“Honor the hands that harvest your crops.”
So spoke the labor-rights leader Dolores Huerta, who fought for dignity of labor and life for migrant Latina/o farm workers. Though she often goes unrecognized for her formidable leadership, Huerta’s intersectional, grassroots activism steeled the political power of the United Farm Workers movement.
On a recent grey-clad March afternoon, an array of folks gathered at the East Side Freedom Library to honor and discuss Dolores Huerta’s legacy. Organizers decided to mark Women’s History Month by exploring the roles played by immigrant working class women in making history. The event emerged from a partnership between ESFL and the Minnesota Historical Society, as part of their 1968 exhibit, which explores the turbulent social movements of the 60’s in relation to today’s political climate. Archivists from the Historical Society toted along some objects from the collections that pertained to the Latina/o experience in Minnesota, including documents from St. Paul’s Brown Beret (Los Boinas Cafe) chapter, and beautiful mid-century photographs by Jerome Liebling of Mexican migrant workers in southern Minnesota.Accompanied by these archives (which rarely venture from their home downtown), the event explored Dolores’ Huerta’s approach towards activism and branched into a broader conversation about race, gender, intersectionality, and social change. It became a way to celebrate Women’s History Month by provoking a conversation between the past and the present.
But first, a little more about Huerta:
Born in 1930, Dolores Huerta was raised in the town of Stockton, a farm worker community in California’s central valley. Inspired by the kindness and social engagement of her mother, Huerta involved herself in activism at an early age. In 1962, she co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with César Chávez, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). Due to her formidable ardor and chutzpah for justice, Dolores Huerta was known as “La Pasionaria” (the passionate one). She was arrested more than twenty times for her activism, and was regularly the lead negotiator with Growers, and all while she mothered eleven children. Despite her prodigious leadership, Huerta was (and still is) eclipsed by her co-leader, César Chávez, who embodied the patriarchal, charismatic movement leader that the media and society at large expected.
Because of her own overlapping identities, Huerta rooted her activism in an intersectional analysis that centered the multiple systems of oppression experienced by migrant Latina workers. For instance, she focused on regulating agricultural pesticides that disproportionately affected female farm workers, and always pushed for Latina women’s involvement in the labor movement. In a political world that excluded Latinas from the machismo of the Chicano movement, and also from the middle-class white prerogatives of Women’s movement, Huerta championed an intersectional approach to organizing that empowered the most marginalized. Her motto that came from decades of union organizing is one familiar to most today: Si se puede! (a motto that Obama assumed for his 2008 campaign, “yes we can!”)
Our discussion of Huerta at East Side Freedom Library was facilitated by the brilliant Dr. Lizeth Gutierrez, a scholar of Latina struggle and solidarity. Born into a working class family in East LA, Gutierrez attended Grinnell College in Iowa and earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Washington State University. Her work explores the ways that immigrant working class Latinas use chisme (gossip) to create knowledge and build solidarity. While working on her book manuscript on this subject, Gutierrez is a post-doctoral fellow at Macalester College. She was a great discussion leader for us.
Inspired by Huerta’s life and legacy, the mix of older adults and younger Macalester students together explored such themes asrepresentation, race, patriarchy, and archival memory. Considering that the cresting moment of 1968 was fifty years ago this year, we asked what world do we want to live in, fifty years from now? Inspired by Huerta, what new models of intersectional, grassroots organizing will push towards those visions of futurity?
The robust and challenging conversations that ensued embodied the mission of East Side Freedom Library to provide multiple narratives, to uplift marginalized experience, and encourage learning from difference. Events like this move us, collectively, toward a place of social justice, and lay the groundwork for a future beyond capitalism and State violence, helping us to imagine difference in a different language.
Learn more about Huerta’s activism here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7r0HsVjXa8&t=8s
Charlotte Colantti is a Saint Paul local, University of Minnesota student, and a collaborator at the East Side Freedom Library. She is writing an honors thesis on the history and legacy of the contested space in Minneapolis known as Cold Water Spring.