Dolores Huerta: A Latina for All Working People
Many of us received a letter this week from the legendary labor leader, Dolores Huerta. She reminded us that September 16 marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month — “a time when our country honors the culture, contributions, and accomplishments of Hispanic and Latino Americans, from the past and present.”
Her letter also asked Latinos to remain active and engaged in the important election coming up on November 3rd. For the first time in history, she wrote, “Hispanic voters are expected to be the largest racial or ethnic voting bloc.” A lifelong Democrat, she implored that “we must do more than ever before to make sure our voices are heard. We must organize to win, and that starts with voting.”
Dolores Huerta is one of the most influential Latina leaders in America. A labor leader and community organizer, she co-founded with Cesar Chavez the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the mid 1960s. The UFW
became the first successful union of agricultural workers in the United States.
I first met Dolores Huerta in 1970 during the time when the UFW counted on urban students and workers for their union fundraising and boycotting union activities. I was both a graduate student and high school teacher in Los Angeles and believed in La Causa, a social-political movement that she devoted more than five decades to building. In her recent letter Huerta reminded me that her activism was “shaped by the passion to end injustices among workers, women, and immigrant communities.”
The UFW did indeed help to end many injustices, especially in the agricultural fields. Her recent letter referenced that heroic effort stating: “We only see immense changes in social justice when people come together and organize.” I was also reminded of the tumultuous five year period, 1970-1975, when the UFW was at the center of strikes across the state of California. With Dolores Huerta as the vice president of the UFW, the farmworkers stepped up their efforts to win state approval for their union.
In 1975, the UFW achieved a major political victory with the passage of the California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act which guaranteed farm workers the freedom to join unions and bargain collectively. Chavez and Huerta’s concern for the safety and health of farmworkers led them to lobby against the use of dangerous pesticides, such as DDT, on farm crops.
Over the next twenty years Huerta fought for comprehensive immigration reform, children’s health and safety, and social justice for minorities and the LGBT community. Her struggles were many and one in particular
led to a near death encounter. At a political rally in San Francisco in 1988, police beat the 58 year activist into
subconsciousness, breaking six of her ribs and rupturing her spleen. She recovered fully and remained with the UFW for ten more years, retiring in 1999.
Today farm workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively and no longer have to labor in extreme summer weather without access to drinking water and toilets in the fields. In addition, they are protected from dangerous pesticides and airborne pesticides spraying the agricultural fields while men, women, and children work picking the crops. These gains required more than three decades of struggle by luchadoras like Dolores Huerta.
Dolores Huerta last spoke in San Antonio in 2015. Her epic story, which includes six decades of advocacy for civil rights and social justice, is unparalleled in American labor history. I was honored to introduce her that evening at her lecture at the Briscoe Museum. She had been in many struggles since the first time I introduced her 37 years ago to students and faculty at a lecture at the University of California, San Diego. She spoke that evening in 2015 about the early struggles, but also about the continued challenges to make political leaders aware of the social injustices in our society.
The struggle for justice in the workplace continues. There is much to be done today to protect the agricultural workers from Covid-19. Farmworkers harvesting the crops most often do not have access to protective masks, clean water to wash their hands on a frequent basis, and the ability to work a safe distance from each other.
The same is true in many other service jobs. As a consequence, Latino and Black workers are among the most vulnerable workers. While Hispanics make up almost 40 percent of the population of California, their infection rate for Covid-19 hovers almost at 60 percent in that state and account for nearly 50 percent of the deaths.
This summer, National Public Radio reported that according to the CDC “Latinos are hospitalized from the virus at four times the rate of White Americans.” This figure is supported by researchers working with John Hopkins Health System who found that while nearly 16% of all the patients they tested were positive for the virus, that figure was much higher–”almost 43% –among Hispanic patients.”
We must sow “seeds of justice,” Dolores Huerta implored in her letter. Asking that we “treat every moment leading up to November 3rd as an organizing opportunity” she closed her letter with the optimistic thought that if we commit to voting, “we can bring forth solutions and real, lasting change.” Her words of wisdom give us hope.
Copyright 2020 by Dr. Ricardo Romo. All photos copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc.