It's Women's History Month, and who better to celebrate
it with than Dolores Huerta.
"When I think of Dolores Huerta," playwright
and filmmaker Luis Valdez said, "I think of Earth. Powerful, beautiful,
fecund, challenging, conscious, yet so incredibly delicate."
She's been all of that in a remarkable career that has
spanned more than a half-century. Huerta, now 77, is probably best known for
her work with Cesar Chavez in the founding and operations of the United Farm
Workers union. But that's been just a part of her lifelong and extraordinarily
successful and courageous fight for economic and social justice.
Huerta, five-foot-two, 110 pounds, hardly looks the part.
What's more, she's had 11 children to raise along the way, much of the time as
a single mother.
She's traveled the country, speaking out and joining
demonstrations in behalf of a wide variety of causes. She's lobbied legislators
to win important gains for Latino immigrants and others. She was a leader in
the worldwide grape boycott that forced growers to agree in 1970 to some of the
country's very first farm union contracts -- which she negotiated despite her
utter lack of experience in negotiating. She remains a leading Latina,
feminist. labor and anti-war activist - and, of course, a key role model for
Huerta started out as an elementary school teacher in
Stockton, California, in 1955, but quickly tired of "seeing little
children come to school hungry and without shoes." That and her anger
"at the injustices that happened to farm workers" in the area, led
Huerta to quit teaching to join the Community Services Organization (CSO) which
helped local Chicanos wage voter registration drives and take other actions to
win a political and economic voice.
Chavez, who was general director of the 22-chapter CSO,
stressed "grass roots organizing with a vengeance" above all. Huerta
agreed and generally agreed as well on tactics - including an unwavering
commitment to non-violence. But where Chavez was shy, she was bold and
outspoken. She had to be if she was to assume the leadership to which her
commitment had drawn her. Mexican-American men did not easily grant leadership
to women, most certainly not to diminutive, attractive women like Huerta.
She was assigned to the State Capitol in Sacramento as
the CSO's full-time lobbyist. It was an unfamiliar task, but during two years
at the capitol, Huerta pushed through an impressive array of legislation,
including bills that extended social insurance coverage to farm workers and
immigrants and liberalized welfare benefits.
Huerta soon realized, however, that legislation
"could not solve the real problems" of the poor she represented. What
they needed was not government aid passed down from above to try to ease their
poverty, but some way to escape the poverty. The way out, Huerta concluded, was
farm labor organizing.
Chavez agreed, and in 1962, when the other CSO leaders
and members rejected his plans for organizing farm workers, he quit to start organizing
on his own. Huerta soon followed, helping create the organizations that evolved
into the United Farm Workers (UFW), with Chavez as president and Huerta as vice
president and chief negotiator, later as secretary-treasurer. She, like Chavez,
was paid but $5 a week plus essential expenses.
Chavez quarreled frequently with Huerta. That was
inevitable, given Huerta's excitable temperament and the harsh discipline
Chavez imposed on himself and his close associates. But they were always headed
in the same direction, and though Chavez was not entirely immune to the Mexican
ideal of male supremacy, he was not the traditional macho leader by any means,
and he marveled at Huerta for being "physically, spiritually and
psychologically fearless - absolutely."
Like Chavez, she believed fervently in getting people to
organize themselves, to get them to set their own goals and decide for
themselves how to reach them. Huerta directed the message particularly to the
many women among the farm workers.
She joined their picket lines outside struck fields,
defying growers, sheriff's deputies and other sometimes violent opponents. As
one picket said, "Dolores was our example of something different. We could
see one of our leaders was a woman, and she was always out in front, and she
would talk back."
Huerta has paid a heavy physical price for her militancy.
She nearly died in 1988 after being clubbed by a policeman while demonstrating
with about 1,000 others outside a fundraiser for former President George H.W.
Bush, who had ridiculed the UFW and its grape boycott. Huerta's spleen was
ruptured and had to be removed, leading to a near-fatal loss of blood.
She was operated on for other serious problems in 2000.
She stepped down as a UFW officer that year to join Democrat Al Gore's
presidential campaign, but has remained active in UFW and Democratic Party
affairs, most recently lobbying for immigrant rights, helping train a new
generation of organizers and joining campaigns to improve the lot of janitors,
nursing home employees and other highly exploited workers.
Dolores Huerta has shown us, beyond doubt, that injustice
can be overcome if we confront it forcefully, if we heed the demand she has
been known to shout in urging passers-by to join UFW picket lines: "Don't
be a marshmallow! Stop being vegetables! Work for justice!"
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister