Born Dolores Clara Fernandez on April 10, 1930, in Dawson, New Mexico, Dolores Huerta would grow up to become one of the most influential labor activists of the 20th century. Her father Juan Fernandez was a farm worker and miner, later becoming a state legislator. Her parents divorced when Dolores was just three and her mother Alicia moved the children to Stockton, California. Dolores’s grandfather raised her and her two brothers while her mother took on many jobs to support her family. Alicia worked two jobs to afford her children the opportunity to partake in cultural activities such as Girl Scouts and violin and dancing lessons.
Dolores encountered much racism growing up. In school she remembers a teacher accusing her of stealing another student’s work because of her ethnicity and giving her an unfair grade. On the way to a party celebrating the end of World War II she found her brother badly beaten because of the zoot-suit he was wearing, which was a popular fashion for Latinos at the time.
A bright student, Fernandez received an associate teaching degree from the University of the Pacific’s Delta Community College. She married during college and had two children, later divorcing her first husband. Dolores would later remarry and have five children with Ventura Huerta, whom she would also divorce. She began teaching grammar school but resigned soon after. She was distraught at the sight of children coming to school hungry or without proper clothing. Of her resignation she said: “I quit because I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could to more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.”
In 1955 Huerta officially began her career as an activist by helping Frank Ross to start the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization, which fought for economic improvements for Hispanics. “The CSO battled segregation and police brutality, led voter registration drives, pushed for improved public services and fought to enact new legislation.” In 1960 she helped found the Agricultural Worker’s Association (AWA). It was through her work at these organizations that Dolores met fellow activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez.
In 1962 Huerta and Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). This was the predecessor to the United Farm Workers Union (UWF), formed in 1965. Dolores Huerta served as Vice President of the UWF until 1999. The 1965 Delano Grape Strike was a major catalyst for the group’s efforts. Huerta helped to organize the strike of over 5,000 grape workers and the following boycott of the wine company. This work led to a three-year contract about bargaining agreements between California and the UWF. In 1967 the NFWA combined with the AWA to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. Huerta negotiated contracts for workers and managed an entire hiring system to increase the number of available jobs. She also fought against the use of harmful pesticides and for unemployment and healthcare benefits for agricultural workers.
Once again in 1973, Huerta led a consumer boycott that had lasting effects. It resulted in the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, she worked diligently as a lobbyist to improve workers’ legislative representation.