Legendary activist and co-founder of United Farm Workers joined José Andrés at Lisner as part of his World on a Plate class.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Workers’ rights activist Dolores Huerta joined chef José Andrés at the George Washington University Tuesday to discuss the ways food and immigration intertwine in the United States and how to fix the problems at the heart of both systems.
The conversation was part of the World on a Plate course at GW, which Mr. Andrés created and revamped this year to focus even more sharply on current social issues.
In introducing Ms. Huerta, Mr. Andrés described the purpose of the course as a “real conversation” with every plate of food set before students. To know where each ingredient comes from, he said, is to understand the experiences of the people who brought it to the table, and to understand how those experiences shape and are shaped by business interests, environmental concerns, national security considerations and other forces.
“If we really understand what’s on our plate, we really understand what’s going on in our country and our planet,” said Mr. Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen nonprofit has provided more than 100,000 free meals in areas devastated by Hurricane Dorian in early September.
Ms. Huerta, who received a standing ovation from the Lisner Auditorium audience, said that when “we talk about food, it affects so much of our world in so many ways, and each of us in a very personal way.”
Ms. Huerta opened with an informal keynote on the challenges that have faced workers—particularly immigrants—at all stages of the American food system. She is a veteran in that struggle, having co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union with César Chavez in 1962.
Many of the abuses to which food workers are subject even now—including working in dangerous summer weather, being poisoned by legal insecticides and lacking essential workplace protections—have their roots in American slavery, Ms. Huerta said.
“All of us here are affected by the vestiges of slavery,” she said.
As a result, “farmworkers had to go through so much” to get basic necessities like on-site toilets, cold drinking water and mandatory rest periods, Ms. Huerta said. The UFW was an integral force in organizing the strikes and boycotts that secured those rights for some laborers, including the years long Delano Grape Strike. But in the process, five UFW-affiliated strikers and protestors would die—and in many states and industries, those rights are still out of reach.
Dolores Huerta was co-founder of the United Farmworkers Union. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
At the heart of Ms. Huerta’s address was the necessity of collective power. Empowerment, not immediate relief, is at the heart of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, of which she is founder and president. “The philosophy behind our work is not that we are going to go out and do things for people, but how to teach people to do things for themselves,“ she said
Ms. Huerta said this was the same philosophy with which she and her fellow activists organized poor farmworkers, many of whom did not speak English, in the 1960s and 70s.
“How do we get them to change their condition?” she asked rhetorically. “Basically it’s showing them they have power.”
After her address, Ms. Huerta and Mr. Andrés sat down for a conversation and audience Q & A with School of Media and Public Affairs Professor Imani Cheers. Topics broadened, including American agribusiness interests’ ability to affect the economies of foreign states—which Ms. Huerta referred to as “economic colonization”— and the role of American-backed civil unrest in the last few decades in displacing Central American refugees.
Oppressive systems have never appeared more powerful, Mr. Andrés admitted, and times may seem “dark.“
“But I think moments like this help us really understand the work that amazing people like [Ms. Huerta] have done over the years to keep moving the rights of the voiceless forward,” he said.
Ms. Huerta urged the audience to take on that work.
“The worst evil that science has not been able to find a cure for in human beings is apathy,” she said. “We all have to become organizers.”