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.