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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