Passing the Torch

Huerta urges students to continue her, Chavez's activism

By David Courtland 12/06/2007

Chicano movement icon Delores Huerta encouraged local high school students to pursue higher education and get politically active as she shared her experiences as a labor activist at Oxnard College on Nov. 28.

“This college is your school, your parents paid for it with their taxes,” Huerta told 550 students from five Oxnard and Camarillo high schools gathered in the campus gymnasium to hear the co-founder of the United Farm Workers speak.

“These are your schools, don’t let anybody keep you out of these schools,” Huerta said, noting her oldest son, now a doctor in Bakersfield, was able to attend medical school because of affirmative action policies.

Huerta urged students to continue protesting legislative attacks on undocumented immigrants, as many did last year when a bill in Congress that would have made it a crime to hire or help illegal immigrants mobilized students to walk out of classrooms across the nation.

“We didn’t get the bill we wanted, but at least we did stop the bad bill,” Huerta said. “So it was a kind of victory, but we have to remain engaged.”

Huerta encouraged girls to look beyond marriage after high school as a goal to careers that enable them to be independent.

“From the time we’re children we’re told somebody’s going to take care of you, that Prince Charming is going to come kiss you and wake you up,” Huerta said. “But when Prince Charming kisses you he puts you to sleep and leaves you with a couple of kids.

“So I must say to the girls, we have to be strong, nobody is going to support you or take care of you but yourself,” Huerta continued as she moved on to her advice for boys.

“Talk to your mothers and say ‘You need to teach me how to cook,’ because the women in this room are saying, ‘We’re not servants,’” Huerta said. “A true man is someone who knows how to respect a woman as if that woman were his sister or his mother.”

Recalling the early days of California’s farm labor movement, Huerta noted fellow UFW

founder Cesar Chavez began his grassroots organizing in Oxnard. She and Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association., which later became the UFW, in 1962.

Huerta and Chavez helped farmworkers — who were specifically left out of the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that legalized labor unions — to successfully negotiate contracts with agribusiness for the first time, improving work conditions in the field.

“Before that, if workers got together, it was called an illegal assembly,” Huerta said. “There was a time when they didn’t have toilets, didn’t have drinking water and didn’t have rest periods.”

Since Chavez’ death in 1993, Huerta, 77, has become the primary figure of the Chicano civil rights movement. She remains active in progressive causes and teaches grass-roots community organizing through the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

“We’re trying to preserve and teach the organizing methods Cesar Chavez and I used when we organized the farmworkers years ago,” Huerta said after her speech in an interview with broadcast journalism student Brenda Vasquez. “We hire and train organizers so they can go into the communities, so the communities can fight their own battles.”

Huerta told Vasquez she believes the nation’s 12 million undocumented workers will inevitably become legal citizens.

“Every other wave of immigrants has gone through a legalization process, it’s going to happen eventually,” though probably not within the next couple of years, Huerta said.

Huerta was invited to speak to the crowd of 800 people as part of English teacher Shelly Savren’s guest speaker series.

“I’ve been trying to incorporate people from all walks of life,” said Savren, whose lecture series presents a different speaker each week during the course of the semester. She credited Oxnard College’s MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) Club with helping her bring Huerta to the campus.

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