By Michelle Andujar
Nov 30, 2009
"Si se puede," or "Yes, we can," was the slogan for both the United
Farm Workers labor union and Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Dolores Huerta, a lifelong activist for the rights of migrant farm
workers, who founded the union alongside Cesar Chavez, claims Obama
stole her motto.
"He told me he did," Huerta said during her visit to Salem for the
Annual Peace Lecture at Willamette University on Oct. 21.
Huerta was involved in successful boycotts, strikes and collective
bargaining leading to several changes that improved farm workers'
conditions, including immigration amnesties and wage raises.
The nonviolent campaigns weren't always peaceful. Several people were
martyred, including Nagi Daifullah, a Yemenese immigrant beaten to
death by a California sheriff during a 1973 strike. His death was
ruled an accident.
Arab and Filipino migrants were among the groups of migrant farm
workers fighting alongside Mexicans for better conditions.
Huerta was arrested over 20 times, and in 1988, during a protest
against President Bush, she was badly beaten by the San Francisco
police. She suffered broken ribs and a damaged spleen.
As a result of the incident, Huerta was awarded a large settlement
which became a source for more activism work. Her organization, the
Dolores Huerta Foundation, among other things, trains organizers who
are then sent to help communities.
"We've built community pools in very hot places, food banks and
microcredit programs. And it's all done by the people," she said.
During her visit, Huerta sent special regards to her Oregon
counterpart, Ramón Ramírez, president of the state's only farm labor
union, Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers (PCUN).
PCUN founded Radio Movimineto (96.3 fm), which broadcasts in Mexican
indigenous languages. Among other things, PCUN led a successful
boycott against NORPAC Foods and Gardenburger after the companies
ignored workers' demands for fair treatment, including the right to
have a break.
"Conflict is not always a bad thing. It helps truths come out.
Sometimes, you have to move things in order to instigate change,"
said Huerta, who advocates for nonviolence, but believes that women
should be instructed in methods of self-defense.
"If you have to hurt someone so they don't rape you or kill you,
that's okay," she said.
Much work is needed in the area of feminism in the United States, she added.
"Like Iran and Sudan, we're one of only a few countries that haven't
ratified the International Women's Rights Treaty [CEDAW]."
Huerta believes that opponents of feminists, homosexuals and
immigrants are distracting the public from more crucial issues, like
wars, embezzlement, and where our tax money is being spent.
"Immigrants are working, helping the economy," she said.
"Undocumented people contribute with billions in taxes. This is money
they never see. The services they get are minute. That's another hate
tactic [opponents] use to attack undocumented people."
Her dream is achieving "legalization for all people." She pleaded for
the ratification of the Convention for migrant workers' rights.
"It's not right to make others second class citizens ... because
they're human beings, that's why," Huerta said.
In the 1920s, she said, many foreign-born people were allowed to vote
in the U.S.
"Eventually it has to happen. With globalization, corporations have a
right to manufacture in other countries, while workers are not
allowed to cross borders. There's something wrong with that picture."
In the meantime, Huerta recommended the youth to get involved at the
political and civic levels, and not to let racism push them back.
"Any racism they encounter is temporary and should make them
stronger. They shouldn't take it personally, but remember that
they're okay. The racists are the ones who are not okay."
Mariela Ventura, a University of Oregon student and a member of
MECHA, the Chicano/Latino student union, met Huerta.
"She really inspired us to work," Ventura said. "She explained that
you don't need 100 percent of the people, just a handful of really
Huerta wasn't afraid to walk into Kennedy's office and the White
House and say, "These people are putting food on the plates of
Americans, and they deserve the right to a decent living." And she
got it. It makes you think, 'What if I was the next Dolores Huerta?'