A Conversation With Civil-Rights Leader Dolores Huerta
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition is a visit with legendary civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United farm workers. Mrs. Huerta and Cesar Chavez began their effort to organize farmworkers in California back in 1962. It was a long battle, but it successfully changed working conditions for many of the people who grow our food. Dolores Huerta's activism continues as the head of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. She is in San Diego to take part in the conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. I spoke with Mrs. Huerta earlier today, and here is that interview: [ AUDIO FILE PLAYING ] MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dolores Huerta, welcome to the show. DOLORES HUERTA: Thank you, thank you for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I think many people would tend to think that you were a farmworker yourself, and that is why you became active in the movement to unionize farmworkers. Is that true? DOLORES HUERTA: No, actually I was a schoolteacher, and I left schoolteaching to first become a full-time organizer first for the Community Service Organization, which is an organization which preceded the United Farm Workers. I grew up in Stockton, California. That is a farmworker community. In the Community Service Organization, a lot of the people we were working with were farmworkers, and that is where I was actually able to see the kind of conditions that farmworkers were working under, and the way they were treated it made me so angry. In the Community Service Organization I had the good fortune to learn some basic organizing skills from a great gentleman named Fred Ross. I decided I could do more good by organizing farmworkers to change their conditions, and thereby help their children, than I could being a teacher. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What did you see that led you to this work? What did you see of the conditions? DOLORES HUERTA: It is interesting, one of the first things that we did in the community service organization was to register people to vote and then go door to door. In going door-to-door, I saw the homes of some of these farmworkers and saw the extreme poverty that they were living in to the point where they had no furniture, they had cardboard boxes or orange crates for furniture, there were homes with just dirt floors, and you could see that the children were malnourished. Seeing these conditions and knowing that these farmworkers worked so hard out there in the fields and orchards, this is what really moved me to say this is wrong, we have to do something to change this. I met Cesar Chavez in the community service organization, and I was already organizing the farmworkers in my hometown in Stockton called the Agricultural Workers Association, which later became the AFOCIO Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Cesar was organizing farmworkers in the Oxnard area. That was kind of the one thing where we had in common, we were both concerned about the plight of farmworkers. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you and Cesar Chavez make a good team? DOLORES HUERTA: I guess we did, in a way, we are both Aries. [LAUGHTER] DOLORES HUERTA: Cesar was born in March 31, I was born on April 10. We had the same philosophies, we had the same ideas. I think that the one place where there was tension, I looked at things from more of a feminist point of view, a woman's point of view, and of course Cesar would look at it more from the man's macho point of view. We really believed in the cause, so we were able to really have a lot of synergy and could feed ideas off of each other. We worked together to really accomplish a lot of great things for farmworkers. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give me an example of the kind of ways that your approaches were different as a feminist opposed to the macho? DOLORES HUERTA: I have two examples, one of them the great boycott. We were having a big strike with this company Giumarra, the largest grape grower in the world, situated in California. They also grew potatoes. We had a contract with another grape company at the time, DiGiorgio, and we had to figure out how we would win this big strike that we had. We had all of these grape growers on strike. Since Giumarra also had potatoes, he said we should break out potatoes. I said Cesar, when you think of potatoes you don't think of California, you think of Idaho. He was concerned about this one contract that we had, I said let's say boycott grapes, except for DiGiorgio Farms. The other thing that is a little more in the terms of the way people think, I was in charge of an East Coast boycott from Chicago to New York and from Florida to the Canadian border. We started out boycotting this palace doors, the independent stores, and then we took on the small chains, and then the bigger chains. We were able to get the grapes off of the stores, because we already had a clean store to send people to that did not have grapes. On the West Coast they took on Safeway, so that all of the East Coast clean of grapes but they still had grapes on the West Coast with Safeway. I came back to California, and use the same method that we had used back East, and we were able to get the grapes. Instead of taking on the biggest chain, we went up against the smaller ones. That is the difference between the macho mentality where you take on the biggest chain. That is how we won the boycott. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Cesar Chavez became the symbol of the movement, is that okay with you? DOLORES HUERTA: It is interesting, looking back, we had the discussion, and Cesar said Tamika I don't know in today's world if I would've responded the same way, but he said one of us had be the spokesperson for the organization, we cannot have two people speaking for the organization And he said I think I should be the spokesperson. I said that is fine with me. Today, in today's world, I would have said we should have equal opportunity to be spokesperson. At the time, I thought that was okay. I think of myself and many women who do have problems with not taking credit for our work. We do not like to promote ourselves. We think are being conceited, or egotistical, whatever you call it. That is something I have learned over the years, we as women need to step out there and take credit for what we do. I will give you another example. The Cesar Chavez documentary is out there, the scene where they sign the contracts. I was in charge of the boycott. Came back and negotiated the contracts. The day that we signed the contracts I was sitting next to Cesar, we're going to start signing all of these grape contracts, and the Filipino vice president said I would like to sit next to Cesar. I got up and gave up my seat, and I don't come up in any of those pictures, even though I am the one that negotiated those contracts. And I did the boycott. I was not cognizant or aware of that. Now I am more aware of that. I say to women, if we go to some function and we see a dais and no women on the dais, there's something wrong with that picture. We need to get women on the dais, the function should not continue until we have our women leaders on the dais. The other thing is, even with the United Farm Workers even though I'm not in the union anymore, for many years they had Cesar Chavez on the website, where he had coined the phrase Si Se Puede. Which is now very popular. I am the one that came up with Si Se Puede. They were confronted on the fiftieth anniversary of the United Farm Workers, and said it was about time that you change that website. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And reclaimed it. DOLORES HUERTA: I am doing that now. Everywhere I go I say to the women in the room, I am the one that coin the phrase Si Se Puede, not Cesar. Cesar put that in his biography, so there is no question about that. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It has been your life's work to give poor and disenfranchised people a voice. In the last generation in America we have seen the gap between rich and poor increased dramatically, why do you think that is happening? DOLORES HUERTA: We know that labor unions are under attack. We have conservative Congress right now, that is trying to take away the power that labor union. The only organization that represents workers are labor unions. The employers have many organizations that represent them. They have manufacturers associations, Chamber of Commerce, trade organizations to represent them, and they pay money to those organizations. They are trying to take away the right of workers to have representation in the capitals and in the Congress of our country. That is why worker wages are going further and further behind. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It comes back to organizing something that you did back in the 60s, and your foundation continues to do now. When you were organizing, you faced arrest, physical assault, a great deal of resistance. What kinds of challenges face community organizers now? DOLORES HUERTA: The one thing, even with the Cesar Chavez movie I'm sure many of your listeners have seen that movie, one thing that they left out of that movie, is the organization and the fact that we're out there registering people to vote. I think I mentioned to you the first thing that we did in the organization under Fred Ross Senior, we registered people to vote. The first thing we did. We were out there for Bobby Kennedy, Jerry Brown, getting good people elected to office is crucial and if we do not get good people elected to office, they will pass these laws. You can sign a contract with workers and they will pass one want to take it all away from you. In the movie they did not show that, they do not show the farmworkers that came to the doors in Los Angeles to knock on doors can't to vote for Bobby Kennedy, or people that came out to vote for Hilda Solis when she ran for Congress, or to vote for Jerry Brown. We have to look at what happened in the election of 2012, when Meg Whitman had $160 million to try to get himself elected as governor of California. Jerry Brown had $35 million. How did Jerry Brown get elected? People were going door-to-door. Many people did not want to vote. They lost their jobs and homes and in the Latino community a lot of people were deported, people were angry, but one by one we got them out to vote. That is what we have to do, we have to get representatives out there that will represent working people and labor unions. We have to fight for that, if not we are losing democracy and income inequality will get worse. If you do not have the middle class you will not have democracy, and the only way to have a middle-class is with labor unions. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The general consensus is that moving towards immigration reform in Washington has stalled indefinitely. What do you think it will take for lawmakers to address this issue? DOLORES HUERTA: I think that we have to address one part of society that is not coming forward to support immigration reform, that is the corporations. If you remember what happened in Arizona, when they passed the bill against our friends in the gay community, giving restaurants the right to discriminate against gays, all of the corporations jumped in support of the gay community. Wait a minute, we are such a huge population, the Latino community, but corporations have not come to our support. All of those corporations that give money to the Republicans, AT&T, we need to say to them, do not give money to Republican candidates and less they support immigration reform. We think about corporations, they get the consumption of the Latino community in trillions of dollars, only in consumption but also work of the Latino community. Think of these corporations, restaurant chains and so on, who is doing all of the work, cooking, cleaning, the hotel corporations? It is the Latino community, all of these people helping them for their businesses to thrive MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it because the Latino community does not have the economic clout that it needs to turn around some corporations to pressure lawmakers when it comes to immigration reform? DOLORES HUERTA: We have the economic clout, we just do not have the political clout. You might remember that movie, A Day without Mexicans. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Central Americans, other minorities and immigrants, everybody goes on strike but when they they will realize how much they depend. The whole country depends on us. Even people who are anti-immigrant, every time they sit down to eat someone picked that vegetable, that is on their plates. Somebody is cleaning the hotels, hospitals that they go to, whether restaurants that they go to, or building the buildings being built in their communities. The Latino community is the energy that makes this country work, yet they are not respected. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There's another big news story these days, President Obama last year used his executive authority to defer deportation for young people brought up in the United States. Now some critics say that is why we are seeing this crisis of children crossing the border without parents. What is your take on that? DOLORES HUERTA: I don't agree with that, I think many of those people are leaving because they do not have opportunities in their own country, or because of the drug wars, violence that is going on in the country. We have a lot to do with that. Number one we can talk about the drugs, we know if Americans stop doing drugs there would be no reason to import drugs into America and yet, it seems like drug immigration is a really good thing for people. That is one of the reasons, and the other thing is, when we think about the money, I'm sure that the young people don't even know or remember this We think of all of the money that we spent in the wars in Central America, where we are sending troops to El Salvador, Nicaragua, all of the devastation in Honduras, it is interesting that a lot of these refugees are coming from Central America, not Mexico. What about using that same amount of money that we used to cause devastation in the wars, using that same amount of money to help those countries develop economies. We do not do that in the United States, we have this foreign-policy of economic colonization. We go into countries and go take over their economy rather than helping them develop their own economy. Like we did with the Marshall Plan in Japan and Germany after World War II. If we did that people would not have to leave their own country. There are no jobs, no opportunities there, even when we talk about the corn, the corn is from Mexico. Now, in today's world, the Mexican farmers cannot compete with the corn that is imported from Iowa and Kansas. We subsidize our corn to make it cheap. The small farm in Mexico that has a little plot of land, he cannot compete with business in the United States. Our policies are killing economy in these countries. We have big box stores like Walmart go in there and they put all of the little shopkeepers out of jobs, and the factories that we put in their in these Latin American countries, and all of the profits go back to the United States, they do not stay in those countries. Any country that disagrees with our foreign-policy, like Venezuela or Bolivia, we make them our enemies. We don't like them anymore. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You've celebrated your eighty-fourth birthday this year, do your friends or family tell you to slow it down, take it easy, don't worry about the world? DOLORES HUERTA: My family is very supportive. My kids are all active as well in their own right, and in the different professions that they belong to, they are very supportive of the work that I do, in fact it is just the opposite. A couple of my children work with me in my foundation. I want to say to people, if you want to look us up go to Dolores Huerta.org. You can see right now we are focusing on education, there are big suspension and expulsion rates of our Latino and African-American children. We want to stop that, we have these institutional racist policies that are really negatively affecting our children, and we're out there again doing take voter registration drives making sure that people vote. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you, I am out of time, but it is obvious that you're not going to stop, it has been such an honor to speak with you. DOLORES HUERTA: Thank you very much.
Latino elected officials from across the state and the nation are gathering in San Diego this week for the 31st annual National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference, which continues through Saturday. One of the speakers at the event is legendary civil-rights leader Dolores Huerta.
Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers in 1962 along with the late labor leader Cesar Chavez. It was a long battle, that took marches, boycotts, arrests and beatings but it successfully changed working conditions for many of the people who grow our food.
“One of the first things we did … was to register people to vote and then we would go door to door," Huerta told KPBS Midday Edition. "And going door to door, I would go to some of the homes of some of these farmworkers and saw the extreme poverty they were living in, to the point where they had no furniture, they had cardboard boxes or orange crates for furniture. There were homes that had no type of linoleum or wood on the floor, just dirt floors, and you could see the children were malnourished.
"Seeing these conditions and yet knowing these farmworkers worked so very hard out there in those fields and those orchards, this is what really moved me to say ‘No, this is wrong. We’ve got to do something to change this,’” she said.
Her work as an activist and advocate for the Latino community and the poor has been recognized with many awards, including the Medal of Freedom.