Ms. Dolores Huerta (1930 – ) was co-founder, with Cesar Chavez, of United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Huerta has worked for more than five decades as a leader in the movement to secure basic rights for the nation’s agricultural workers. She was director of the UFW’s national grape boycott in the 1970s and was instrumental in securing unemployment benefits, collective bargaining rights and improved wages and working conditions for farmworkers. Currently she continues her work as a master organizer, lobbyist and spokesperson for the rights of women, farmworkers and other disenfranchised people. In 2012, Dolores Huerta received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.

If the United Farm Workers organizing efforts gave birth to boycotts as a means of nonviolent action in the marketplace, then Dolores Huerta can quite rightly be considered the midwife of that movement. Her passion and dedication to the cause of justice for the farm workers helped transform their cause from an issue that other unions would not address into one of the most successful organizing efforts in the history of the labor movement.

Born in 1930 in the small mining town of Dawson, New Mexico, Huerta was surrounded by an ethic of activism from an early age. Her parents divorced when Dolores was still very young, and her mother, Alicia Chavez Fernandez, moved to a farm worker community in the San Joaquin Valley of California to raise Dolores and her two brothers and two sisters. She initially pieced together day shifts at a cannery and night shifts as a waitress to help the family survive, with her father watching the children during the day. After she remarried and her financial situation improved, Chavez Fernandez ran a 70-room hotel, and frequently let farm working families in need stay there for free.

Huerta was encouraged to pursue her interests and talents throughout her schooling, and she eventually received her degree in teaching from the University of Pacific’s Delta Community College. She did not remain long in the classroom, however, 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.” When faced with the downstream effects of poverty in the farm worker community, Huerta decided to swim upstream and begin organizing to change the conditions at the source.

In 1955, Huerta became instrumental in the efforts of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a grass roots organization started by Fred Ross, Sr., that provided services and support to the Mexican-American community. Her work in voter registration, citizenship education for immigrants, and anti-segregation efforts led to reassignment to Sacramento, where she lobbied for better policies for the Mexican-American community. Throughout her time with CSO, she pushed the organization to take seriously the plight of farm workers, but to little avail. Finally, in 1962, Huerta left the CSO with its president, Cesar Chavez, after both of them tried unsuccessfully to get CSO to help organize farm workers.

A single mother of 7, Huerta joined the Chavez family in Delano, California, where they formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor of the United Farm Workers (UFW). Chavez and Huerta worked to recruit farm workers throughout the valley to push for more just policies to protect the rights of farm workers, whose vulnerable position often lead to their being taken advantage of and underpaid. They combined efforts with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and joined in the “Delano Grape Strike” of 1965, which lasted for five years. The two organizations eventually formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which in 1972 became known by its current name, the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Huerta worked tirelessly with and on behalf of the UFW, improving working conditions by minimizing pesticide usage, establishing credit unions, and fighting for health and benefit plans for farm workers. Known as a forceful lobbyist with a fierce determination, Huerta’s influence helped grant the farm workers collective bargaining power. This impact extended beyond the context of the farm workers themselves. Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her instrumental role in his winning of the California Democratic Primary, just moments before he was assassinated.

Huerta has worked with the UFW since its inception in the 1970s, and continues to be a frequent speaker on college campuses, at community rallies, and in the media. Despite serving numerous jail sentences, and enduring a beating at the hands of baton-wielding police officers at a demonstration in 1988, she continues to have deep faith in the strategies of the movement.. Even in the face of these life-threatening injuries, Huerta continueds to proclaim the cause of non-violent protest and continues to work for the rights of farm workers across the nation. Her efforts have been recognized and honored by a wide range of organizations, including California State Senate, which bestowed upon her the Outstanding Labor Leader award in 1984. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998 was one of three Ms. Magazine’s “Women of the Year,” and the Ladies Home Journal’s “100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.”

William Fulton
Staff Writer, The Veterans of Hope Project

Unlike many of the other Veterans, I had not personally known Dolores Huerta before she was scheduled to visit the Project for her interview. Rather, I had heard and read about this legendary labor organizer and woman of great power who worked side by side with Cesar Chavez to create and lead the United Farmworkers organization.

As was often the case when Veterans visited, Dolores was scheduled to lecture to a community-wide audience on the evening of her arrival in Denver, with her interview scheduled for the following two days. After a long flight delay, she finally arrived to greet a still eager audience of students and community members in the Great Hall of the Iliff School of Theology on April 24, 2000.

The energy Dolores brought into the room was amazing as she walked through the gathering, waved and smiled brightly at us all, and mounted the podium as if she was just beginning her day.

From our first moments of contact we, at the Veterans of Hope Project, knew we had met an extraordinary sister and companion in the struggle for a more just and compassionate society. Woven through all the stories of her remarkable life and sacrificial work Dolores shared her sense of the great importance of multiracial alliances; her commitment to the path of disciplined, spiritually-grounded nonviolent struggle for change, no matter how costly; and her determination to stand and walk in solidarity with the poorest workers whose labor in providing food for us all must surely be considered sacred.

Often when we spoke with her we were vividly reminded of other powerful and compassionate—and wise—women in the extended family of the African-American freedom movement. Indeed, one of the most powerful gifts we received from Dolores was the fresh recognition of the interlocking histories of the African-American movement based in the south in the l950s and l960s on the one hand, and the Chicano liberation and farmworker movements that rose up in the southwest United States during the same historical period. It was clear that this magnificent woman knew much more about the freedom movement that had shaped my life and work than I knew about the powerful struggles that had been central to her own existence.

The recognition of that imbalance in my knowledge of these two fundamentally related struggles inspires me to work not only to fill in the information gaps, but to help create the personal bridges that we need between veterans like Dolores Huerta and other persons of various generations and racial communities who must know her and the history she helped make which has deeply impacted the life of our nation.

Fortunately, once the personal connection had begun to be established, we found several ways to continue working together, allowing our kindred histories and common hope to bind and inspire us. For example, in addition to the generous sharing of her story in the hours of videotaped interview, Dolores was more than ready to break through a very demanding schedule when we later asked her to share in a weekend retreat we organized to bring some of our Veterans together with a group of younger people to share questions, concerns, hope and visions. The gathering was held at Seasons, the Fetzer Institute’s conference center outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dolores made time to be with us, bringing her unique combination of wisdom, adventuresomeness, spirituality, patience and wit. As a result, she deeply inspired our younger colleagues to find their own best possible gifts as creators of a new, more human society constantly arising among us.

One of the Project’s most important collaborations with Dolores took place in the summer of 2004, again with young people as the focus—but this time without her physical presence. I had been asked to join several other adults (including two thoughtful and committed Latino teachers) to help facilitate a two-day retreat with a small group of Chicano and Mexicano teenagers. The young people were students in a Denver high school that has changed from almost all African-American to slightly more than fifty per cent Latino in just a few years. Unfortunately, there was little preparation in the school and the community for such a major change, and some of the young people on the retreat had experienced physical attacks from their African-American fellow students. The gathering, organized by Lucia Guzmán, the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Community Relations (and one of my former students at Iliff), was meant to be part of an attempt to address the situation.

Initially, the students were very discouraged. The black students they expected to participate had not been properly informed and had not shown up. The Latino youth insisted on defining themselves as victims, an alienated and marginalized group with little power except to react and keep to themselves in a very difficult situation. (The fact that nearly half of the group had been born in Mexico and Central America added to their sense of isolation and beleagueredness.)

During the retreat, the adult facilitators worked to encourage the young people to recognize their important capacity to become leaders and to claim partnership with whatever black allies they could find in a struggle to transform the school into a truly multiracial educational community. As part of the process of encouragement I shared an early version of Dolores’ interview video with the group. Though they had never heard of her before (nor, in most cases, of Cesar Chavez), Dolores clearly struck the students as an authentic model whose life had a message for them. They were especially moved by her willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the well-being of others, and by the time the retreat was over they had taken up the Farm Workers’ declaration: “Sí, Se Puede!” believing in their own potentials so fully that some were saying, “We are strong. We can work for change.”

By then they were prepared to carry the spirit of Dolores Huerta back to their high school, along with a list of proposed changes they would present to their principal—and a list of promises they were making to themselves, and to their African-American fellow students—and perhaps to the Virgin of Guadalupe who means so much to Dolores? And maybe even to César? (Saint César?) And to the ancestors who always seemed very near to César and Dolores? Perhaps the ancestors are now ready to renew their unceasing journey with those young people who are willing to take up their own long walk of faith and struggle. Perhaps that is what Dolores saw when she said, “I think we have a renaissance of sorts happening with the young people.” Si, se puede.

Vincent G. Harding
Denver, CO
Fall, 2004

Early Family Influences

Vincent Harding: I wonder if you could remember out loud some of the people, some of the situations, some of the institutions that you feel had an important influence on you and who you were becoming and who you would become.

Dolores Huerta: Well, I believe that part of who I am began where I was born which was in the state of New Mexico, which is bilingual state. That was important, because as a young child I grew up speaking both English and Spanish as did my grandparents who were both born, on my mother’s side of the family, born in the state of New Mexico. In our classes, although I left when I was only seven, but going to kindergarten and to first grade, our teachers spoke to us both in Spanish and in English. So it was a very natural type of way of communicating in both languages, and, of course, that really enriches one’s life.

My father was very intelligent, very intelligent, he had a very strong personality, a very handsome man. He looked very Indian, in fact I look like my father, but he had green eyes. So he had a very striking appearance and he had a very good way with words and I can see my father as an organizer. In fact, my Dad, wherever he went he was a very strong union man. He organized the government employees union at the government facility where he was working. He was very strongly devoted to the cause of unionism. He felt very strongly about that. I would hear stories about them organizing the union when I was small, around my dad.

My grandfather was very… he said you should never lie, never tell lies. He always used to say that the English language was the language of liars. He wouldn’t let us speak English in his presence. We had to speak Spanish although he could speak English as well as I can. I caught him once speaking English. He said that the Anglo culture demanded you put everything in writing because they didn’t have–their word wasn’t any good.

My mother, also, she didn’t believe in profanity. Especially if you swore at another person. Even to call–there’s a common word in Spanish that they use which is pendejo, which means, kind of dumb. But my mother had a totally different translation for that. When you called somebody a pendejothat meant that person did not have God’s grace. So you always wanted to be in God’s grace, right? And the way that you did that is to help people, to help other people out. Never expect any type of remuneration for that help. If you saw someone that needed help, your obligation was to help that individual. If you had the ability to help them you needed to help them.

California Childhood

The neighborhood that we lived in was very diverse. We had on the left hand side there was an Italian family. They were recent Italian immigrants. Across the street there were Italians. Our neighbors on the right hand side were an African-American family, the Smiths. We had around the corner Filipinos. These were all new immigrants, right? A Filipino family. There were Chinese and Japanese, Native Americans, Greeks. People that had come in from Oklahoma, the Okies as they were called.

V. Harding: What town was this where you had this diverse group…?
Huerta: Stockton, California. So it was just this very poor neighborhood, but it was so wonderful because we had all of these–all of our friends were from all these different ethnic groups. That made it so, to me, that was a preparation. A universal preparation for the world.

In our grammar school and junior high school we had the last of the old guard teachers. You know the single, the old maids. They were very strict. They were very hard, but they were hard on everybody, equally. You didn’t ever feel that you were being discriminated against. The White kids got the rough treatment just like we did and everybody had to learn to read and write. But then when we went to high school it was a whole different scene. The racism was severe, just severe, in our high school.

V. Harding: How was it expressed?
Huerta: Oh, in many ways. I used to love to write–and I say used to because it’s very difficult for me to write. I had pen pals. I wrote poetry and I spent a lot of time on all my essays to make sure they were perfect, my term papers. In my senior year my teacher, whom I liked a lot–she was my favorite, her name was Miss Lovejoy. I liked this teacher a lot. She gave me a C for my grade, when I had gotten As on every one of my papers. And so I asked her why did I get a C. She said, it’s obvious that somebody else has been writing your papers. She just devastated me. They were always punishing the Latino kids and the African-American kids so by the time I reached my senior year most of the Latino kids had dropped out. We had a very clean group of kids that we hung went out with. We didn’t do dope. We didn’t drink, you know, but they were just always investigating us. One of the things, I think, looking back now, in fact I know this now–is because we were integrated. Because we had an integrated group of kids that hung together. We had these White girls that hung out with us. In fact, when I was sixteen I started a teenage center.

V. Harding: You started a teenage center?
Huerta: I started a teen center because we needed a place to hang out. This friend of my mother’s, who was a business person, had a storefront. So I asked him if he would let us have this storefront to do a teen center. He said, fine. So we brought in a juke box. We brought in table tennis tables. We had jitterbug contests. All the kids would come over there and hang out. And the cops closed us down. They closed us down. They closed us down because they didn’t want to see these White girls hanging around with Filipinos, and Mexicans, and Black kids.

My mother, was, of course, very supportive of me as a young woman and always pushed me to be out in front, to speak my mind, to get involved, to be active. My mother was a very quiet, a calm kind of a personality but she had a lot of quiet energy and did a lot of things. My mother was a fabulous cook. She was a wonderful cook. She was a person who could do everything. She sewed. She cooked. She could plaster. She could wallpaper. I mean she was like a renaissance type of a person. She really believed in culture. She bought us season tickets to the symphonies. I also took dancing lessons. My ambition as a youngster was to be a dancer. From the time I was very little, I was about five or six, I always wanted to be a flamenco dancer. Of course, growing up in the forties it was a very exciting time especially in terms of music. Our big entertainment was dancing. We’d dance, and dance, and dance forever.

I would get tickets to the Jazz at the Philharmonic. All my friends would caravan up to San Francisco to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy and the rest of the great musicians up there. So that just became–our whole life was kind of centered around music. I would work all week just so that we could have the money then to go to the Bay Area to hear the great musicians. We kind of lived for music. The reason I guess that was important, too, was because I had to give that up when we started the union. I remember my last music act was going to the Monterey Jazz Festival before I went to Delano and how painful that was for me because I had to give up music. Number one not being able to afford it any more and being down in the Delano area where all you get is country-western, right?

“You Just Have to Do It”

At the time that we started the union, I was going through a divorce. I had seven children. So can you imagine? What man would ask a woman with seven kids to help start a union with no money? Talk about faith! Naturally when I went to Delano also, I had been–I had a job as a school teacher. There were only three bilingual teachers in the whole county, and I was one of three. So you can imagine we were very popular. I always had a lot of work to do. But I quit my teaching job and, again, you know you get these little signs. I remember thinking, Well, I’m going to go. I’m not going to have any money.” Because I was supporting my children. I had seven kids, right? The day after I made my decision somebody left a big box of groceries on my porch.

I remember feeling really badly because one of my daughters was going to make her confirmation and I didn’t have money to buy her shoes. And I was kind of embarrassed about that. My daughter was coming down the aisle with her tennis shoes with holes in them and I was wincing. And then just behind her there were other farm worker children coming down the aisle with tennis shoes with holes in them. So these are the kind of signs that you get that you’re doing the right thing. To me they are very, very strong signs.

We’d go to city council meetings, or we were fighting this, or the county supervisors–fighting this particular fight that we were having at that particular time. Often I’d walk in with a safety pin on my blouse. I remember once I went to a city council meeting, and one of the city council members said, “Excuse me, but weren’t you pregnant last year when you were here? Is this a different pregnancy?” I said, “Yes it is.” But you know, you had to do it and I did a lot of the work out of my home, out of the house. You just do it. You don’t think about how to do it. I always say that if you start to think about all of the things that you have to do to prepare to do, it’s not going to happen. You just have to get out there and do it and then play catch up afterward.

Organizing Strategies

R. Harding: How did you go about building up a new group of organizers?

Huerta: Through house meetings. He [Fred Ross] kind of stumbled upon this whole method of using house meetings as a basic step of organizing, which is something that the farmworkers had actually, he says, taught him. Because they said, come over to my house, I’ll invite some of my friends over and you can tell them what we’re trying to do.

V. Harding: That’s what a house meeting is, hunh?
Huerta: Fred says a big light went off–Ding, ding, ding. This is it. This is it. From that meeting then they would get another meeting where a person at the first meeting would invite someone else and then they would have a few friends come over. And then a whole chain of these house meetings would be held. After you had a whole series of house meetings then you had a general meeting where you called all the people who had been involved in the house meetings to a big meeting. At that meeting then, we set up the organization, electing officers, and setting the program.

In the house meeting approach you never got more than–you didn’t try to get more than say, six to eight people at a meeting. And you always tried to have the family involved. You tried to make sure that the wife or the husband was also in that meeting. The meetings were short, they shouldn’t be over an hour, hour and a half. You tried to have the host have refreshments. The whole trick of those meetings was to make the host of that meeting invite his or her friends because it’s very hard to refuse a friend when they invite you to come over to their home and hear any kind of presentation. Something like the Tupperware party approach.

The Grape Boycott

R. Harding: One of the things that the United Farm Workers is perhaps best known for in mainstream American society is the grape boycott. Could you talk a little bit about how that was organized and what influence it had on your work?

Huerta:We had been on strike for a few months and the growers were bringing in strike-breakers from Mexico. They went and got court injunctions limiting us to five people per field. Can you imagine five pickets on a big thousand acre field? So we were kind of stymied in terms of trying to keep the people from breaking the strike. In fact, at that time I even went to Juarez, Mexico. That’s where I met Lalo Delgado, where he did a leaflet for me to keep the people from Juarez from breaking the strike in Delano.

So we were talking about it and there was this Jewish attorney that was volunteering to help us out, named Stu Weinberg. So, he said, “Have you thought of doing a boycott? The civil rights movement is doing a boycott. Have you thought of doing a boycott?” So we said, “Hey, well let’s try it.” So we had these young volunteers that had come to work with us together with farmworkers, and we had no money. So these volunteers hitch-hiked out to the east coast. They hitch-hiked to St. Louis. They hitch-hiked to New York, they hitch-hiked to Chicago. Then we picked as our boycott target, because they say that liquor is easy to boycott, so we picked the Schenley company who had a wine grape operation which hired about 400 workers. We picked them as our first target.

The strike broke out in September of 1965. Then the march to Sacramento was decided on which was done in the Lenten period of 1966. People were marching to Sacramento, the farmworkers were marching to Sacramento, carrying signs that said “Boycott Schenley.” So before the march got to Sacramento, the Schenley company decided to recognize the union.

So the strike lasted five years. It was a five year strike and we had a lot of the young people who came to join the strike from Berkeley. Then the doors were wide open. I mean, everybody came in and then we were out there on the road raising money for the strike. We invited Luis Valdez to come down and start the Teatro Campesino. Which I did, I invited him to come down and he did a teatro which Cesar saw and Cesar liked it. So then he became a permanent fixture in the strike and that was the beginning of the Teatro Campesino.

The whole boycott is a nonviolent tool. It’s an economic sanction, so to speak, but it’s a way that people can participate. One thing about nonviolence is that it opens the doors for everyone to participate, the children, the women. And women being involved on the picket lines made it easier for the men then to accept nonviolence. They would always say if they didn’t have a woman, “We need some women on our picket line. We need some women here.” It makes it a lot easier for them. Then they can justify not being macho tough, or macho revenge, you know. Just having the women there made it possible, I think, for the organization to practice it’s nonviolence.


I consider nonviolence to be a very strong spiritual force because it’s almost like an energy that goes out and it touches people.

In the first strike there was a lot of violence by the growers. So we had to have this big meeting because people said, “It’s one thing to be nonviolent against the growers or the labor contractors. But here the Teamsters are coming in and they are beating up our organizers and beating up the farmworkers. So why do we have to use nonviolence against them?” So we had to have this major meeting. We had to have this big discussion with the strikers and Cesar made everybody take a standing vow for nonviolence. And then some of the organizers and young people were arguing against him. He said, “Well if one of you wants to take over this union, you can, but I will not be the leader of this union if you’re going to use violence.” And he said, “If you start using violence against the Teamsters, you’re going to use it against each other.” So everybody had to take a standing vow for nonviolence and to practice it.

Most of them were either first generation Mexican-Americans or recent immigrants. To get them to accept the whole philosophy that you can create a movement with nonviolence was not easy. It was not easy. To get them to understand that–and this you could see happening in people, that they would become transformed. They would actually become stronger through practicing nonviolence. They became much stronger people and had to use strategies and tactics instead of violence to be able to win.

Then Cesar started doing something. He would always do things that would make people uncomfortable and I think that’s what you have to do when you’re fighting for justice. You have to kind of, as they use the words now– push the envelope, right? You know what I mean? Always doing things to make people uncomfortable. He always believed in fasting, again getting that from Gandhi. He would do these seven-day fasts and everybody would do like little fasts when we were going to do something really important. He would ask everybody to please fast and to pray before we embarked on some strike or something. But, then he started doing those twenty-five day fasts for nonviolence. So we’d have these press conferences to let people know that Cesar was fasting. Well you can imagine what these tough, burly labor leaders from New York thought when we told them our leader, our president, was fasting. “What’s wrong with him? Is he crazy?” I mean they were just–they went ballistic. Because in New York, especially during that time, they’d go into a place and wreck it up. They would wreck it all up to get a contract and here we had our leader who was not eating. All he would do was take Holy Communion every day.

Every night while Cesar was fasting they would have a big Mass and then farmworkers brought their tents there to our headquarters, the Forty Acres in Delano. People put up their tents there so they could be with Cesar while he was fasting. It was kind of interesting, too, the reactions of people. They didn’t understand it. They couldn’t comprehend it. Just like some religious people didn’t like–the more traditional–they didn’t like the idea that we had the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe on the picket line. They didn’t like that. To Cesar, religion was a very practical thing that you used in your work. It was part of you. It wasn’t something that was distant and way up there. It was something that was very, very much a part of you.

Farmwork is Sacred Work

I like to tell people when speak on the campuses, on the college campuses, I always tell students that, if you’re a professional and you have a degree, your job is to go work with–to serve working people. To serve people who work with their hands. This is what professionals do, not to take advantage of them. You have to go work and serve the people who work with their hands. Because they’re the ones who create the wealth, the farmworkers, the auto workers, the garment workers. They create the wealth.

I like to tell people, if you had to be on a deserted island and you could only take one person with you, who would you take, an attorney or a farmworker? Right? I think that kind of gets it down. Because farm work is the most sacred work of all and yet farmworkers are so looked down on.

I gave a speech in Dekalb University in Illinois and this one young man came up to me afterwards and he said, “My mother works in the fields. She’s an onion picker.” He says, “And I was always ashamed of my mother until today.” In Michigan, the farmworker children there are ashamed to say that they’re farmworkers or that their parents are farmworkers. That’s got to end. We have to get farmworkers the same types of benefits, the same type of wages, the respect that they deserve because they do the most sacred work of all. They feed our nation every day.

Books and Articles

Richard A. Garcia. Dolores Huerta: Woman, Organizer, and Symbol, in En Aquel Entonces/In Years Gone By: Readings in Mexican-American History, edited by Manuel G. Gonzales and Cynthia M. Gonzales. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Dolores Huerta. Dolores Huerta Recalls, 1975, in Cesar Chavez: A Brief Biography with Documents, edited by Richard W. Etulain. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Margaret Rose. Dolores Huerta: The United Farm Workers Union, in The Human Tradition in American Labor History, edited by Eric Arnesen. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2004.

Web links

The Dolores Huerta Foundation. Ms. Huerta’s organization supports grassroots organizing by training local people to engage public officials and navigate the system on behalf of their communities.   Link

Quotations from Dolores Huerta. Link

Lesson plans for using Dolores Huerta’s story in the classroom with 5th and 6th grade students. Created by the Department of Elementary Education of Utah State University. Link

The Alma Project. A rich, downloadable curriculum resource with lesson plans and materials for teaching students in grades K-12 about a wide variety of subjects related to Chicano history.  The project includes lessons on the rise of the farmworkers movement and another on Chicano activism. Created  link