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La Peña benefit honors hard work of Dolores Huerta

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday June 09, 2001

La Peña Cultural Center is celebrating its 26th anniversary by throwing a benefit tonight to honor the work of Dolores Huerta and to help raise money for the labor leader’s medical expenses. 

“Dolores is a farm worker leader of remarkable courage,” La Peña spokesperson Fernando Torres said. “She is a woman of phenomenal strength and truly one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century.” 

The benefit will include music by Dulce Mambo and others, a slide show presented by Huerta’s daughter Camellia Chavez chronicling her mother’s family life and a talk by Huerta herself. Mayor Shirley Dean will also be on hand to declare June 9 Dolores Huerta Day in Berkeley. 

Mother of 11, Huerta, 71, devoted her life to community activism after coming in contact with the children of the poor and dispossessed while working as a grammar school teacher in the 1950s.  

She later co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez. According to a La Peña press release, Huerta has “worked tirelessly ever since to improve the lives of farm workers and for decades has worked to ban the use of toxic pesticides that threaten the health of farm workers, consumers and the environment.” 

Father Bill O’Donnell, who will introduce Huerta and offer a prayer, said Huerta is a true hero. “She comes out of a community that was the most powerless in California and she joined with Cesar Chavez to organize that community and they made tremendous sacrifices to achieve some hope for the people who harvest our food,” he said. 

O’Donnell said Huerta fought even within her own union for women’s rights. “In her union, there was a cultural bias against women that Huerta was not afraid to take on,” he said. “That’s why she’s so special.” 

Huerta is also known as a passionate speaker who has lobbied in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. 

She is the recipient of numerous awards for her work and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. 

Huerta has a rare medical condition known as Aortic Duodenal Fistula. She underwent surgery in November and was hospitalized for nearly two months. “She went through a lot but she’s steadily regaining her strength,” Camellia Chavez said. 

Torres said Huerta’s medical bills are close to $250,000, which is only partially covered by insurance. A large percentage of tonight’s proceeds will go to covering her medical expenses. 

The celebration will also benefit La Peña, a nonprofit which opened in Berkeley in 1975. Peña means gathering place in Spanish and La Peña is modeled after the peñas’ tradition of Chile and Argentina where peasants constructed temporary huts to form a communal space for celebrating fiestas and holidays. 

La Peña presents a variety of music, theater and dance events. Many of the artists reflect contemporary social issues from multicultural perspectives. La Peña also offers music and dance classes, some of which are free.  

The benefit celebration will be held at La Peña Cultural Center at 3105 Shattuck Ave. at 7 p.m. For ticket information call 849-2568.