Friday, September 11, 2015

Famous Speech Friday: Dolores Huerta at the Delano Grape strike march

When she was a little girl, Dolores Huerta was called "Seven Tongues" by her grandfather, who recognized early on that Huerta had plenty to say and no hesitation about speaking out. Now 85 years old and a grandparent herself, the legendary activist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is still at work as a forceful voice for women's, workers' and immigrants' rights.

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, a five-year strike and boycott of California grape growers by the United Farm Workers (UFW), first an association and later a union that Huerta famously co-founded with labor leader César Chávez. The strike illuminated the deplorable working conditions and pay of the state's mostly Latino and migrant agricultural workers, and pushed the growers to sign their first-ever contract with the workers.

Huerta organized the national boycott against the growers, and she was everywhere as the strike progressed--from the picket lines to rally and reassure the strikers that their efforts would be rewarded, to the negotiating table where she was not always a welcome sight. Early in the UFW's talks with growers, Chávez had left the bulk of the negotiating up to Huerta, saying that her style was more persistent than his. Some of the growers saw that "persistence" in a different light, with one of them complaining that "Dolores Huerta is crazy. She is a violent woman, where most women, especially Mexican women, are peaceful and calm."

Huerta's reply? "I think women are particularly good negotiators because we have a lot of patience and no big ego trips to overcome," she said. "Women are more tenacious and that helps us a great deal."

In 1966, Huerta and her fellow organizers led a 300-mile march from Delano to the state capitol in Sacramento to focus media attention on the strike. On April 10, at a rally marking the end of the march, Huerta spoke to a crowd about the workers' determination to carry on with the strike and to chastise Governor Edmund Brown and the state legislature for "shrugging off their responsibilities" to support to the strikers' demands. 

It's not Huerta's first public address, and it certainly wouldn't be her last, but it captures a truly eloquent woman in her element. What can you learn from this historic speech?
  • Use your setting to its best effect. Huerta is speaking outside and in the breeze--watch her grab for her hat a few times. It might not seem like the ideal speaking conditions, but it provides a nice contrast to the picture she paints of the governor as absent or relying on "closed door sessions." The workers are open about their demands and open about presenting them in public, she notes repeatedly, while the state is unwilling to be open about its stance on the strike. The open-air nature of the speech also makes the workers themselves visible in Sacramento, Huerta said: "To the governor and the legislature of California we say, you cannot close your eyes and ears to our needs any longer, you cannot pretend that we do not exist, you cannot plead ignorance to our problem because we are here and we embody our needs for you."
  • If history's on your side, use it. Huerta emphasizes throughout the speech that the Delano strike and the workers' march didn't come out of nowhere. Besides recounting the numerous and futile meetings with the governor and his staff, she also leads her audience through a quick history of the California farm workers' movement and legislative efforts since 1959. It's a smart move that reaches out the national public and media, who may not have been aware of the ins-and-outs of California politics on the issue. By including this history, Huerta also makes the case that the strike is not a whim, but in fact a last resort after other avenues of negotiation had been blocked.
  • Use language to set a specific tone for your speech. There is a strong underlying theme of movement--forward and up--throughout Huerta's entire speech. (An activist calls for action, after all.) She says the workers are "on the rise," moving "step by step," undergoing "peregrination," and refusing to be "static." These phrases seem especially appropriate for a rally that began with a long march and aims to encourage listeners to be ready to go the distance to achieve the strikers' goals.
Part of the speech is captured in the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive film clip here and below, and you can read another long excerpt from it here.

Dolores Huerta & Cesar Chavez in Sacramento - San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive

(Image from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit on Dolores Huerta. The exhibit--which features video, text, and images of Huerta's public speaking, is on through May 15, 2016.)  

Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday.

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