Ally or opponent, everyone knows that Gloria Hernandez means business. For decades now, since walking the UFW picket lines as a child with her parents, Gloria has been out front demanding justice and equity in a world that seems all too often selfish and uncaring. From the grape boycotts of the 1960s to the most current immigration battles, Gloria has spoken out for the disenfranchised—starting with family and Latino peers, but expanding her vision to include minorities of widely differing colors and backgrounds.
Gloria says that, while learning self-respect and courage from her parents’ actions in the farmworker struggles, it wasn’t until her junior year at Parlier High that she began understanding what growing up brown in America meant. The principal did not approve her group’s choice of a speaker for an International Day program and peremptorily canceled the event. The students’ protest eventually involved parents and community and led to a recall of the School Board. Soon after, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) began holding political awareness classes in Parlier, and Gloria’s education was underway.
Other early influences included a rural youth project run by Joe Williams’ Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC); Gilbert Padilla, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), who gave valuable lessons in organizing; and George Ballis, who schooled Gloria in the supreme value of research. “I found that research not only puts me in the position of backing up my moral convictions with facts, but it feeds my desire to know what’s really going on, to know why things are playing out as they do.”
Gloria considers herself blessed in that she has found paid employment (to subsidize all her volunteer work) in positions that use her specific skills. “If I didn’t stumble into these positions, I wouldn’t know where to start looking for a job. All I have is my head and my mouth.” She worked about 14 years as a community worker/paralegal for California Rural Legal Assistance. “This started out as a temporary position, and to get on permanently I had to go through a grievance procedure to get past an ‘old-boys network.’” Vintage Hernandez.
Her current job is as an advocate in the legal system for mental health clients. The work has brought her back to encounters (similar to those from her La Raza days) with the police department over issues of cultural difference and use of force. “I keep telling [Police Chief Jerry] Dyer that the police need training in how to de-escalate situations, whether across racial lines or with psychiatric cases. He says, ‘Training takes time, and time is money.’ What kind of attitude is that? I told the Brown Berets they should picket him in front of his church, show what kind of a Christian he is…If the world is a stage, you have to play it.”
Obviously, Gloria Hernandez is not one to avoid confrontation or to swallow her tongue. Yet the years of political wrangling have changed her. She says, “All I knew at first was to fight and keep fighting. But I’ve learned to see that to achieve changes in practice and policy which make a real difference, it takes strategy and patience. You have to have your facts, you have to know how to get support and when to use it. You need to have a sense of history.
“We had a case years ago when la policia and la migra collaborated on raids of rural bars…like the ones I hung out in. In one of their sweeps, they caught up a native-born citizen, a Korean vet to boot. We filed a suit. It took us seven years to win the case…I said, ‘Here we are fat and gray before we get justice.’ Now this Arizona law will bring the same kind of stuff—illegal collaboration between local police and federal agencies, transgression of privacy rights, racial profiling—but we have precedents, we don’t start from scratch. That’s how progress is made.”
She also speaks about Kettleman City. “In 1979, I went out there to poke around, and came up with a way to get residents information about the toxic waste site being built; we pretended we were a delegation from Tijuana. We didn’t know anything; we just knew people were getting sick. Recently, when an incinerator was proposed for the area, those people were ready: facts, figures, national connections. That’s using history to make history.”
Gloria also speaks of justice as something handcrafted, created in specific circumstances with understanding for the particular people involved. It requires heart and mind, courage and ingenuity, looking at situations from a freshly formed perspective. “Some people mistrust me,” she says, “because I don’t follow procedures and rules. And I don’t shut up. I worked all my life to get out from under that belief that immigrants have no right to make demands. I don’t see immigrants, just people.”
On the other hand, she says she has pretty much stopped attending planning meetings. “I’ve gotten too old for the drama. I just want to be a bridge, a connector between those suffering injustice and the knowledge they need to stand up for themselves.” Then she adds, “But when it comes time to meet with officials, they better not piss me off.”
Gloria gives as her epigram to live by this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”