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Si, Se Puerde: The Life and Activism of Dolores Huerta



Created by:
Sharon Musher
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Theme:
Latinos in America

Grade Level:
9 to 12

Introduction:

Although most people identify Cesar Chavez as the leader of the Chicano Civil Rights movement, few are aware that he had a female partner in his advocacy for farm workers in the Mexican-American labor organizer, Dolores Huerta. Together the two co-founded the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) in 1962 and directed several boycotts of agricultural products including, most notably, a multi-year boycott of table grapes. Their efforts unified diverse farm workers, led agribusinesses to negotiate with their laborers, and encouraged Congress to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 protecting the rights of farmers to unionize. In the midst of her political activities Huerta, who was raised Catholic and was pro-choice, married twice and had 11 children with three men, the third of whom was Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother. Today, Huerta continues her activism for immigrants, laborers, women, and the environment. She is also the grandmother of fourteen and the great grandmother of four children.

This exercise calls on students to consider the life choices that Huerta made in terms of her commitment to poor farmers, to the labor movement, and to her family. It asks students to evaluate how Huerta chose to define and protect her family, herself, and her community and to consider the decisions they would make in her place.



Historical Context

Historians and journalists have written extensively about Cesar Chavez, but few have documented the life of his labor organizing partner, Dolores Huerta. Huerta was born in New Mexico on April 10, 1930 to a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she and her four siblings subsequently moved to a racially integrated, poor neighborhood in Stockton, California where she was raised by her single mother and grandfather.

After acquiring an Associate's Degree and teacher's certificate, Huerta, who was then a divorced mother of two small children, began a career teaching farm worker's children. But she quickly became disillusioned with her work. Huerta and her mother had become politicized by the establishment of the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Stockton, CA. The CSO, which grew out of Saul Alinsky's Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation and was led by labor organizer Fred Ross, focused on the problems faced by working class Mexican-Americans. Believing that education alone could not undo the poverty and racial discrimination that the Mexican-American children of farm workers confronted, Huerta left her teaching job in 1955 to work for CSO organizing voter registration drives, advocating for better public services, promoting anti-discrimination legislation, and countering police brutality. Her decision had profound financial consequences: Her weekly salary dropped from roughly $125 to $10. She and her family relied on food and clothing donations to survive.

At CSO, Huerta began a professional partnership with Cesar Chavez. The two, however, wanted to tackle the issues that poor farm laborers faced, and CSO was hesitant to take on a struggle that would pit illegal immigrants, non-English speakers from a range of countries, and migrant workers whom employers could easily replace against the Goliath of the agricultural industries. Despite emotional and financial costs, Chavez and Huerta embraced the mantra "si, se puede" ("yes, it is possible") and took on the challenge of organizing this diverse, marginalized, and poor cohort. In 1962, Chavez left CSO and moved to Delano, CA, where he and Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers' Association (NFWA). Although both Chavez and Huerta jointly built the farm laborers' movement, Chavez convinced Huerta to remain in Stockton, CA working at CSO until 1964 so that she could continue to draw a modest salary to support her family during the NFWA's earliest days.

In 1965, the mainly Filipino AFL-CIO sponsored Agricultural Workers' Organizing Committee (AWOC) went on strike and asked the NFWA to join them in what became the Delano grape strike of 1965. Huerta, who had moved to Delano that year, played a pivotal role in organizing a wide array of groups, including farm workers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, socially conscious middle class consumers, feminists, church members, anti-war activists, and the labor community. While Chavez served as the public and spiritual head of the movement, conducting fasts, marches, pilgrimages, and retreats, Huerta coordinated the nuts and bolts of the strike and played a leading role in gaining the trust and participation of women, particularly California-based farm workers and middle class consumers located in New York. The cross-class, cross-cultural, and national alliances Huerta and Chavez built forced grape growers to negotiate with strikers in 1970. Shortly thereafter, Chavez and Huerta led a second boycott of table grapes, Gallo wine, and lettuce, until Congress passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which protected the rights of farm laborers to unionize. Industrial laborers had had this right protected and enforced since 1935 with the passage of the National Labor Relations (or Wagner) Act and the subsequent creation of the National Labor Relations Board.

In the midst of these political activities, Huerta formed a personal partnership with Richard Chavez, Cesar's brother, and the two had four children together. On the domestic front, Huerta relied heavily on her mother's help and, after her death, the support of her sisters, her older children, live-in-help, and fellow union members. She viewed herself as part of a communal family organized around the union and Chicano community. She entrusted her nuclear family to that world and sought to instill in her children the centrality of self sacrifice, spirituality, and community. Her children certainly felt the consequences of their mother's choices. When she finally moved to Delano, she had no regular income, and her children went without fresh milk for two years during the strike there. Yet, Huerta appears to have conveyed to them her wider goals, since all of them, with the exception of a physically disabled daughter, worked for the union at one point or another. Her children have gone on to teach, practice law and medicine and work in the film and music industry.



Themes:

domestic labor, child care, wage labor, unionization, and activism



Goals and Objectives:

Students, following this activity, will be able to:

1. Understand the relationships among domestic labor, labor market participation, and political activism.

2. Explore their own values regarding work, family, and social justice.

3. Appreciate the costs and possibilities of collective action.



Standards:

STANDARD 6.1 (U.S. History: America in the World): All students will acquire the knowledge and skills to think analytically about how past and present interactions of people, cultures, and the environment shape the American heritage. Such knowledge and skills enable students to make informed decisions that reflect fundamental rights and core democratic values as productive citizens in local, national, and global communities.

STANDARD 6.3(Active Citizenship in the 21st Century): All students will acquire the skills needed to be active, informed citizens who value diversity and promote cultural understanding by working collaboratively to address challenges that are inherent in living in an interconnected world.



Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

PowerPoint slides (in PDF form) introducing students to Dolores Huerta (Appendix A).

Cards with information about each part for the role play (Appendix B).

For background reading, copies of Margaret Rose, "Dolores Huerta: The United Farm Workers Union" in A Dolores Huerta Reader ed. Mario T. Garcia (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008), pp. 2-21 (Appendix C).

Copies of Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963), African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html [excerpts] (Appendix D).

Copies of Cesar Chavez, "Letter from Delano," in Peter B. Levy, ed., 100 Key Documents in American Democracy (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994), 442-445, http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/pdocs/chavez_delano.pdf (Appendix E).




Details of Activity

BEFORE THE ACTIVITY:

If possible, assign students to read all or part of Appendices B and C prior to this activity.

Appendix B: Cards with information about each role for the role play

Appendix C: Margaret Rose, "Dolores Huerta: The United Farm Workers Union" in A Dolores Huerta Reader

Tell students that they will use information from these texts to engage in a role play about the labor leader, Dolores Huerta. You might wish to describe the role play and divide them into seven groups in advance (see group list below), or wait to do so in the class when they actually perform the roles.

PART 1: Family Values, Political Activism, and Dolores Huerta (15 min.)

Write the term "family values" on the board. Ask students to brainstorm what they think this term means. What does it mean to have family values and to value one's family? Ask them if there are different ways of doing so, and if so what might they entail?

Introduce Dolores Huerta as a woman who was profoundly committed to La Causa (the cause/movement for equality and justice for farm workers), but who was also the mother of eleven children. Describe Huerta's background and her role in the Delano grape strike. You might use or adapt the information in Appendix A for this part of the lesson.

Ask students how Huerta's personal and professional choices relate to their conception of family values. Did she have them? What does family mean and whom does it include (nuclear family, immediate relatives, extended family, neighbors, community, etc)?

PART II. Role Play Preparation (20 min.):

Tell students that they will be participating in a role play for the remainder of class to explore the personal costs and potential rewards that activists make when they become deeply enmeshed in a movement. They will do that by imagining a discussion in 1962 around Huerta's dinner table as she is debating whether or not she should leave the Community Service Organization (CSO) that she co-founded to move to Delano, CA with Cesar Chavez to build the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).

There are several things at stake in this decision. Huerta is at this point a 30-year-old pregnant, recently divorced mother of six children with an extremely modest but steady salary working as a community organizer in Stockton (as well as a mother and an informal network of relatives and friends who are helpful on the home front).

Aware of the emotional and financial risks involved in this move, Chavez convinces Huerta to remain at CSO for another two years, while helping to build the farm workers' movement on the side. In your role play, there might be a different outcome.

Students will play one of several people in this role play:

a. Dolores Huerta

b. Huerta's mother, Alicia Chavez Fernandez

c. Huerta's father, Juan Fernandez,

d. A farm worker living in Stockton, CA

e. Cesar Chavez

f. Fred Ross

g. Huerta's eldest daughter, who was 10 year old at the time.

Divide students into 7 groups and give each group a card telling them which role they will play and some background on that person. Each group should select a spokesperson to participate in the actual dinner. Before the dinner begins, each group should discuss the attitude of the person they are representing toward Huerta's potential move. They should develop a short speech that articulates their position and prepare at least two questions to ask Huerta to provoke further discussion.

PART III. The Dinner (20 min.):

The seven selected spokespeople should come to the front of the room and pretend that they are eating a meal together. Huerta should speak first about her potential move from Stockton and CSO to Delano and the NFWA and then everyone at the table should make a statement regarding their thoughts on the matter. Huerta should respond and then the table should be opened to questions and comments from the audience.

WRAP UP (5 min.):

Ask students if learning about Huerta and the choices she made and participating in this role play has influenced their own thinking about family values and social justice. What would they have done in her place?



Practice and Reinforcement

In 1966, Huerta and forty-three other individuals, many of whom were clergy members, were arrested for shouting "huelga" or strike. Huerta was been arrested three more times after that and, in 1988, was severely beaten by San Francisco police officers for similar acts of civil disobedience. Ask students to read Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) (Appendix D) and Cesar Chavez's "Letter from Delano" (1969) (Appendix E). Keeping in mind both those letters and what they have already read about Huerta, they should write a letter that Huerta might have written to her children, the eldest of whom was fourteen at the time, to explain her actions, her imprisonment, and what she wants/hopes/expects for them.



References:

No biography has yet been written about Dolores Huerta. To learn more about her life and read interviews with her and an assortment of other primary sources about her life, see A Dolores Huerta Reader, ed., Mario T. Garcia, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.




Supplementary Materials
DoloresHuertaAppendiA.pdf

DoloresHuertaAppendiB.pdf

DoloresHuertaAppendiC.pdf

DoloresHuertaAppendiD.pdf

DoloresHuertaAppendiE.pdf

 
 
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