In the spirit of its socially progressive patrons Dominique and John de Menil, the Rothko Chapel presented its Óscar Romero Award to Mexican labor activist Blanca Velázquez Díaz in a ceremony Sunday afternoon.
Díaz received the twelfth Óscar Romero award given out by the Rothko Chapel since 1986. Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with César Chávez, presented the award.
“Blanca is an inspiration for everyone,” Huerta said. “To know that she is willing, in spite of all of the threats and harassment that she has been receiving and the fact that one of her coworkers was killed, she’s still going forward, she’s not going back. I think Blanca is also an inspiration for all women, because women have to know that we can get out there, we can make changes, but we’ve got to get out of our comfort zone.”
Díaz is the director of the Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador (Center for Workers Support, or CAT). Since the group was founded in 2001 she and other labor rights activists have frequently received death threats. In her emotional acceptance speech, Díaz dedicated the award to CAT human rights defender Enrique Morales Montaño, who was kidnapped and tortured by four masked men last year in Puebla, Mexico.
“When you touch monetary interests and demand human rights to have a collective labor contract, decent working conditions, and salaries, it bothers them, it bothers them greatly,” Díaz said. “I think workers recognizing and defending their rights is the main factor that worries them. Receiving this award is very important, especially because it comes from many people that are raising their voices, from many donors and foundations, that are putting their eyes on me and Mexico, and I take it with that responsibility and encouragement to keep going forward.”
The Rothko Chapel named the award after Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, a vocal critic of the military junta that seized control of the country in 1979 with American assistance. Romero became a hero to poor and repressed groups, but also clashed with the Salvadorian government and the Catholic Church. The archbishop was killed while leading mass in 1980 by an assassin who fired from the door of the chapel. No one was ever prosecuted for the murder, which was widely blamed on a right-wing death squad.
The Rothko Chapel was crowded with attendees, who gave standing ovations to both Díaz and Huerta. The audience chanted “Blanca! Viva!” and a familiar Mexican celebratory chant—“A la vio, a la vau, a la bim bom bam! Blanca! Blanca! Ra ra ra!”—as Díaz finished her speech, misty-eyed but with a small, defiant smile.