As an elementary school teacher in Stockton, California during the Fifties, Dolores Huerta witnessed the shadow of poverty darkened the tiny faces in her classroom. “I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes,” she would later remember. “I thought I could do more by organizing farmworkers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” She left the classroom and in 1955 founded a local chapter of the Community Service Organization, a nationwide Latino advocacy group.
“In a way she never stopped being a teacher,” Ray Suarez writes in his 2013 book Latino Americans: The 500-Year History That Shaped a Nation. “To the most neglected and mistreated workers in America, she helped teach the techniques of organization and resistance that would help migrant workers stand up to growers with greater resources and contacts.”
Still, as Suarez points out, it wasn’t easy for a woman to fulfill the roles of mother, wife and social activist in the pre-Women’s Lib era of the early 1960s. Huerta had just turned 30, was married, and would eventually give birth to 11 children. “Always pregnant” during this time, she recalled how she increasingly dedicated herself more to her duties outside the home than inside:
It ended up in my second divorce. Every day in 1961, I drove to Sacramento to lobby the legislature to pass laws for poor people. Meanwhile, my husband was trying to take my kids away from me in court. … I don’t remember anything about my daughter Alicia’s childhood except nursing her in the ladies’ room during breaks in city council meetings.
Huerta is neomexicano by birth, having spent the first five years of her life in a mining town of Dawson, now completely abandoned. Her mother came from a long line of neomexicanos extending back to the days when Santa Fe de Nuevo México wasn’t part of the United States. Her father, on the other hand, was the son of Mexican immigrants and worked in the mines and fields. When Huerta was only five, her parents separated and her mother moved Huerta and her siblings to California. Working two jobs, her mother managed to save enough money to open a restaurant and then a 70-room hotel where she took in low-wage workers.
When Huerta met CSO director Cesar Chavez in 1962, she already knew who he was, though the encounter gave no hint of the world-changing partnership they would soon develop:
I had heard a lot about him. Cesar this and Cesar that. But he didn’t make much of an impression on me. I forgot his face. He was very unassuming. He had a reputation as a great organizer, but I found it hard to believe.
Both left the CSO and co-founded what would later become the United Farm Workers of America. In September 1965, in solidarity with Filipino workers demanding fair wages, the UFW joined the Delano grape strike, later calling for a nationwide boycott of all produce picked by the striking workers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Chavez became the face and voice of a burgeoning Chicano Movement that sought to do for Mexican Americans — and all Latinos, really — what the 1960s Civil Rights Movement had done for Black Americans. For her part, Huerta dove into the minutiae of labor contracts. Nowadays she isn’t bothered by the fact that Cesar Chavez’s name is more celebrated than hers:
There was no disagreement that he would be the leader. I didn’t mind. In those days, even woman reporters didn’t report on what women did. I always say, ‘Men want to see who gets the blame and who gets the credit.’ Women say, ‘Let’s get the job done. Who cares?’
Honoring Huerta — and the countless women who have quietly serve humanity — is how we celebrate our heritage.