Dolores Huerta, “Living Self-Portrait” interview

Dolores Huerta, “Living Self-Portrait” interview


Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Smithsonian
National Portrait Gallery. I’m Jewell Robinson, I’m Public Program Manager for adult programs
here at the Portrait Gallery, and producer of Living Self Portrait: Dolores Huerta. We
are so delighted to have her here. And we’re almost as delighted to have you here. This
is such a wonderful crowd. We were worried, you know, what with Him Eminence being here
that you might not venture out. So it’s wonderful to see all of you. This portrait
– Living Self-Portrait – is being done in collaboration with the Smithsonian Latino
Center because of our ongoing relationship with the Center, which is directed by Eduardo
Diaz, and for the sake of brevity, I am going to turn over the microphone to Eduardo, so
that he can greet you from the Smithsonian Latino Center and we can get on with the show.
[Applause] OK, now I got to be brief, no? In the interest
of brevity, no? Thank you, e buenos noches a todos ustedes, buenos noches. Thank you
all for being here, we really appreciate it. First of all, I want to thank you, Jewell,
for that kind introduction and thank you to all the staff here at the National Portrait
Gallery, we really appreciate the hospitality. [Applause] Wonderful to work with. And let
me first begin by introducing to you and thanking Paula Morales, who is our American Sign Language
interpreter. Paula? [Applause] And we have some folks here from Gallaudet University
who are always so great about supporting the programs of the Latino Center. We did a really
interesting program, it has been several months now, on the deaf Latino community, and it
was, I have to say, one of the most endearing, enriching programs I think that I’ve been
a part of here at the Smithsonian in the seven years that I’ve been here. And so we want
to thank the folks from Gallaudet as well, folks like Paula, who make it possible for
our programs to be truly accessible. It’s a real honor to be here in the presence of
Dolores Huerta of course, who you will have the chance to hear from in a few minutes.
The Portrait Gallery tells the stories of important Americans, important people who
have forged this country, and I think it’s very fitting that today we are able to welcome
Dolores Huerta, one of the most important historical figures in this country to be here
with us and to have this kind of exchange. [Applause] This evening, you are going to
have an opportunity to hear firsthand from her about her work in the ‘60s and the ‘70s
as she forged one of the most important labor unions in this country. In 1962, of course,
she co-founded with Cesar Chavez the National Farm Workers Association that merged later
with the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in 1966 to form the United Farm
Workers. For sixty years, Dolores has devoted her life to organizing communities and helping
them empower themselves to fight oppression so they can live in dignity. And I should
say that extends beyond farm workers. It extends to immigrants, women, all Latinos, or members
of the LGBT community. She has worked and spoken on behalf of all these communities
and she continues to train community leaders through her foundation and, of course, provide
inspiration to all of us in the fight for social justice. We’re very happy. It’s
just an extraordinary – I keep on going how happy I was [inaudible] extraordinary,
because it is. I mean It’s kind of nerve racking actually, but… We’re sort of…
We’re very very happy here. You know, this One Life exhibition, Dolores Huerta, this
is the first time I think we have a Latina that’s featured as part of this One Life
exhibition. It will be continued until May of next year. [Applause] How many of you have
seen the show already? Great, that’s a pretty good turnout. Those of you who didn’t raise
your hand, I encourage you. You’ve got until May of next year. It’s just down the corridor
here, not too far from where we are all at this evening. The show was curated by Taína
Caragol, our wonderful Curator of Latino History & Art here at the Portrait Gallery and she’s
going to be having this conversation with Dolores. The show of course, some of you may
know coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike, exactly this month,
actually, fifty years ago. Some of those of us who were active at the time, me included…
I won’t bore you with all the details but I spent a lot of time, I was in law school,
I probably should have spent more time in the books, but we were out with the secondary
boycotts and the lettuce and grape strikes in front of Safeway. I don’t shop at Safeway
anymore, but that’s OK. Don’t drink Gallo wine even if the strike is over. But many
of us were out there. I know John Huerta who is here, the former General Counsel of the
Smithsonian is here, and a former professor at UC Davis Law School, where I also happened
to be educated. We spent a lot of time in those days out supporting the activities of
the Union. Dolores was picket captain. She served as lobbyist at the federal and state
level on behalf of the Union, was the first woman to sit across the table to negotiate
contracts with the agricultural corporation which, you know, was not an easy task, but
she did it all, and thanks to her efforts, to her tenacity, the life of farm workers
today has improved. I know Brad Goldstein [sic: Bruce Goldstein] is here from Farmworker
Justice and can attest to that. We’ve got a long way to go, right Bruce? We’ve got
a long way to go still, la lucha continua como dicen[?], We’ve got some more work
to do. And you can bet that Dolores will be there all the way through. This exhibition
and this program was supported through the Friends of the National Museum of the American
Latino as well as through the Latino Initiatives Pool which we manage at the Latino Center.
So, before I start, I know all of you have one of these cell phones. So I want you to
take a moment now and make sure that it is off or in the vibrate position or whatever
it needs to be in so we don’t hear it out of courtesy to the folks that I am about to
bring out on stage. And without further ado let me bring out Taína Caragol, our Curator
of Latino History & Art at the National Portrait Gallery, and the wonderful Dolores Huerta.
Thank you so much. [Applause] Sí se puede [Spanish, “Yes, it is possible”
or, more generally, “Yes we can,” is the motto of the United Farm Workers.] What a
wonderful crowd! Thank you so much for being here tonight. Thank you Eduardo and Jewell.
My name is Taína Caragol, and I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of curating
the exhibition, One Life: Dolores Huerta. And again I have the great honor to interview
Dolores tonight. This exhibition, as Eduardo mentioned, is part of our One Life series
and it is the first time that we devote one of these shows to a Latino figure, so we are
absolutely thrilled about that. It is the second time we devote it to a living figure,
so that gives us the possibility of hearing directly from Dolores about her experiences
as an activist, as a community organizer, as a feminist, and just her very, very rich
life. So we want to thank you, Dolores, for accepting our invitation and for being here
tonight. Thank you. And we will proceed with a conversation of
about one hour and then you will all have the opportunity to ask questions, so let me
just start with a very current question, are we fine on sound? OK. Good. Just a question
about today. Dolores, you did not only travel from Bakersfield to Washington DC for this
program. Right. You were also here to see the Pope, like many
other people. So I want to ask you whether he asked you for a selfie with you. [Laughter] I wish. No, really, did you get to meet him? What
is it about this Pope that is so appealing? Well, I didn’t get to meet him in person,
like many of the people I saw him from a distance. It was a wonderful experience to be in the
presence of Pope Francis. But what I liked so much about all of his messages that he
had, number one, and it’s kind of the messages that we use when we organize people, one of
the messages is of course, that’s what he said to the Congress, was, you’ve got to
work together, right? Let’s hope they do. Okay? And his other message was that you’ve
got to take responsibility. He kind of emphasized that over and over again. And I thought that
was very good too because when we organize, and I do want to mention that the person that
taught us how to organize was this gentleman named Fred Ross Sr., who is in the angle that
you see in the Portrait Gallery. He’s the one that helped both Cesar Chavez and myself
how to organize. And message that he taught us that we in turn teach other people when
we organize them: you’ve got to take responsibility. You’ve got to do this. If you don’t do
it, nobody is going to do it for you. And that’s a very strong message. And that they
have to understand that unless they commit themselves to make the changes in their lives
and in their community, nobody is going to change it for them. That they have to do it.
And that was the message that the Pope was giving, over and over again, in the different
messages. And then the other message that he had, which I am going to tell all of my
folks when I get back to California, is that you have to go out there and evangelize, right?
That we have to go out there, literally have to go out there and organize. That’s the
way I interpreted this message. We have to go out there and organize and just like the
way the apostles did it. I think that’s this is the message that he made at the mass
that you have to go out there. And so the knowledge that we have and the skills that
we have, we can’t keep them to ourselves. We’ve got to share this, and this is the
way that we make our community stronger because if we just live our little comfortable lives,
and we don’t go out there and… say, what’s a little chillier than where we are at, and
we’ve got to go out there and that’s the way that we can really involve with other
people. And by involving them of course, that’s why. I think the other thing that he’s talked
about, about joy, and he talked about – at least my interpretation – of the Pope’s
messages is that we have alegría, he said we have joy in our hearts, and when we go
out there and we help other people. And I think that’s probably what I have found
in my life too, that I think, oh my, what if I would have been like as a suburban housewife,
you know what I mean? [Laughter] And I’ve been able to get out there, and by going out
there and making, and I’m going to call this sacrifices, you know? And maybe taking
the risks, then I wouldn’t be there today. I would have been a suburban housewife, you
know? So talking about what led you to who you are
today and being here today, can you tell us a bit about your childhood? Where were you
born, how was your upbringing, your childhood? Well, I was born in New Mexico. Anybody [inaudible]?
Alright, in Northern New Mexico in a coal mining town. My parents were both born in
Dawson, New Mexico, which is right by the Colorado border. And my parents divorced,
and my mother then brought us to California, and so I ended up growing up in California.
My grandparents were also born in the state of New Mexico, on my mother’s side of the
family, and I love to say this when they talk about, “Go back to Mexico,” you know?
Anyway, and my great grandfather on my mother’s side was actually born in New York! In Rochester
of New York, you know? So, you know, we’ve been here for a long time. Actually my great
grandfather was actually in the Civil War on the Union side. Yeah. So when they think,
you know, they say that we’re the newcomers, we’ve been here for a long time. A long,
long time. [Applause] So I have read that very often you give credit
to your parents for very specific things they taught you that really – that shaped your
personality and your life path. Well, my mother especially, because she’s
the one that raised us. And again, I kind of give this a credit, I think, to la cultura,
our culture that we have, because that’s the way I think many of us in the Latino community
are raised, you know, we are raised to share, and we are also raised to help other people.
And it’s interesting because, again, talking about the Pope that he changed his name to
Francis, in New Mexico, there was a lot of devotion to St. Francis Xavier, who also copied,
you know, St. Francis of Assisi, the idea about helping the poor, and also about…
You don’t have to ask for it. When you see somebody that needs assistance, or they’re
in some kind of trouble, you shouldn’t wait for them ask for help. If you see somebody
that needs help, it’s your obligation to help them. And the other thing is, never,
never expect gratitude, you know, or any recompensation [sic]. When we do to help others we do if
for that reason. If we do it for self-interest, then we’re taking away the grace of that
act of helping someone. And I think that’s pretty much the way my mother raised us. And
that’s been so much… and I think when I say that, I think it’s pretty much a part
of our Latino culture, is that, you know, we see people in need and go out there to
help them. And your father was a farm worker, a miner.
He also worked in public office, right? Could you tell us a bit about that? Yeah, my dad was a very, very smart man, a
very handsome man. Moreno con ojos verdes. He was very dark, but he had green eyes, very
charismatic, very intelligent. And he was an organizer. He loved to organize, he was
a volunteer organizer for the mine workers union and then became elected as a state assembly
man. But he also had a very hot temper, which sometimes I inherit, I have to admit, okay?
What he did actually, he was expelled from the state assembly of New Mexico because he
punched out, and anybody from New Mexico here might know José Montoya [Joseph Manuel Montoya],
who became a congressman leader, because he was working against the union, and he, my
Dad, punched him out on the floor of the assembly [laughter], and then he was expelled. He was
expelled. But my Dad, he was very active in a lot of strikes. He was always a union man.
He was always very strong. Anywhere that my Dad went to work, he organized a union. He
was in some farm worker strikes in California, and he went to work for the Army base. He
was a veteran also, he was in both the Korean War and World War II, and when he went to
work at the Navy base he organized the union at the Navy base. And then he was also very
supportive of our work in the Farm Workers Union. He was not a wealthy man, but he would
send a check every single month. So you knew about union work, you knew about
farm work from very early on, and of course you lived in Stockton, California which is
an agricultural town as well. And so those things, little by little I guess… Yeah, well, one thing about both my parents,
and I think that, in our Latino community now, because you know we are, what, fifty
five-plus million people in the United States of America, and one of our challenges that
we have is getting our people to vote. Well, again because of being raised in New Mexico,
we were always very civically engaged, you know, not only because my Dad was an assemblyman
but the talk was always about who is going to run for office, and [Speaking Spanish]
in New Mexico, you know [laughter]. Even the dead vote in New Mexico. That whole idea about
voting was just something that was expected of someone, and people didn’t even think
about not voting. My goodness that would have been just a terrible thing. And so I really
think that helped me out too, later on, you know, as we do a lot of civic engagement work
both in the Community Service Organization and United Farm Workers, and then of course
with my own foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation But initially, before becoming an organizer,
you were a teacher, right? Yeah. You studied to become a teacher. What led
you to that career choice? I was very fortunate that I met this Fred
Ross Sr., that I mentioned before, and I met him in a house meeting, which we is a way
we still organize in the Dolores Huerta Foundation. He kind of showed us… in the house meeting
he showed us pictures of people in East Los Angeles that had come together and you’d
see a picture of a hundred people in a meeting and I thought, “Wow, I’ve never saw that
many Latinos in a meeting in my life!” And then he talked about how they brought in,
you know, street lights into East Los Angeles, they brought in sidewalks and gutters, health
clinics. And then they got the first Latino elected to the City Council in Los Angeles,
Ed Roybal, who was by the way his daughter is in the Congress right now, Lucille Roybal.
And there had never been a Latino in the City Council of LA, with all the Latinos that are
there. But the one that really hooked me, he showed a picture of … a newspaper clipping
how they had sent the police to prison for beating up Mexican Americans. They sent fourteen
police to prison, and I thought, “Wow, I want to belong that group!” [Laughter] Because,
you know, as youngsters, like Chicano and Latino kids, and African American kids, they
would always be racially profiled, were always being harassed by the police. So when I saw
that picture, I thought, “I want to be sure that I can organize people,” to kind of
confront the police harassment that we all faced. So Fred came to Stockton to establish a chapter
there, and to volunteer. Yes. And immediately you left your job as a teacher,
or…? No, I stayed at teaching for a while, it was
a few years later, because I was just a full-time volunteer for the Community Service Organization,
that organization established… and by the way that organization, people don’t know
this, but we passed a lot of laws that were quite historic. We passed laws that you could
register for your Driver’s License in Spanish, that you could register voters door-to-door,
that you could get your ballots in the Spanish language, which was a first. We got disability
insurance for farm workers, and one very historic law that we passed that today makes millions
of people… that you did not have to be a citizen of the United States to get public
assistance. That if you were a resident and you had your Green Card, then you could get
public assistance. So today we have millions of people that are covered by Obamacare because
of that law we’ve passed way back then in 1961. Who knew, right? Who knew? [Applause] And you were quite instrumental to all those
efforts because you started as a volunteer but you were so talented that you were given
a job as a lobbyist, right? Well, it was a non-profit organization and
never had very much money, I think Cesar Chavez was the first person that was hired, and another
person and eventually they asked me to also be the Executive Secretary of the organization,
so I moved to Los Angeles, and worked in Los Angeles for a few years. But it was actually
when working in Los Angeles that Cesar and I… and when we talked about starting the
union, we actually had the meeting to start the Farm Workers Union in East Los Angeles,
you know, because that’s when we had both worked in trying to organize farm workers,
and Cesar organized a large group in Oxnard, and he turned them over to the Packing House
Workers Union. I organized two groups of farm workers, one of them we turned that group
over to the Butchers Union, the meat cutters, and then it kind of dissolved. Then I formed
another group called AWA, Agricultural Workers Association, and we brought in the AFL-CIO
[American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations], and then they
funded it, but then it wasn’t working. And I hired Larry Itliong, the Filipino organizer,
with a black, and an [inaudible], and a Mexican organizer, but then I left that because they
started working with labor contractors. So at that point is when we both Cesar and I
were working for CSO [Community Service Organization] at the time. And that’s when Cesar said,
“Well, you know what, if we don’t start the union for farm workers, they will never
have one.” And I thought he was joking when he said that. He said, “Yeah” he said,
“if we don’t start a” – the way he put it was, “if you and I do not do it.”
And I started laughing. And he said, “No, really, I’m serious.” And then he said
in the next breath, “But we will never see a national union for farm workers in our lifetime.”
And I said, “Why, Cesar?” He said, “Because the growers are too rich, they’re too powerful,
and they’re too racist.” And that was true. And it’s true today. So you left. You left CSO in 1962, you founded
the union together, the National Farm Workers Association. What was it like to work with
Cesar Chavez? How did you distribute responsibilities? Well, we had worked together a lot in the
Community Service Organization when we were passing all these laws as I spoke about, I
was a lobbyist in Sacramento, and Cesar was the director of CSO, so we were working in
tandem. We worked very well together. When we started the union – and as a feminist
I have to say this, that Cesar said, we had this conversation, and Cesar said, “Well”
he said, “you know, one of us has to be the spokesperson for the union,” and he
said, “I think I should be the spokesperson.” And I said, “Of course Cesar you should
be.” Turn back the clock as a feminist and I would said, “You know what, Cesar, let’s
do it half and half. You be the spokesperson half the time, I’ll be the spokesperson…”
[Applause] You know, the Civil Rights Movement at that time in the ‘60s that.. and I say
this before a lot of women, I know that a lot has been written on this by [inaudible]
and many other Latino writers that, and African American writers, that we were just worried.
We were so focused on helping our gente, our people, that we were not thinking of ourselves
as women or as feminists, you know. We just wanted to make sure to end this discrimination,
and the oppression, and so we weren’t thinking about, “Hey, what about women? Right?”
And I really didn’t come to that realization until later, even though my mother was a feminist. So, you started organizing, and how receptive
were farm workers initially? Were they ready for that immediately? Well, I think the people are never ready.
I think one of the things when people are oppressed, is that they start accepting their
condition and they often kind of blame themselves. Or growing up in the ‘50s, in the ‘40s
and the ‘50s, you know, there was a lot of racial discrimination and it was just the
way that it was. I remember one of my girlfriends, [inaudible], she was told in high school – and
she wanted to be a nurse – and they said, “Oh no, you can’t be a nurse, you got
to take domestic work, because the only kind of work you’ll ever be able to do is to
be house keeper or a house maid.” Of course she didn’t pay attention to them, went ahead
and became a nurse. But I think a lot of us, you know, and I’m sure the stories of a
lot of Latinos, we were put into the business school, boys were also put into shop you know,
because the expectation was never that we should go to college or anything like that.
I did go to college unlike many of my friends that either dropped out or didn’t go to
college. Unfortunately though they were very, very smart. So that’s kind of the way that
it was. And I think with the farm workers too, it’s kind of… That’s the way it
was, and they didn’t think that they could make a difference. So our job was to convince
them again that they could make a difference, and that they had the power to do it. And
that’s why I was talking about… but they had to take that responsibility to make that
happen. And that’s what we would do in the house meetings. That must have been amazing. You must have
seen a transformation, right? I mean from that, perhaps resistance at the beginning
to real momentum in 1965, when you joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee
of the Filipino Union in the strike. Like I said before, actually we started this
group AWA that became AWOC later. You know, so I kind of organized that group and that
transformed in the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. But I started talking about how
I was organized. See, I was organized in a house meeting. So exactly the way that Fred
Ross organized me, this is the same way that we organized the workers, little by little,
to make them understand, look at this, these are the conditions that exist, but you don’t
have to accept these conditions. We have the power to change them. And it’s the same
type of format that I used in my own organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, the people,
the same thing. This is what’s happening, this is what made these conditions exist,
but we can change them. How can we? We don’t have the kind of power to do it. Like we just
said to the farm workers. They don’t have money, they’re not citizens, they don’t
speak English, but they have the power to change it. So the only thing that they needed
is their own person, this is all that you need. And you know, when we think about the
farm workers’ movement – and we can talk about the strike later on – but what they
did, it was the farm workers themselves that did it. They are the ones that went out there
and got people to support the strike. Can you talk about the multi-cultural aspect
of the union? Well, the union from the beginning was primarily
mostly Latino. We did have a lot of Puerto Rican farm workers, by the way. They were
brought in from Puerto Rico to work in the fields, and it pretty much started as a Latino
union. In fact, our first strike that we had, before the big Delano grape strike, was a
strike by the Puerto Rican workers and one of the big [inaudible] companies. But at that
point, we didn’t get any contracts because unfortunately, the farm workers from Michoacán,
they built a strike of the Puerto Rican farm workers. So we had everyone go back to work
together, because we don’t want them any fighting between the two groups. Right. Well, how was the interaction between
the different groups of Filipinos and Puerto Ricans? I read also that there were many workers,
Anglo workers, Mexican and Mexican-American. What were… where there…? At the beginning, I would say that there was…
when the growers would do this purposely, they would pit the Filipino crew against the
Mexican crew, against the Puerto Rican crew, against the Anglo crews. And there were some
African-Americans also. “Oh you were not working as hard as the Puerto Rican crew that
were working better. Or the Filipino crew, they were working better.” And they would
pit people against each other. So that one thing the Delano grape strike did was it brought
everybody together. Because we were all together in the strike. Can you tell us a little bit about how was
it to be a woman at the forefront of the movement? You know, in a leading position. What was
the reaction from the membership of the Union, and also from other people who were in leadership
positions, you know, and from the growers themselves? Well, we started organizing because I had
been one of the initial organizers of the Union, again doing these house meetings, most
of the farm workers already knew me. And the thing we have to remember – and I should
mention this – that when the Delano grape strike started, when the Mexican and Puerto
Rican farm workers and the African-American farm workers came out on strike, we had been
organizing those workers for three years. Because we started the National Farm Workers
Association in 1962, and our plan was to organize all the workers throughout the whole Central
Valley of California. And so we had one big huge general strike all the way from Bakersfield,
California, which is right north of Los Angeles, all the way to Stockton, California. The whole
Central Valley. And because we wanted all the growers to negotiate together, so we had
been doing these house meetings up and down the Central Valley. We had committees everywhere
up and down Central Valley, because we were going to organize for five years and do a
big general strike. But what happened is that when the Filipino workers were out on strike,
then we had to support them. And that was kind of what changed our whole plan that we
had before. But on September the 16th, when the Mexican and the Puerto Rican farm workers
came out on strike, people think: “Wow. All these thousands of workers came out on
strike”. But we had been organizing them for three years before the strike. So it didn’t
just happen like that. [Inaudible] in the Chavez movie it looks like Cesar walked through
the fields and came out on strike. No, no. [Laughter] It didn’t happen like that. [Laughter] It takes longer than that. It took three years of organizing them in
their casas, in their houses, and again telling them, “You can change this. You got the
power to change it.” And the other things that we did before the strike started was
we started a newspaper called The Macriado. And we had that in Spanish, and so we would
give the farm workers information about what was going on, how the growers were stealing
water from the government, one of the issues that we had. And we had Don Sotaco, he was
kind of a cartoon character, who always went around with a short handled hoe, then he used
a long handled hoe, bet he didn’t know any better. And you know, kind of making fun of
some of the practices that the growers made the farm workers do. And we also started the
first Farm Worker Credit Union in 1966. That was the first Farm Worker Credit Union in
the whole United States of America. And it was wonderful, because we let the workers
borrow a $100, right? And Richard Chavez, Cesar’s brother, who later became my husband,
he mortgaged his house so we could start the credit union, that’s how we started the
credit union. But it was really funny because, you know, you had seen all the workers lining
up for a $100 to get a loan for a $100. But at that time, the workers were only making
about 50 cents an hour, 60 cents an hour. So that was like an early version of the micro
loan. Yes, exactly. That’s so interesting. You were saying before
that, when we were talking about your… how you divided all responsibilities with Cesar,
that you were not necessarily thinking about your role as a woman. But you did have a very
big impact, and you were very inspiring to many women, farm workers, who joined the movement
in a perhaps even more public way because of you. And so I… the other day I was giving
a tour of the exhibition to a Chicana poet, Diana Garcia, and it was incredibly beautiful
and inspiring. And because she was herself part of the movement as a student, she studied
in Fresno State College. And she was telling me how meaningful it was for her to see someone
like you at the forefront of the movement. How inspiring she found that. And especially
because you were the age of her mother, and you had children of your own, and yet your
way of being a woman was so different from the traditional way that she was taught at
home. So that was very powerful for her. And I wonder what, you know we always have people
we look up to and who… I guess, you already said that your mother inspired you to be that
way. Was it her example that led you to be so unconventional? I think so, because my mother – well, first
of all my mother was a business woman, and she was a very, very savvy business woman,
and she was always out in the community. In fact, in the Community Service Organization,
she always won all of the prizes, and she registered the most voters, and she sold the
most… You know, whatever contest we had, my mother had to be the winner. [Laughter]
But she was a very gentle person, and great, different personality for myself, muy quieta,
but you know, very, very strong. Very, very quiet, very powerful woman. She started the
first Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce in our town. She was always the leader in
the community, always helping people. I was a girl scout for ten years of my life, I did
that from the time I was eight until I was eighteen, and my mother volunteered to become
one of our scout leaders. So she was very, very active in the community. In fact, looking
back on my early life, my mother was always pushing, I was actually very quiet and very
shy. And she was always pushing me. And again as a middle class youngster, I took the dancing
lessons, and the music lessons. I played the violin, I played the piano. You know, I danced
in public, and she was always pushing me. My mother was a fantastic cook, you know,
and looking back, I never got that skill. [Laughter] You got others, though. So she was kind of responsible for my always
being out there. A few moments ago, you were talking about
the newspaper of the Union, and there was a whole cultural movement that emerged around
the farm workers movement and the Chicano movement. Can you talk about that multi-disciplinary
aspect, you know, the theater, El Teatro Campesino, the music around the movement? Can you talk
about that? How important was that? Well yes, the Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez,
his contribution was just wonderful. And remember that, in the farm workers Union, once a strike
broke out – oh by the way, I have to go back to when we had that decision – because
I want to include Helen Chavez in my conversation, Cesar’s wife. By the way, Helen is a very
strong woman. Her father had been in the revolution in Mexico. Her maiden name is Helen Favela.
And she and her sister, very, very strong women. When we first went to Delano… of
course by the way I have to mention that I was going through divorce, I had seven children
at that time, and I had to leave a couple of my kids back in Stockton, took my other
ones with me. I left my youngest daughter, two daughters, with some cousins in Stockton,
took the rest of them with me. And we all moved into Cesar’s house, you know. Cesar
had eight children, and then I had my five kids, and we, you know, were all in Helen’s
house all there together. And Helen’s sisters, Petra and Theresa, they would actually help
us. They would go down to the food bank and they would bring in the food that we had to
eat, because we were doing this without any money. That’s one of the scary things we
you think about it. People thought in Stockton I was crazy. I’m going to leave a teaching
job, I’m in the middle of a divorce, taking my kids down to Delano, it’s like running
away with a circus, right? You know? [Laughter] Literally, and people thought that I had just
gotten completely nuts, right? And many people, they said “Oh”, one of my compadres, “Your
children are all going to grow up to become drug addicts. What are you doing, leaving?”
There were only three of us Latino teachers at the time in our school district that were
bilingual, only three of us in the whole district. So I had a lot of criticism from family and
friends. For years, until huelga became famous, now they all like me, right? [Laughter] So
it was difficult, you know, it was difficult because – and then we were pretty much living
like the farm workers, you know, because we had to get our food from the service commodity.
So we had the oatmeal, and the cornmeal, and the rice, and the beans, and, you know, eating
like the farm workers we were eating. It was a very good lesson for me, coming from this
wonderful, middle class background that I had growing up. And it was good, it was very
good. But then, so the day we had the strike meeting after the Filipinos went out on strike,
and so we’re having this meeting, and everybody was worried about what’s Helen going to
say. Helen wasn’t part of our executive board, but she was Cesar’s wife, everybody
was worried is she going to support this crazy thing that we were going to do, go on strike
with no money. And it was wonderful, because when they came to Helen, and she said – and
this line by the way is in the movie, which I asked the people to put that in the movie
– when they came to Helen, they said “So are we going to go on strike?” And she says
“We are a union, aren’t we? Of course we are going to go on strike. Of course we
are going to go on strike.” And in the strike, the women were always on the picket lines
with the children. This is not in Cesar Chavez movie, but actually, when Helen was arrested,
she was arrested with a lot of the other farm worker women and the children. They took them
all to jail. That was like the Salt of the Earth movie. So that was a very good thing
that we had all of the women involved. Going back to the role of these other cultural
expressions in the movement, can you tell us more about that? About the music, about
the theater… about the… yeah. Well, the strike went on for years. It started
in 1965. It didn’t end till 1970. And during about half of that time, of course Luis Valdez
was with us, he came to do work again with no money, you know. And when he talked to
Cesar, he said – and you know, in fact I’m the one that had Luis Valdez came down to
Delano, and we did a little teatro, and we brought Cesar to come and see the teatro,
and he liked it. And he said “I would like to help you guys with the teatro” And then
Cesar told me, “But you realize you’re not going to get paid anything.” So it was
totally a volunteer operation. So every Friday night, we had the new teatro plays, we had
the music, the songs that Luis would compose. And his actors came right out of the farm
workers themselves, out of the strikers. And they were very, very good actors. So every
Friday we had the Friday night meeting with the songs and the theater, and people looked
forward to that. After you know, being out all during week in the hot sun, we get out
there like early in the morning, before they were bringing the strike breakers in to break
in the strike up, and we’d be out there before the sun came up. And then at night,
we were there sol a sol, and then from sunup to sundown. And then in the evening, we had
to go follow the strike breakers, wherever they had them housed, in a labor camp or in
motels, to ask them to support the strike. And so we had to organize them at night. It
was very hard, you know, we just didn’t have time to rest. Because again, from sunup
to sundown, and then we’ll be out till maybe 10 o’clock at night, and then have to get
up at 3 o’clock the next morning. It was very hard. Can you talk about the permanent gains of
the movement? Well, the gains that we finally made out of
that first [inaudible] – and then we have to add the boycott, I guess, because we couldn’t
win just with a strike. And the reason we couldn’t win is because the growers they
went to courts, and they got these court orders, these injunctions, to limit the pickets. So,
here you have these huge fields. By the way, you know, California is agribusiness. So a
small family farmer in California would have several hundred workers. So the fields were
huge, and when they got these court orders, you could only have, like, five pickets maybe
to a big field. And so when we would break those injunctions, and have more than five
people and they would haul us off to jail, you know. And so we got arrested many, many
times, so we were not winning. We were winning, but we weren’t, because we was so close
to the Mexican Border, that they could go down to the Mexican Border and bring more
workers in. Or from Texas, and bring people in from Texas to break the strike. And so,
luckily, we had this one volunteer attorney, named Stuart Weinberg, and he said to us,
“Why don’t you guys try a boycott?” And we thought “Oh, that’s a good idea.”
Ok? So we had people, our volunteers – by the way we had a lot of young volunteers also
during the Vietnam War. A lot of young people came, and they volunteered to work with us,
again, with no pay. So many of these young volunteers went out into the cities, they
hitchhiked all the way to New York, and to St Louis. We started the first boycott, [Shelly?
Shetly?] Boycott. It was a growing company. And I want to tell you an interesting story
you probably won’t hear anywhere else: when the President of Mexico came, [Felipe] Calderón,
and I was lucky enough to be invited to the dinner at the White House. There was a gentleman
sitting next to me – and I wanted to talk to Calderón in Spanish, right – but this
fella next to me kept kind of wanting to talk to me. So I finally have it up and started
talking to him. [Laughter] And he said to me, “Do you remember me?” And I said “No,
I really don’t.” And he said, “If I say the word [Shelly?]” – this is where
we had the first contract, right? He said… I said “I negotiated that first contract
with the farm workers.” In 1966. And he said “Well I was an attorney for
[Shelly?] at that time. And I went down to Delano to see what the fuzz and the strike
was all about. The corporation asked me to go down there. He said, “And I looked at
the records. And they had the names of these workers, and next to the name of each worker
they had 25 cents that they were deducting from their paychecks.” And so he asked them,
“What are these deductions for?” And they said, “That’s for the water they’re
drinking.” And he said, “I don’t think the corporation will be very happy about this.”
He said, “You better stop charging them that money.” And that may have been why
they had decided to – in addition to that boycott – to settle and sign the contract.
I’m going to tell you who that person was, you would never guess in a million years.
It was Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. And that
was him. That’s something. [Astonishment, Laughter] So you were telling me, Dolores, about the
permanent gains of the movement. Well… when you ask farm workers that question,
they’re always going to say, “The toilets.” The toilets in the fields, because they did
not have toilets. Especially for the women workers. You know, the embarrassment of them
having to try to find somewhere, because these fields, they are not close to town, they’re
not close to gas stations or anything. They’re way, way isolated out there. So the toilets,
the cold drinking water, because workers would have to drink out of one tub. You’d have
like one maybe a soda can, or beer can with a little open… All the crew, maybe 40, 50
people had to drink out of that one can. And if they had water, it was usually hot – if
they had it at all. Very often, they wouldn’t have any water at all for workers. So relief
periods, and eventually we got an employment insurance for farm workers, because, you know,
Ronald Reagan, the Governor then of California – even though the legislation passed for
employment insurance for farm workers, so that they can get a check, you know, between
periods when they were not working – he refused to sign that law, he vetoed it three
times in a row. Anyway, so we got unemployment insurance for the workers, and many, many
other things later on. And of course, the ultimate gain was the right to organize. The
right to have a contract. The right to sit down and negotiate with the employers over
their working conditions. And then of course with the contracts later on, we were able
to get health plans for the farm workers. First time in the history of the United States,
that farm workers had health plans that covered the entire family, not just the worker. And
by the way it was single payer, ok? It was single payer. And it was interesting. The
attorneys said, “Oh, we have to go to Blue Shield or Blue Cross.” And we said “Why?”
You know, Cesar never went to high school, right? He never went to high school. So he
thought, “We don’t need those insurance companies. They send us some money, and then
we pay the doctors. This single payer…” So were able to get really, really good health
plans for farm workers, and death benefits for the farm workers if the farm worker died.
And then later on a pension plan for the farm workers. So these are all, you know, things
that the farm workers had never had before. And with the bill, they had the right to organize,
which means that when they tried to organize themselves into a union, and if the employer
requires a worker or pressures a worker, retaliates against them, they get fined. They get a fine.
And now, in later years, one of the bad things that’s happened with the Farm Workers Union
is that even though we were able to, you know, get these laws passed, often the laws were
not enforced. And so more recently, Governor Jerry Brown [Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown
Jr.] supported a law that if the growers refused to sit down and negotiate the contract, that
the Union can take them to court. As a result of that, in most recent years, the United
Farm Workers has been able to take many of the growers to court. They have signed contracts
on companies, that I actually organized back in 1991, ‘92, and we are just barely getting
those contracts right now. [Inaudible]. So it’s like Cesar said: “The growers were
too powerful, too rich and too racist.” And they resist to this day, giving farm workers
the kind of working conditions and safety conditions that they need. How much has changed or remained the same
in respect to farm workers now? Well, I think that the Union, although it
doesn’t have all of the contracts that we had back in the ‘70s. When the Union has
a contract in one area, then all of the growers, the surrounding companies, they will match
those wages, and they will have higher wages, higher than the minimum wage that workers
usually get. And also match the working conditions that the workers have. So it’s a big help. I think very much about your motto of, “Si
se puede,” that you coined in 1972, and about the role of optimism in any struggle.
Can you tell us about that? Well, you want to know how that came about?
Shall I that story? Yeah. Well, actually Cesar had three fasts, water-only
fasts, the first one that he did in Delano, because he was afraid the workers would turn
to violence. And that’s kind of a funny story, too, because I was in New York on the
boycott, and Cesar called me and he said “I’m afraid the workers are going to turn to violence.”
And I said, “Oh what are they doing Cesar?” He said, “They’re throwing cow pies at
the strike breakers.” [Laughter] You know what the cow pies are, right? … “Really,
Cesar, really?” … But he was so worried about people turning to violence because the
strike had gone on for so long that he did the first twenty-five day water-only fast,
and then the second fast he did in Arizona because they had passed a law that if anybody
said huelga, strike, or boycott, you could go to prison for six months, you know. And
so we were trying to stop that law, and they finally passed it. So Cesar went to Arizona
and he did a second water-only fast for twenty-five days. While he was fasting, and we were trying
to get some of our Chicano leaders, you know our professional Latinos, to come and join
us and to support us. And they said to me in a meeting I’m having with them, because
every night we had a mass and we had a rally. And they said to me “Oh Dolores, you can
do all of that stuff in California, pero in Arizona no se puede.” In Arizona you can’t
do it. And I said to them, “Si se puede in Arizona! Si se puede in Arizona!” So
when I went back that night to report this to our meeting that we were having there.
And I told them, “Si se puede.” And everybody jumped up, and everybody shouted, started
shouting: “Si se puede! Si se puede!” So that became our rallying cry, you know.
So it came out of the universe, and now it is out there in the universe. Si se puede.
[Laughter] [Applause] It’s the kind of motto that we all need
and that helps us, you know, just go on every day and embrace causes and do important work.
Can you talk – speaking about important work, can you talk about what your Foundation
does, please? Well, I left the Farm Workers Union in 2002,
and Cesar passed away in 1993, and I felt that we needed younger leadership. I didn’t
know I was going to live this long, but I’m glad I’m still around. Anyway, so we decided
we had Arturo Rodriguez become the President of the Union. Arty had been a very good organizer,
very good administrator, and he’s still now, of course, now President of the United
Farm Workers. When Cesar and I got started, I guess about the time when we got all the
contracts, we didn’t realize that we were going to lose those contracts later on in
1973. That’s another big story about the Teamsters Union, and President Nixon and Allan
Grant of the [American] Farm Bureau Federation. The President of the Teamsters, Frank Fitzsimmons,
Allan Grant, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and President Nixon, they really conspired
to get rid of the Farm Workers Union. And I think, looking back, that one of the reasons
was not even so much about that we organized the workers, because God knows the growers
were so wealthy and so rich, it was because of our political activity, because of the
work we had done to get Robert Kennedy elected. You know, we worked with Robert Kennedy, of
course we lost him, and we were doing a lot of electoral work. We always did that, the
electoral work, and I think that they could see we were getting a lot of progressives
elected from California. And I think that’s why they decided they had to get rid of the
union. And the chiefs just came in in 1973. And there’s a movie about that, called – that
you can get from United Farm Workers called Fighting for Our Lives. And I recommend that
people get that movie and see that. It’s a long story. But anyway, so we had to kind
of rebuild it. Cesar and I had always thought that, because we had about 100,000 people
under contract at one time, and we thought, “Oh boy, in another five years we will be
able to have a national union, and then we want to go back to organizing the communities,”
again because of our electoral work. Because no matter what we did, we had to go back to
the cities to make sure we got the people elected to office, and that was kind of our
dream. So that’s exactly what I did, I received a gift from the Puffin Foundation of $100,000.
So I put that money into an escrow account, and decided to go back to organizing, doing
grassroots organizing to the house meetings. So that’s what my organization is doing
now. We are doing a lot of work on civic engagement, we work a lot with Latino immigrants, the
first generation, recent immigrants. And the work that we’ve done in making sure people
get organized to vote, we have just done a study, and where we have been working, our
people are voting 15% higher than the areas in our county. And not only that. But eleven
of the people that had come out of our organization, have gotten themselves elected to office.
Okay? [Applause] They’re taken over city council, the school boards, the [inaudible]…
And they’re doing a lot of work on education because of the huge suspension, and expulsion
of Latinos and African American students. We currently have a lawsuit that we’ve filed
against the current high school board, because of the, the suspensions and expulsions, and
not giving our kids a quality education. So we’re doing that work there, we’re doing
a lot of health work, doing a lot of door to door work on the Obamacare to get people
signed up. We’re doing work on nutrition, taking all of the sodas out of the schools.
So we got four school districts that no longer have sodas. Not even chocolate milk. Take
out the chocolate milk too, which is kind of hard. [Laughter and applause]. Doing what’s
on nutrition and physical activity. We have our youth group, and we take them camping
to the Sequoias. And also they do a lot of artwork to cover up the graffiti in the neighborhoods.
It’s civic engagement, it’s health. Teen pregnancy prevention. You know, getting the
Latinos to be able to say, “No eso esa cosa.” They call it, “That thing.” No. It’s
sexo, okay? [Laughter] Everybody, let’s say the word, 1-2-3 sexo! And they all go,
“Oh!” They hide, they giggle… So you know it’s all grassroots work that we’re
doing. And developing that local leadership, they’ve gotten – we have one little town,
they got about eighteen streets now, that they have curbs, sidewalks and gutters. We
have two neighborhood parks in two different communities. One of our committees actually
petitioned, did the registration, and got a bond issue, passed[?] and built a gymnasium
at their school. A huge, beautiful gymnasium. So it’s like this infrastructure work with
streetlights and sewers, getting homes connected to sewers[?]… very basic things. At the
bottom of it – and when I talk about all these things that people have done, they are
the ones that do it. We organize them, and then they have to volunteer to do the work.
And in doing the volunteering, that’s how we build a leadership. It’s really beautiful
when you see like one of our abuelitas said, “I can’t watch my grandchildren anymore.
I’m too busy.” [Laughter] “I’m out there getting petitions and getting signatures,
you know. Don’t bring the grandkids here, [I no han tiempo?]” [Laughter] Too busy,
you know? And that’s basically our goal. We’re trying to also build a permanent voter
structure to get people really engaged in voting. Your energy is contagious. [Applause] So we
put on our Facebook page, we announced that we were going to have this event. And we gave
people the opportunity to ask, to send their questions, you know. Those who were not able
to come here tonight. And so we got two questions from there that I selected, that I would love
to ask you. One is, “What was the role of visual arts in the movement, and particularly
how important was the Royal Chicano Air Force, which produced a lot of art in support of
the Union for the movement.” Art and music I think have always been a part
of the movement from the beginning, and José Montoya, who was an artist, and his brother,
Malaquias Montoya, and all of those people in Sacramento, the Royal Chicano Air Force.
Very, very important because, you know, we were in Delano, we would have all these marches.
I didn’t mention the march to Sacramento. And so we would call the RCAF, Royal Chicano
Air Force, and we’d say, “Ok, we need a thousand flags, we need posters, and we
need [inaudible] for the people.” And they would make sure that they would have them
by the time the workers got in. They were sometimes up all night working on the flags
and everything. They were like our support. Most of them were college students at that
point in time. And again, when you combine art and music and civic engagement, I think
Sacramento, California, is a good example of what they did there. Because they were
eventually able to get one of their own members to become the Mayor of Sacramento, Joe Serna
[Jr.], and he transformed that city. He literally transformed that city when he was the Mayor
of Sacramento. He made it into a vibrant community. This was a farm worker kid from [inaudible]
California, you know, who went to college, was an activist in the RCAF, and then became
the Mayor of Sacramento. But it shows that’s a powerful combination when we have all of
that together, the teatro, the music, and the civic engagement, we can make some incredible
changes. Great. Then the final question that came from
one of our web visitors, is. “What advice do you give young activists?” The main thing is, [coughs] excuse me [coughs],
is not to get discouraged, because as you go doing activist work, you have some times
that you just don’t win. You know, you have set backs, like we had back in 1973, when
the Teamsters came in – and I didn’t mention this, but we had people that were killed during
that time. You know, that’s really, when you think about it because of your activist
work that you’re doing, that somebody actually gets killed. That’s very disheartening.
And it takes a lot of heart to be able to go forward and continue the work. So not to
get discouraged. Just look at the victories, you know, and kind of step back a little bit
so that you don’t get overwhelmed, so you don’t get too tired and realize that you
can keep going. The other thing I want to say… like myself, I came from a middle class
background, and I remember when I first went to Delano, I thought, “Maybe the best thing
that I can contribute is that I can type,” right? And I told Cesar, “I don’t know.
Sometimes I don’t feel like I am really going to be able to help organize the workers”
And he said, “Look” he said, “Remember this: If they didn’t need you to help them,
they would have already did it by themselves.” Right? Sometimes I think we have a tendency
– and we always say this – one thing that we never want to do when we try to help people,
is feel sorry for them. Because when we feel sorry for people, actually we take away their
dignity. I have to mention Manuel Chavez, who was Cesar’s cousin, was an incredible
organizer, and Manuel was one of those kind of people, he put it on the workers immediately.
You got to do this. You know, this is your work. This is your life. You’re the ones
that have to take the responsibility. And again, like what the Pope was saying today.
And I think sometimes it’s hard to do that, because we know people are oppressed or they
are poor, or whatever, and we want to feel sorry for them. And when we do that, it’s
like a poison, because we don’t want people to be victims. We want them to have their
dignity. They may be poor, but they still have dignity, you know, regardless of what
kind of life situation they’re in. And I think that’s one thing that young activists
have to understand that. Don’t feel sorry for people. Just remind them that they have
power. And the power is where? In their person, right? [Applause] We are going to open it up to questions from
the floor. Were you ever scared? For your life? Were
you ever scared for your life? Did you fear for your life? Were you ever
scared? Oh, yes. I had some scary, very scary situations
during the strike. The growers would try to run us down with their cars, we had rifles
pointed at us. I had one horrible moment when somebody came to my house. It was I guess
about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I had actually been working in New York City on
the boycott, so nobody even knew that I was in town. Except we had had a meeting with
the growers in Los Angeles, and so the growers knew that I was in town. I been to New York,
went to LA, went to Delano, and I was at my house, and about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,
someone knocked on my door. And I said, “Who is it?” And they said, “Helen sent me”
That’s Cesar’s wife. So I thought something was wrong with Cesar. And when I opened the
door, there was a latch on my door. Because my son Emilio, who is here in the audience
somewhere, he insisted that I put that latch on the door, okay, before I went to sleep.
And he insisted that I put the porch light on. He’s now an attorney, I don’t know
if that has any connection [laughter]. But when I went to open the door, they tried to
push the door open, and then I realized that they weren’t coming from Helen Chavez. So
luckily, I was able to slam the door shut. Then they went and they broke – Emilio,
he was asleep on the sofa, under the [picture?] window in our house – and they smashed the
window. And all of the glass – luckily he jumped quickly and was not, you know, hurt
by the glass – so I grabbed him and my other son was with me at the time, who was his younger
brother, and we just locked ourselves in the bathroom. And I thought, what am I going to
do? I have nothing to protect myself with. I had a jar of coal cream… [Laughter] But
I was so scared, that I was just shaking like this, I mean literally, because my kids were
there. And they kept going around the house, around the house, and we had a little dog,
they were kicking the dog and barking. And they finally went away, but it was the scariest
moment of my life. I put Emilio through the window in the bathroom, so that he could see
if we could find some help from somebody, because we were being terrorized. I didn’t
know what these men were going to do, and he saw that there were two men, he saw their
cars. And then we found out later that it was a foreman from one of the growers who
had been in that the meeting in Los Angeles. They terrorized me in the same way they terrorized
another woman, one of the workers who actually lived in Texas, and they did the same thing
to her in her house. So we had some very scary moments during the strike, because you never
knew what was going to happen. We have another question over here. Hola, Señora Huerta, un placer tenerla acá
entre nosotros. Voy a hacer la pregunta en español y espero que alguien pueda traducirla. [Translating] Welcome Ms. Huerta for your
presence, and I’m going to ask the question in Spanish… Vi la exposición y los videos. [Translating] I saw the exhibition in the
videos. One of the videos, En uno de los videos, en
la conversación o la charla que ustéd hace… [Translating] The conversation or the talk
that you give in the video… La noté una mujer joven, simple, con un poco
de recelo ante el papel que le estaba tocando asumir en ese momento. [Translating] Yea, I noticed that you were,
you know, as you said in the conversation before, a shy woman who was a little bit,
you know, distrained at that time, and – go ahead… Me pregunto si ahora, después de tanto tiempo,
cuando usted recuerda ese momento de decidir involucrarse en la unión… [Translating] And I wonder if you could recall
the time when you finally decided that you were going to get yourself directly involved
with the Union? Después de tanto tiempo… [Translating] After all this time… Díganos, ¿qué piensa? A veces pensará:
“Estaba loca.” [Translating] Now after all this time, did
you think now, “Wow. I was really crazy,” or what? [Laughter] No. Gracias. Thank you. Actually, I prayed a lot about the decision,
because I knew it was a big decision that I was going to make, especially since I was
in the middle of a divorce. And I had all these children, and I knew that it was a big
risk that I was taking. [Speaking Spanish] [Translating] And at that time I was going
through this divorce, I thought how I was going to do this, without money. [Speaking Spanish] And no child support, by
the way. [Laughter] [Translating] I didn’t… [Laughter] Child
support, obviously. But I had I guess this is what they call a
calling. Pero es como muchos dicen que tienen una llamada, algo que sentía tan fuerte. [Translating] As they say when you have a
calling, that you feel so strongly… Sabía que me habían enseñado cómo organizar
a la gente. [Translating] You know, someone taught me
how – my parents in this case – taught me how to organize people. Well mostly Fred Ross, that’s the one that
taught us, but anyway… [Translating] Okay… sorry. I thought that maybe, and I knew how to organize
people, we had been doing that in the Community Service Organization. And this was the one
way that farm workers could finally change their lives. [Speaking Spanish] [Translating] We realize that if we did not
organize the farm workers at this time – we had to do it, it was the only time that we
could improve their living conditions and their lives. Y yo sentía que tenía que hacerlo. [Translating] And I had to do it. I felt I
had to do it. Question over here. Hi Dolores, it’s Laura. You’ve talked
a little bit… you mentioned that there was sacrifice involved, but… and told a little
bit right now about the, you know, the terrorizing. And you’ve spoken in the past about the
impact on your children, you know, of you being so active. But one thing I don’t hear
you talk about very much is the physical abuse you took in the hands of the police, landing
you in the hospital. Can you tell that story? There’s one of the photos in the exhibit
which shows me in the hospital bed, and Cesar is sitting there sitting next to me. And Cesar
had been doing this third fast, which is thirty-six days water-only fast, which he did in Delano.
And after that fast, we all went off in different ways to start another boycott of grapes, and
this time we looked at the pesticides. Cesar did that fast to call attention to all the
poisons that are on our food, and to let the public be aware of that. I was in San Francisco,
again telling people they have to boycott grapes again, because of the increase of use
of the pesticides on the grapes. So I was beaten up by a policeman in San Francisco.
And by the way, we actually had a rally against the first Bush, George Bush, the one, the
first, because he had a press conference, saying there was nothing wrong with the pesticides,
that the government takes care of us, so we don’t have to worry about it. We had this
big rally, and the rally was a fun rally. Everybody was chanting, they had these big
signs, “George Bush, Noriega that’s the ticket”… that’s with the president of
Panama, who by the way was working for the CIA. “Bush Noriega, that’s a ticket.”
Our LGBT friends, the gay community, they had wonderful signs, many of them were dressed
in dresses, you know, with red skirts, blue and white tops, you know, like the flag. And
they had these signs saying, “Bush is a Drag” [laughter]. So I mean, it was like
a really fun rally, you know, there was nothing really ominous about it, but then the police
moved in it and started beating people up. And I was one of the people that got beat
up by the police. They broke my ribs, they hit me so hard in the back that my spleen
splattered, I mean they never found it, it just burst. But they say in Spanish: [Speaking
Spanish]. Because of that beating I got from the San Francisco Police, they actually have
to give me $2,000 a month till I die [laughter and applause]. So with that $2,000 a month
plus my minimal social security – I get $600 a month social security, because in the
Union, we never got wages. So we just got food from food stamps, and we got a very low
subsistence money. So because of that, I am able to continue to work with the Dolores
Huerta Foundation that we started. Because all of the money that I raise goes to the
foundation. We are going to have about twenty staff people, by the end of the year. We are
working with seven different communities, where we’re organizing the people, and I
don’t have to worry about my food, okay? [Laughter] We’re a nonprofit organization,
and the reason that I don’t take money from the foundation is because I’m very political,
and I go around with a lot of the candidates, right, campaigning with a lot of candidates.
I don’t want to jeopardize our tax exempt status – so thanks to that policeman that
beat me up. [Laughter] Senora Huerta, tengo un comentario, I have
a comment to make. In the early ‘80s, I finished my high school in Mexico, [inaudible].
And then my uncle invited me to go to California to pick on the grapes. And I went with them.
So we got there, and you know, I was three years in school, and no work. And we got there,
and then he said, “Ok get ready because tomorrow we’re going to get up at 4 o’clock
in the morning to be there on the field.” So I said, “Ok good. Ok.” I was all asleep.
Every morning, we will be there at 4 o’clock in the morning to pick the grapes. And by
the way, in the name of my Uncle, thank you for your work because – thanks to you – they
benefit from your work. In those days, they were given a house, in the field. Old house,
but it has all the commodities. So we were given a house there to work, to stay there
around the fields. And then like I said, wake up at 4 in the morning, start picking the
grapes at 4 o’clock in the morning, and then get all wet – 100% from top to bottom,
all the shoes and everything – and 7 o’clock in the morning you started drying all up again.
So it was really hard. When we got back to the house that evening, you know, ok, so everybody
just get out, running, you know, we home. So they cook, I stay in the car, and they
say, “Okay hey, Hernando, come over here, it’s time to eat.” And I was in the car
asleep, and they say, “You want to eat?” and I said, “I want to stay here. I’m
so tired, it’s terrible. In this hard working job, it is incredible.” So I work for a
year there, but thank you for your work. It’s better now. Thank you for your commentary. One more question.
[Applause] And I like what you said about being out of
the field by 10 o’clock, because you know we have a lot of farmers that die from heat
stroke. But when we had the contracts, and I negotiated those contracts, I made sure
that the workers were out of the field before it got hot, you know. So they would only work
early in the morning, then out by 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock they were out of the field. And
that way they wouldn’t be jeopardized to die from heat stroke. Now a lot of farm workers
are dying from heat stroke, unfortunately, because, you know, we have climate change,
global warming. It got a lot hotter for the workers, so those are things that we sometimes
have to think about. And I loved what you said about how hard it is, and to remind those
people like Donald Trump that the food that he’s eating was picked by some undocumented
farm worker out there. Just remind him of that. [Applause] Dolores, if you could turn back the clock,
what would you change in your life? Do you have any regrets? I think I would have made more demands for
my children. We did have an established child care for the kids, but that was Farm Worker
daycare center actually, when we did the march to Sacramento, because the women had to run
the strike while men were marching. But I think, and I think it’s still an issue today,
I mean that was, like, fifty years ago, but I think for women that remains that we have
to really demand, is that we have not only childcare but early childhood development
for our children so that women need to be out there in civic life. We need the voices
of women and the intelligence of women, the intuition of women, and women shouldn’t
have to sacrifice that they have to stay at home to raise their children and at the same
time we need them to get out there and do the work that we need to be doing in the world.
So I think that’s one of the things. I would have fought more for my kids. My kids survived.
My son Emilio is here with me today, and we have it set up at the end so that people will
know him. I mentioned that he’s an attorney. My oldest son, Miguel, is a doctor, and my
daughter Angela[?]’s a nurse… and I could go on. My daughter Juanita was a teacher,
she is now working at my foundation, my daughter Camila[?] graduated from [inaudible] in Early
Childhood Development and so on. So I think it is important that as women and men to fight
for, you know, so all of our kids can have a good education. And eventually I think we
all need to buy – luckily my kids got to go to college, when we had affirmative action
in California. But we have to fight to make sure that all of our kids have free education
in the United States of America. Okay? [Applause] Because I had a wonderful upbringing, you
know, with my mother who gave me, you know, the dancing lessons, the music lessons, and
my kids didn’t have any of that. Of course, I always felt very guilty about that. Miss Huerta, thank you for sharing your stories.
Through the exhibition, I learned how, I was very moved by your bravery for how valiente
you are. And I want to understand what inspired you to be so brave, so valiente. You said
that you heard a calling, but there must be something in your life, a person, an event,
or were you born so brave? Thank you. Actually, I was seeing the needs of the people
when I did my first voter registration drive after Mr. Fred Ross organized us in the Community
Service Organization, and going to the homes, going door-to-door, getting people to register
to vote. And I went to the home of a farm worker. And there was just a dirt floor. They
had cardboard furniture and orange crates for furniture. And seeing the children kind
of so threadbare and malnutritioned [sic]. And I knew how hard the farm workers worked.
And it made me kind of angry. Then again when I was in school, teaching in school and seeing
again, trying to get them a free milk or free lunch or a shoe voucher, and having to fight
with the principals to… I remember one principal said to me, “Oh, all they do is drink up
all their money, they’re a bunch of winos.” And that’s what they used to say about the
farm workers. And the growers in Sacramento, they would stand up and they would testify:
“We do the public a favor by all these degenerates, you know, by giving them a job. They’re
a bunch of winos. They’re a bunch of alcoholics.” And once I got to Sacramento, and I remember
hearing one of the growers say that, and I went up to him and I told him “If I ever
hear you say anything like that about farm workers, I’m going to tell people about
what you do to farm workers, the way that you enslave them, the way how hard you work
them.” So with seeing the need of the people, and I think that still keeps me organizing
today. When we see that we have so many needs that need to be met, and that our people can
actually, once they learn how to organize, they know how they can overcome that, that’s
the formula. What we need is more resources, more monies, so we can train more organizers,
right? Because that’s what we do in my foundation, we hire them, we train them, and we pay them
to go into communities and show the people how to organize and how they can improve their
conditions, that they have it within themselves to do it. So, this is what keeps me going.
I know it kept me going then. OK, so thank you for being here. My question,
you sort of touched on already, but it’s about the toxic political discourse there
is right now around Latinos and immigrant issues. And I wanted to know what your thoughts
are on that, if you sort of dealt with anything similarly in your experience as being an activist. Well, I think that it’s… the racism has
always been there, you know. I think now we are better equipped to be able to challenge
the racism. I mean, when we were, like I mentioned that I got involved, because they had elected
one Latino to the City Council in LA, Ed Roybal [Edward Roybal], and of course now in California
we have a large number of Latinos in the State Legislature. In California, I think we have
the largest number of Latinos in the Congress. And it all comes from that basis of organizing.
So I think that the challenges are still there. Someone once said we’ll always have an immigration
problem from Mexico, or Central America, because we’re so close to those borders. I think
the one thing that we have to look at that’s different, excuse me [coughs], is that we
have to challenge when they pass laws like NAFTA that allow American companies to go
into Mexico and Central America, and set up their corporations there, or take over the
economies, because – and I like to say and use this as an example: bananas, okay? How
many bananas do we eat in the United States every single day? Does that money go to the
people in Guatemala? Or Honduras? No, it goes to Dole. It goes to Chiquita Banana. So that
the profits come back to the United States, and those countries are today – they have
more poverty in Mexico and in Central America than they did before NAFTA was passed. And
I call it, “Economic Colonization.” So I think those are different things that we
have to look at. The other thing I talk about when I lecture is about natural resources.
That we in the United States, we do not own our natural resources. You know, in Norway,
for instance, which is a very small country, a few years ago they had a $400 billion surplus.
Where did they get all that money? They own their oil! They own their oil. We in the United
States, we do not own our natural resources. We have British Petroleum. We have Shell,
which is Dutch. We have all these other people that own our natural resources, and yet we
have so much poverty in our own country. And so I think the income inequality is of course
much greater now than when we starting organizing. The farm workers were so poor, and those are
the things, the challenges that we have. So it’s not just about Latinos per se, it’s
about challenging these systems. By the way, like the Pope is doing, right? [Inaudible]
in the systems that we live and work under, and change them. And again, we know the way
that we change those systems is through what I like to call an “Electoral Revolution.”
An “Electoral Revolution” by voting, and by getting good people elected to office,
doing campaign reforms so that we can get the money for elections come from the public.
And so people out here in this audience are the ones that can run for office even though
they’re not millionaires. And these are all things within our power and we can make
it happen. But we’ve got to really get engaged and take the leadership that we have and develop
leadership in our community to do it. Si se puede. [Applause] One more question. Dolores, thank you very much for your time.
Precisely, my question is about voting and how Latinos engage the electoral system at
this time. I worked as a field organizer for the Obama Campaign in Miami in 2012, and in
Miami, the experience with local politics is frustrating at best, very pretty much to
the point apathetic at worst, right? And you mentioned a lot of work that you did was,
you know, a lot of civic engagement, but on the local and state level. But then we have
this problem among the Latino community that we believe that the President does everything
or the President can achieve everything. And then of course, we come out every four years
to vote, but then we forget city council, we forget mayors, we forget state legislators.
So from your experiences, what advice can you give folks – I mean not just Latinos,
but just everyone in general – you know, how to educate people that it’s not just
about Presidente, you know, I got to pick the president. No, it’s really everybody
else that if anything has more power than the President himself or herself, eventually.
Thank you. That’s true. That’s exactly what we do,
and that’s why we now have an organization that I mentioned in the beginning. We have
eleven of our residents of the people that we have organized that have now gotten themselves
elected to office. Once they learn how to do the work and how to register the voters
and get the voters out. And we have to do it at the local level, and that – I want
to say this – it sounds kind of silly, but sometimes I think that our people, we have
to be invited to vote, you know, the Latinos. Because I think a lot of times, as we’re
growing up, we were told [Speaking Spanish], right? You know, don’t be a ‘buttinski,’
don’t go where you’re not wanted. And as I think a fear, a lot of people don’t
vote because, again, they don’t want to do the wrong thing. They get this long ballot,
and they see all of these names on it, they don’t know who they are, and they get intimidated.
And one of the things we teach them is you don’t have to vote for everything, just
vote for the things that you know. We also have candidates forums, where we invite people
to come, and we make the candidates come, and then we ask them the questions. And we
don’t let them make speeches, they can make like a three-minute or two-minute introduction
of who they are. And then we ask them, “Well, how do you feel about driver’s license?”
We give them a green card, and a red card. The red card is for no, the green card is
for yes. And then we give them a yellow card, undecided. So they just have to hold up the
card. We don’t make any speeches. And then what we do is, we get their answers, then
we print them up and pass them in the community so people can know where the candidates stand.
So we engage them so they understand why voting is important. And I know what I’m saying
is that it takes a lot of work to do that. The way that we organize is that each organizer
really develops a corps of volunteers. And then the volunteers are those that do the
work. But it can happen. It’s just a matter of just going out there and doing the work
to make it happen. It takes a lot of man powers, a lot of volunteers. And not even too much
money. We have unfortunately during elections, they throw a lot of money at the last two
or three weeks of an election. But if we could get that money ahead of time to engage people
early on, and train them how to vote, then people will vote. They’re just not conditioned
to vote. If we get them to vote the first time, they’re going to keep on voting. It
just takes work, that’s all it takes. The grassroots organizers make it happen. Thank you. We have five [inaudible] left. Please edit
your questions. We’ve got to take this one in because this
young lady has to go to school tomorrow and get to bed. So there you go. Hola, me llavo Kavita y voy a la escuela bilingüe
Oyster Adams. Hi my name is Kavita, I go to Oyster Adams Bilingual School. ¿Recuerdas
dónde fue tomada esa foto y cómo te sentiste cuando estabas ahí? [Translating] The photo that… Esa foto fue durante la primera semana de
la huelga. [Translating] This was the first week of the
strike. Estaba yo arriba de un automóvil pidiéndole
a la gente que saliera en huelga. Así que me miro (sic) muy apurada. [Translating] I look very rushed… Por que quería que la gente se saliera en
huelga. [Translating] I really wanted the folks to
come out on strike, I was really trying to get them out. La huelga ya había durado como unos siete
u ocho días. [Translating] It’s about seven or eight
years… sorry days old at that point. Ya se me había acabado la ropa limpia. [Translating] My clean clothes had been exhausted
by then. Y esa “suera” que tenía puesta está
completamente arrugada. [Translating] The sweater I had, as you can
see, was completely wrinkled. It was clean but wrinkled, no? Y el fotógrafo
me quería. And I was trying to get away from him… [Laughter] [Translating] I was trying… yep. [Laughter] So anyway, El automóvil donde estaba parada
era de uno de nuestros líderes de la compañía Schenley… el primer contrato que ganamo.
The first contract that we got… The exhibit says that was fifty years ago
today. Yea, just about. Exactly. Right. About that
time. [Applause] I think today, a lot of people know of organizing
because of Obama and Obama for America. And obviously that is very focused on just the
political scene, right, on getting a single candidate elected. But you mentioned your
foundation does a lot of civic organizing, you know, getting sidewalks, getting gutters.
The questioner before me at this microphone before me mentioned a lot of apathy, and I’m
wondering if it’s easier to get people more engaged in political organizing when you start
with civic organizing. Or, you know, if you just combine them all, and sort of what they
add to each other. And then, if you’re familiar at all with the Obama’s model, the Neighborhood
Teen Model, if there are any differences or similarities with your organizing? That’s a very good point. And also, I guess
in addition to the other question that was asked. For instance in our area, there was
the City Council of Bakersfield. They had an ordinance that they wanted to have passed,
to stop all public services to people who didn’t have papers. All public services
stopped for undocumented people. And of course that was crazy. And English only for the whole
city. And so what we did is we just got all of our volunteers to get a bunch of postcards.
And so every time the City Council met, we took a big stack of postcards –we had a
press conference – we had people from their districts go up to them and talk to them about
this. So we put a lot of pressure on them. And what happened, ultimately they got scared,
right, and the final ordinance that they passed was to support immigration reform, instead…
people signing postcards… Also our Congressperson didn’t want to support Obamacare, and so
again we did the same thing. We just got a bunch of postcards, and people went to their
neighborhoods, got a couple of thousand postcards, and we took them to the Congressman. And we
picketed his office, we picketed his fundraisers, right? We did sit-ins in his office that he
had, and he still wasn’t going to vote for Obamacare – by the way he was a Democrat,
also. But then what we did was we fasted, we started fasting, we had some of our local
people start fasting, and he finally [inaudible]. Then the other Congressman up north, we called,
“We are going to go get you next.” So right away he said, “No. I’m going to
vote. I’m going to vote for Obamacare.” And remember that the Affordable Care Act,
I think it only passed with four votes, four or five votes. So at least we were responsible
for two of those votes. But that’s a good point. Get people involved in some of the
local issues that are going on, there’s a lot of different things that are going on
that we can get people involved to. So our people are always involved in working on some
thing or the other, not just working on elections. And that’s the way you get them engaged. Thank you, Dolores. It’s Laura O’Connor,
I know it’s hard to see in the light there. But actually, when you turned eighty, you
started using that – which was several years ago – you started using that term, “Weaving
Movements.” And it actually speaks a little bit… And today when you went to be with
the Pope, right before that, you wrote the environmental movement, talking about the
connection between food and climate change. So you seem to be able to go from feminism
to LGBT, to all these different movements that you work in. How do you do that? How
do you get people to connect dots between the different work? Which really speaks to
what you just said, but you have a really magic way of doing that. How do you do that? Well, I think I’m kind of blessed. I am
on several boards, I’m on the Board of Equality California, which advocates for people in
the LGBTQ community. I’m on the board of the Feminist Majority, which advocates for
women’s rights. I’m on the board of People of the American Way, which is about engaging
people in civil engagement, and fighting the right wing. So just bringing all these folks
together so that they will know each other also. Because a lot of times, and even the
environmental movement, I think one of the things that we saw in the big demonstration
that we had today, there were a few people, there were a few Latinos and people of color,
but overwhelmingly most of the people that were there were Anglos. And we know that because,
again, of our huge number of people in our population, that we have to do a lot more
work on the environment, to get our people engaged in the environmental issues. You might
say cross fertilization of the different organizations to make sure that they all work together.
I know that the LGBTQ community, the gay community, was very, very involved, and has been, in
helping us with immigration reform. So we can help each other because, like I like to
say, we are the majority, right? When we think of women, we think of people of color, and
as I say, white men of conscience, then we are the majority, and so we are the ones to
really decide the political landscape of our country by working together. [Applause] Hola Dolores, me llamo Thomas. Earlier you
mentioned that you felt, when Cesar wanted to speak and you really regretted, and you
were like, “Oh I wish it would have been 50/50.” At what point did you become conscious
of your oppression? What made you pursue, as a woman of course, what made you pursue
college and to follow your dreams? Well in my family, I mean we just expected
that we would graduate from high school and go to college. In the movement itself, like
I said before, there were a lot of women on the picket lines, lot of women that went to
jail, you know, during the strikes. It was about, I guess, I started realizing that we
didn’t have enough women on our Executive Board. Some of our people had really macho
tendencies. And so I told Cesar, “You know, we can’t have it like this. We have got
to change this culture of Machismo in the organization.” And I made it a point that
when I negotiated the contracts, we had women also in all of our committees, so that they
could get that leadership experience. So we started working to make sure we had more women
on the Executive Board, to the point where we were almost 50/50 on the executive board
for the United Farm Workers. But I guess it was, like I said before, realizing that unless
we, as women, challenged the situation, the system, that it just continues. And men are
just more aggressive than women are, and even when we try to get some of the women that
I would get them on the Executive Board, and then they would quit, oh don’t quit, you
know. Well one of them, well her father got sick. Well take a leave of absence, don’t
quit, don’t leave the job. But you know we have a lot of work to make sure that our
women are, you know, are more… not only assertive, but realize that they have the
capabilities that men do. I always like to say that men, they learn on the job, and women
think, “Oh we have to be prepared ahead of time.” But we can learn on the job just
like the guys do. [Applause] Last question. Last question. I remember the Delano grape strike very well
because when it ended, literally half of my life, there were no grapes in my family’s
house because of the strike. My cousins and I used to joke that it had been so long since
we had eaten our last grape that we had forgotten what it tasted like. And I look back at that
and I realize the commitment and wherewithal in our community and beyond the Latino community
to the greater community. And I don’t see that anymore. And it saddens me. And I wonder
if there’s any words of hope and direction that you can give us about how to capture
that kind of commitment and energy again to be willing to go half your life without something
in order to make the lives of your brothers and sisters that much better. [Applause] I actually…I think that we do have that
going on right now. Back in 1966 when the Congress passed the [inaudible] bill, that
would actually put people in jail for helping people who were undocumented, we had the largest
march ever in the United States of America. When people all over the United States started
marching against the [inaudible]. Do you all remember that that happened? And today we
see what the dreamers have done. You know, the dreamers, when they got the President
of the United States to sign a law that said that these young people that who were undocumented
had the right to go to college, right, and to get work permits. We see the immigrant
rights movement, we just saw that now that the Pope was here, when Sofia Cruz, this little
girl – that was organized, okay, that was not spontaneous. There was a hundred women
that marched a hundred miles, you know, to come here to Washington, to make sure to be
here when the Pope was here. And they are the ones that got that little girl to go out
there, and give the Pope that picture and that petition. So what’s happening right
now, I think, the immigrant rights movement I think has really brought a lot of us together.
We just have to translate that into voting, okay? We have to translate that into voting.
[Applause] But it is happening, it is happening right here. And you can look back, look back
in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where we didn’t have organizations of Latino engineers, Latino
doctors, Latino attorneys, you know. And so we have come a long way, but we know we still
have a long way to go. I wouldn’t despair like Joe Hill said, don’t cry, just organize,
organize, organize, right? [Laughter and applause] Thank you all for coming, and thank you to
Ms. Huerta. Before we close up, I just want to say to
all of you, I’ve been doing this in all of my speeches recently, and I say to the
audience, and I remind them, and I say: Who’s got the power? We got the power. Okay, so we say we’ve got the power. And
we say: “What kind of power?” And we all say “People Power”, okay? So I want to
shout it out there and we are going to do it twice, okay. Who got the power? We got the power. What kind of power? People Power. I’m going to say it one more time. But this
time I want you to say “Voting Power” Okay? Voting Power. Who’s got the power? We got the power. What kind of power? Voting Power. Alright. Se puede? Can we go out there? Can
we do this? Can we organize our community to make sure that we have the impact that
we should have, and make sure that people are educated? And they know how to vote? Si se puede. Let’s do it altogether. Si se puede, Si se puede, Si se puede, Si
se puede, Si se puede, Si se puede, Si se puede, Si se puede, Si se puede, Si se puede!
[Applause] Thank you all for coming tonight, alright,
and remember the Delano grape strike and the courage of the farm workers and all of the
peoples throughout the cities that supported the farm workers during the grape boycott.
Seventeen million Americans stopped eating grapes. I think that gives us the inspiration
to keep on going and keep on organizing. Right? [Applause] Thank you very much, Dolores. Thank you all. Thank you. Thank you and good night. And one more thing. Come back, OK? I want
people to visit this place, this is a treasure. This place is priceless. So bring your friends
to see the exhibit, and keep them coming back so they can see the different programs that
are being done here. If you haven’t seen the exhibit, please
come back and see it. It’s open until May. Thank you.

5 thoughts on “Dolores Huerta, “Living Self-Portrait” interview”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *