In May, StoryCorps traveled to the offices of the Dolores Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield, CA, to facilitate a conversation with Dolores Huerta and two of her daughters, Camila Chavez and Lori de Leon.
Huerta is the co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union. She now heads her own foundation. In 1965, she and the late UFW president Cesar Chavez directed the great grape boycott, bringing the plight of the farm workers in California to the attention of the consumer. It was so successful that in its final days, it brought the California grape industry to its knees and grape growers signed a collective bargaining agreement with the UFW in 1970.
During her conversation with StoryCorps, this courageous labor leader recounted stories over her 80-year life. She remembered leaving the relative security of Salinas to organize in Delano and the shift in the mindset of her children when she did that.
Leaving to organize
Dolores spoke of how it felt leaving her kids to organize in the fields. “I left my youngest, an infant, and another young daughter with my two first-cousins” and she took the rest of the kids with her to Delano. Her daughter Camila tells her, “We had to grow up quickly. It was either sink or swim. So we swam.”
Dolores said she was criticized at home by her “compadres” (relatives/close friends) for doing this and on the other hand, ostracized by the farm worker women when she went to the Central Valley because she was divorced and didn’t play the traditional role.
“It was hard to take,” she said, “I didn’t get a lot of invitations to other people’s gatherings. So I would pack the kids up and drive to Corcoran.” Dolores went to this town in Central Valley to be with the one family that was close to her: Cesar Chávez and his wife Helen. “He had seven kids and then with my 11 we were a houseful!” remembered Dolores.
One of hardest times
From all her years of organizing and pushing for the rights of farm workers, one incident particularly stands out in her mind: when she was trying to get unemployment insurance passed for farm workers. When it didn’t pass, she recounts that she “started sobbing. I was crying so hard that the grower lobbyists were bringing me kleenex. I was in front of the committee and just crying. The committee was so embarrassed that they amended the bill to approve disability insurance for farm workers and that was in 1961. To this day California and Hawaii are the only two states that have disability insurance for farm workers.”
Dolores recalls one time when growers tried to break into her home, breaking the window into shards that narrowly missed her son, Emilio. She remembers the pet dog squealing after being kicked by the intruders so it would stop barking. “I put my son through a small window to go get help,” which came and scared off the intruders.
Throughout all her years this strong and amazing woman has accomplished great things, but perhaps no greater than the love and respect of her 11 children. Said Camila, “You never forced us to do what you did. You gave us the liberty and supported us 100 percent.”