The daughter of a Latino field worker and a small-business owner in Stockton, Calif., Dolores Huerta learned early on the ugliness of discrimination. While her father toiled in the field for low wages and little respect, her mother ran a hotel where she often housed poor immigrants for free. Ever since then, Huerta has been fighting for equality for immigrants—getting arrested 22 times and badly beaten in the process.
Now the 82-year-old mother of 11 and grandmother of seven is on track for two new honors. The first comes today, at a 50th-anniversary gathering of the United Farm Workers Union, in Bakersfield, Calif. The co-founder of the union, along with Cesar Chavez, Huerta is being celebrated for her role in creating one of the most profound social movements in American history. The second award is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, which she will receive along with 12 other recipients, including Bob Dylan and Madeleine Albright, at a White House ceremony later this month.
A call from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue brought the news of the medal, Huerta says from her office in Bakersfield. “I was humbled, thrilled, and surprised,” she says. “I never expected to be nominated.” The medal highlights the power of “organizing at the grassroots level,” she adds, as well as “how important that is in keeping our democracy alive.”
Her activism began as a Girl Scout and continued through high school, college, and her years as a grammar-school teacher in Stockton. Her Catholic upbringing also played a role in her commitment to social justice, she says. “If you saw someone that needed help, you had an obligation to help them and you didn't wait to be asked,” she says. “If you saw something that you could do to help somebody, you needed to do that.”
The grinding poverty and hunger she saw in her classroom also helped inspire her lifelong crusade. “I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than teaching their hungry children,” she says. First she established a community service program. When her fellow activist Chavez said, “We’ve got to start a union,” she thought he was teasing. “Then he got very serious,” she recalls. ”We were both passionate about farm workers. Seeing these people working so hard in the fields and seeing their children threadbare was so unjust, so very wrong.”
They started the National Farmworkers Association, which morphed into The United Farmworkers Union, the first in America. Chavez headed the all-volunteer group; Huerta became the political strategist and lobbyist, shuttling between Washington and Sacramento, shepherding through stunning amounts of legislation.
Her proudest accomplishments? Spanish-language ballots for voters, public assistance for immigrants, toilets in the fields, drinking water protection from pesticides, and the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave legal residency status to more than 1 million farm workers.
“Dolores is the most determined person I know. She never gives up,” says Paul Chavez, the middle son of Cesar and president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation. “Her courage and faith have inspired people from all walks of life. As my father always said, ‘She is completely fearless and can do whatever needs to be done.’”
For her nonviolent advocacy, she has been arrested nearly two dozen times (on several occasions, accompanied by one of her many children). In 1988 during a sanctioned peaceful protest, she was so severely beaten by San Francisco police that her spleen ruptured. She sued and received a settlement of $2,000 a month for life. Ironically, the savage attack made her financially stable. “I don’t take any money from the foundation, but I am able to continue my work because of that beating I received from the police,” she explains.
While recovering from the assault, she devoted more of her focus on women's rights, working with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and others to battle sexism, increase female participation in civil action, and register voters. “I believe that and believe we have a long way to go,” she says. “We did a lot of work to get gender balance in decision-making positions, but we're still not there. Look at our Congress. Look around at school boards and legislatures; women are not there yet, not represented yet. There’s a war on women right now where many of the things that we won are being challenged and they are trying to turn the clock back. We cannot take things for granted. We have to be involved.”
Child care, she says, is crucial to progress. “The years of raising my kids was probably the hardest time for me. We need to fight for more child care so women can be civically engaged and not have to give up a career to have children.”
Twice divorced, Huerta was in a longtime relationship with Richard Chavez, the brother of Cesar, until his death last year. They never married because according to Huerta, “Things were fine they way they were.”
Immigration reform is also a major focus. “We have given people the right of residency, and citizenship. It’s not any different from any other group that has come to America before. With more than 50 million of us, the presidential election might well be determined by the Latino vote,” she says.
This summer when things heat up, Huerta plans once again to be on the road doing what she does best, organizing a grassroots campaign, this time for President Obama. “We have a mandate,” she says. “If we want to keep our democracy alive, we must get people to participate and be active. That’s what my burning mission is.”