By Lindajoy Fenley/chicoSol
Celebrating a legendary man can be as simple — and as necessary — as signing up for health insurance.
That’s the message delivered by Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, when she spoke Thursday [March 24] at Sonoma State University (SSU) to a crowd of more than 1,000 students and community members in commemoration of Cesar Chavez Day.
Chavez, Huerta reminded her audience, fought for decent working conditions for California’s farm workers, and coincidentally, the deadline to sign up for government health insurance falls on his birthday, March 31. Huerta said that buying insurance — particularly for the young Latino students — is a way to honor the man who fought for civil rights for people of color.
“We still have a lot of people who have not signed up yet — especially in the Latino community,” said Huerta, noting that the nation finally has a long overdue health plan. “If we don’t sign up, it won’t work.”
Acting as the community organizer she’s been for more than half a century, the 83-year-old urged Sonoma State students to each talk to at least five friends about getting insurance. Signing up takes less time than watching a telenovela, she said.
Huerta, who co-founded what was then called the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez in 1962, may have been less famous than her organizing partner. But, as the Dolores Huerta Foundation website states, “While Dolores was busy breaking down one gender barrier after another, she was seemingly unaware of the tremendous impact she was having on, not only farm worker women, but also young women everywhere.”
At SSU she admonished women to take credit for their achievements, and then took her own advice. “I’m the one that came up with ‘Sí, se puede,’” she said referring to a chant still used in demonstrations in the United States and abroad that is attributed to Chavez and the movement. She also said the grape boycott of the late 1960s and early 70s was her idea. Chavez, she said wanted to boycott potatoes. But Huerta said she argued against that because people associate spuds with Idaho, not California.
Despite the UFW’s achievements — such as winning rights to unionize, to better wages and working conditions, and access to sanitary facilities in the fields of California, Huerta said the fight is not over. Agricultural workers in New York, Texas and Florida still don’t have those rights, she said. She also bemoaned campaigns in some states for voter identification laws that present obstacles to many citizens who rightfully should be able to vote. And she reminded her listeners of the urgent need for immigration reform.
Her message, repeated often, was for citizen involvement. She urged people to vote and to run for the school board and other public offices.
Huerta said that many people don’t become citizens when they are eligible and many citizens don’t bother to vote.
Nancy Alvarez, a Petaluma High School student who was present, said what impressed her most was Huerta’s insistence that many people do not exercise the rights they have.
Before calling for audience questions, Huerta said she would ask a question that had the power to end racism. A student at the front of the audience responded to her question — what race do we all belong to? — with the answer she wanted: “Homo sapiens.”
Flashing her familiar smile, Huerta said: “We have one human race. We have different ethnic groups, but only one human race.”
After teaching the audience to say “Wozani,” a Zulu call for unity, Huerta said, “We’re committed to fight for justice. I’m going to say ‘Que viva Cesar Chavez’ and everybody shout a big old ‘viva.’”
And the crowd did.
This article was first published by ChicoSol.org, a non-profit online magazine based in Chico, Calif. Lindajoy Fenley is a contributing editor to ChicoSol. Contact her at email@example.com.