Profiles in Courage: Dolores Huerta
Si Se Puede!
“Don’t be a marshmallow. Walk the street with us into history. Get off the sidewalk. Work for justice!”
No one could have ever guessed when Dolores Clara Fernandez was born in 1930 in a small mining town in northern New Mexico, her father a farm worker, miner and union organizer, that Dolores Huerta would one day have public schools named after her, receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and have a movie star (Rosario Dawson) portray her in a Hollywood film, Cesar Chavez.
But she has. Dolores Huerta has dedicated her life to standing up and speaking out for the poorest and most powerless among us. She is a living legend.
When she was three, her parents divorced, and Dolores Huerta moved with her mother to Stockton, California. Her mother was both a strong and compassionate women. She owned both a restaurant and a hotel and was famous for serving low-wage workers.
Dolores attended public schools, graduated from Stockton High School, and was an excellent student. She attended Delta Community College, earning both her bachelor’s degree and a provisional teaching credential.
Her teaching career was a short one, however. Dolores Huerta could not bear seeing her students, the children of farm workers, come to school hungry and without shoes. After only a year of teaching, she decided to do something about poverty.
She created a Community Service Organization in Stockton, and worked on voter registration and pressuring local government for barrio improvements. It was when she was a community organizer that Dolores Huerta met another young, idealistic community organizer, César Chávez. The two soon discovered they shared a common dream—to organize farm workers into a union.
Dolores Huerta was arrested 22 times advocating for farm worker rights.
In 1962, Dolores Huerta and César Chávez launched the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Dolores was not only a skilled organizer, but also a brilliant strategist. Moreover, she was never shy about telling Chávez when she thought he was wrong. Indeed, their blow-out arguments were legendary, but never affected their close working relationship.
In the 1960s, Dolores directed the UFW’s national boycott of California table grapes, in an effort to get the employers (growers) to recognize the union and come to the bargaining table—and eventually they did. The boycott gained the farm workers’ widespread support across America.
It was at this time that Dolores Huerta came in contact with leaders of the growing women’s rights movement, and she soon realized that she too was a feminist, thanks largely to her strong and independent mother.
At age 58, during a peaceful demonstration at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, Dolores Huerta suffered live-threatening injuries when attacked by baton-wielding police officers. Four of her ribs were broken and her spleen was shattered. She sued and earned a judgment against the city of San Francisco and donated the proceeds to the farm workers.
Following a lengthy recovery, Dolores Huerta took a leave of absence from the union to focus on women’s rights. She crisscrossed the nation encouraging women to run for public office.
Now, 84, Dolores Huerta is proud to call herself a union organizer, a feminist, an immigration reform advocate, and a champion of poor families. She serves as Honorary Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and is on the Board of Equality California.
It was Dolores Huerta who taught us to say, “Si se puede.”
“The most powerful group of people we have in our country are educators. Think about that!”