April 10 – Happy Birthday, Dolores Huerta

Posted on April 10, 2015

If you were the daughter of a union activist and state assemblyman, you too might grow up to be a civil rights activist.

But Dolores Fernandez Huerta – like everyone else – had two parents. The union activist and state assemblyman was her dad, Juan Fernandez; and Huerta didn't grow up with him, because her parents divorced when she was just three years old.

It was Huerta's mom, Alicia Chavez, who raised her. After the divorce, Chavez moved with her kids from New Mexico to Stockton, California. Chavez became very involved with community organizations and the local church, and she made sure that her kids got a taste of cultural diversity. Chavez became a businesswoman; she owned a restaurant and a 70-room hotel. She was known for her kindness, and she often welcomed low-paid workers, including farm workers, into her hotel for free.

And Dolores Huerta, born on this date in 1930, saw her mom's compassion for and connection to others.

Huerta learned to be active in her community, like her mom. She joined clubs at her high school; she became a majorette; she was in the Girl Scouts all the way through until she became an adult. She was also able to do something her mom hadn't done: she attended college and became a teacher.

However, kids came to Huerta's class hungry. They came shabbily dressed, with worn shoes or no shoes at all. Huerta had learned compassion, like her mom, and she decided to quit teaching and to start organizing farm workers so that the families those kids belonged to could have better lives.

Dolores Huerta cofounded organizations and workers' unions. She met Cesar Chavez and worked with him to organize farm workers. She helped direct a national boycott of table grapes, and she participated in and led non-violent civil disobedience activities and strikes. These sorts of activities had worked for Mahatma Gandhi in achieving independence for India, and for Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black activists in overturning Jim Crow laws and working toward civil rights. Huerta and Chavez used these peaceful means to win rights for farmworkers and Hispanic people.

Huerta lobbied politicians in California with the same goals. She became so well-known among progressive politicians that she was actually with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated after winning the California presidential primary election for the Democratic Party. What a horrible blow that was for America – and it must have seen even more horrifying to Huerta, since she was right there with Kennedy!

Huerta was badly beaten during a peaceful, lawful protest of a Republican presidential candidate (later to become the president), George H.W. Bush. The San Francisco police officers who beat her with their batons ended up breaking several ribs and injuring her spleen, which had to be removed in emergency surgery. The beating was caught on videotape, and Huerta won a large judgment against the SFPD and the City of San Francisco.

She gave away the money she won in that judgment to benefit farmworkers.

After recovering from her injuries, Huerta began to work for women's rights. In 2002 she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which helps women, children, and poor people to develop their leadership skills and to organize their communities in order to make their lives better.

President Obama awarding
Dolores Huerta with the
Presidential Medal of Freedom
It's great to see that Huerta has won a lot of honors for her work on human rights issues! I cannot list them all, but I will mention that she is on the Board of Directors of an organization I belong to, Equality California, and that one of the student centers at a college very near me, Pitzer College, is named after her!

The biggest surprise for me, when writing about all of Huerta's many achievements in California and the nation, is realizing that she had eleven children!

That's right – she had 11 kids!!!
This is Huerta with her seven daughters...remember,
she has four sons, too!

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