“We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community ....Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
— Cesar Chavez
Women have always played a very large role in history but have received little or no recognition. It will be a crime if we do not honor our own “Norteñas.”
One of our own has risen to become an international icon. Dolores Huerta was born on April 10 in Dawson, N.M. (now a ghost town of Colfax County). Her father, Juan Fernandez, was a union organizer in Dawson and later became secretary-treasurer of the Congress of Industrial Organizations local at the Terrero Camp of the American Metals Company in Las Vegas. When her parents divorced, she moved to Stockton, Calif. She became a teacher in a migrant community.
Dolores would regularly visit the homes of her many students. These children of migrant workers were living in extreme poverty, two to three families in one-room shacks with no running water or electricity, dirt floors and no toilets.
She could not, in good conscience, return to the classroom knowing the squalid conditions these children were going home to every evening. With a desire to create change, Dolores found an organization to join, the Community Service Organization, a Mexican American self-help group.
It was at the CSO that Dolores met Cesar Chavez. Some of the lowest groups of people in American society were migrant workers. They had absolutely no rights. No constitutional rights, no civil rights, and certainly no human rights. They were easily exploited because of their poverty and immigrant status.
Dolores Huerta saw them for what they were, fellow human beings.
Dolores eventually co-founded (along with Cesar Chavez) the United Farm Workers Union. She and Cesar empowered the powerless. She not only organized the workers but she got the masses to support the workers through a boycott (the great grape boycott). Imagine what kind of gains the 1199 can make with the masses of this community supporting them, si se puede!
Dolores has not forgotten her roots. The activism and organizing Dolores has done nationwide, including New Mexico, benefits us tremendously. Dolores returns to “El Norte” yearly, training labor leaders and their members. As a matter of fact, I was trained in grassroots organizing by Dolores Huerta herself.
Another great woman of “El Norte” is known by every community member of Las Vegas as “Mama Lucy,” born Lucy Lopez on April 15, 1914. She is credited with bringing down the “tortilla curtain” between East and West Las Vegas. She accomplished this long overdue feat with her authentic kindness and first-class cooking.
Even after the consolidation of East and West Las Vegas, the town remained divided. The patrones from the Westside controlled jobs at West Schools, the State Hospital, and the D.A.’s office. The East side power players controlled all jobs at Highlands University, East Las Vegas Schools, and the city council.
Mama Lucy’s kindness came in the form of feeding anyone who didn’t have any means of paying. She wielded immense political influence without ever holding office. She was inducted into the New Mexico Democratic Party Hall of Fame in 1990. Governors Dave Cargo and Bruce King held her in very high regard.
Her good nature coupled with her good food enticed those from the east side of town to venture across the Gallinas River. Her restaurant soon became the “demilitarized zone” for the political bosses from East and West. Although they may have sat on opposite ends of the restaurant, they were dining in the same room. Mama Lucy was the ambassador, diplomat, and mediator, seemingly serving and trusted by both sides.
She was often invited to dinner at the homes of Tom Donnelly, Noble Irish, and H.M. Mortimer. At the same time she was like a sister to the late “Tiny Martinez.” The group of political heavyweights of West Las Vegas became known as “The Mama Lucys.”
I never had the pleasure of tasting Mama Lucy’s dishes, I know of her only through the stories told to me by my father and more recently by her son, and fellow historian, Jesus Lopez. My personal theory is that Mama Lucy’s heart was always on the West side. When the “tortilla curtain” came down, it was a victory economically for West Las Vegas. East Las Vegas benefitted by allowing Hispano cultures and customs to flow across the Gallinas. Hispanics were able to get jobs other than custodial positions at Highlands University.
“Mama Lucy” passed in her sleep on a Tuesday, May 31, at the age of 80. Gov. Cargo said, “With her, goes a part of history.”
Rock Ulibarri is a local resident and educator. He may be reached at 505-440-9776.