Huerta was born to Juan and Alicia Fernandez on April 10, 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico. Her father alternated between work as a miner and as a migrant field worker, following the sugar beet crop through Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. When her parents divorced in 1936, her father stayed in New Mexico, but her mother took her and her two brothers to Stockton, California.
In Stockton, they lived in a poor but ethnically diverse neighborhood. Alicia worked in a canning factory and also as a waitress. As a child, Huerta took music and dance lessons and sang in the church choir. In time, her mother saved enough money to start a restaurant of her own and later bought a hotel with her second husband, James Richards.
Huerta had very strong women role models in her youth and did not experience ethnic prejudice until she entered high school. During World War II, racial relationships became more strained as sailors openly attacked Mexican-American males dressed as Zoot Suiters in Los Angeles, culminating in a massive riot. Huerta was a good student but once received a "C" grade despite submitting "A" work because her teacher did not believe a Mexican was capable of doing that caliber of work without help. During her high school years, Huerta developed a strong commitment to social justice, community service, and farm workers.
Huerta's mother would let poor farm worker families stay at her hotel for free, aware of their difficult working and living conditions. Huerta herself worked at school to make such activities as school dances affordable to all. In an effort to make a difference within her community, Huerta went to Stockton College to study teaching. She left college to marry her high school sweetheart, Ralph Head, and had two daughters. After the marriage ended in divorce, she went back to school and finished her degree, then worked at various jobs until she returned to college to get a teaching credential.
Huerta taught children from farm worker families and became frustrated with the conditions in which many lived. The children often did not have enough to eat, decent housing, or clothing. In addition, the migratory nature of farm work meant many children moved around frequently and received a substandard education. In 1955, Huerta met Fred Ross, organizer of the Community Service Organization (CSO), and her life took a new direction.
The CSO attempted to help people improve their lives and neighborhoods by becoming more active within their communities. Key components were voter registration drives, citizenship classes, and English language classes. During her work with the CSO, Huerta met labor organizer Chávez. They shared a common goal—to obtain justice for the farm workers.
In addition to her work in voter registration drives and citizenship classes, Huerta began working as a lobbyist for the CSO in an effort to get more Latino police officers and Spanish-speaking personnel at local hospitals and government offices. She also lobbied to improve sewer systems and community centers. During her work with the CSO, she met and married Ventura Huerta (taking on the name by which she is known) and eventually had five more children. Her dedication to her work put a strain on the marriage, however, and they divorced.
In 1962, Chávez left the CSO, frustrated at the lack of progress. He believed only a union would bring about substantial change. Huerta became a partner and driving force in the organizing efforts and joined Chávez and his family in the move to Delano, California. Calling their organization the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), both organizers refrained from using the word "union" for fear of antagonizing growers. While working as an organizer, Huerta received $5 a week allowance and had to rely on farm workers' donations and their help with child care. By 1964, the NFWA had signed up 100,000 worker families and offered benefits of community service programs, life insurance, a credit union, and a store with discounted prices.
In 1965, workers at a rose nursery went out on strike and asked the NFWA to join them. It was during that time that the union adopted a policy of nonviolence. In 1966, the NFWA organized a boycott of grapes and a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to call attention to the plight of farm workers. One grower agreed to talks with the union, and Huerta was named chief negotiator, reflecting the confidence of the membership. Her efforts resulted in a raise in minimum wage for farm workers to $1.75 an hour and guaranteed days off. The boycott continued, and in 1968, Huerta went to New York to lobby supermarkets, consumers, and government officials to join a nationwide boycott of grapes. By the end of her two-year stay, the New York City government agreed to support the union.
By 1970, the union had achieved many of its goals, and Huerta negotiated the new contracts. In 1972, the NFWA joined with the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and formally became the UFW. That same year, Huerta was elected vice president. Subsequently, she married Richard Chávez, brother of César, and had four more children. By the end of the 1970s, the union experienced many setbacks and had to renew its efforts to organize workers. A new grape boycott was called in 1980. Also in the 1980s, the UFW expanded its efforts to address the use of chemicals and pesticides in the fields, citing the unusual "cancer clusters," or high concentration of incidents of cancer in agricultural areas. Huerta also helped establish the radio station Radio Campesina.
On April 23, 1993, César Chávez died, and Huerta rededicated herself to the union's work. She has received countless awards and honorary academic degrees and continues to tour the country and rally her supporters to new political enthusiasm. In 1998, she was one of three "Women of the Year" chosen by Ms. magazine. In 1999, she was serving as the secretary treasurer of the UFW, the vice president of the Coalition for Labor Union Women, the vice president of the California AFL-CIO, and a board member for the Fund for the Feminist Majority. From summer 2003 until March 2004, she served on the University of California Board of Regents.
Pérez, Frank, Dolores Huerta, 1996.