Dolores Huerta has rightly been called the mother of Latino civil rights. An activist and advocate since the 1950s, she is best known for co-founding with Cesar Chavez the United Farm Workers Union.
A new biopic of Chavez, directed by and starring Diego Luna, is set for widespread theatrical release on March 28. As his partner in activism, Huerta, played by Rosario Dawson, features prominently in the film. So to celebrate the life of one of the U.S.’s greatest champions of justice and civil rights, Mamiverse is proud to reflect on 15 ways that Dolores Huerta is the mother of Latino civil rights.
1. Huerta’s first job was as a teacher. Her early experiences in the classroom are what inspired her activism: I quit because I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than trying to teach their hungry children.
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2. She created the Agricultural Workers Association and co-founded the United Farm Workers. In an era when women weren’t at the forefront of the labor movement, Huerta was on the front lines. She was Chavez’s equal every step of the way toward the preeminence of the UFW.
3. In the 60s, she lobbied for undocumented migrant workers to receive public assistance and pensions. Long before the DREAM Act or today’s banter about immigration reform, Huerta had a progressive vision for immigrants in the U.S., and an unfaltering sense of fairness and human dignity.
4. She worked to create Spanish-language voting ballots and driver’s tests. As a school teacher and later as a community organizer, Huerta saw the crippling effects when non-English speakers had doors shut in their face because they couldn’t speak the language. Today, widespread availability of bilingual government documents is largely due to her early efforts.
5. She was instrumental in the UFW strikes against California grape growers in the 60s and 70s. The five-year workers’ strike against California grape growers was a huge victory for the farm labor movement, and resulted in the first contract between growers and laborers.
6. She was instrumental in enacting the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. A milestone in organized labor, this law was the first of its kind in the U.S. and allowed California farmers the right to organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions.
7. She’s a Latina feminist. In recent years, Huerta has focused her efforts on helping women win elected office. Her philosophy is based on the premise that women make up 52% of the population, and should therefore have far greater representation at all levels of government.
8. She spent her life working for social and economic justice. “I think organized labor is a necessary part of democracy,” Huerta has said. “Organized labor is the only way to have fair distribution of wealth.” She has made that philosophy her life’s mission.
9. Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged her help in winning the 1968 California Democratic Presidential Primary. Moments before he was fatally shot, Huerta stood next to RFK while he gave his victory speech after winning the California primary and effectively sealing his presidential nomination.
10. She worked closely with Cesar Chavez in the UFW. Chavez was known as a dynamic and charismatic speaker who could motivate crowds and win over skeptics. But Huerta, with her organizing and steely bargaining skills, was the other half he needed to carry forward the mission of the UFW.
11. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. The organization honors those women “whose contributions to the arts, athletics, business, education, government, the humanities, philanthropy and science, have been the greatest value for the development of their country.” She joined alumnae Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Zora Neale Huston, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey, among many others.
12. At 83, she is still working tirelessly—through the Dolores Huerta Foundation—advocating for the working poor, women, and children. Her foundation creates opportunities for training of candidates and community organizers, and works in key areas affecting women and children—healthcare, environment, education and economic development.
13. She is recognized as a heroic leader. Among her numerous honors and accolades, Huerta has received honorary degrees or recognitions from Princeton University, Mills College, Wichita State University and the University of the Pacific.
14. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For her tireless efforts on behalf of the voiceless, Huerta was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor.
15. She skipped her own party at the White House. When the White House held a special screening of Cesar Chavez: An American Hero on March 19, Huerta was naturally invited as a guest of honor. But she skipped the event, as she had a previous commitment that she refused to cancel.