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

A voice in defense of the oppressed

Dolores Huerta

— Ross D. Franklin/AP

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.

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