By Peter Bergel
Legendary labor organizer Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Worker Union (UFW) with Cesar Chavez, was the Salem Peace Lecture speaker this year. She spoke at Willamette University on October 21. She also spoke with The PeaceWorker and other alternative news media. This is a summary of her message from the lecture and the interviews.
Cesar was a devotee of Gandhi and so was I. We were impressed by the way he handled racism and he was always true to himself in the organizing he did.
We had a lot of incidents when the farm workers who were organizing got beaten up. Cesar did two 25-day fasts to keep the farm workers from becoming violent. He said if they used violence against the growers and labor contractors, eventually they would use violence against each other.
My take is that nonviolence strengthens the spirit and grows emotional fortitude. It’s transformative, starting with the individual and then spreading to other people. When people stood their ground without using violence they could see that the attackers were moved by that. They couldn’t keep it up for long.
The first place we saw the power of nonviolence was among our own organizers. They were young men and their tendency was to hit back right away. When we asked them not to, and they went along with that, we saw them mature and I think it gave them more strength.
I remain convinced of the power of nonviolence, but — like Gandhi — I have a caveat. Many women have been murdered or subjected to great violence so I think we have to teach our women self-defense. Train them to be strong and independent. As Gandhi said, if you have to use some violence to prevent greater violence, then you should do that.
I’m a Catholic mother with 11 children, but I believe that it’s a woman’s right to choose. I don’t believe that I have the right to tell another woman what to do with her body. A woman can not be liberated for participation in political life unless she has control of her own body. If people want to marry in the same sex, it doesn’t affect us in any way, does it?
Racism is definitely taught. It’s trying to make ourselves feel superior by putting somebody else down. Children don’t see any differences; they love each other no matter what group they belong to. Dividing people so that they can be racist or sexist is political. We are one human race and I like to tell people that we are all Africans, actually. That’s where our whole race originated. People traveled from there across the globe and some went north and got very white (so now they have to go to tanning salons to get their color back). So we can say to the KKK, the Aryan Nations, the White Citizens Councils and the Minutemen, “You’re Africans — get over it.”
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Those wars were started by Bush and should never have happened, but when people say we should leave Afghanistan and we should negotiate with the Taliban, they’re deserting the women. I’m not saying I want to see more Afghanis or Americans killed, but we’ve got to reconstruct the country. That’s difficult, though, because of the Taliban. All of us want peace and we are responsible for the Taliban controlling that country, which is located right in the middle of the Arab world, so I don’t know what the solution is, but the one thing I hope is that we don’t desert the women.
I can see how they’d want foreign troops, who are killing their own people, to leave, especially with these drone attacks, controlled from bases in Nevada. That definitely needs to be stopped. It’s a horrible situation, militarily and politically. No foreign power has ever won in Afghanistan, but I’m not sure negotiating with the Taliban is the answer. A lot of money is going into that country, but it’s not going into the right hands. The money should go into a Marshall Plan to rebuild the country.
Advice for the Peace Movement
Get involved in some of the other movements. The peace movement isolates itself. We’ve got to get out of our silos.
We also need to make sure the right people are elected to public office. When I speak to a peace rally and see all those bodies out there, I think, “Man, can we have you out there when we’re getting out the vote?” Let’s pick someone who’s really bad politically, go after them and defeat them.
Also, go after the war profiteers — the Halliburtons of the world who get so rich on killing people. Focus on where the money is going. We talk about corruption in Afghanistan. It’s worse here.
And what leads to these conflicts anyway? It’s our foreign policy — taking away others’ resources. That’s what it’s all about, really. Most people don’t realize that we’re the only developed country that does not own its own resources. We don’t own our oil, electricity or water. Corporations own our resources. We need to take control of our own country.
Hate organizations are a danger to all, not just gays and immigrants. One member of the KKK said that as they get stronger, blacks and Jews will be next.
Dream for U.S. Immigrants
Legalization and education for all. Latinos are often better informed than other Americans — at least about the world outside the U.S. — because they’re watching Spanish TV.
Today’s Most Urgent Issue
“Health care is a human rights issue.” Some congressional staffers tell me that the mail they’re getting is 85% against the public option, which means the people on our side aren’t speaking up. You have to register people to vote and get them out to vote, but then you have to keep advocating for what you want. Elected officials will not do the right thing in the face of all the lobbyists’ dollars unless we get really active.
Message to Hispanic Youth
You have to fight for quality education, which will otherwise be denied you. According to the book The Shock Doctrine, free marketers want to dismantle the public education system. Stay in school, no matter what, and get involved. Get your parents involved too — on the political and civic levels. Don’t give up. Remember: any racism you encounter is just temporary. Get past it and move on. Ask for help if you don’t understand something.
Dolores Huerta Foundation
Mission: “To inspire and motivate people to organize sustainable communities to attain social justice.” Trains organizers and teaches people that they have power. “Each of us has to be an organizer,” is her motto. While it’s essential to talk to each other, we also have to talk to those who are not already with us.
Next year the Dolores Huerta Foundation will hold virtual birthday parties for her 80th birthday to raise funds for the organization, but she wants people to know that she takes no money from the foundation. This is because she has a settlement from the City of San Francisco, stemming from a beating she received at the hands of the police, which pays her $2,000 per month as long as she lives. Φ
Peter Bergel is Editor of The PeaceWorker.
Photo: Peter Bergel