tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS April 4, 2015 4:00pm-4:31pm PDT
>> hinojosa: remember the boycott of grapes during the 1970s? our guest today was behind it all. with cesar chavez, she raised national awareness of the dismal treatment of farm workers, and founded the united farm workers union. legendary labor and civil rights advocate dolores huerta. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org >> hinojosa: dolores huerta, you are an icon in the latino community, the cofounder of the united farm workers union. you have your own foundation now, the dolores huerta foundation. it's truly an honor to have you on our show. >> well, thank you, maria. it's an honor to be here. >> hinojosa: so a lot of people probably may not immediately
know your name. but if you say united farm workers, if you say cesar chavez, if you say the grape boycott of the 1970s, then people kind of start piecing it together. but you are an extraordinary leader in your own right, dolores. and i kind of wonder, how do you put that into place, where on the one hand you were side by side this amazing leader, cesar chavez, and yet you were a leader onto yourself, but always a little bit behind the scenes. >> i think we did different tasks. i mean, i was pretty visible, actually. maybe not in the media, but-- excuse me-- i was in charge of negotiations, i ran the picket lines, i was the political director of the farm worker's union, and i also directed the grape boycott on the east coast. and then after we cleaned up all the stores on the east coast, i went back to california and did the same thing on the west coast. so in many circles i was a very visible person.
>> hinojosa: you were incredibly visible in terms of the workers themselves, too. i mean, you had such a close relationship with these farm workers. they saw cesar as a leader, but they had a very direct relationship with you. >> yes, they did. and one of the reasons is because as a founder of the union with cesar chavez, i was in on the ground floor, again as a negotiator with the contracts. i had my negotiating committees. and so people were used to seeing me in a leadership role. >> hinojosa: what was it that made you decide in the 1960s... what year was the united farm workers created? >> we started in 1962. >> hinojosa: 1962. so this was a very different time. and what made you at that moment just say, "you know what? i'm going to give up any professional dreams"-- that you may have had-- "and i'm going to work to organize farm workers, the most invisible workers in the united states"? what made you decide to do that? >> well, it was a natural outgrowth from the community
service organization, which is the organization that both cesar and i came out of. and we had been doing a lot of work with farm workers before that. and we actually started the union because the community service organization did not support our project to organize farm workers. and so i left, and cesar left cso to start the union. so it's something that we had already been doing, but then at some point then... and cesar said, "farm workers will never have an organization unless you and i do it." and then he said in the next breath, "but they will not have a national union in our lifetime, because the growers are too rich, they're too powerful, and they're too racist." >> hinojosa: but in the end you ended up creating a union. >> well, yes, but not a national union, right? not throughout the united states of america. so we don't have a union in the midwest or in the south or... you know, it's only at this point in time only in california for the united farm workers. but there are other organizations, like there's picun up in oregon, there's the
farm workers down in miami, there's another group, i think, in new york city. and so... and floc in the midwest, in ohio. so there are, you know, separate groups. but i think about all of these organizations, and probably the one that had the strongest contracts, the strongest benefits for farm workers are the united farm workers. >> hinojosa: most people know the united farm workers. most people know cesar chavez. and one of the things that you and i were talking about before we started was that you actually think it's important to talk about your relationship with cesar chavez, to talk about what we as americans can learn about the experience of organizing and creating a labor movement. so what are the lessons that we need to learn from cesar chavez and you, dolores huerta, about creating essentially something from nothing? >> and i have to throw in another name here, because it would be wrong if i didn't, and that was a man named fred ross, sr. because this is the man that got
both cesar and myself into organizing. he's the one that organized the community service organization. and he also, by the way-- i'm not going to go through his whole history, because it would take up our whole time here-- but he is also the man who organized the people down in orange county that filed the lawsuit on mendez vs. westminster, to segregate the schools in orange county, when they had the mexican children in some schools and the anglo children in another school. and so this is a gentleman that really taught cesar and myself how to organize. and to this day i use his method in my current work that i'm doing with the dolores huerta foundation. but i want to describe it very simply if i can. and basically, the type of organizing that i do and we did when we organized the union was to get small groups of people together, having them meeting in their homes, having them do the invitations, and then we would talk to them about how they have power. and when you think about farm workers, that they were
immigrants, many don't speak english, they don't have any assets, they don't have any money. and yet we have to convince them that they have power. and when they would ask, "where's the power," we would say, "it's in your person. you have power in your person. but you have to come together with other people, with other workers, and you have to take action. because then you can change your situation. and nobody's going to do it for you. you're the only ones that can do it. you're the only ones that can change the kind of circumstances that you live in." and once the people understood that, and they understood that they had to work with other workers, they had to... in other words, they had to form an organization to make things happen. >> hinojosa: but there was a tremendous amount of sacrifice and blood, sweat, and tears and years that went into creating the united farm workers. it was not something that happened in the sense of creating a real base. >> people think about this big strike that we had in 1965, the historic grape strike, when all
of the farm workers went out on strike. it didn't just happen. we had been organizing in the san joaquin valley for three years. from 1962 to 1965 we had been organizing the workers in these small meetings in their homes. and you know, it takes time, it takes patience, but once the people understand that they can make something happen, they do. and it wasn't just a strike. it was, you know, the marches to sacramento to get legislation passed. it was farm workers going out to the cities to convince people not to buy grapes. so at the end of the day you had, like, 17 million americans that stopped eating grapes. but it was the farm workers that went out there to the cities, to the churches, to the labor unions, to the universities, to ask people to support them. in other words, they were using their personal power. >> hinojosa: how did you... because i think back about growing up in the 1970s, and i've asked people who were, you know, growing up in that time. and many people said, you know, when i asked, "do you remember the grape boycott," they're like, "the grape boycott? of course. i stopped eating grapes."
there was something about this boycott led by you and the united farm workers under cesar chavez that got into the american popular psyche. the culture of america was at that point "don't eat grapes, because the workers are being treated bad." has there been something similar at that same level? because that was extraordinary, and you were so much behind the organizing of it. an incredible achievement. but has there been anything else that you say, "wow, this also was as effective as the grape boycott?" >> well, i think that there have been many movements. the civil rights movement, for instance, you know? and again, it came from the bottom. when you think of the women's movement, getting women the right to vote, it came from the bottom. so all of these movements are the ones... the workers movement, you know, to create labor unions, came from the bottom. and once people understand... because basically people in the united states have very good hearts. and they always want to do the right thing, and they want to do the fair thing.
but if they don't know, then it's very hard for them to participate. so basically, as an organizer, what you have to do is you have to break it down into a message. once people understood the kind of conditions the farm workers were living under, you know, that they didn't have drinking water in the fields, or toilets for the women, or for anybody in the fields, you know, rest periods, and that they were being brutalized, then people wanted to help. but it's got to come from the people first. it had to come from the farm workers so that people could understand. and i think that that's the big secret of organizing, is that people have to be able to get that message, and then figure out a way that people can help, that it makes it easy for them to participate. >> hinojosa: so what were the debates like between you and cesar chavez? i mean, obviously people are like, "oh, my gosh, you have these two incredible leaders, cesar chavez, dolores huerta," you know, it could have easily just... sparks could have flown, you guys could have just ended up going your separate ways. what was the nature of the debate, the dialogue, that allowed you to remain leaders in
this amazing movement? >> well, i think first of all we both had the same dream, you know, the same purpose of getting the farm workers unionized, getting the farm workers organized so that they could change the laws that they needed, like, to get unemployment insurance, which they never had in california, to get the right to organize. so, you know, we were very driven to get them the kind of benefits that we got, like medical benefits and all these other things. so when we would have our differences... and i love to explain that. we can use the grape boycott as a really good example of that. i mentioned that i organized the boycott on the east coast. >> hinojosa: yeah, you actually moved out to new york for four years. >> right. and actually, you know, went out there and got people to picket the stores so that they would then take off the grapes and whatever. and the tactics that we used... i started with the small independents. i started with the small independent stores and got them cleaned up. then we went to the middle sized stores. and then finally the large chains. and so we were able to get the east coast cleaned up out of grapes while cesar was directing the boycott on the west coast.
and guess what they did-- they went after the biggest chain. so while we were able to clean up the east coast of grapes, in the west coast, in california, they were still battling safeway, right? and so then i went out to california, and then i did the same tactic-- start with the small chains. and you know what i call that, maria? it's the difference between the way a woman thinks and the way a man thinks, right? >> hinojosa: because... >> well, because, you know, if it's a macho thing, you want take on the biggest one first, okay, and get them down. it's sort of the domino theory, right? and instead we did it just the other way. we started with the smallest stores and worked our way up. and so a lot of the differences in tactics that cesar and i had were kind of on those same lines. >> hinojosa: you actually... when you first met cesar chavez, it's not like you were completely floored by him. >> yes, cesar was a very quiet person. i mean, people think of him as a charismatic leader, but his strength is sort of an inner strength. it's... i might compare it to
something like the dalai lama, you know what i mean? you sense this inner wisdom, you sense this inner strength. he's got sort of a quiet... he was not a bombastic speaker. he told his story in very soft tones and very quiet tones. but the thing is cesar had strength. he was just so strong and so determined and so willing to sacrifice, you know, with all of the fasts that he did, his 25 day fast, and the last one for 36 days because of pesticides. and so when you met cesar right away you sensed this inner strength. but he was not, like, this, you know, huge, charismatic kind of a person, you know? >> hinojosa: so when you think about tactics, the tactics that you used... you know, again, if you want to study them, they're amazing, right? organizing, grassroots organizing, boycotting, nonviolence, strikes, fasting. put that into the context of our modern america. do these kinds of organizing
tools still work? >> oh, absolutely. they absolutely do work. but i think people have to have faith that they will work. and especially when you use any of the nonviolent tactics. because what you do is the people that are engaged in nonviolence, they really grow. and leadership is a process, you know? people talk a lot about to remember that leadership cannot be taught, it can only be learned. and it can only be learned by people that are actually going through the process of doing the things that you need to do to make something happen. you know, learning how to do... and i... well, the marches are important, but then you do the leafleting, the telephone calls, you know, meeting with people, explaining to them, winning them over to your side. and the process of when people actually do that, this is how they become leaders. and the nonviolent tactics are very, very important to make this happen. >> hinojosa: you know as a woman that women, in terms of the issue of leadership ,often have a hard time.
and you became... a part of who you ultimately became as a political being was a feminist, an outspoken feminist. what do you think about the fact that women oftentimes have this issue around, "well, what, you want me to be the leader," you know? "you want me to speak up?" i mean, they'll do it when there's action to be done. but women actually assuming leadership and power, i mean, this seems like something for you was not such an issue. >> well, i think i was raised by my mother, first of all, so i always saw women in leadership. >> hinojosa: and your mother was one tough cookie. >> well, actually, she was a very gentle woman-- never swore. >> hinojosa: but she wouldn't put up with a lot from men. >> that's true, that's true. and she was an entrepreneur. she was a businesswoman. she was always out there doing things. and women, you know, in our society, we're raised to be victims. because when we think of the animal kingdom, and we think, who are the strongest among the animal kingdom, is it the male
species or the women? it's always the female species, right? they're the strongest because they have to take care of the babies. but in our society, we are taught from the time we're little girls, "somebody's going to protect you, somebody's going to support you," you know? if we can change the way that our society raises women, then women know that they can be in the spotlight, and they can be the vanguard, and they can be out there in front of everybody else. but it's going to take changing the way that we educate our women not to be victims. >> hinojosa: i still find it fascinating, though, because again, this was the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. and for you, you were the head negotiator, representing the union, the workers, negotiating with these farm owners, powerful men. and there you were negotiating. and you're known as a very tough negotiator. so where did you get that, again, as a woman born in new mexico, from not a wealthy
family? you know, to be able to sit at that negotiating table and to make demands-- where did you find that kind of power to do that? >> well, basically because you knew that you were representing the workers, and that whatever you decided at that negotiating table was going to affect my committee, you know? they're the ones that gave me the proposals. i sort of represented them. but knowing that whatever we decided to on wages was going to be their take-home pay, whatever we negotiated in working conditions was going to affect them when they were out there in those vineyards or in those lettuce fields or in those citrus fields. so, you know, you were doing it for them. and i think that that's what kind of gives you the power. because when you're doing something for other people and trying to help other people, then it gives you kind of the motivation and the energy that you need. i think the struggle gives you energy. >> hinojosa: there are a lot of women who look up to you-- women across the board. latinas very specifically look
up to you as an icon, as a role model. i mean, i look up to you. you're 80 years old, you look amazing, you took a redeye, here you are doing what you have to do. but there is one thing in your life story, and you have an amazing life story, and every time i see you i think i always say to you, "wow, dolores, and you actually had 11 children along with it." you didn't spend a lot of time with those 11 children, though. >> no, i didn't. and of course that's one of the things that i think all of us who are active women, and we don't spend as much time with our children as we should... >> hinojosa: how do you manage that? how did you... the guilt, the... you know, i mean, did your kids come back to you and say, "mom, how come you weren't there," and... how did you manage that as a mom? >> well, my children kind of grew up in the movement, so they've sort of... the type of experiences that they had are experiences they never could have had in a traditional kind of a family. some of them went to jail with me, actually. you know, some were arrested. and they traveled all over the
country and had all these amazing, amazing experiences, which i think really... >> hinojosa: and did they... but (speaking spanish), did they say, "mom, don't go to that meeting, mom, don't go to that protest, mom, i'm tired of you supporting cesar chavez on his hunger strikes"? did they say that to you, your kids, or... >> well, actually they were with me in the marches, and, you know, in the boycotts. so they were part of the movement. they were really part of the movement. and, you know, i regret i wasn't able to give them what i had. i had a nice middle class upbringing. i had the dancing lessons and the music lessons and, you know, the nice clothes, and all the stuff that my children didn't have. that's the one thing i really regret. but they've grown up very strong. my oldest son's a doctor, my second son's an atrney. i have a son who's a chef, a daughter who's an emergency room nurse, a daughter who's a filmmaker, a daughter who's a teacher. and so they've all... and i have a son who's a poet, you know? but, you know, they've all grown up very, very healthy, you know? i have one daughter, my oldest
daughter, who is ill. she's schizophrenic, okay? but the rest of them, out of the 11, they came out pretty good. >> hinojosa: and i love the fact that you're so open about these things, dolores. you talk about the fact that you have a daughter who's schizophrenic. so mental illness is something that is right there for you. you talk about the fact that sexuality, gay and lesbian rights, are very important, because of members of your own family. we have a saying in spanish, (speaking spanish)-- "she doesn't have hairs on her tongue," which means that you speak the truth. is that also part of, kind of, your core being, that you're not afraid to take on these issues that may be taboo, that we're not supposed to talk about? >> well, i think that when you're trying again to work for social justice... and so we have to educate. and sometimes that education may be uncomfortable for people to hear. say women's right to choose, for instance. even though i have 11 children, i believe that women have the right to decide for themselves how many children they want to have. in terms of the lgbt issues, you
know, i like to always quote benito juarez when he says, (speaking spanish)-- "we have to respect other people's rights." and if people are gay or lesbian, i mean, that is their right. it doesn't affect your family at all. so why do we want to discriminate against people because they have a different sexual orientation? in fact, people get killed because they happen to be gay or lesbian. and that is wrong. and i think for women, just in general, when we talk about women feeling intimidated, and they feel like if they speak up they're going to be criticized, hey, that's okay. it's important that we speak up, even if we do get that criticism from other people. we have to consider that it's like a blessing. if you feel like you're doing the right thing and you're standing up for other people's rights, then if people criticize you... well, even like myself, when you talk about my children, a lot of criticism, because i wasn't the mother that i should have been to my kids in terms of giving them as much time, and dragging them all over the
country, and living in this terrible extreme poverty that we lived in. but, you know, it built a lot of character for them. and you have to be willing to take those criticisms. it's like, i guess, in the book about... the story of... >> hinojosa: don juan? >> don juan. when they said, "once you become a warrior, you have to expect that the arrows are going to be shot at you," you know? >> hinojosa: and so i recently saw you at an event. it was in washington, dc. there were a lot of politicians there. and senator john mccain was there. and i remember i walked up to you and i said, "so, dolores, did you see senator mccain?" and you said, "oh, yes. he came up to me to say hello." and you said to me that you looked senator mccain straight in the eyes and said, "i am very disappointed with you, senator," and that he then turned around and said to you... >> "i'm disappointed in you." >> hinojosa: and then you just kind of looked at each other, you didn't extend a hand, you
didn't... i mean, what... that takes a lot of chutzpah, right, to stand up for you and look straight ahead at a senator like john mccain and say, "i am disappointed in you." >> well, i think that one thing we forget, and this is one thing that we teach all of our people when we organize, politicians work for us. we do not work for them. we pay taxes, we pay their salaries, we have to make demands on them. and when they are not doing the right thing, we have to call it to their attention, right? i mean, and if people can remember that... because i think one of the things that we're missing in our democratic process is that yes, we want people to vote, but it's not enough to vote. we have to advocate, we have to stay on top of these people. because what happens is every politician gets a lot of pressure from the corporate world. i mean, they have their full-time paid lobbyists, they're right there in washington, dc, or they're in their home districts, whatever, always putting pressure on them. and we, the ordinary taxpayer and the ordinary voter, we think, "okay, i'm going to vote,
and i'm going to, you know, just expect that so-and-so's going to do the right thing." it doesn't happen that way. we have got to be... our numbers... you know, we have got to be on top of our legislators, whether they're state legislators or congressional people, and stay on top of them so that they can do the right thing. we saw that in the health care bill. you know, people that wanted, like ourselves, a public option, we didn't get it. but then when we think, what were people doing? were they contacting their legislators, were they sending them emails, or sending them, you know... on the telephone, or going to their offices to visit them? we have got to be on top of our representatives. >> hinojosa: it's as if you, with your 80 years of life and your 60-something years involved in the movement, it's as if you as an american citizen really believe that at its core american democracy means involvement. >> absolutely, absolutely. and especially now when we have a supreme court decision that says that corporations can spend an unlimited amount of money on
independent campaigns for candidates. oh, my goodness. we have to remember that the votes are the ones that really count at the end. >> hinojosa: but when people feel so powerless... and you know, dolores, that in these moments of so much turmoil, people can just feel completely powerless, and they're like, "look," you know, "why am i even going to, you know, call my local representative," or, "why am i even going to go to the polls," you say what about those people who just feel despair in terms of being... feeling represented in our democracy? what do you say to that? >> well, your vote is important. you are important. it's important that you get out there, that you call that representative, that you get your friends to do it. you know, get a few people together and just go down to that congressman or that state legislator's office and pound the table. i think we've seen an example... maybe this is not a good example, but the tea party movement, okay? i mean, this is what they're doing, basically. i may not agree with them on their values, or maybe even on their tactics, but the thing is that they are coming together and they're putting the pressure. and that's what we as ordinary citizens have to do.
because as i said before, the people in our united states of america are fair-minded people. and they want to do the right thing, but sometimes they don't have the right information, and they don't know what to do. it's our duty, actually. it's our civic duty. and i feel it so strongly, because i do believe in democracy, i do believe that we can change the laws like we did for the farm workers, right, to get them that cold drinking water and those rest periods, and get some of the pesticides off of our food, you know? and for women to get the right to vote, and get women elected, you know, to office. all these things. but we have to do it. if we can just remember that, that if we don't do it, it's not going to happen. we have a responsibility. >> hinojosa: dolores huerta, thank you for all of the work that you've done on behalf of so many working americans. we really appreciate it, and it's been an honor to have you on the show. >> thank you very much. continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone.
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