Dolores Huerta (1930 - )
The scene: 1000 workers demonstrate legally against Vice President George H. W. Bush in front of the St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco, in August 1988. Earlier, presidential candidate Bush appeared on television with California’s Republican governor eating grapes, ridiculing César Chávez, farm workers, and a grape boycott. Dolores Huerta, vice president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), responded by saying, “Mr. Bush’s statement demonstrates again that he is wealthy and comfortable and insensitive to the struggles of working people in our country. It also reveals his ignorance of the pesticide threat to our environment and our people.”
Minutes after she handed out this statement, policemen wielding three-foot batons plunged into the crowd of farm workers and beat Dolores Huerta, five-feet-two-inches tall and weighing 110 pounds, and Howard Wallace, a fellow organizer, in what he later called “a harrowing, terrifying experience.” Fortunately for their adversaries, all farm workers had made an absolute commitment to nonviolence years ago. “Nonviolence is a total commitment,” Huerta once said. “This is where women are particularly important, because they are preservers.”
Following the beating, Huerta ended up in the hospital with a ruptured spleen and fractured ribs. “No one realized how serious her injuries were at first,” said Richard Chávez, husband of the middle-aged mother of eleven and grandmother of ten. Within weeks after her release from the hospital, Huerta traveled the country again, in an organizing effort to stop farm owners from using dangerous pesticides in fields worked by union members.
The sacrifice of Huerta and other farm workers—including Nan Freeman, Nagi Daifallah, and Rufino Contreras, all of whom died in la causa—dramatizes the high cost of their commitment to nonviolence; it helps to explain, also, why the movement has inspired workers all over the world in their struggles for decent wages and working conditions, health care, and personal dignity.
Born in Dawson, New Mexico, in 1930, the daughter of farm worker parents, Dolores Huerta moved to California as a young woman. As with César Chávez, her early years as an organizer began with the Community Service Organization, which used the methods of Saul Alinsky, a well-known community organizer in the Chicago area. Alinsky once summarized his principles in a brief manifesto: “No decisions by outside elites; no demagoguery, bombast, or empty threats; rather a long series of small meetings in private homes, gradually joining in a larger structure.” (Gandhi had used similar methods when he returned to India in 1915 after the successful campaign in South Africa; so did the leaders of religious reform in Latin America as they formed base communities in the early 1960s.)
Through Fred Ross, her boss in the Community Service Organization, Huerta met César Chávez. In 1962, impressed by the “quiet and unassuming” Chávez, she left C.S.O. to help build the farm worker’s union, becoming its first vice president in 1965. She has remained in that post ever since, serving as a chief negotiator, lobbyist, spokesperson, and strategist. Moving from place to place, Huerta spent less than two months in any location. Characteristic assignments included tours during national boycotts of the United Farm Workers when she traveled throughout New England and spoke as a homilist at a mass and about nonviolence during conferences of the New England Catholic Peace Fellowship at the Mont Marie, Sisters of St. Joseph, Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1975, and Mount Holyoke College, in 1990, respectively.
In discussing the origins of the United Farm Workers, historians point to similarities between the UFW and other important campaigns for justice in American history. Leadership of effective movements for social change “need not arise from the persons most likely to benefit from it,” wrote Joan London and Henry Anderson. Primary leadership for abolishing slavery, for example, “did not and could not come from slaves”; nor did children initiate the movement to abolish child labor. There is a “fine justice,” nonetheless, in the way leadership for the United Farm Workers was assumed by people who were themselves the aggrieved ones. Huerta, César Chávez, and other Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) worked in the fields as they organized, lived as farm workers live, and suffered the risks of their difficult lives. Even now, after long experience and an occasional victory, the leaders all look and sound and talk, not as managers or “experts,” but as farm workers do.
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