Emil Guillermo: A rallying call for Covid-stricken farmworker activist Dolores Velasco and a -30- for Pete Hamill

Image for Emil Guillermo: A rallying call for Covid-stricken farmworker activist Dolores Velasco and a -30- for Pete Hamill

Dolores Velasco hangs on to life in a Tehachapi, Calif. hospital near where the Filipino farm workers fought the ag industry and made history.

Now she’s fighting not to be part of an historic surge in the pandemic.

Velasco has Covid-19 and goes in and out of alertness, according to her friends. But something tells me she wouldn’t be satisfied with Donald Trump’s assessment in that revealing Axios interview, when he was asked about the Covid crisis and all he could say was five words that indicate no one is leading: “It is what it is.

How empty those words must sound to Velasco, or anyone else struggling against the virus.

Mr. President, you are not doing enough.

Trump can say it all he wants, but the Covid crisis is not “just going away.”

The nation’s case count is nearing 5 million. The U.S. is just five percent of the world’s population but has up to 25 percent of the infections.

More startling is the death count nearing 160,000, with about 1,000 people dying each day. This week saw the highest one-day death toll in two months.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Harvard Public Health meeting on Wednesday.

And yet all Trump can say is “It is what it is”?

It’s the president’s socially distant response in these socially distant times. But it’s a far cry from what we need as a nation.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from a man who believes he has done more civil rights than LBJ (you know, the guy who got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act passed). Trump even says he’s not sure what impact John Lewis (see previous column) had on America.

Still, it’s not too much to demand a sense of caring from the president of the United States (put that on your checklist as you evaluate whom you might vote for in November).

These are the days when Americans are dying or are near death like Dolores Velasco, trying hard not to be a forgotten statistic.

Friends of Velasco put out a message to the Filipino community on social media on Tuesday night that Manang Dolores was urgently in need of a good word.

A card, a sentiment would help lift her spirits as she hangs on to life in a closed off room in the Tehachapi Hospital.

It’s something to provide comfort and a way to connect.

A lot more than a president’s “It is what it is.”

She’s “Manang” Dolores by virtue of her age and her status. It’s the respect given to the widow of Pete Velasco, the co-founder and longtime Secretary/Treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America). Velasco worked with Larry Itliong, who was the leader of the Filipino workers union that really started the 1965 Delano grape strike.

In recent years, Itliong has come out from under Cesar Chavez’ shadow to be recognized. But other Filipinos like Pete Velasco remain relatively unsung and forgotten.

Image by AALDEF

Manang Dolores, widowed since 1995, has been living at the Agbayani Village home the union built to for elderly Filipino workers and their families.

On July 10, Manang Dolores tested positive for Covid-19. Since then, she’s had three more positive test results and remains in the Tehachapi Hospital near La Paz, where she is not allowed visitors.

Teresa Romero, the current president of the UFW, told friends on Tuesday that Velasco is not in pain and is not in need of a respirator, though she does experience shortness of breath. Romero said Velasco is sleeping most of the time, not eating, and is suffering from some signs of dementia.

But Romero still put the call out for friends to reach out while she is still alive.

I met Manang Dolores briefly when I went to Delano in 2016 to cover the 50th anniversary of the strike. It was just a hello. She was wearing a button that displayed her husband Pete’s picture. As the secretary/treasurer of the UFW, Velasco would go out to farmworkers and spread the word of the union. Sometimes, Dolores would go as well.

Better known as Sister Dolores Ann in 1975, Manang Dolores was a nun on the east coast and met Velasco at one of her order’s social justice fairs. Velasco was a UFW leader assigned to Baltimore to lead the boycott of Gallo wine and iceberg lettuce. That summer, the boycott may not have been won, but the two of them won each other’s hearts.

After 21 years with the School of Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland, Sister Dolores Ann left the nunnery to become Miss Dolores Ann Neubauer, a full-time labor activist. Ultimately, she became Mrs. Pete Velasco.

Manang Dolores remains in Covid limbo.

If you know her and want to reach out, she’s at the Tehachapi Hospital, Tehachapi, Calif. 93561.

Even if you don’t know her, reach out.

Union activists, regular folks, people who understand the human condition know to say a bit more than “It is what it is.”

They know a strong rallying cry is all that’s needed to turn around the impossible.

I never had the privilege to meet Pete Hamill, but he was one of the best columnists who ever lived. His city was New York. But he wrote about it like it was the only world that mattered. He wrote for the tabs when newspapers were everything. Even though my career path first took me to television and radio journalism, when I finally descended late into newspapers in their twilight, it was all because columnists–not TV anchors–had always been my heroes. Newspaper columnists. I wanted to be one. From Asian Week to now. It’s all I wanted to do in journalism. 800 or so words. The world in miniature.

Every city had a columnist. I never lived in Chicago but loved Mike Royko. I grew up in San Francisco and had a thing for the gossipy news columnist, Herb Caen. When in Boston, it was George Frazier on the Globe. I never lived in New York City but was a frequent visitor during the columnist battles. What a treat. It was a toss-up between Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. Hamill won me over in the end. As a word stylist, a news hound, a news poet, he did it all with style under deadline pressure.

Hamill understood his city, his people, and their context. He wrote from the head and the heart in a way that demanded he be read. It’s the columnist job. To bleed in public view. It’s what they do. There were few better than Pete Hamill.

(Pete Hamill at AALDEF lunar new year gala in 1997 at Windows on the World)

Image by AALDEF

So here’s to you, Pete Hamill.


UPDATE: The UFW website posted this after I filed last night: Dolores Velasco has died.

“It is with genuine sadness that the United Farm Workers announces the passing of Dolores Velasco, who dedicated her life to the UFW and for decades kept alive the memories of her beloved husband, Filipino UFW leader Pete Velasco, and all the heroic Filipino grape strikers who helped create the first enduring farm worker union in U.S. history. "

Condolences to Manang Dolores’ friends and family.

Another Covid death in one of the hot spots in the country, the Central Valley of California.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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