Ruben Navarrette: Huerta-Dawson spat goes beyond Clinton-Sanders

Ruben Navarrette
Ruben Navarrette

Speaking recently to Latino students at Harvard, I shared a lesson learned there 30 years ago:

“Be careful with your own kind. Latinos always attack one another with enthusiasm. We’re just not secure enough in what we believe to let others think differently.”

Look at the ruckus between former United Farm Workers Vice President Dolores Huerta, who supports Hillary Clinton for president, and actress Rosario Dawson, who is backing Bernie Sanders. Now, defenders of both women are attacking each other like it’s a remake of “West Side Story.”

The two became friends after Dawson played Huerta in a movie about UFW President Cesar Chavez.

Their spat goes beyond Clinton and Sanders, neither of whom has a record of serving Latinos that is worth bragging about. Both are Democrats who have – in pandering to organized labor, which typically opposes immigration because it thinks newcomers undercut American workers – discreetly undermined efforts to overhaul the immigration system.

The conflict started when Huerta took a poke at Sanders, arguing in an online essay that the Vermont senator is a “Johnny-come-lately” to immigration reform. She implied that Sanders can’t be trusted and insisted that his voting record has been more about protecting low-skilled American workers than defending the undocumented. She cited his vote against the 2007 Senate immigration bill. Sanders later explained that he didn’t want to “bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages in America.” Finally, Huerta accused Sanders of supporting the Minutemen, those hapless border vigilantes who at one point patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border.

In an op-ed of her own, Dawson defended Sanders and accused Huerta of creating a “narrative that distorts facts and misguides American voters.” As the co-founder of the voter-registration effort Voto Latino, the actress declared herself “surprised, dismayed, and concerned that “Huerta would do her legacy such a disservice by becoming an instrument of the establishment.” Saying that she believed in “reasonable and robust debate between opposing viewpoints,” Dawson accused Huerta of harming Latinos by setting out to “cheat us out of making an educated and well-informed decision and dishonor our voting process and democracy itself.”

I bet you thought that protecting workers and wages is what unions do – like, say, the United Farm Workers. You’d be right. Which explains why Huerta spent most of her life on the wrong side of the immigration issue.

Listening to the kinder and gentler Dolores 2.0, you’d never know that Huerta watched and did nothing – back in the 1960s and 1970s – when Chavez testified before Congress and demanded more deportations of illegal immigrant “strike breakers” or when UFW officials called the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the fields to arrest and deport thousands of illegal immigrants to bolster the union’s negotiating stance with growers.

And speaking of Minutemen. They look like Barney Fife wannabes next to the UFW’s “wet-line” in Arizona, where Chavez’s cousin Manuel led a gang of union thugs in bloodying up Mexican immigrants who crossed the border.

I’ve confronted Huerta about all this. She angrily denies it ever happened. Memory is an odd thing. This 85-year-old claims she doesn’t remember anything the UFW ever did wrong. She also doesn’t remember ever using the word “wetback” to describe illegal immigrants whom she today refers to as “undocumented workers.”

Yet a 1969 article in the Lodi News-Sentinel quotes Huerta talking about “a detention camp for wetbacks” who worked in the fields. Years later, she suggested that the reporter had inserted the word in the story.

However, Huerta has perfect recall about the good that Hillary Clinton supposedly did in 1972 when, as a student at Yale Law School, she registered Mexican-American voters in South Texas.

The problem for Huerta is that there are plenty of Latinos out there with better memories.

Remember this: No one is off-limits to criticism. Huerta and Dawson both have the right to pick their candidates. Latinos will never advance until we learn to tolerate different points of view.

Besides, in politics, these things work themselves out. In 2008, while supporting Clinton, Huerta attacked Barack Obama as a “Johnny-come-lately” to Latino concerns.

Sound familiar? Still, Huerta was right. Obama has been terrible for Latinos. But he does know how to cover his tracks, as he did in 2012 when he gave Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she proudly accepted.

And to think, some people are attacking Dawson in order to defend Huerta’s honor. At this point, how much is left to defend?

Contact Ruben Navarrette at