and-pans sales representative. In her adult years she had more contact with her father, particularly after he settled in Stockton, where he lived in a labor camp for a time, worked in the asparagus fields, held other odd jobs, and returned to school for a college degree. Huerta remained proud of her father's union activism, political achievements, and educational accomplishments. Remembering her father she revealed in the interview, "He was always supportive of my labor organizing," but she added he was less approving of her personal life-style. Their relationship remained aloof and distant until the end of his life.
Educational Background. As a youngster growing up in Stockton and especially after her mother's improved economic circumstances and remarriage, Huerta experienced a more middle-class upbringing. She attended Lafayette grammar school, Jackson Junior High, and graduated from Stockton High School. A former high school classmate recalled in an article in the Stockton Record, "When we were in school, she was very popular and outspoken. She was already an organizer, but I didn't think she'd get so serious and work for such a cause." Unlike most Hispanic women of her generation, the outgoing Huerta continued her education at Stockton College, interrupting her studies temporarily with her first marriage to Ralph Head. After her divorce, and with financial and emotional help from her mother in raising two daughters, Celeste and Lori, she returned to college and received an A.A. degree in education.
Teaching and Business Experience. Huerta held a variety of jobs in Stockton before, during, and after her brief marriage. Before her marriage she managed a small neighborhood grocery store that her mother had purchased but which eventually went bankrupt. Then she obtained a job at the Naval Supply Base as the secretary to the commander in charge of public works. During and after her first divorce, she worked in the sheriff's office in records and identifications. Dissatisfied with this employment option, she resumed her education, pursuing a teaching career and obtaining a provisional teaching credential. An interview published in Regeneracion in 1971 revealed her subsequent frustrations with this profession: "I realized one day that as a teacher I couldn't do anything for the kids who came to school barefoot and hungry."
Influenced by Postwar Activism. A part of her consciousness grew out of a new wave of civic activism that swept through Mexican-American communities after World War II. The postwar organization that would eventually alter her life course was the Community Service Organization (CSO), a Mexican American self-help association that was founded in Los Angeles--it was instrumental in electing Edward Roybal, the first Hispanic member of the Los Angeles City Council in the twentieth century--and then spread throughout California and the Southwest.
Gradual Move Toward Activism. Huerta's transformation to social and labor activism occurred gradually. Initially suspicious of the CSO and its chief organizer, Fred Ross, when he came to Stockton in the mid-1950s, Huerta reported to Regeneracion, "I was told he was a communist, so I went to the FBI and had him checked out.... See how middle class I was. In fact, at the time, I was a registered Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln." Her misgivings allayed, Huerta soon became very active. Changing her party affiliation, she participated in the civic and educational programs of the CSO, registering people to vote, organizing citizenship classes, pressing local government for barrio improvements. As a result of her skills, she was hired to lobby in Sacramento for CSO legislative initiatives, such as the ultimately successful old-age pensions for non-citizens.
Marriage Deteriorates. During the course of these activities she met and married her second husband, Ventura Huerta, who was also involved in community affairs. This relationship produced five children: Fidel, Emilio, Vincent, Alicia, and Angela. The marriage deteriorated, however, because of incompatible temperaments, but also because of disagreements over Dolores Huerta's juggling of domestic matters, child care, and her interest in civic activism. Huerta summed up the contention in an article that appeared in The Progressive. "I knew I wasn't comfortable in a wife's role, but I wasn't clearly facing the issue. I hedged, I made excuses, I didn't come out and tell my husband that I cared more about helping other people than cleaning our house and doing my hair." During trial separations (that eventually ended in divorce), Huerta's mother again provided her with important emotional and financial support as well as backing her CSO career, contributing baby sitting, housing, and household expenses. Speaking with this interviewer more than twenty years after her mother's early death from cancer in 1962, Huerta disclosed the depth of her loss. "When she died, it took me years to get over it. In fact, I still don't think I'm over it."
Drawn to Farm Workers. At the same time that Dolores Huerta was struggling to balance a failing marriage, family, and work with a commitment to social concerns in the late 1950s, she became drawn to the conditions of farm workers. She organized a northern California community interest group, the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA). It later gained the support of the AFL-CIO's Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), for which Huerta served as secretary-treasurer. During these years she also met Cesar Chavez, a CSO organizer who shared her interests in farm labor. The two cooperated to bring rural labor issues to the attention of the CSO. Huerta and Chavez made a joint decision that if the CSO would not sponsor their farm-worker organizing effort, they would both leave the organization. Frustrated with the CSO's unresponsiveness, first Chavez and later Huerta left the CSO to devote their time to organizing field workers and thus to change the course of agricultural and labor history in California with the founding of the Farm Workers Association (FWA), the precursor to the UFW, in Delano in 1962.
Collaboration with Chavez. The full extent of the Chavez-Huerta close collaboration has only recently been documented with the availability of correspondence between the two and others. Writing to his CSO mentor, Fred Ross, in 1962, Chavez communicated, "Dolores was here [Delano] for one and a half days. I filled her in on all the plans and asked her to join the parade.... While here we did some work on the list of towns to work in throughout the valley.... Also she, Helen [Chavez's wife], and I [decided] on the name of the group. `National Farm Workers Assn.'"
Key Role in United Farm Workers Association. From the founding of the union, Huerta has held decision-making posts and maintained a highly visible profile. As second in command to Chavez, she has exerted a direct influence on shaping and guiding the fortunes of the UFW. In the 1965 Delano strike, she devised strategy and led workers on picket lines. She was the union's first contract negotiator, founding the department and directing it in the early years. In these and other positions Huerta fought criticism based both on gender and ethnic stereotyping. Reacting to Huerta's uncompromising and forceful style, one grower exclaimed in a 1976 story in The Progressive, "Dolores Huerta is crazy. She is a violent woman, where women, especially Mexican women, are usually peaceful and calm." Such attacks highlighted the extent of her challenge to the political, social, and economic power of California agribusiness, as well as to patriarchy.
Boycotts. Another major responsibility for Huerta was the directorship of the table grape boycott in New York City and later her assignment as the East Coast boycott coordinator in 1968 and 1969. Her critical leadership there, the primary distribution point for grapes, contributed to the success of the national boycott effort in mobilizing unions, political activists, Hispanic associations, community organizations, religious supporters, peace groups, student protectors, and concerned consumers. In New York Huerta also became aware of the potency of the emerging feminist movement through her contacts with Gloria Steinem. As a result of this influence, Huerta began to incorporate a feminist critique into her human rights philosophy. As reported in Ronald Taylor's book on the union, Huerta explained her approach: "The whole thrust of our boycott is to get as many supporters as you can." After five years, the growing power of this grassroots coalition across the nation finally forced Coachella and Delano grape producers to negotiate the historic contracts of 1970.
Collective Bargaining Rights Won. Huerta's organizing expertise and inspiration were felt again when she returned to New York to administer the lettuce, grape, and Gallo wine boycotts of the 1970s. The concerted pressure of the renewed cross-class and cross-cultural cooperation in New York City and in other major cities across the U.S. resulted in the passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in 1975, the first law to recognize the collective bargaining rights of farm workers in California.
Family Sacrifices. In the midst of boycott duties and a heavy traveling and speaking schedule, Huerta began a third relationship with Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother. This liaison produced Juanita, Maria Elena, Ricardo, and Camilla, bringing the total number of her children to 11. Huerta alluded in her interview to the sacrifices her position placed on all her children as a result of her frequent absences: "I don't feel proud of the suffering that my kids went through. I feel very bad and guilty about it, but by the same token I know that they learned a lot in the process."
UFW Projects. During the late 1970s, Huerta directed the political arm of the UFW, as she carried the union's battle to protect the new farm labor law into the legislative arena in Sacramento. In the 1980s she was involved in another ambitious UFW project, the founding of Radio Campesina, the union's radio station, KUFW. Her schedule continued to accommodate speaking engagements, fund raising, publicizing the renewed grape boycott of the 1980s, and testifying before state and congressional committees on a wide range of issues, including pesticides, health problems of field workers, Hispanic political issues, and immigration policy.
Assaulted During Demonstration. At great personal cost Huerta has committed her energies to the UFW as an outspoken leader, executive board member, administrator, lobbyist, contract negotiator, picket captain, and lecturer. In addition she has also been arrested more than 20 times and suffered a life-threatening injury in a 1988 peaceful demonstration against the policies of then presidential candidate George Bush, who was campaigning in San Francisco. Rushed to the hospital after a clubbing by baton-swinging police officers, Huerta underwent emergency surgery in which her spleen was removed. She remained hospitalized to recover from the operation and four broken ribs. According to a 1991 report in the Los Angeles Times, the incident caused the police department to change its rules regarding crowd control and police discipline; another result was a record financial settlement to Huerta as a consequence of the personal assault.
Power of Boycotts. Recovering from this medical setback, Huerta gradually resumed her work for the farm workers in the 1990s, a period of time when conservative political forces seemed triumphant, awareness of the farm workers' cause had dimmed, and the union itself went through a difficult process of internal reassessment and restructuring. Still Huerta asserted that the UFW legacy remains strong for the Hispanic community and beyond. Towards the end of her interview with this contributor, she affirmed, "I think we brought to the world, the United States anyway, the whole idea of boycotting as a nonviolent tactic. I think we showed the world that nonviolence can work to make social change.... I think we have laid a pattern of how farm workers are eventually going to get out of their bondage. It may not happen right now in our foreseeable future, but the pattern is there and farm workers are going to make it."
- Day, Mark, Forty Acres: Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers, (Praeger, 1971).
- Levy, Jacques, Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa, (Norton, 1975).
- Majka, Linda C., and Theo J. Majka, Farm Workers, Agribusiness, and the State, (Temple University Press, 1982).