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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

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.

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