By Judith Scherr
Berkeley’s Latino community and allies came together Thursday evening to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the farm worker movement, memorialize United Farmworkers Co-Founder Cesar Chavez, and honor Dolores Huerta, the other UFW co-founder, a guest of honor in front of a capacity crowd at the Berkeley Adult School auditorium.
While the historical movement that empowered farm workers was not forgotten, speakers focused on the theme of the evening: “The State of Latinos in Berkeley.”
Latinos comprise just under 11% of the city’s population, but the community is underrepresented in its governance and overrepresented in impoverishment, speakers said.
“We’re here to celebrate the life and legacy of Cesar Chavez and reflect on what his legacy may mean to each of us,” Berkeley Councilmember Jesse Arreguìn told the crowd. “Cesar’s legacy was a legacy of service, fighting for social change….While Cesar made a huge difference, many of the struggles he fought for are still with us today.”
Arreguin told Berkeleyside after the event that this forum was just part of an ongoing organizing and energizing effort he hoped would result in the Latino community becoming more visible and engaged in the life of the community.
During the forum, Arreguìn pointed out that just 5% of the members of city boards and commissions are from the Latino community and that he is the first Latino member of the Berkeley City Council.
“Our city government does not truly represent the diversity of our city,” Arreguin said. “And the lack of diversity in elected and appointed positions, and who the city hires, has a direct impact on the kind of decisions our city government makes and the services that are provided. This has resulted in the needs of Latinos not always being at the forefront.”
Jose Ducos, and epidemiologist with the city’s public health department, reeled off a number of disturbing statistics that will be part of the city’s annual health disparity study to be published in a few months: 40% of Berkeley’s Latinos live in households whose income is less than $35,000; while 75% of the city’s Caucasian population owns their own homes, just 5% of Latinos have access to home ownership; 36% of Latino high school students drop out of Berkeley schools before graduation; 31% of Latinos in Berkeley do not have health insurance; 24% of new cases of HIV/AIDS in Berkeley are among Latinos.
Fr. Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas, director of the Multi-Cultural Institute, spoke to the needs of the sector of the local Latino population he called “highly invisible” – day laborers who line up for casual employment on the corners near Fourth Street and Hearst Avenue. He said these workers are given the most dangerous jobs, and, because they’re paid in cash, they are seen by thieves as “walking ATM machines.”
“Many do not want to complain formally, because they’re afraid of employers retaliating against them” due to their immigration status, Caloca-Rivas said. These employers sometimes withhold day laborer wages. The audience applauded loudly, when he added: “We are committed to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.”
Huerta didn’t speak until the end of the evening, and then commented only briefly. “Keep doing the justice work you are doing to help others,” she said. In her remarks, she underscored the need to support education and exhorted the audience to go out and work to get the “millionaire’s tax” on the ballot. Huerta, who just turned 82, is now president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, whose goal is to train community leaders.
Huerta also thanked the Berkeley High Danza Azteca, who had performed early in the evening. The dancers had honored her and Fredrico Chavez, a Berkeley resident and son of the late Richard Chavez, Cesar Chavez’s brother and an activist in his own right.
Introducing the dancers, Danza Azteca instructor Adrianna Betti explained that few of the students had previously known who Dolores Huerta was, but that night, they would be learning “living history.”
“The progress of our community is in our hands now,” Betti said. As elders pass away “the young people need to know what the work is and how to do it. So I’m hoping that they will listen to this conversation that’s taking place today. And that they will start walking in the steps of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.”