Dolores Huerta flouts the smug conventional wisdom that the 1960s are behind us. She won’t settle down and become an anachronism. The 72-year-old Huerta marched 165 grueling miles from Delano to Sacramento this year to demand that centrist Governor Gray Davis sign a mandatory mediation bill for farmworkers. Few insiders thought the bill had a chance. But when Huerta said she would start a hunger strike during the final days of the intense gubernatorial campaign, Davis did the right thing.
For that kind of moral commitment and savvy, Dolores Huerta is being awarded the $100,000 Puffin Prize by the Nation Institute, given annually to a social justice activist for a lifetime of sacrifice for a cause. The Nation community shares Huerta’s commitment to justice for farmworkers and causes that are unseen by the powers that be. For example, the magazine’s longtime editor Carey McWilliams became head of California’s immigration and housing division in 1939 and wrote about the shameful condition of migrants in the very fields where Dolores Huerta grew up.
For Huerta, the notion of a “lifetime of sacrifice” means living to the fullest. When I asked how she planned to spend the $100,000–say, for example, on a car that works or clothes for her eleven kids–she already had a plan. “We need an organizers’ institute” to train more Dolores Huertas for the future, she said.
Her fifty years of activism began when she quit teaching public school in 1955 to become an organizer in the Stockton chapter of Fred Ross’s Community Service Organization (CSO). Several years later she connected with Cesar Chavez to organize what became the United Farm Workers of America. In 1960 she lobbied then-Assemblyman Phil Burton for farmworker benefits–forty-two years before lobbying Burton’s younger brother John to be her champion in the showdown with Gray Davis.
Over that half-century, she helped organize the UFW over the initial opposition of the CSO, at a time when the AFL-CIO thought migrants couldn’t be organized like factory workers. She led the international grape boycott, which resulted in the first UFW contract. She endured the tragedy of Robert Kennedy’s assassination after he became the first national leader to support the UFW fast in the fields. She experienced the ups and downs of the union’s subsequent internal disputes, suffered a life-threatening police beating in 1988 and became a leader in the feminist and antiwar movements.
What Huerta means for farmworkers, and for women in particular, is dignity and inclusion in American society. But for those who honor her past, the truth is that even more radical change is needed today. In California, for example, one-third of vineyard employers still don’t pay the minimum wage, and there are only nineteen inspectors for 36,000 work sites. Farmworkers are poisoned with pesticides–according to federal officials, 300,000 yearly, among the 4 million nationwide. The plight of farmworkers is also at the heart of abstract debates over globalization and trade rules. All over Mexico, campesinos are being ejected from their communal ejidos to risk their lives on journeys to El Norte, where, if they do not die in the Southwestern deserts, they will grow the food for our tables and also for export back to Mexico, thus displacing more of their kin from traditional lands.
It’s time to both honor Dolores Huerta and to join her in the fight. At a moment when both major parties remain ultimately beholden to growers and pesticide companies, what will it take to finally draw the line against a political culture that so patently denies a decent life to the people who feed our families?