One Life: Dolores Huerta

Highlighting the key role of this Latina leader as co-founder with César Chávez of the 1960s and 1970s farm workers’ movement

Dolores Huerta, Huelga, Delano CA Grape Strikes, September 24, 1965 (1965-09-24) by Harvey Wilson RichardsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Dolores Huerta (born 1930), along with César Chávez (1927-1993), brought the working conditions of field laborers to the public’s attention. Through the twentieth century farm workers were some of the worst paid workers in the nation.

They received below-poverty-level wages for long days of backbreaking work, and lived precariously moving from place to place as they followed seasonal harvests.

Huerta and Chávez galvanized national solidarity on the workers’ behalf. As vice-president of the United Farm Workers, as well as an energetic picket captain, a persuasive lobbyist, and an unyielding contract negotiator, Huerta not only improved the lives of farm workers but advanced new models of womanhood.

Fred Ross and Dolores Huerta (1975) by Cathy E. MurphySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

A turning point that steered Dolores Huerta to a life of community organizing occurred in 1955 when she met Fred Ross (1910–1992). Ross was the founder of the Community Service Organization (CSO)—one of the first organizations to advocate for Latino civic participation in the United States.

Huerta volunteered in the establishment of a CSO chapter in her hometown of Stockton, and eventually became the organization's Sacramento lobbyist. At CSO she met fellow organizer César Chávez.

After 1962, when Chávez and Huerta parted with CSO to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), Ross became an advisor to the organization.

Dolores Huerta Signing Up Members at the Founding Convention of NFWA (1962-09-30) by Joseph Francis GuntermanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) championed workers’ rights and advocated for fair wages but avoided the term “union” so to appeal to those who were fearful of their employer’s retaliation.

In Stockton, Huerta held house meetings to recruit members and build local support. She became the vice president of the NFWA.

United Farm Workers AFL-CIO Flag by Unidentified MakerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Chávez and Huerta’s National Farm Workers Association merged with the Agricultural Workers Organization Committee, which was led by the Filipino Larry Itliong, to become The United Farm Workers Organization Committee (UFWOC).

The NFWA’s red-and-white flag with a black silhouette of an eagle (an important animal in Aztec mythology) evokes the Mexican roots of the union’s larger constituency. The word “Huelga,” featured on top, is Spanish and Filipino for strike.

Dolores Huerta with Children at UFW Hall by George BallisSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Huerta saw family and women’s involvement as natural to the movement, having declared: “People are poor so the whole family works together and the whole family strikes together and pickets together...

We are nonviolent, and the women bring a lot of dignity to our movement.” She stands here at the end of meeting in a human chain singing the folk song "De Colores" with three of her eleven children.

Dolores Huerta Speaking at a Rally (1974) by Rudy RodriguezSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

An articulate and energetic speaker, Huerta led the union’s public relations effort, conveying the movement’s values and aims to the larger public in print, radio, and television.

She bolstered the morale of workers on the picket line with her cry to arms, “¡Sí se puede!”

Date Harvest Negotiations and Lettuce Renewal (1972) by Unidentified PhotographerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The UFW worked with more than those who picked grapes. They also advocated for those who picked lettuce, dates, lemons, and strawberries.

Without a legal background or ever before having seen a contract, Huerta spent a week studying contract examples and on behalf of the union negotiated a contract with Schenley Industries in March 1966. This was the first victory of the grape strike.

Huerta’s negotiating skills and unyielding character at the bargaining table earned her the title “Dragon Lady.” By 1975 she had negotiated more than 100 contracts for the union.

Huerta Speaking to a Group of Women at an Unknown Location (1972) by Unidentified PhotographerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Huerta challenged the paradigm of women putting family responsibilities first and inspired women to become involved in the labor movement.

She voiced her concerns and demanded that issues around sexism, child care, and sexual harassment needed to be taken seriously.

This earned her the respect of Chicanas and renowned feminists such as Gloria Steinem.

Dolores Huerta at California Demonstrations by Unidentified photographerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

One shared aspect of the African American civil rights movement and the farm workers’ movement was the emphasis on the body as a tool for social change.

Marches, pickets, boycotts, and sit-ins were all physical activities that could be performed by destitute individuals to call attention to social injustice and demand their rights. As a picket captain, Huerta led many of these efforts.

Dolores Huerta (1999) by Barbara CarrascoSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Chicana artist Barbara Carrasco was a volunteer and staff artist for the United Farm Workers (UFW) and considered Huerta her mentor and close friend.

She made this iconic portrait of Huerta as a way to honor the civil rights leader. The image serves as a symbol for female power for the Chicano and feminist movements.

N'achetez Pas de raisinsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

United Farm Workers pins

This collection of buttons demonstrates the multiethnic demographic of the union as well as the international reach of the grapes boycott. While the constituency of the UFW was primarily Mexican American and Filipino, it also included African Americans, Euro-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Yemeni workers.

Viva la mujerSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

United Farm Workers boycott pin in Arabic by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Boycott grapes, Viva la causa by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Credits: Story

“One Life: Dolores Huerta” highlights the significant role of this Latina leader in the California farm workers’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This eleventh installment in the “One Life” series was the first devoted to a Latina. It illuminates Huerta as the co-founder, with César Chávez, of the United Farm Workers (UFW), and highlights her position as the union’s lobbyist and contract negotiator. Huerta was instrumental in achieving major legal protections and a better standard of living for farm workers, yet she remains largely under-acknowledged in history.

The exhibition was the first in a national museum to draw attention to her contributions. It was on view at the National Portrait Gallery from July 3, 2015 - May 15, 2016, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the September 1965 grape strike that launched the farm workers movement. For more about the gallery exhibition, please visit:

Taína Caragol, Curator of Painting and Sculpture and Curator for Latino Art and History, was the curator for this exhibition.

The “One Life: Dolores Huerta” exhibition was made possible through federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center; the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino; and by the Guenther and Siewchin Sommer Endowment Fund.

The exhibition is being remodeled as a traveling banner exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) under the title “Dolores Huerta: Revolution in the Fields / Revolución en los Campos." More information on the traveling version may be found at

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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