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Dolores Huerta: A Role Model for Any Age

by Susan Samuels Drake

This is worse than waiting to deliver a baby, this waiting for Dolores Huerta to confirm our interview time. The time has changed several times: 

Come after the convention...

 I think Im going to Sacramento from Oakland. Governor Davis wants some of the AFL-CIO people with him when he delivers the State of the State message.  She has to be in Delano to award scholarships to some kids on Friday; that leaves me Thursday evening.

Thats the way Dolores lives. She is married to the farm workers union, United Farm Workers (AFL-CIO), that she co-founded with César Chávez. Its no secret that her 11 children often werent sure where to get dinner or plop their heads on a pillow during the 60's, 70's and 80s when Dolores was negotiating with growers who thought she was nuts, with legislators who were just as uncooperative as the growers with this upstart, shoot-from-the-hip-woman.

I know the softer side of the woman. Shes the boss I'd go to some mornings before work. That was in 1973, when César, not with great wisdom, placed her as his Administrative Assistant (imagine that tigress caged behind a desk). Dolores tensions spilled over to me, at that time Césars secretary, whod been running the office longer than she had.

So several mornings before work I walked across the compound misnamed La Paz to catch her in the old hospital we used for a dorm. Peace was not a usual state for the unions headquarters above Californias Central Valley in the Tehachapi Mountain. I would beg Dolores for patience, understanding or advice. She would wrestle with her hair and breakfast while tears ran down my cheeks. By the time I walked over to the office, I wasnt sure whether I was crying from relief or from the amazing confidence shed just instilled in me.

Now I can scan the 1,000 sites on the Net that mention this friend, an idol in many American circles, an unknown in others. I already had her agree to an interview before I saw her picture with President Clinton on the front page of my local newspaper last December. He had just awarded her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. On some of those Internet sites, I learned how she had spent those calendar-crammed years since we worked together.

The first time I met Dolores, she had been fired by César the day before but there she was, working behind the counter of what was known as The Gray House. Gray House headquartered the National Farm Workers Association, as they were then known, housed organizers, a legal department, a boycott staff and a couple of rooms and garage office that made up the newspaper. No wonder grape growers thought we would disappear before labor contracts could be signed.

After five years of striking and boycotting, the union was successful in some 75 contract negotiations with the growers. Si se puede (it can be done) became the farm workers mantra. That way of life endures with this 70-year-old bundle of energy who still dances salsas and recently nursed her lover, Richard Chávez, after his heart surgery.

Born in New Mexico, Dolores father was a rabble - rousing miner who served in the state Assembly. After her parents divorced, Dolores went to Stockton, CA, with her mother. Dolores mother was an it-can-be-done  role model as a single mother and proprietor of a boarding house and restaurant. In spite of Dolores frequent, long absences during her children's elementary and high school years, they have had to accept their mothers dedication to the union. One daughter boasts, Shes my hero.

Do you remember the time of boycotting grapes, California wines, and iceberg lettuce?  Then you can take credit for bringing growers to the table to pen their names to contracts. In effect, we held hands with workers who had gone out on strike or were afraid to strike because they would risk their jobs. These days, the indomitable Dolores has negotiated a contract with Bear Creek, a Harry & David company located in Oregon. Negotiations continue with wine grape, tomato and lettuce growers in some cases after decades of fruitless talks. Existing contracts are in force with mushroom companies and wineries.
 
Todays field and orchard workers are often far too young to have known or even heard of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. They find it hard to believe that, in all likelihood, by the time they reach the age of 35 theyll be permanently disabled from repetitive strain, back trouble or pesticide poisoning. Try to convince someone who has worked an eight to 12 hour shift to go to a union meeting to hear that a labor contract will protect their jobs when there are problems, provide a health plan and, most important, offer a wage that will provide for decent housing, food, and clothing. 

It is possible that consumers will be asked to join a boycott in the future. Agribusiness is even more determined and more sophisticated in blocking the union. No matter what problems may appear for the workers, they can be resolved. The bottom line is employer obstinacy and greed;  I can say that knowing that small growers are experiencing very serious problems that are inherent in the state of agriculture today.
 
Dolores believes that much of that anti-union feeling stems from racism and an inability to view farm workers as human beings. If theyre humans, then of course the growers will be expected to have drinking water on hand, toilets in the fields, and toxic chemical safety regulations.  In California legislation that Dolores lobbied for covers some of those work-related issues; in other states, the battle has yet to begin.

 Dolores still relies on the kindness of strangers for the simple cotton shirts and slacks that dont set her apart in a crowd. Her bottle-black hair frames a face easily mistaken for 20 or more years younger. Ancestral genes play well on her high cheekbones and on her full lips captured parenthetically by dimples.

Those dimples deepened when I handed her the front page of my hometown newspaper with a picture of her and President Clinton. Hed bestowed on Dolores the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights, saying it was for  all she has done to protect the dignity and human rights of (her) family and Americas family.

In March, when I interviewed her, she hammered away at the importance of women following their personal dreams and that its not too late for most of us to heed her advice or to pass this on to upcoming generations:

"We want to go on and cut a path for our life, and we shouldnt let anyone stand in our way. Women are not servants; we serve because we want to serve. Were not sex objects, either.  Everybody has a gift and weve got to figure out what that gift is and the things that they really like to do are the things they need to pursue. Even if it means they might have to stay in school longer and study longer.  I tell women to have their own money, their own account."

"There's a song called  El Rey with a phrase that says, 'You dont have to be the first one to get there, but you have to know how to arrive.'  I have friends who were single parents and had to accept welfare but continued with their schooling.  Now they have MA and Ph.D.degrees; the fact that a woman gives birth to a baby doesnt mean that she cant go out and seek out her career path.  I was a single parent with two children who went to school and was able to get a teaching credential.  After my second divorce, I now had seven children and then went on to help form the farm workers union."
 
 "We need to respect people who do things with their hands: farm workers, carpenters, mechanics. Just because you dont have a college degree it doesnt make you a lesser person. It takes courage to do what we want to do."

 Dolores was two weeks away from her 70th birthday when we talked. I know shell never abandon the farm workers movement, but curiosity prompted me to ask what her dream is.  She said she would work harder for achieving gender balance, equal rights for women and more feminists elected to office.

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