Huerta, one of the most important labor leaders of the 20th century, was born in a small mining town in northern New Mexico. She was raised by a single mother in Stockton, California, and for a short while taught elementary school in the Central Valley. But her passion for fighting economic and social injustice led to her lifelong work as an activist and community organizer.
In 1962, Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which preceded the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), now the country’s largest union of its kind. Huerta was instrumental in organizing the 1965 Delano grape strike, taking the plight of farmworkers directly to consumers. The boycott resulted in the state’s table grape industry signing a three-year contract with the UFW.
For the past two decades Huerta has been active with the Bakersfield-based Dolores Huerta Foundation, which she established in 2002. On her recent trip to San Francisco, Huerta was meeting potential donors for her latest project, the Dolores Huerta Peace and Justice Cultural Center. When we sat down, we spoke about a mother’s influence, that pivotal grape boycott and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
Meet Dolores Huerta.
You often talk about your mother and her profound influence on your life. What attributes about her stand out?
I call her a Renaissance woman. She was way ahead of her time because she was a feminist and also a very hard worker. When we came from New Mexico, she worked two jobs — as a waitress during the daytime, and in the cannery at night. She did that so she could save enough money to open her own business — a diner in Stockton. And she would say, “Never stand back; always be in front. If people say things about you, ignore them, as long as you know what you’re doing, you’re doing with good will.”
You taught elementary school for a short time, but ultimately decided to make a career out of activism. What led you down that path?
Let me go back just a little bit more about my mother. She was also a community activist. Before the United Farm Workers, we had another organization called the Community Service Organization (CSO). That’s where I met Fred Ross, Sr., our mentor, who taught us how to organize. When we had a membership campaign, my mother would sign up the most members. When we had a voter registration campaign, she had to register the most voters. She had a lot of initiative, and was always setting an example with the work she did.
When did you become passionate about farmworkers’ rights?
Stockton is an agricultural town, and they brought in the braceros from Mexico [the Braceros Program of 1942 between the United States and Mexico permitted legal work on shortterm labor contracts]. They treated them very badly. And there was an accident where, I think, eight of them were killed. So [with] the organization, CSO, we started to raise money for their burial. So that was kind of the involvement we had. And then when we were doing voter registration work, going door to door, I came to a home where the furniture was orange crates and cardboard boxes. There was no linoleum on the floor; it was a dirt floor. And you saw how poorly the kids were dressed. It just made me really angry because I knew the farmworkers, how hard they worked. They had them in some miserable conditions. I remember going out to one labor camp and seeing what they had to wash their faces. It was a huge metal container that they had cut in half. It was awful.
Talk about some of the conditions you saw in the fields at that time.
Number one … the workers were not provided toilets. And if you can imagine what that was like for the women. Here, you have people picking the food that’s going to go to your supermarket, and they didn’t have bathrooms. They didn’t have hand-washing facilities. They didn’t have cold water. They didn’t have rest periods at all. And the wages were miserable. I mean, they were terrible.
Tell me how you met Cesar Chavez.
I met Cesar in the Community Service Organization because he had been organizing up here in San Jose, where they had a big chapter. We used to have these meetings twice a year. I saw Cesar at those meetings, but of course he would never talk to me. He would give these reports on the stuff they were organizing. I always wanted to see how he did it, so I would follow him around with a pencil in hand. One time, he sat down, so I go and I sit down and he gets up and he walks away. Afterwards, he told me, “I thought you were a big pest.”
What finally happened was we had a convention in San Jose. I gave the report of what we were doing in Stockton. I had gathered 400 or 500 signatures of people to [harvest] asparagus … The domestic workers were being shut out of all these jobs because they had so many of the Mexican braceros. It was a mess… I took [the signatures] down to the employment department before they brought the braceros in to work asparagus. I said, “All of these are [domestic] farmworkers and they’re ready to go work.” We were able to stop 1,000 braceros from coming in to [harvest] asparagus. When I gave that report, everybody was impressed. [Activist Saul] Alinsky was there. Fred [Ross, Sr.] was there. Cesar was there. It was probably Fred’s idea. He said, “Well, why don’t you come and have lunch with us and tell us how you did that. That is when Cesar finally [started paying some attention].
And how did the idea of starting a union come about?
I went to Los Angeles and started working with CSO. We were doing a lot of legislative work there, and then Cesar called me over to his house because he was in L.A. He was the director of CSO. He said, “We have to start a union.” I thought he was joking. I started laughing.
He said, “No, I’m very serious. We have to start a union, but we will never see a national union in our lifetime.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the growers are too rich and too powerful and too greedy.” And, of course, he was right. After that, I became a political director of the organization.
Tell me about what it took to form the UFW. Were farmworkers ready to organize at that point?
We had learned how to organize, and we started having house meetings in 1962. And we did our first convention in 1966. Our plan was to organize the whole Central Valley for five years, and then call a general strike. But then when the Filipino workers went out on strike, that blew up our plan. We had to decide whether we were going to support [them] or just let them lose a strike. But the brutality against the Filipinos was so harsh that we just had no choice. We had to support them. That strike went on for five years. We came up with the idea of boycotting all the grapes. Cesar didn’t want to do that. He said, “We should boycott potatoes.” I said, “Cesar, people do not think of California when you think of potatoes. They think of Idaho, OK? It’s got to be all grapes.”
This was the first time you took your fight directly to consumers in a massive way. Did you feel you had the public’s support?
Oh yes, we did. But again, you had to go back and organize. We had organizers all over. We got support from the different labor unions and churches. We set up committees in all of these places and [did] the picket lines in front of the stores. When a new store [opened], it would devastate them. We’d say, “We’re not stepping off the picket line unless you take the grapes out of all the stores.” And that’s what we did. We would send picket lines to the docks and they wouldn’t load the grapes. They would just let them rot on the platform.
You really elevated the conversation to a much broader audience.
At the end of the day, we got 17 million people who didn’t buy grapes. And that’s why the growers finally came to the table.
In the summer of 1968, you were standing by Robert Kennedy’s side when he gave his speech after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. Shortly after that speech, he was shot and died the next day. What did Bobby Kennedy mean to you?
He meant a future, not only for farmworkers, but for the country. He really cared about workers, and he cared about people of color, and he was honest and willing to come down and campaign. And in fact, he had many fundraisers to help us raise money for our clinics. They didn’t have any doctors in Delano who were supportive of workers. We had to open up clinics there with volunteer doctors.
And what about that day in Los Angeles?
That was just a terrible tragedy when he was killed. I like to remind people that just before he died, he said these words: “We have responsibilities and obligations to our fellow citizens.” The thing that I remember about that night, particularly, is that he had no security. We always had security for Cesar because he had so many death threats against him. And then you have a senator of the United States of America who had no security. I wanted to say something to him about that as we were walking over there to the podium. The thought crossed my mind three different times. And I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to spoil that moment of victory for him. I felt so guilty for years after that because I should have followed my mother’s advice: Speak up. It was a big loss for the world.
You coined the phrase “Sí se puede,” which is still used in cultural movements today. What was the origin of that phrase?
They had passed a bill in Arizona that if farmworkers went on strike, they could go to prison. We were campaigning against that. Cesar had just done a 25-day water-only fast, and every night, we would have a rally and people would come down and give reports on the organizing. Many people said to me, “You can’t do that here in Arizona. In California, you can do all those things. But not here in Arizona. No se puede, no se puede.” My response to them was, “Sí se puede.” And that evening, when I went back and gave my report to the people who were gathered there, they jumped up, clapping their hands, and started shouting, “Sí se puede!”
I’m happiest when … I’m with family and we’re having a good time celebrating life. And when we see the great things we’re doing to help people.
The biggest risk I ever taken is … Leaving my job as a schoolteacher to become an organizer.
My biggest regret is … I don’t know how it could have been different because there was just no money, [but] fighting harder for my kids so they could have had some of the wonderful things that I had growing up.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Make sure that everybody registered to vote.
What does the phrase mean to you?
“Sí se puede” is a nice term for engaging people to become activists because it does not only mean “Yes, we can,” as a collective group, but it also means “Yes, I can.” It’s an implication for people to get involved.
Besides being an activist and all of the things that you do, you’re the mother of 11 children. What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from your children?
I’m still learning from them. They didn’t have the wonderful time growing up that I had with my mother. But they had a lot of adventures. They met a lot of famous people. Some of them went to jail with me. And some of them went to jail without me. My son Fidel, who’s a doctor, was arrested with me during the Gallo wine campaign. And he was only 16.
You spent decades, also, working for women’s rights. What advice do you give to young women who want to go out and change the world?
I would say that now is the time. With the Me Too movement and the international women’s marches, young women are really out there. I think it’s happening. About a third of the people in Congress are women right now. But we know we’ve got to get at least 50 percent on every single board. We have an opportunity right now. The Equal Rights Amendment is right now in the Senate. Women would have equal pay, equal promotions and equal treatment.
You’ve received so many honors and awards in your life. What recognition are you most proud of?
Of course the Presidential Medal of Freedom, that’s got to be the top. Also, just recently, this is kind of a nice story: There’s a school in Burbank that changed its name to mine. The school had been named for a person who believed in white supremacy. So the students initiated this. They’re the ones that did the research. They said, “Why is our school named after this terrible person?” They were able to take his name off and put my name on.
Since 2002, your foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, has been planning and fundraising for its new headquarters in Bakerfield. Tell me about the capital campaign.
We want to spread this idea of grassroots organizing throughout the country. Because what we are doing here can be done anywhere, but we just have to train people how to do this organizing method. We’re building a Peace and Justice Cultural Center in Bakersfield. The center’s going to cost about $22 million and we’ve already raised $15 million. So now we have to raise the rest of the money. It’s going to include not only an organizing academy, but it’s also going to include a child care center, a youth development center, an auditorium for events and also performances, and a credit union will be part of it also.
At 91 years old, you are unstoppable. How do you do it, Dolores? What’s your secret to being so active and effective?
Well … we know that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.