Born on April 10, 1930, in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico, Huerta was the daughter of Juan Fernandez—a miner, field/farm worker, union activist, and state assemblyman—and Alicia Chavez. Huerta was the couple's second child and only daughter; the couple divorced when Huerta was three years old. Chavez raised Huerta and her two brothers, in the central California farm worker community of Stockton, California. Huerta's mother was known for her kindness and compassion towards others and was active in community affairs, numerous civic organizations, and the church. She encouraged the cultural diversity that was a natural part of Huerta's upbringing in Stockton. Alicia Chavez was a businesswoman who owned a restaurant and a 70-room hotel where she welcomed low-wage workers and farm worker families for affordable prices and sometimes even for free. This prompted Huerta to think about civil rights.
Huerta's community activism began when she was a student in Stockton High School. Huerta was active in numerous school clubs and was a majorette and a dedicated member of the Girl Scouts until the age of 18. Huerta attended college at the University of the Pacific's Stockton College (later to become San Joaquin Delta Community College), where she earned a provisional teaching credential. After teaching grammar school, Huerta left her job and began her lifelong crusade to correct economic injustice:
Huerta was named one of the three most important women of the year by Ms. Magazine in 1997. She was an inaugural recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights from President Bill Clinton in 1998. That same year, Ladies' Home Journal recognized her as one of the 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century, along with such women leaders as Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, Rosa Parks, and Indira Gandhi.
She was awarded the Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2002. On September 30, 2005, she became an honorary sister of Kappa Delta Chi sorority (Alpha Alpha chapter - Wichita State University). She received an honorary degree from Princeton University in recognition of her numerous achievements May 2006. She was lauded in the ceremony: "Through her insatiable hunger of justice —La Causa— and her tireless advocacy, she has devoted her life to creative, compassionate, and committed citizenship." She was co-recipient (along with Virgilio Elizondo) of the 2007 Community of Christ International Peace Award .
She was recognized by United Neighborhood Centers of America with its highest individual honor, the Jane Addams Distinguished Leadership Award at its National Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. in December 2008. She was awarded the UCLA Medal, UCLA's highest honor, during the UCLA College of Letters and Science commencement ceremony on 12 June 2009. She is one of the subjects of the Sylvia Morales film A Crushing Love (2009), the sequel to Chicana (1979).
In October 2010, she was awarded an honorary degree by Mills College, who lauded her as "a lifetime champion of social justice whose courageous leadership garnered unprecedented national support from farmworkers, women, and underserved communities in a landmark quest for human and civil rights". The same month, she also was awarded an honorary doctorates  by University of the Pacific, which also unveiled an official portrait of her for the Architects of Peace Project by artist Michael Collopy.
Huerta received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama on 29 May 2012. She is an Honorary Chair of Democratic Socialists of America and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Equality California.
Four elementary schools in California; one school in Fort Worth, Texas; and a high school in Pueblo, Colorado, are named after Huerta. One of the student centers at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, is named the Huerta Learning Circle Room in the labor leader's honor. She was a speaker at the first and tenth Cesar Chavez Convocation. In 2013, Huerta received the Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.