Dolores Huerta - Co-founder, United Farm Workers - San Joaquin Delta College
San Joaquin Delta College alumna Dolores Clara Fernandez 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 Mexico legislature in 1938. Dolores spent most of her childhood and early adult life in Stockton 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. She offered rooms at affordable rates in her 70-room hotel, which she acquired after years of hard work. Alicia welcomed low-wage workers in the hotel, and often, waived the fee for them altogether. She was an active participant in community affairs, involved in numerous civic organizations and the church. Alicia encouraged the cultural diversity that was a natural part of Dolores’ upbringing in Stockton. The agricultural community where they lived was made up of Mexican, Filipino, African-American, Japanese and Chinese working families.
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 Delta College earning a provisional teaching credential. 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 thus 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. During this time she founded the Agricultural Workers Association, set up voter registration drives and pressed local governments for barrio improvements. Through Stockton Community Service Organization founder Fred Ross, Sr. Huerta met a likeminded colleague, the organization's 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 Community Service Organization’s mission.
As a result, in the spring of 1962 César and Dolores resigned and launched the National Farm Workers Association. Dolores’ organizing skills were essential to the growth of this budding organization. The challenges she faced as a woman did not go unnoted and in one of her letters to Cesar she joked…”Being a now (ahem) experienced lobbyist, I am able to speak on a man-to-man basis with other lobbyists.”
The first testament to her lobbying and negotiating talents were demonstrated in 1963 when she secured Aid For Dependent Families program dollars and disability insurance for farm workers in California in 1963, an unparalleled feat for the era. 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 power at the ballot box. 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. Throughout the years she has worked to elect numerous candidates including President Clinton, Congressman Ron Dellums, Governor Jerry Brown, Congresswoman Hilda Solis and Hillary Clinton.
Dolores initially dismissed the 1960’s women’s liberation movement as a “middle-class phenomenon”. However 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 more in common than previously imagined. Having found a supportive voice with other feminist, Dolores consciously began to challenge gender discrimination within the farm workers movement.
At age 58 Dolores suffered her most life-threatening assault while protesting against the policies of then presidential candidate George Bush in San Francisco. 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 percent of the party’s candidates and that officers must reflect the ethnic diversity of the nation.
Huerta continues to work tirelessly developing leaders and advocating for the working poor, women and children. As voluntary President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she travels across the country speaking to students and organizations about issues of social justice and public policy.
There are four elementary schools in California, one in Fort Worth, Texas, and a high school in Pueblo, Colo. named after Huerta.
She has received numerous awards among them the Eleanor Roosevelt Humans Rights Award from President Clinton in l998, Ms. Magazine’s one of the three most important women of l997, Ladies Home Journal’s 100 most important woman of the 20th Century, Puffin Foundation award for Creative Citizenship Labor Leader Award 1984, Kern County’s Woman of The Year by California State legislature, the Ohtli award from the Mexican Government, Smithsonian Institution's James Smithson Award, and nine honorary doctorates from universities throughout the United States.
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