Dolores Huerta, the 86-year-old who co-founded the United Farm Workers labor union with César E. Chávez in 1962, continues to go out into marginalized communities to urge people come together in times of fear and injustice.
Now, she said, is certainly one of those times.
President Donald Trump’s administration has cracked down on undocumented immigrants, causing fear and uncertainty in the Latino community, but Huerta reminded the audience about another time she called “chaotic:” the 1960s.
“The country was very divided when we had the Vietnam War, President Nixon, Governor Reagan,” she said Wednesday during a lecture at the Palo Alto College Performing Arts Center, “but out of that chaotic time came the second wave of the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, LGBT movement, and the green movement, which are now very strong.
“Out of dark times in these next four years we have to do a lot of organizing, and a lot more progressive [movements] will come out.”
Huerta has received numerous awards for her continued advocacy for immigrants, the working poor, women’s rights, and LBTQIA rights. She is a two-time United States Presidential Award recipient and was the first Latina inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She’s best known for her work in labor rights.
Dolores and Chávez coined the phrase “Sí se puede,” “Yes we can,” which became the rallying cry for farm workers everywhere. And modern, urban workers have struggles, too.
Texas is a Right-to-Work state, which means an employee in a unionized workplace is not required to join the union or pay union dues. Lawmakers keep labor unions in Texas from being strong, she said, while unions in other states have more pull.
“When we are organized, we can do anything,” Huerta said. “When we are organized, we can get information and share it. Organization is really important.”
Texas prevents labor unions from collecting money from member paychecks, she said, comparing Texas to California where there is a strong labor union movement.
“When you belong to a union and pay fees to an organization it’s like buying insurance when you get a car – they represent you if you are fired, at the state capital, at Congress, et cetera, and make sure they don’t pass laws against working people.”
The way to solve this problem, and others, is “to get out and vote.”
Huerta believes there are many repressive laws in Texas, including voter registration and identification laws, that have made it difficult for the Latino population to be fully represented at the polls.
“Go out there and volunteer, do the phone banking, knock on doors, and encourage people to vote,” Huerta said. “People need to understand how important voting is. The only way a democracy can work is if people participate, if not you don’t have a democracy. If everyone participates in the elected process, we win, because we are the majority. They’re trying to keep our votes down, which is part of the racism in our society, and the only way to counteract that is to get involved and participate.”
Although there’s been a lot of progress, there’s still “a long way to go” when it comes to other issues, she said, citing the criminalization of immigration, the privatization of prisons, and rising tuition costs at universities. Huerta believes the U.S. is a country where all students should be able to attend college tuition-free.
She recalled taking several Latino elders, who had green cards and had worked in the U.S. their whole lives, to the office of then-Sen. James Cobey (D-California) around 1960. They demanded their right to receive pensions, she said. Even though they only spoke Spanish, Huerta told them to sit there with pictures from their kids who had served in World War II – this was their form of communication. In the end, Gov. Pat Brown signed a bill granting them and thousands other Mexican citizens pensions for the first time.
“It’s ordinary people – la gente – that did that,” she said. “The way that we can really make a change is to make sure we elect people that are going to fight for us, not just because they happen to be Chicanos or Latinos, but because they care for the community and will pass the laws that we need.”
Before concluding her lecture, Huerta asked the audience chant back to her, “Viva la Raza, Viva César Chávez, Viva los inmigrantes, Viva la mujer,” and of course, “Sí se puede!“