Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and New Mexico’s political year of the woman
By Kent Patterson. This article originally appeared on NMPolitics.net.
Looking spry as ever, Dolores Huerta once again took to the stage Saturday at Albuquerque’s annual Cesar Chavez Day celebration, just three days short of her 88th birthday. The co-founder of the United Farm Workers union urged hundreds of people gathered in the plaza of the National Hispanic Cultural Center to support an effort to make Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico a master’s degree granting program and get ethnic, labor, women’s and LGBTQ studies from kindergarten up in public schools across the nation.
A native New Mexican who went on to chart a legendary life of multi-faceted activism from her California base, Huerta encouraged Burqueños to get involved in politics, reminding them that her colleague Cesar Chavez spent considerable time going door-to-door registering people to vote.
Huerta was introduced on Saturday by Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, who drew cheers when he said, “she’s reminding us and Washington that we should be building bridges, not walls.”
In contrast, Keller elicited boos from the crowd when he said, “We have a federal government that is trying to take our police officers and send them to the border,” a reference to the Trump administration’s recent announcement that it was dispatching National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Duke City media reported last week that the Albuquerque Police Department was seeking an exemption from a call-up for several dozen officers who are enlisted in the National Guard because of an officer shortage and the subsequent risk to public safety cutting available staff would entail.
Expert at pumping up a crowd, Huerta dropped a political bomblet of sorts — and was greeted by another loud round of cheers — when she said that Native American congressional candidate Deb Haaland needs to get elected.
A former chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party who hails from Laguna Pueblo, Haaland is in a contested Democratic primary for the U.S. Congressional District 1 seat being vacated by gubernatorial hopeful Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Haaland is running against another woman, attorney Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, and four men: Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, former U.S. Attorney Damon Martinez, Pat Moya, and Damian Lara.
In one important sense, a great struggle of Huerta’s life, advancing women’s rights and their representation in politics, is bearing great fruit in New Mexico this year. While Lujan Grisham is aiming for the governor’s seat, two women are leading contenders to replace the Albuquerque representative in Washington.
In other key races, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is running for re-election, while two women, Madeline Hildebrandt and Xochitl Torres Small, are vying to be the Democratic nominee in the race for the southern New Mexico Congressional seat Steve Pearce is leaving to run for governor. As a result of the March 6 elections, the City Council of Sunland Park now includes five women and one man.
Yet Huerta’s legacy cuts far deeper than electoral politics, as was showcased at this year’s Cesar Chavez Day march and rally. Every year the event’s organizers award the Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez Sí Se Puede awards to community activists.
Huerta this year personally handed the award named after her to Dr. Dely Alcantara, UNM director of population and geo-spatial studies, and a longtime leader in the local Filipino and Asian communities.
Although often overlooked in histories of the United Farmworkers Union, Filipino American farmworkers were pivotal in launching the Delano grape strike of 1965. Filipino American labor leader Larry Itliong worked alongside Chavez and Huerta in the early years of the movement.
Alcantara spoke about the long-term and intergenerational nature of activism, exemplified by the Seventh Generation concept of Native Americans. “It takes seven generations to create a sea change,” Alcantara said. “For change to happen, every single generation needs to have a voice.”
At Cesar Chavez Day, Dolores Huerta’s inspiration was readily evident in the voter registration and issue-specific informational tables, where women activists were highly visible. A woman who handed out free onions at a photo display that depicted the laboring conditions of contemporary farmworkers illustrated how the issues, tactics and strategies popularized by Huerta and Chavez more than a half-century ago are still very much alive in the 21st Century.
Above the onions, a sign proclaimed that workers in Southern New Mexico earn a quarter for every bucket harvested, with 40 buckets needed to earn $10.
Diana Martinez-Campos, an adviser to UNM students participating in the College Assistance Migrant Program, described the onion giveaway as a method of transmitting the notion that everyone is involved in agriculture one way or another. She urged the public to contact their legislators so pro-farmworker legislation could be passed.
Prior to Cesar Chavez Day, UNM activists organized a week of events dedicated to farmworkers. The sexual abuse of women farmworkers was among the concerns highlighted on campus last week.
The farm labor display also contained information about a growing boycott of Wendy’s over tomato harvesting.
Led by Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the boycotters want Wendy’s to sign on to the coalition’s Fair Food Program, a pact agreed to by many fast food chains that upholds worker rights and provides for wage increases. Wendy’s however, claims it adheres to an enhanced supplier code of conduct.
“Our response in promoting the Wendy’s boycott has been very positive,” Martinez-Campos said. “People were supportive, they didn’t know about it… we hope to put a little grain of sand toward farmworker justice.”
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.