(WOMENSENEWS)–California grape pickers, usually Filipino or Mexican, toiled in the sun, denied drinking water and bathrooms and earning less than $10 a day.

Among those dedicated to fighting these and other abusive conditions was a 36-year-old New Mexico-born mother: former elementary school teacher Dolores Huerta. By Aug. 22, 1966, when the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee was officially formed, she had quit teaching to become a lobbyist in the state capitol, persuading lawmakers to allow voting and driving tests in Spanish. She left that post to help form a farm workers union.

“Si, se puede,” the union’s motto, meaning “yes, it’s possible,” also sums up the life of a woman who has stood on the front lines of the fight for labor and human rights for more than four decades.

Huerta, the fledgling union’s chief negotiator, won the first contracts to include health and benefit plans for farm workers. With Cesar Chavez, she brought the union’s non-violent strategy of the boycott into the national spotlight, forming alliances with civil rights and women’s groups to gain support for the grape pickers, then the lettuce pickers and many others. Always agitating against the use of dangerous pesticides, Huerta was brutally beaten by San Francisco police at a demonstration against President George Bush’s agricultural policies in 1988.

While Chavez became an international hero, Huerta was slow to realize that sexism muted acknowledgement of her accomplishments, courage and vision. Adding women’s rights to her crusade over the past decades, she has been a passionate advocate for Latinas in public life and positions of power within the union and has made the fight against sexual harassment central to her fight for workers’ rights. Only in 2000 did Dolores Huerta step down from her union position, but surely not, as a 72-year-old hurricane, from her lifelong activism.

Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.

For more information:

The National Women’s History Project
“Dolores Huerta
Labor Leader with a Passion for Justice”: