Rebelde for the Cause

United Farm Worker pioneer leads immigrant rights struggle

Chelsea Ross

Dolores Huerta worked to organize the farm workers in California through the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers.

Dolores Huerta is a hustler. At around 5 foot nothing and 77 years old, she does not look like a force to be reckoned with. And while neither her face nor her name might be familiar, Huerta is one of the most significant rabble-rousers of her time. When Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association (what later became United Farm Workers, or UFW) with Cesar Chavez in 1965, nobody – let alone a single Latina mother – was organizing farm workers. 

But with UFW, Huerta became a thorn in the side of major agricultural corporations. She helped direct the famous five-year Delano grape boycott, and negotiated a three-year collective bargaining agreement signed by the majority of the California table grape industry. She secured unemployment benefits for workers, lobbied against federal guest worker programs and spearheaded amnesty legislation. She was also one of the first to speak out about the dangers posed by toxic pesticides to workers, consumers and the environment.

After more than 50 years of fighting for what she and Chavez called La Causa (the cause), Huerta shows no signs of fatigue or cynicism. At one moment she speaks with the wisdom and affections of a grandmother (she has 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren), and in the next with the fury of a warrior still on a lifelong mission. 

Recently, she has been traveling the country, speaking at marches and $100-a-plate dinners on behalf of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. In These Times caught up with Huerta on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus where she spoke at a conference about the immigration movement in Chicago.

The immigration marches last May were among the largest in U.S. history. What do you think they accomplished?

Number one, they moved the immigration debate forward. We ended up getting a bill in the Senate – the McCain-Kennedy bill. Although it wasn’t the greatest bill, at least they proposed a legalization bill. It didn’t stop the conservatives, the people like [Rep. James] Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), from doing their sham hearing, but it gave people a sense of their power. 

One of the themes was Today we march, tomorrow we vote,” and the number of Latinos who voted for Democrats was like 69 percent. Also, we’ve had an increase in the number of people who are fighting for citizenship. And I think the activism in general has increased, although you also have the reaction from the right.

What hasn’t been covered as much is that some really anti-immigrant congresspeople lost their elections. In Arizona, we have two really good examples: Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) were elected to the Congress. The person Mitchell ran against, J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), his whole campaign was anti-immigrant, and this guy lost. 

When the Republicans put someone like Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who is head of the Republican National Committee, as one of the co-authors of the Senate bill – that to me is a strong signal that they are at least thinking about immigration – that they put a Latino, although not Mexican, on a bill. 

Aside from the marches – which have been unifying and have generated debate and brought the cause to national attention – what else can be done?

One of the things I’m promoting – which comes from Chicago – is support of Elvira Arellano, the woman who has taken refuge in a Methodist church. The idea is to promote children’s marches for the weekend of April 28-29

April 30 is Dia de los Niños, Children’s Day in Latin America. It’s a call to justice for immigrant children and immigrant working parents – a call to all grandchildren and great grandchildren of previous immigrants, so they will also come in and support the cause.

I’m a great grandchild of immigrants on both sides of my family.

Almost everybody is the great grandchild of some immigrant in this country – unless, of course, they’re indigenous. So we’re calling for all the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants to join us in this call for justice for immigrants’ children. 

You mentioned Elvira Arellano. In many ways, she has become the face of the movement – almost a martyr symbol. Do you think her actions have been productive?

Absolutely. First of all, she’s very tiny, but she’s got all this strength and this sincerity, and you just feel her strength. And she’s very eloquent. She speaks simply, but profoundly. So in terms of the Latino community right now, she really is an icon. 

I tried to get Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles to call for a sanctuary movement in California. Unfortunately, Cardinal Mahony did not endorse a sanctuary movement. So, clergy are just doing it on their own. I think they have about 69 churches signed up right now. Clergy like Father Richard Estrada, who is from Los Angeles. They’re trying to sign up other churches of other denominations too. 

Father Estrada has been very active in the immigrants’ rights movement. Every single year he takes different labor and political leaders out to the desert, and they set up poles with flags on them, marking where people coming across can find water. He’s been doing this now for the past 10 years or so. 

A coalition called the Faith and Justice Leadership Alliance was formed by religious and community leaders in the Black and Latino communities in Chicago to organize around issues they have in common such as crime, education and housing, but also to bring the black community into the fight for immigrant rights as a continuation of the Civil Rights movement. Do you see these communities coming together in a broader movement?

Jesse Jackson has been pounding this issue now for the last five years, saying, we gotta work together,” saying to the leadership of the black community: You all have got to learn to speak Spanish.” Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte have organized conferences bringing together not only Latinos, but also indigenous leadership. They had conferences in Atlanta, in Mississippi and in California – to get people to work together on the issues of education and incarceration.

You’re obviously a big advocate of the marches, but in terms of policy, do you advocate an open border between the United States and Mexico and Canada?

I think something has to be changed. When we talk about immigration, we don’t talk about why people are coming here. And the reason that people have to leave the beautiful places they live – where we go to as tourists – is to come here to work as indentured servants because they can’t find jobs in their own countries. So we’ve got to look at our foreign policy in regards to Latin America, a policy I call economic colonization. We want to go into these countries and take over their economies and make these people again into just low-wage earners. 

We don’t help them develop their own economies, so that they can stand on their own and employ their own people. There is more than enough work that needs to be done in all of these countries, right? But our policy is one of exploitation. So we need to look at our free trade agreements and what we’ve done. All of these countries now are worse off: Their unemployment is rising and their wages are lower because of the changes that were made. 

Compare this with what happened after World War II. We defeated Germany, Japan and Italy, and we had the Marshall Plan where we lent them millions of dollars to help them rebuild their economies. We forgave those loans. So, American companies didn’t go into Japan and Germany, we just gave them the money to develop their own economies.

This is totally the opposite from what we’re doing with Latin America, where American companies go in and take over. Here we have small shopkeepers in Mexico who cannot compete with Wal-Mart. You have corn farmers who cannot compete with agribusiness. So small corn farmers have been wiped out, you have 2 million corn farmers who are now in the United States trying to survive. Right now Mexico is actually importing more corn from the United States than what they grow in Mexico. 

It’s economic colonization. We can’t keep blaming the victims, who are the immigrants. We’ve got to say, OK, what are we doing to make this happen?” I think that’s got to be part of it. When we talk about immigration, let’s talk about the free trade agreements. 

What policies do you advocate in terms of border patrol?

The best people to police the Mexican border are the Mexicans. Some people keep talking about terrorists, but no terrorists have ever come in through Mexico. Terrorists have only come in through Canada. And I remember one congressman saying, Well, you can’t tell the difference between a Mexican and an Arab.” Well, maybe he can’t, but the Mexicans can. It’s all very xenophobic. 

You spoke at the Ms. magazine benefit last night. As one of the country’s most prominent female activists and organizers, do you have any advice for young girls going into politics today? 

I really do believe that unless women get into positions of power, we will never end wars, we will never have peace, we will never end violence. I think part of the changes that we need in our world is for women to take power.

Are you endorsing Hillary?

I haven’t been asked yet. But, yes, I think I will endorse Hillary because she’s intelligent and she’s compassionate and she’s tough. She’s going to have everyone in the world trying to bring her down because she’s a woman.

Chelsea Ross is a Chicago-based freelance writer, photographer and graphic designer.
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