Courageous Women of Faith Profile: Dolores Huerta

Jan 20, 2022

If you Google Dolores Huerta (b.1930), you will find that she is a renowned labor leader, the co-founder, with Cesar Chavez, of the Farm Workers Association, which grew into the United Farm Workers. She was the primary negotiator of groundbreaking union contracts, achieved after 5 long years of grape strikes by workers in Delano, CA (1965-1970) and a national grape boycott. This petite Latina (barely 5’ tall) bore and raised 11 children. When she left the UFW at the age of 70, she established the Dolores Huerta Foundation to organize the local community where she lives. Her honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Puffin Prize for Creative Citizenship, and honorary degrees. You can see her portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and Women’s Hall of Fame. Not to mention the photos of Dolores with Robert Kennedy, the Obamas, Gloria Steinem, and more. Surely, all of this is impressive. But it isn’t exactly what inspires me.

What inspires or sets a high bar by which I can measure my own spiritual and civic maturity is this: Dolores Huerta has long understood, actually embodied, a central tenet of the Gospel (and much of Catholic social teaching). She “gets” that the “kingdom of God” Jesus spoke about often and commissioned us to build includes living alongside the poor, perhaps as long as it takes for us to keep their welfare close to our hearts. That is a much more vital spiritual exercise than what I let consume my time and efforts, often some imagined success, professional or economic.

As a young Latina school teacher in Stockton, California, Dolores noted with compassion the children of migrant farmworkers who walked into her classroom day after day hungry and exhausted. She saw how their education was set back whenever their families had to pack them off to distant fields where their work was. Her compassion activated her. “I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children,” she said. Dolores had seen firsthand the farmworkers’ dirt floors and bare furnishings and knew it was wrong for full-time workers to live this way.

Dolores volunteered at the Community Service Organization and learned the patience-taxing process of organizing people via house meetings. For her, organizing is “a sacred work.” “It’s a big responsibility, getting people’s hopes up.” Raising hopes through organizing became her life calling.

She was ready when Cesar Chavez, a fellow CSO volunteer, asked her to co-found with him an association of farmworkers. It was the right time, Dolores agreed. Their goal was to enable the workers to secure legal rights together, through negotiation, nonviolent protest, and boycotts. They needed just wages, a break each grueling day, drinking water, accessible toilets, and safety from poisonous pesticides. Later the union would secure fairer labor contracts with benefits.

Personal sacrifice is one thing. But when Dolores left her middle-class comforts to live and work with farmworkers, she brought her children with her. She says, she “prayed long and hard” over that. “Giving kids clothes and food is one thing, but it’s much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important,” says Dolores. “And that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people.” Her children grew up with an activist mom who traveled, led marches, was heckled, arrested, and risked physical injury. At age 58 Dolores was severely beaten by the police, hit so hard that her spleen burst; six ribs broke. After surgery and a long recovery, Dolores returned to organizing. At age 91, she is still at it.

I find her commitment both inspiring and challenging. Decades younger than Dolores, I am officially “retired.” Yet I love how she sees herself (so biblical) and want to take it in deeply myself. Dolores sees herself as a gardener sowing “seeds of justice.” “Those seeds are going to flower, the spring is going to come back,” she says with assurance to cynics and doubters like me. “But we know we have to go out there and do all the work.”

– Karen Smith