She Still Can UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta talks about activism in the modern age and why she’ll never back down

Photo: Dolores Huerta during Voices interview in Santa Clara | Janjaap Dekker

Video by Janjaap Dekker

By Julie Reynolds Martínez

At 88, Dolores Huerta is a force. She has always been a force, an unstoppable cyclone of commitment that can blow right through you and leave you dazed. She was not only a co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, she was its organizer, contract negotiator, spokeswoman and boycott director.

Over the years, I’ve known men who have worked with her and tried to work with her. A few found her impossible. But looking back, I believe these men — a couple of them dear friends — were alpha males who simply couldn’t stand up to the competition. They didn’t know how to deal with, let alone work with a woman as strong as Huerta.

The most remarkable thing about Huerta is that as she ages, her world hasn’t closed inward the way it does for so many of us. She doesn’t spend her days — or a well-earned retirement — focused on home, health, travel and pleasure.

Oh, hell no. She’s on the road, shouting out for every cause, expanding La Causa from its origins in the fields of Central California to abortion rights, feminism, LGBTQ rights, ethnic studies and the school-to-prison pipeline.

When the documentary Dolores came out last year, Huerta hit the circuit again, using the film as a platform for her human rights agenda. Now she speaks at college campuses about the Dolores Huerta Foundation’s work in the Central Valley. And because she’s such a force, she’s also writing her memoir.

Voices was invited to sit down with her recently at the Santa Clara University College of Arts and Sciences.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

— Julie Reynolds Martinez

JRM: So, let’s start with feminism. That was a very important principle to you very early on, and you were a real pioneer in bringing — merging — the national feminist movement with national farm workers’ rights, with Chicano rights, with Latino rights. How do you view the merger of these ideas, and what drew you to feminism?

DH: Well, my mother was a feminist. My mother was the dominant figure in our family, she was a business woman, she was very active in the community. And in addition to being a business woman, she was always very charitable, always engaging in voter registration drives and different issues that came before the community. And she was a very quiet person, but she was a very powerful woman.

And as a small business woman she hired people. She was an employer, and so that was always my model — my mother always worked. During high school I always had jobs, you know? So that was just kind of the way that I saw the world.

When I started working with the farm worker movement I had to reverse that a little bit, because that was a different culture I was going into. With farm workers, I had to kind of, I guess you could say, draw back on being an active feminist at that point. But again I had not really, really adopted all the principles of feminism, such as the right to abortion, which…was a transition for me, and a difficult one, because I am a Catholic.

Understanding how important that issue was for women and for their careers or for their lives, that was a big aha moment in my life, that you might say is even at the root of feminism, that women have control over their own bodies.

JRM: Did you have any difficulty merging those worlds — the farm worker organizing world, where these might have been foreign ideas, especially the idea of abortion rights?

DH: I was so focused on farm workers, and getting everybody to support the grape boycott, to support the empowerment of farm workers, that I didn’t really focus that much on the empowerment of women.

I think I kind of took that for granted, because even in the farm worker movement, you always had women who were at the forefront of the picket lines and much of the work that we were doing. Let me say this — when you’re in the movement, things are happening so fast that you’re not thinking a lot about what happens after the movement gets consolidated and becomes institutionalized.

Then, once it became institutionalized, I realized, ‘Hey wait a minute, where are the women at?’ All these women that were out there on the front lines and going to jail and doing all these brave actions — they’re not here at the executive level. And I tolerated that for many years, and I believe it was the feminist movement that really opened my eyes and opened my mind and my heart, I’d say, to realize: ‘Hey. wait a minute, this isn’t going to work.’

It’s not fair if you don’t have equal numbers of women at the decision-making tables. And I remember saying this at a NOW convention. I didn’t know Eleanor Smeal at that time. (Editor’s note: Smeal is past president of NOW, the National Organization for Women and co-founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation.) I didn’t even know who she was, but she was in the room and she heard me say that when you look at a television screen, and you see all of these world leaders in a room, making powerful decisions that are going to affect so many people, and yet we see no women in the room. And if you don’t have any women in the room, they’re going to make the wrong decisions.

JRM: One premise in the film Dolores is that because of the machismo in the movement, or for whatever reason, you were not as revered throughout your career as César Chávez was  — as other leaders of other civil rights movements. And that you should have been. Do you agree with that assessment?

DH: Well I think there’s a couple facets to that question and to the answer. And one of the facets is this: that when you’re at the front of the march, you get a lot of credit. You know on the East Coast, because I was the director of the Grape Boycott, I got a lot of attention, because César was on the West Coast. People on the East Coast didn’t even know who César was.

In the meantime you have all of these farm workers who have been on strike now for year after year after year… And they have all of these 17 million people that didn’t eat grapes! You have five people who gave up their lives, who were murdered, assassinated during the farm workers’ struggle. And people don’t know their names.

So when you think about all of the thousands of people that were involved in this movement, and you think: should I be getting the credit, or any credit, when you have so many people at work that made this happen?

So you have that aspect of it. And then of course you have the other side of it too, and I like to tell the story now, looking back, that when we started the organization, César said in our initial conversations, ‘Well you know, one of us has to be the spokesperson for the organization.’ And he said, ‘Is it alright with you if it’s me?’ And I said. ‘Of course, César!’

Now, looking back on that conversation with my feminist lens, I would have said, ‘Well, why don’t you be the spokesperson part of the time, and I’ll be the spokesperson the other part of the time?’ But as a matter of fact I did become the spokesperson for the organization, because often times I was on the East Coast, César was on the West Coast, so it kind of worked out.

I experienced more machismo from the other men in the movement than I did from César. César and I had a very good relationship, a very trusting relationship, and he supported me and my ideas. Not that we didn’t have differences. We would have very heated arguments about tactics, often, (but) not the philosophy of the organization.

JRM: I know you’ve broadened into other areas of social action through the Dolores Huerta Foundation and its activities. What are the areas that you’re most concerned about now and plan to be working on in the future?

DH: Well we’re focusing a lot on stopping the school-to-prison pipeline, and we know that throughout the state of California, students of color are getting pushed out of schools to feed them to the criminal justice system — not justice, but into the prisons. That’s one of our big issues that we’re working on — organizing people in the community so that they can step up to their school districts to see what kind of a restorative justice systems they have, positive behavior intervention systems to stop the suspensions and expulsions of students of color.

We also have an LGBT contingent, where we have LGBT organizers to enlighten our communities about the rights of the LGBT community and to make sure we have the gay-straight alliances in our schools, and that they’re functioning. So we’re active in ten different school districts in the Central Valley on these issues of restorative justice and positive behavior intervention systems.

We have filed lawsuits in terms of representation on our boards of supervisors. We just won a lawsuit against the Kern County Board of Supervisors for the lack of representation of Latinos. Although the majority of Kern County are Latinos, we only had one Latino on the Board of Supervisors.

We have very reactionary, conservative politicians throughout the Central Valley. We’ve also notified Tulare County, which is next to Kern County, that we’re going to be filing a lawsuit against them if they do not respond to say that they’re going to redraw the electoral districts to make sure we have Latino representation. Because there are zero Latinos on the Board of Supervisors in Tulare County.

We’re also working on a very big issue that will hopefully be on the ballot in 2020, and that is to make sure that the major corporations like Disney and Chevron pay their fair share of property taxes. And that’ll bring in about eleven billion dollars into our state revenues for education.

JRM: Why the focus on the Central Valley?

DH: Well I think that’s where the greatest need is in the state of California right now. I mean, you have in the Bay Area right now a lot of organizers and then you have pretty good conditions for most of the people that live in Northern California. And we know that more work needs to be done in the other parts of the state, but the Central Valley is where we have the greatest need right now, in terms of the conservative representation, the fact that Latinos don’t have a voice. You have a lot of our farm working community that lives in that area, and this is why we believe we need to be there, that we need to help people and to organize them so that they can take on the issues. So that they can solve the issues in their community.

JRM: What keeps you going?

DH: We know that so much more work that needs to be done. So many more communities that need to be organized, this is what keeps me going. You see the leadership that comes out of every community, and you know that everywhere where we have all these issues that there are people there that can solve some of these issues and get involved. But you’ve got to let them know that they can do it. And once they know, then I mean — it’s miraculous, the way that people step up and then they do the work.

JRM: You don’t ever get tired?

DH: [laughs] Maybe a little bit, but not tired enough that I’m not going to continue.

JRM: The film was very open in interviewing your children about your time away from them because of your organizing work. It struck me — and maybe I missed it — that it didn’t ask the same questions of César. We didn’t ask questions of Martin Luther King or of César about spending time away from their kids. What’s your take on that?

DH: Well I think it’s again the machismo at work, and you know, it’s always that differentiation between women and men.

Actually the film is a little misleading, because I took my children with me almost everywhere I went. In fact when I went to New York City, I took all of my children but one. I only left one behind, and that was because the woman who used to watch her for me begged me… But all my other kids, every single one of them went with me to New York. And so the movie’s misleading in that respect, it looks like I left them all the time!

But I did from time to time have to — like when I first left Stockton to go to Delano, I left my two younger ones with some of my cousins and they were there for quite a few months.

JRM: And you noticed that people wouldn’t criticize the male leaders for the same thing?

DH: Of course not. Of course not. But I think that that speaks to the fact that we need to have early childhood education and care for our children. And it should be free for all women and all families, so that we know that as we get out there and do our civic work that is so sorely needed that our children are safe.

JRM: In this era of Trump — and you’ve probably been asked this everywhere you go — what can you say to people to keep their spirits and their hearts up and moving in positive directions?

DH: Well, I think as an organizer, I see this as an incredible organizing opportunity. Because the racism, the misogyny, the sexism, the homophobia, the bigotry (are) just so visible now. People are coming out of the woodwork and identifying themselves as racist or sexist, and the MeToo movement is bringing them out.

To me, it’s an incredible moment in our history because all of these issues have existed. The racism has existed since the foundation of our government in the United States of America. We were built on slavery. This country was built on slavery of Native Americans and African Americans… So now these issues have to be addressed. Women have all throughout our lives had to face sexual harassment and machismo, misogyny. Now that these issues are so visible, that finally people are getting angry enough that they are stepping up and they are fighting back, I think it’s… what I call a cultural revolution.

And I think that we’re going to see the same kind of revolution that is happening right in front of our eyes. We see the Women’s March, the MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter marches, the DACA students, the immigrant rights groups that are out there marching. We’re seeing it, it’s unfolding before our very eyes.

So, I like to say to people, to students: if you’re sorry you missed the sixties, guess what, we’re back! [laughs] Except I think that hopefully when we finish this revolution that we’re going through right now — or evolution — that it’s going to be an economic evolution. The sixties were a cultural revolution, this has got to be an economic revolution.

It is obscene that we have all of these super wealthy families, super wealthy corporations and individuals, and yet we have hundreds of thousands of people that are homeless in our society. And people that cannot afford to live on the meager wages that they earn.

The thing is that the people, young people especially, they have the tools that we didn’t have back in the sixties. You know, we didn’t have Facebook, we didn’t have Instagram and Twitter and all of these cell phones and computers, all of these instruments that they have now to accelerate and to mobilize and to inform and to educate.

I think that we’re going to see big changes in our country. We’re going to have some dark periods like right now, because Donald Trump and the Republicans have regressed so much in many of the policies and things that we fought so hard to achieve.

But I think we’re going to do it. I call it a leapfrog and say, ‘We’re going to leap right over all the negative stuff, and a lot of these things will come back.’ When you think of the young people who are marching for the gun control movement. You see all the young people that are fighting for DACA and for immigrants.

I like to say we’re going to have a brown tsunami in our country, because you see all of these young people who are binational, bicultural, educated, smart, and they have all this incredible energy.

I mean… these politicians (are) not going to be able to withstand that. Because these are the young people. They’re going to be here for a long time. And all of you reactionaries and people that are ignorant about how our society was built, and you’re so embedded with your racism and your bigotry— you’re not going to make it, ultimately. You’re going to be defeated.

¡Sí se puede!

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Julie Reynolds Martínez

About Julie Reynolds Martínez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, the NewsGuild and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.