Change-Maker in Women's History: Dolores Huerta
When you hear about the movement for the rights of farm workers, the first mention is Cesar Chavez, but a woman, Dolores Huerta, was just as essential to the struggle as was Chavez.
Dolores has been deemed by many one of the most outspoken human rights activists alive. She got her start in public school teaching but left because, in her words, “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.”
She met Cesar through her community service work with Community Service Organization (CSO), for which Cesar served as president. They both realized the need to organize farm workers, and in 1962, after the CSO turned down Cesar’s request to organize farm workers, Cesar and Dolores resigned from the CSO and together formed the National Farm Workers Association ("NFWA"), the predecessor to the UFW (United Farm Workers), the nation's first successful and now the largest farm workers union currently active in 10 states.
Dolores’s fearless lobbying over the years has been instrumental in countless gains for immigrants and farm workers.
* In 1961 she succeeded in obtaining the citizenship requirements removed from pension and public assistance programs.
* In 1962, she was instrumental in the passage of legislation allowing voters the right to vote in Spanish, and the right of individuals to take the drivers license examination in their native language;
* In 1963, she helped secure Aid for Dependent Families ("AFDC") for the unemployed and underemployed, disability insurance for farm workers in the State of California, and unemployment benefits for farm workers.
* Under her direction, the 1973 east coast boycott of grapes, lettuce and Gallo wines resulted in the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the first law of its kind in the U.S., which granted farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.
* In the late 70’s Dolores spearheaded legislation granting amnesty for farm workers that had lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. for many years but were unable to enjoy the privileges of citizenship. These efforts ultimately resulted in the Immigration Act of 1985 which allowed most illegal aliens who have resided in the U.S. continuously since at least January 1, 1982, to apply for legal status.
As an activist, Dolores was arrested twenty-four times for non-violent protests, received 73 honorary doctorates and been awarded the American Civil Liberties Union Liberty Awards and the Ellis Island Medal of Freedom Award, among many others. In 1998, she was one of Ms. Magazine’s “Women of the Year”, and Ladies Home Journal’s “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.”
Together with Cesar Chavez, she formed the National Farm Workers Service Center, Inc., a community based affordable house and Spanish language radio communications organization with five Spanish radio stations. The team also founded the:
* Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan,
* Juan De La Cruz Farmer Worker Pension Fun, and
* Farm Workers Credit Union, the first medical and pension plan and credit union for farm workers.
Now in her 70’s, Huerta refuses to settle down and become an artifact. In 2002, she marched 165 grueling miles from Delano to Sacramento to demand that then California Governor Gray Davis sign a mandatory mediation bill for farm workers. When Huerta said she would start a hunger strike during the final days of the intense gubernatorial campaign, David did the right thing and passed the legislation.
For that kind of moral commitment and savvy, Dolores was awarded the $100,000 Puffin Prize by the Nation Institute, given annually to a social activist for a lifetime of sacrifice for a cause. When asked how to she planned to spend the money, she already had a plan. “We need an organizers institute to train more Dolores Huertas for the future.”