Last Monday, Dolores Huerta, the most prominent Chicana labor leader in the United States, spoke on a variety of social justice issues at a lecture at Chapin Hall sponsored by VISTA as part of Latino Heritage Month. In Huerta’s speech, she stressed the need for organization and the importance of one individual in the fight against racial injustice.
In 1962, Huerta co-founded with Cesar Chavez the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA) and served as its first vice-president. Since then, Huerta has negotiated many collective bargaining agreements, including the 1970 contract that ended the five-year Delano grape strike.
As a leader of the United Farm Workers of America, Huerta spoke about the improvements the organization has made for its workers in the past few years. Retired workers now receive a $22,000 per year pension, which can be passed on to a surviving spouse. The UFWA built 130,000 housing units for senior citizens and low-income people. It has also filed lawsuits against farmers who use deformity-causing pesticides without informing their workers. The organization has finally attained workman’s compensation for its members in California.
These gains, Huerta reminded the small but receptive audience, “have come at a great cost.” She named several “martyrs” who died in the fight for unionization and attributed their deaths to the racism of the farmers. She recalled America’s history of injustice to Native-Americans, African-Americans, Asians and Latinos and criticized those who would whitewash American history and not recognize the contributions of these minority groups.
Furthermore, she lamented the fact that such people, though they helped create America’s prosperity, remain locked out of positions of power and wealth. Blacks and Latinos account for a disproportionate number of prisoners in this country, and more and more of America’s spending budgets are directed toward defense and prison construction, while the educations of minority children are neglected.
One solution, Huerta stated, is to increase minority participation in politics, which happened with the organization of Latino voters in California and resulted in the election of 17 Latinos to the legislature. Huerta counseled the audience that we “should never feel like we are only one person.” She recommended people organize to effect change, recalling an anecdote Cesar Chavez used to tell of a boy who goes around hitting various animals with a stick but when he gets to a beehive thinks better of it because “they are organized.”
Addressing an audience who may someday occupy leadership positions in society, Huerta inverted the conventional idea of the relationship between professionals and producers, saying professionals should serve those who create their wealth rather than exploit them.
As much as these issues of social injustice may seem far removed from daily student life, Huerta challenged the audience to incorporate social activism into their lives. She closed with the idea that activism is an integral component of any liberal arts education, concluding, “If we did not learn to fight injustice, we did not learn a thing.”