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Dolores Huerta: The Vision and Voice of Her Life’s Work

A voice in defense of the oppressed

En espaol The deep, dark eyes tell stories filled with music and children, hardship and triumph. They see and share and call forth strength. These eyes belong to Dolores Huerta. At 74, the United Farm Workers (UFW) union cofounder still dances, boycotts, and raises her voice not just in song, but in defense of the oppressed, shouting Sase puede!

Beginning in the 1950s, she and late UFW cofounder Casar Chivez fought for pensions for older Hispanics, livable wages, and safe conditions for farm workers and other laborers. They also fought against the bracero guest worker program and the use of dangerous pesticides. The list of battles and victoriesis a long one.

During an exclusive interview, Huerta spoke of motherhood and activism, jazz and justice. Her lucha continues.

Q: What sparked your activism?

A: My dad was a volunteer union organizer. He was very well respected and a member of the [New Mexico] state legislature. But he was expelled from the legislature because he got into a fight with Jos Montoya, who later became a congressman. My dad didn't tell me the story, Jos Montoya did. I was lobbying Jos Montoya in Congress and I told him that my father had been a state legislator. He asked, "What's your dad's name?"and I said "Juan Fernandez." He said, "Oh, I remember him!" The Montoyas were big growers in New Mexico and had a lot of obreros, and he and my dad got into an argument.

My mother was a very wonderful woman. When she and my dad divorced, she moved to California and worked two jobs in the cannery at night and as a waitress during the day. But she saved enough money to establish a restaurant. When World War II broke out, because they were going to be doing food rationing, she gave up the restaurant and took over the hotel of one of the Japanese who had been relocated. That was good for her because we were able to live in the hotel. All the family lived there. It was a 70-room hotel, a real big one. We kids had to do all the work. We were janitors; we had to do the laundry and iron the towels, iron the sheets, and take care of business, and so she was able to provide for us.

I think my mother was a feminist for her time. She was what I call an "equal-opportunity" mother because even before she had the restaurant, we all three had to do the housework. My older brother and my younger brother and I split up the chores evenly. We had to do dishes. And there was a chart, and after you did your chores you got to put an X on there. We had to sweep and mop the floors, make the beds, and do the dishes and do the laundry. All of us equally. So my brothers learned that growing up. My mother never made me do anything for my brothers, like serve them. I think that's an important lesson, especially for the Latino culture, because the women are expected to be the ones that serve and cook and whatever. Not in our family. Everybody was equal. She didn't have my personality. She was one of these very quiet people who just did a lot. And she was a leader in the community. She was one of the founders of the first Latino chambers of commerce. She was just a doer. Because of the old way of thinking, when we were very small my mother would always say to us, When you see that somebody needs something, don't wait to be asked. If you see somebody who needs something, you do it. Second thing: You don't talk about what you did. Once you talk about what you did you take the grace of God away from that act. And you never take any money for anything. When you do something for somebody don't ever accept any money, because, again, that takes away the grace of God." And that's wonderful because I think that really insulates you against corruption.

Q: Who knows you best, besides yourself?

A: Probably my kids. Because they've been with me and I think I communicate a lot. We don't have the traditional Latino relationship, you know, where you have to be super respectful. We get into it, we argue, we discuss. They'll argue with me: "You're too busy doing that." And I'll get into it with them, about what their lives are about.

Q: You have 11 children. You've said you were not meant to be a housewife; you were meant to be an activist. How has being a mother shaped your views?

A: And a grandmother and a great-grandmother. It's a dilemma in many ways because, although I love children, I did take the activist path and I was never able to spend as much time with my children as I would've liked. And my gifts are not in the homemaking area, unfortunately. It is a problem, but I think my kids turned out pretty well. What I'd like to share with people is that what we have to give to our children are values, not so much material, [but] a social conscience. You have to involve them at a very young age so they grow up knowing that this is something they can do that they have power to help people. And I think that's the biggest thing I gave my children. They had a lot of hardships we were very poor and never had any money. Working for the union, all we had were our subsistence rent and food. They never had good clothes or toys. I do regret not being able to provide them with music lessons. My son Ricky's very talented, but I was never able to give him any music lessons. I did have violin and dancing lessons growing up. I regret that, but at the same time it makes me feel very strongly that, as women, we need to fight for support systems. We need to be activists; women need to be in decision-making roles. To get there is a hard path, but our children shouldn't be neglected for us to get there. So we've got to push harder for day care "and when I say day care I don't mean just babysitting, but earlier childhood education for our young people, and support systems for women, so we can be out there doing the work we need to do. Our kids need to be not only safe, but also educated and safe.

Q: Your daughter, Juana, is bisexual. Was that a cause you always fought for?

A: When I went to Mexico, they always talked about gays. These were people that had to be protected, not abused. And in the early farm worker movement we had a young group of gay men who worked in the packing shed. They were really, really strong activists. So growing up it never occurred to me that you should discriminate against people who are gay and lesbian. I personally always felt that any kind of discrimination is wrong. I've always supported gay rights and went to all the gay rights marches that they had.

Q: Tell us about the Dolores C. Huerta Foundation. Does it focus primarily on needs that are not being addressed?

A: We received a gift of $100,000 from the Puffin Foundation. We put that money "something I'd wanted to do for a long time" into a foundation to start training people on how to do community organizing. So that's what we're doing.

Q: Are you focusing a lot on voting?

A: Registering people to vote and voting is part of it [the foundation's work]. Let me explain. You train organizers and they go into the community where there's need "we don't want to go where there's already a lot of organization, if someone else is doing it right. We do a series of meetings in people's homes. Then you set up an organization from all the people you've met with and explain why they need to get together and how they can solve their problems. Then you set up your separate committees: health, education, criminal justice, and, of course, voter registration. You get these people into those committees and put them to work, giving them the resources and information they need. We get them to do it because that way you create new leadership. Because there are people out there who want to do stuff but they don't have the knowledge. So what you're doing is training them how to be organizers, and depending on their skills and how receptive the community is, it should take two to three months to set up a community. Then you immediately start doing voter registration. You're not only registering people, you're explaining to them why it's important to get involved in the political process, how to get involved in the political process. So when election time comes around you have enough committees out there so you can get the vote out. Then you're looking at an 80 or 90 percent turnout. You're not looking at a 50 percent like you are now.

Q: You were once a Republican.

A: Well, I'm from New Mexico. In New Mexico, because of the Civil War and [President Abraham] Lincoln being a Republican, people there are registered Republican. In fact, you still have in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico a lot of people who are Republicans and don't know why. It's because it goes back in history. So when I first registered when I was 21 years old "that was part of being 21 years old, you went down and registered" I registered as a Republican. But once I started getting a little savvy about politics I changed my registration to a Democrat. My grandfather, although he was a registered Republican, always voted for [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt. He made it clear to everybody that he voted for Roosevelt. My grandparents were also born in New Mexico.

Q: Are there different political views in the family?

A: No. They all have a very strong political conscience. It's wonderful. I like to tell this story: Once I was in jail, one of the times I was arrested. This group of college kids came to meet outside the jail. One of them handed me a note and it was from my 15-year-old daughter, Angela. The note said, "Mom, sorry I can't meet you when you come out of jail, but I'm knocking on doors to register people to vote." That was a big gift for me.Q: Why were you in jail?

A: Most of it was because you'd go talk to workers and they'd arrest you for trespassing. Sometimes we wouldn't even get inside the field to talk to them. They were already arresting us before we even got in there. That was one of my first arrests.

Q:I hear you and Casar would argue. Was it about style or issues?

A: I think over the years, as I thought about our big fights, it was mostly a question of tactics. It was never about philosophy, because with our philosophy we were always very much in tune, thinking the same way about direction, vision. It was always about tactics. But women think differently than men. When we had the grape boycott, Casar wanted to boycott potatoes, because this one big grower grew both grapes and potatoes. We had a long-distance fight, because I was in New York starting to do the grape boycott and Casar was back in California. He said, "We've got to boycott potatoes." But I said that when people think of potatoes they don't think of California, they think of Idaho, right? And so we had this big fight. I said, Casar, I think this is an important enough issue that I "should fly back to California so we can discuss this in person."But Casar didn't like to spend money. He didn't want to pay for the plane ticket. So he gave in. I think it's just a difference in the way you look at stuff. The whole macho thing comes in there and you want to be the tough guy or whatever. I mean, it's just the way men think. Not all men, but I always say men want to see who gets the blame and who gets the credit. Women say, "Let's get the job done. Who cares?"[Men] can't help it; they've been doing it since they were little kids playing marbles.

Q:Did you ever feel resentful of Casar being considered almost a saint?

A: Not really, because anybody who knew Casar knew that we were just very blessed to know someone like him and to be able to work with someone like him. When he did his first fast, he went five days without eating. "Oh, Casar, bless his fasting," I thought. I told him, "I feel so bad when I fight with you."He said, "Don't ever stop. Don't ever stop fighting with me. You're the one that really helps me think." You know, he was just a person, not a saint. He was a great person, but he was a human being, and he would make mistakes like other people.

Casar was always the one who was important. For Casar, that was also painful. When he first started organizing, he said one of us would have to be out there in front. He was uncomfortable with that role, you know. One time we were going into a meeting, with all the workers yelling, "Viva Chaivez!"And he had this really pained look on his face. I said, "What's the matter Casar?" He said, "I remember some of these people that wouldn't even give me a meeting when we started." He was a very practical person in terms of his own image. He wouldn't let us put his pictures on posters for a long time. When he was in jail one time we made this button and he got really mad at us because "as he was being dragged off to jail "he said, "Boycott the hell out of them!" So we put that on the button. Ooh! He was so mad. We had to change it to "Non-Violence Is Our Strength." While he was in jail, a whole month, his cousin started running him for governor. We had bumper stickers all over the state. He was very upset. He was not into the glory thing. It's kind of interesting now because there are all these streets and everything named after him. That was not Casar; he wanted people to get the work done, to work hard. He's buried right near the entrance to headquarters. I said he wanted to make sure people were coming early and leaving late. He worked very hard and set the example for everybody.

Q: If 50-plus Hispanics want to become activists, where do they start?

A: You have to start people at their level. I like to tell this little story about my daughter, Juanita. When she was three years old we were doing a training session for organizers. She was walking in and out with her dolls. When we got back to our boycott house in New York City, she was on the line with her play telephone. I said, "What are you doing?" She said, "I'm calling the people."I said, "Are you calling them to picket?" [She said,] "They're not ready to picket; they're just going to leaflet."A lot of the time activists want people to go out and get arrested right away or to go on the picket line. Maybe they're not ready to do that yet. You have to have activism at different levels, at the level people feel comfortable at, then evolve them into stronger positions.

I really realized this when I was beaten up by the police [in 1988 while peacefully protesting then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush's views on pesticide use] and I was disabled for a few months. It's not only the physical disability, but also the emotional disability. I found that I was so emotional that during our board meetings I told them, "I'm not going to be able to fight with you like I usually do." I'd just start crying right away. It took a long time to get my emotional stability back after that beating. It just did something to me. I couldn't be in crowds, I'd just panic. The physical disability healed in months, but my emotions took about a year and a half. That made me understand a lot about people, when you ask them to come and they're not ready.

Q:And then you nearly bled to death from medical complications in 2000.

A: That's right. That was even worse because I couldn't even walk. I had to learn how to walk, had to learn how to talk. I had to be fed intravenously for months because I couldn't eat.

Q: What lesson did you learn from that?

A: The lesson I learned was about dependency, because I had to be so dependent on my children. I'm very fortunate my son is a doctor and my daughter's a nurse. If not, my hospital stay would've been a lot longer.And then when your children are telling you what to do. It meant something that I don't think young people understand. I've said this to some of my friends, that when I was disabled, as a parent you're not used to your children telling you what to do. It's very hard. It's very painful for a parent and people need to understand that. You know, I think a lot of people say, "I'm not going to take this, I'll just die. It's easier for me to die than have my kids order me around."

Even last night, we wanted to go see this reggae band and my daughter, Lori, who's the second oldest, but you'd think she's the mother, says, "Mother, you've got to get to bed. You've got to get up early tomorrow. I don't think you should go out." I said, Okay," and everybody else went out dancing except me.

Q:That must have been frustrating. I hear you love music and dancing. What's your favorite music?

A:I love it all. I love classical. I love opera. I love Spanish, all kinds boleros, corridos, salsa. I love to dance salsa. But of all those, jazz is really my absolute favorite.

Q:So how do we make sure people age with dignity?

A:That's so important. All cultures revere older people except for us. I don't know what it is. I guess it's the Anglo culture. But in all the Asian cultures, and in the Latino cultures, the elders are respected. The creation of more home health care workers I think is really important because they want to stay in their own homes; they don't want to go into a nursing home. They want to take care of their gardens and see their grandchildren.

Q: What do you see as your legacy?

A: I hope my legacy will be that I was an organizer; that I have passed on the miracles that can be accomplished when people come together, the things they can change. And I look at when we passed the pension bill, the voting in Spanish, the getting driver's licenses in Spanish all these bills we've passed. The fact that you can build and you can make nonviolent change through organization; that's what I would want my legacy to be. And hopefully we'll see the day when we don't have discrimination against women, against minorities, against workers. And working for a just world. Showing people how to accomplish this, what they can do to make a difference.

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