“Dolores,” Dolores, and Honoring Our Martyrs

CW: This gets really heavy. Death and martyrdom within. Don’t forget to donate to one of the Tri-Met Heroes Gofundme’s.

Are you all ready to envy me? Today, I got to speak to Dolores Huerta, and she spoke back and looked into my eyes I’m dying.

We’re basically best friends now.

The reason that I had this tremendous honor is that Ms. Huerta attended a SIFF screening of Dolores, the documentary that finally highlights her full contributions to the founding of UFW, fight for workers’ rights, pioneering of environmental justice, and more. And then she did a Q&A, like some kind of mortal???

There are many, many things that make Dolores a breathtaking film for all humans concerned with political action, and especially Chican@s/Latin@s. However, I was deeply struck by Huerta’s bottomless capacity for calm, compassion, and coalition-building. Not a martyr complex, eyes-rolled-to-heaven, please-walk-all-over-me —but a centering force that allowed her to keep moving forward, constantly, without letting other people’s racism, misogyny, or anything else become her burden.

I think this is what allowed her to see the intersection between struggles in so uncluttered a manner. She befriended Gloria Steinem and brought white feminists on board with the grape boycott. UFW accelerated their strike timeline to show solidarity with striking, brutalized Filipinos. Puerto Rican and Black neighborhoods in New York picketed Safeway, and Huerta speaks of their generosity to this day. She has marched for LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, and all manner of “not her fight.”

Huerta also took the time to name and mourn the first protesters to lose their lives during UFW protests: Nan Freeman, a Jewish girl from Massachusetts; Nagi Daifullah, a Yemeni UFW member and organizer; Juan De La Cruz; and Rufino Contreras. They are called, aptly, UFW’s martyrs, and it’s a timely moment here in the Pacific Northwest to think about what that means.

This weekend in Portland, a white supremacist stabbed three white men, two of whom are dead now. They had tried to stop him from harassing a pair of young women of color. These men were martyrs, as the United Farm Workers might say, in the deepest sense: they saw and they acted. They bear witness to the heart of American values. I don’t want to glorify death. It would be far, far preferable for all of us to live. But the tenderness and love, the decades-long respect that Huerta exhibited for her martyrs — that’s something I want to show these men.

I don’t know if there’s a word that means both heartbroken and furious, but that’s what I felt as, leaving this precious, sobering, uplifting experience in the wake of such fucking tragedy, I heard two young men of color discussing — what else? — how terrible white liberals are:

GUY 1: I mean and a lot of people show up just to show up —
GUY 2: Right, right.
GUY 1: Just to put in an appearance at the protest.
GUY 2: That’s Seattle.

If you know me, you will not be surprised to know that I said something!

ME: Hey, I’m sorry, this is gonna come off aggro, but — I know white people in this town can be annoying. But two white men were just killed this weekend defending other people.

The worst thing anyone can do in Seattle, aside from start an unwanted conversation, is criticize someone else’s activism (even if that activism is public kvetching). So the two dudes looked at me like I had sprouted an extra uterus, or like I’d just done a really painful interpretation of a Greek monologue.

“Okay …” said the guy who had whooped laughter when I called Glenn Beck a pendejo just half an hour ago.

They both departed without saying another word.

And you know what? Maybe I was a crazy multiple-uterus lady wearing a Greek chorus mask and projecting wildly onto strangers. It’s probably worth noting that one of the victims is a friend of a friend, and another is a member of my beloved Cascadia poetry slam scene, so I’m not like — objective, if one can be that in these kinds of circumstances.

But I do want to direct you to what Cesar Chavez wrote about Nan Freeman after her death:

“To some [Nan Freeman] is a young girl who lost her life in a tragic accident,” Cesar Chavez wrote in a statement after learning of her death. “To us she is a sister who picketed with farm workers in the middle of the night because of her love for justice. She is a young woman who fulfilled the commandments by loving her neighbors even to the point of sacrificing her own life. To us, Nan Freeman is Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a holy person to be honored and remembered for as long as farm workers struggle for justice.”

This is what I want. This level of real love and honor for my comrades, whether they know my struggle or not. Whether they’re Black or Filipino or Yemeni or sometimes they really annoy me or they don’t use exactly the words I think they should use — I want that clear, cleaving love that Dolores Huerta has down to an art.

By the way, I’m not saying defend all white people, or feel bad for white people or coddle their feelings. I am suggesting that we don’t know who would lay down their lives for us. And that maybe this exact weekend, and this exact film screening, and this exact Q&A, and this exact public space, wasn’t the time.

By doing nothing more than being herself and letting us in on her life, Dolores Huerta taught me an incredibly important lesson today: Ricky and Taliesen and Micah are my brothers, and they’re yours too. I’m sorry that I’ve never met them, and never will meet two of them. But I am in awe of them, and I hope that if the time ever comes, I’ll do exactly what they did.