Dolores Huerta has been an iconic figure in the Chicano Movement and up to today for her past activism with the struggle for farm workers. She has used her status for political influence, mainly around support for the Democratic Party. Like any images or symbols, the reality and substance often get lost. This election season, as many Latinos have been less than enthused with the party over their lack of action on immigration, Huerta has been put up to get out the vote for that party regardless. Many more have been open to going against Huerta and other traditional power brokers for the Democrats. In response many say that Huerta should still be respected because of her past actions as if they do not inform what she does today. As we will see, her present politics are based on her history, and should be known by those who seek a more independent and liberatory politics today.
The 2014 midterm elections have come and gone, with the Republican Party making many gains over the Democratic Party, including taking back control of the Senate. This despite the millions spent by the party and its affiliated interest groups to get out the vote, and especially the Latino vote. For the last effort, they brought out Dolores Huerta and other loyal Latino power brokers to urge them to continue to vote for Democrats. The problem being that Latinos overall have been angry and indifferent to the Democrats for their inaction on immigration, affecting many families status in the country, and Obama being known as the Deporter in Chief for the record number of deportations that have happened under his administration. Many grassroots migrant activists, including those traditionally loyal to the Democrats, have been more critical of the party and Obama. Yet Huerta and other Latino spokespersons have attempted to bring them back in the Democratic Party fold, especially over Obama’s last action.
Back in September of 2014, in response to grassroots anger at the Obama administration, especially his decision to delay immigration work until after the November midterm elections, Huerta has come out in support of this decision. She stated “We have to look at the big picture and don’t get caught up in saying we want it now,” …“We’ve been waiting—we are a community that can wait.” … “we have to have faith in our president.” (1) Huerta also gave the traditional warning that Republicans will always be worse, and has traveled across the country for get out the vote efforts for the party. This stance has also created a backlash against herself too. One blogger stated correctly that Huerta “…has shown that she’s a Democrat first and foremost. She isn’t necessarily listening to the grassroots immigration community, which was expecting the president to deliver on his promise of acting on deportations at the end of the summer.” (2).
Yet criticism of Huerta remains rare, for her status seems to make her off limits for dissent. But in order to move forward in liberation, we have to put politics in command. That also means looking at what the politics of Dolores Huerta really represent. While there is no doubt that she has accomplished a lot and inspired many in her decades of organizing, we must look at what her politics really are. And those politics are consistent with her activism she has been known for.
Dolores Huerta’s History
The biography of Dolores Huerta is well known. She was born in 1930 in Dawson, New Mexico. Her father was a miner, farm worker, union organizer and state assemblyman in the state. After her parents divorced she moved with her mother and the rest of her family to Stockton, California, where she was raised through her young adulthood. She experienced the racism and national oppression against Mexican people in high school. Her mother became a businesswoman, and owned a hotel that was often used by migrant farmworkers, where Huerta became intimately exposed to their plights. She became a teacher after earning a teaching certificate, and seeing the plight of migrant children, shifted her life into that of an organizer.
Her beginnings as an organizer shaped her future reformist politics. In 1955 Huerta co-founded the Stockton chapter of the Community Service Organization, founded by organizer Fred Ross. Through there she met Cesar Chavez, and later Saul Alinsky, the advocate of community organizing strategies of non-violence borrowed from the Civil rights movement. Later in 1960 she helped found the Agricultural Workers Association. In 1962 Chavez and she helped found the National Farm Workers Association, which would later become the United Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, then the United Farm Workers.
The moment that brought the United Farm Workers to prominence happened in 1965, when the workers went out on strike, spurred on by organized Filipino farm workers. Out of the many tactics they performed, the Boycott Grapes campaign came out of this, appealing to consumers to stop buying grapes in order to exert pressure on growers to accept their union. It became a cause celebre among Chicanos and liberal constituencies. They got support from several people and groups, and from politicians like Robert Kennedy. Chavez, a disciple of non-violence, performed hunger strikes to bring attention to their struggle, appealing to public opinion with moral force. The struggle resulted in their first union contract with grape growers in 1970, and many campaigns after that.
The struggles of the United Farm Workers involved thousands of people, including the farm workers themselves, and many volunteers and organizers who joined the movement. The union struggles through its history included five martyrs from their union movement, and none on the side of the growers. Despite this the main figureheads of the UFW remained Chavez and Huerta, both propelled to iconic statuses. Several books, documentaries, artworks, and ballads were produced about both of them. Many streets and schools have been named after both. In 2014 a feature film, Cesar Chavez, was released, with Rosario Dawson playing Dolores Huerta, that portrays them in the Grape Boycott campaign. The early glorious history is what most people know about both of them.
Lesser known is more critical items of the United Farm Workers. More recent scholarship has brought up the less proud moments of the UFW. A recent Los Angeles Times series and a new book take a different look at the UFW. (3). The UFW had tensions of its identity as both a union and a social movement. The reports show that the UFW shifted its focus to social movement based non-profit and for profit ventures, with many of the money making ventures run by Chavez family members and other insiders. It received millions in donations, grants and public funds for its various projects, and today few of those resources go to union organizing. It has fewer union members than anytime before, and gets a small percentage of its income from union dues. Also, farm workers are still suffering exploitative conditions.
Furthermore, Chavez became more authoritarian in his leadership, wanting absolute loyalty from his staff and control of decisions of the union. Many organizers and members left or were pushed out. The UFW history includes other unsavory political actions such as red baiting, anti-immigration actions, and even support of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.
From the beginnings of the union Chavez, Huerta and the UFW have created and depended on ties with the Democratic Party. They supported Robert Kennedy in his presidential bid in 1968, Huerta later recalled being in the California ballroom when Kennedy was assassinated that year. Their ties to that party were evident in 1972, when Chicanos began organizing La Raza Unida to bring an alternative to the two party system. The UFW leadership and Chavez chose to instead endorse the Democratic candidate George McGovern. That same year Dolores Huerta also became co-chair of the California delegation to the Democratic National Convention.
Huerta political influence began to expand beyond the farm worker movement itself.She created ties with the white-led liberal feminist movement around Gloria Steimen, and became a spokesperson for many other liberal and progressive causes. She became an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which acts in practice as the left wing of the Democratic Party, to get leftists to support the Democrats, and against any independent political movement from them. She sits on many other boards of liberal organizations tied to the Democrats.
She has traded her influence for positions of power. Politicians seek out her endorsement, knowing that her status can bring out votes. Those votes are of course for the Democrats and no one else. Her strategy she advocates to the people is voting and running for office. No discussion on other ways of gaining and holding power. In 2003, she supported Gray Davis for governor in his recall campaign waged against him. Before he left office Davis appointed Huerta to the Board of Regents of the University of California system.
In 1993 Cesar Chavez passed away. A few years later Huerta resigned from her leadership in the United Farm Workers. She later set up the Delores Huerta Foundation in 2002. Today, the foundation website states a quote from her saying “Election Day is the most important day of your life.”(4) It is obvious she encourages voting. What is not said but implied is to vote for the Democrats.
Huerta and the Clintons
Huerta’s ties to the Democrats extend to the Clintons. Back in 1998 she received an Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from then president Bill Clinton. In 2007 she actively supported Hillary Clinton for president, serving as co-chair of the campaign’s Hispanic Outreach efforts. (5).
In her campaigning for Clinton the next year, in an antagonistic primary campaign for president, Huerta came out strongly for Hillary and went hard in her attacks on Obama. Early that year she attacked a union for allegations of intimidating Clinton supporters, and argued that Clinton has a “cultural, political and social relationship with the Latino community, which Senator Obama does not have. Salon magazine further quoted her saying “Latinos call Clinton “Hilaria,” …adding derisively that they call Sen. Obama “Como se llama?” (as in “What’s his name?”).” (6). Huerta went after him on a variety of issues, accused Obama of being a “Johnny Come Lately” on immigration issues, and accused him of pandering to the Latino community, while claiming Clinton has been for Latinos for over 35 years when she registered Latinos to vote when Clinton was in her twenties. Attacked him for stealing the Si Se Puede slogan she claims to have created, when he used it in his Yes We Can campaign slogan. And criticized him for his inaction in the case of Elvira Arrellano, a Mexican migrant activist who took sanctuary in a Chicago church, bringing national attention to the plights of undocumented migrants, and was deported in August 2007; Obama was senator of Illinois at the time.(7) Further she called Obama an opportunist.(8)
During the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Huerta once again serving as a delegate, put in the nomination of Hillary Clinton for presidential candidate. (9) Her support and shilling for Hillary was despite Clinton’s opportunistic and even conservative record on immigration. in the primary campaign, Clinton opposed drivers licenses for “those who are here illegally,” called for tougher penalties on companies that employ undocumented immigrants.(10) In the past she has said she is adamantly opposed to illegal immigration, and as Senator voted for funding of a larger border wall. Columnist Ruben Navarette, a conservative who often has insightful analysis of Latino issues, documented Clinton’s changing stances on immigration, and referring to Huerta stated “to cover their tracks, they (the Clintons) trot out prominent Latinos who assure the flock that the Clintons have always fought for them.”(11)
After Obama got the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party, Huerta did a complete turnaround and started campaigning for him. Four years later in 2012 she received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama, and they seemed to reconcile over the stealing of the Si Se Puede slogan. Later that year she appeared in campaign videos for Latinos for Obama. (12) It should be noted that her earlier criticisms of Obama were spot on. These recent events show that Huerta’s loyalty is to the Democratic Party no matter what, and Obama, Clinton and herself are what she called the former back in 2008: opportunists. It would also explain her coming out this year in loyal defense of Obama and his policies.
As the 2016 election comes around, it is easy to predict that Dolores Huerta will come out again for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. This despite Clinton’s immigration views not developing, for she recently came out for the deportation of the refugee kids from Central America that have been coming into the U.S. fleeing the violence caused by U.S. foreign policies. (13). But we cannot expect more from the likes of Dolores Huerta, who has shown through her history where her loyalties lie, and what her role is. Other voices have began to come out to call out this traditional unquestioning loyalty to the Democratic Party,(14) the role of Obama’s Latino defenders, and to advocate a more independent politics.(15)
It is clear that Dolores Huerta is prone to playing the game of politics in the U.S., but that does not mean that we should also. This criticism is not on Huerta’s life and her real sacrifices she has made. It is that her politics are opportunist and take our people in the wrong direction back into the wrong direction of the Democrats. The Chicano and Mexicano people need a political program of liberation, and one step in that direction is to have independence from what Armando Navarro called the Two Party Dictatorship. Another step to get there is to be willing to criticize and go against those capitulators who would sacrifice independence for their own gain.
11. Ruben Navarrette. “Clinton’s Problem with Latinos.” http://legacy.utsandiego.com/news/op-ed/navarrette/20080220-9999-lz1e20navarre.html. Navarrette’s column is worth quoting further:
“Then, to cover their tracks, they trot out prominent Latinos who assure the flock that the Clintons have always fought for them. Recently, Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with César Chavez, has been stumping for Hillary Clinton in the Southwest. Painting Barack Obama as someone who only recently discovered Latinos, Huerta assures crowds that Hillary is “not the Johnny Come Lately” in this election and that the former first lady “has been advocating for us for 35 years” dating back to registering Hispanic voters in Texas when Clinton was fresh out of Yale Law School.
That’s laying it on a bit thick, Dolores. Hillary Clinton has been fighting for Latinos for 35 years? That includes those years in Arkansas, which – in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Clintons lived there – was home to very few Latinos. And it includes the eight years while Hillary’s husband was president; Hispanic political activists say they can’t recall a single initiative that came from her office that was focused specifically on Latinos. And it includes her tenure in the Senate where – again – Latinos in New York and around the country can’t cite a single bill, debate or committee meeting involving Latinos where Clinton took a leading role.
Whenever Latino figures vouch for Clinton, no one covering these dog and pony shows asks the obvious question: If the Clintons have really been there for Latinos for all these years, why do they need anyone to step forward and speak for them? Shouldn’t the Latino community know them well enough so they can skip the intermediaries?
Maybe some Latinos know the Clintons too well. And maybe that’s another reason they need assurances. Maybe they remember Bill Clinton as a president who usually saw race relations in black and white even as the country was going Technicolor. Or maybe they haven’t forgiven him for signing a 1996 immigration law that was so anti-foreigner that it barred even legal immigrants from public assistance. Or maybe they’re having trouble keeping track of Hillary’s positions on the immigration issue; one minute, she’s telling a largely Hispanic audience in Nevada that “no woman is illegal” and the next, she’s telling a largely non-Hispanic audience in South Carolina that “anybody who committed a crime in this country or in the country they came from has to be deported immediately, with no legal process.””