Labor Great Comes Home to NM

Dolores Huerta, at age 85, is still organizing, still stumping for the Democratic party, loves Donald Trump's anti-antics

Take a good look at her. They don't make 'em like her anymore. Note the struggle in her eyes, the sort of look that comes from living life for the sake of helping others.

The 85-year-old Dolores Huerta, a labor leader who walked alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America, is in Santa Fe this weekend.

She's attending a fundraiser and speaking out against the far right and what she says is anti-Latino rhetoric that has become commonplace among Republican presidential contenders. And here's a newsflash: Huerta thinks Donald Trump should just keep on making racial comments, because it's only going to help Democrats during the presidential elections next year.

“I hope he keeps on talking the way he does. I love it,” Huerta tells SFR. “Right now, Donald Trump is the face of the Republican Party, and all the other Republican candidates are right behind him, and their views aren’t that much different from his.

If you didn't know, here's a quick primer: Huerta is from New Mexico. She was born in the small town of Dawson in Colfax County during the Great Depression. She attended grammar school in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then moved to Stockton, Calif., with her mother after her parents divorced. Eventually, Huerta graduated college and became an elementary school teacher.

But after five years in the classroom in the early 1950s, she'd had enough. She realized her calling wasn't educating the poor children of farmworkers so much as it was organizing their parents, who were being exploited in California's fields, refused bathroom breaks, working for paltry sums.

The rest is history. She became one of the greatest labor organizers of our time, and she knows something else that many of us don't know: that after the fourth day of fasting, the hunger pangs go away, only to return on the 11th day, her record for fasting in the name of farmworker rights.

Her claim to fame, perhaps, was convincing 14 million Americans to boycott grapes in the early 1970s, and she got arrested 22 times in civil disobedience rallies that marked a divided America during the labor and civil rights movements.

It wasn't without a price. In 1988, during a rally against Republican presidential contender George H W Bush, a San Francisco police officer beat her so badly with a baton that she lost her spleen. She gets $2,000 a month from the city of San Francisco until the day she dies, and it's money that comes in handy, for Huerta is not rich.

Here's another little-known fact: She stood beside Robert F Kennedy moments before he was assassinated on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; in fact, she was about to lead him into the ballroom, where a Mariachi band was set to play.

But organizers shooed Kennedy in another direction, she recounts outside a local coffee shop during a two-hour interview with SFR on Friday.

And of course, it goes without saying, that she was Chavez's right-hand man, only she was a woman; he was to Latino farmworkers what Martin Luther King Jr. was to African-Americans during the civil rights movement. In fact, Huerta takes credit for coining the phrase, "Si se puede!" in the town of Guadalupe, Ariz., in the early 1970s.

It was a chant that President Barack Obama adopted during his bid for presidency in 2004: Yes we can!

But on Friday it was all about the City Different, where Huerta was just one of an estimated 70 people expected to attend a $125-per-plate fundraiser whose intentions, in spirit at least, are to counter the billionaire Koch brothers and their growing Libre Initiative.

Ever since Mitt Romney lost his Republican bid for presidency in 2012 due to a lack of Latino support (blamed on his anti-immigrant rhetoric), there's been a push among the Republicans to woo Latinos back. With a $10 million influx since 2011, the Libre Initiative has been penetrating states with heavy Latino populations–from Texas to Florida to Nevada–where they're handing out food at pantries, holding citizenship classes, helping them obtain driver licenses.

Huerta, who's already given interviews for two Spanish-language television stations in Albuquerque, says she's on a mission to talk to Americans about Libre, which she says is "deceptive at its core" because the backers actually oppose programs that help traditional working class Latinos, such as increases in federal minimum wage, universal health care and comprehensive immigration reform.

Libre Initiative officials in Washington DC disagree. In a statement, Daniel Garza, the executive director, says, “We respect Ms. Huerta for her dedication. She has for decades, advocated for a progressive, big government agenda–one that we believe is failing the Latino community. At our charitable events around the country, we hear frequently from families who are living paycheck to paycheck, and paying more for health care, more for education, and more in taxes. Simply put, the promises made by advocates for bigger and costlier government aren’t coming true, and Latinos are looking for a new direction, a way that makes it easier, and not harder to achieve the American Dream.

Huerta scoffs.

"It's hypocrisy at work, and we're seeing it in real time with real money," says Huerta, who also serves as a board member for People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group that's based in Washington DC and counters what it calls anti-Latino stances of the far right.

Michael B Keegan, the group's president, is accompanying Huerta to stump in Santa Fe.

Once nominated, Keegan says, Republican candidates have a tendency to drift toward the center, so as to not alienate the more moderate Republicans. All of which is going to make for a very close presidential race that will be decided in that middle ground that consists of a few percentage points.

Already, Keegan is predicting that the presidential election will hinge on two states in particular: Colorado and Virginia. But the swing states and New Mexico, with its ever growing Latino population, are not to be overlooked.

"That's why it's so critical," he says, "to educate all voters and to make sure they register to vote and that they show up on Election Day. Together, we can win, but if certain sectors don't show up, then it's going to be close."

And who better to raise awareness and educate the Latinos than Huerta, who lives in Bakersfield these days and is still organizing in the smaller towns on the periphery, from Lamont to Arvin to Weedpatch, the site of a few scenes in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a book that Huerta says still resonates with her.

Thanks to the Dolores Huerta Foundation, established a decade ago, so far her two dozen staffers have been key in getting 11 Latino candidates elected to local public offices, from recreation boards to school boards to city councils in Kern County, oil country.

A supporter of Hillary Clinton as the next Democratic candidate for president, Huerta says she adores Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's also seeking the nomination. Sanders is a great grassroots organizer, she says, but she doesn't think he can win on a national scale.

After her brief stay in Santa Fe, Huerta will head to San Jose, where she will be on hand to celebrate Rita Chavez's 90th birthday. That's the sister of Cesar, who died in the early 1990s.

After that, it's back to Bakersfield, where Huerta will continue to organize the Latino communities while keeping an eye on the Mission District in San Francisco, where she's fighting to get low income housing built in a community that's not making room for it.

"I don't plan on stopping anytime soon," she says. "Just remember, though, it always gets worse before it gets better. But it will get better. Like everything else, and like our past struggles, at some point we win, but before we win, there's always that loss that spurs us on."

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