Dolores Huerta: Labor Rights Icon on Standing up for Working People

with Dolores Huerta of the Dolores Huerta Foundation

Legendary organizer and activist Dolores Huerta grew up in an integrated community in Stockton, Calif. As a schoolteacher, she noticed that her students, many of whom were children of farm workers, were living in poverty. It was this realization that led Huerta to quit teaching and organize a path to create change.

In the 1950s, Huerta met Cesar Chavez. Together, they organized agricultural workers to demand better working conditions and higher wages and co-founded the United Farm Workers in 1962. More than 60 years into her activism, she continues to speak out as President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Huerta joins host Tetiana Anderson to reflect on her journey to transform labor rights in America.

Posted on:

February 28, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: Sí, se puede. Yes, we can. Obama: Yes, we can.

Anderson: Powerful words that helped propel President Barack Obama to the White House. But legendary organizer and activist Dolores Huerta, who coined the iconic phrase in Spanish, is known for much more than just that call to action. She's always been a champion for social justice, mobilizing farm workers with Cesar Chavez, advocating for the Hispanic and Latino community, fighting tirelessly for women's rights, and using her voice to make change. In 2012, she was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And more than 60 years into her journey as an activist. Dolores Huerta is still speaking out. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. In 1962, Huerta and fellow civil rights icon Cesar Chavez co-founded what would later become United Farm Workers, organizing laborers who were paid as little as 70 cents an hour, often in brutal conditions. By 1975, it's estimated the union had convinced 17 million Americans to stop buying grapes. Huerta's rallying cry of sí, se puede, continues to motivate movements for social change and justice today. And joining me now is Dolores Huerta.

Huerta: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: What really made you decide that your call was activism and not teaching, which is what you studied in college?

Huerta: Well, I had the good fortune of learning how to organize from a great organizer named Fred Ross Sr., who taught Cesar Chavez, myself, and many others how to do grassroots organizing, how to get the ordinary people to get involved, to get engaged, to become activists. And after I had learned that magic power that people have, then I saw that many of the children in my classrooms were -- They had malnutrition. They did not have adequate clothing. And so I decided, "You know, I'm just going to quit teaching, going to just do organizing and organize the parents so we can change these conditions."

Anderson: So, you talked about the issues that these farm workers were facing. What were they?

Huerta: Oh, they were horrendous. I mean, and not only were they not paid very much money, as you mentioned, they didn't have any type of unemployment insurance that all industrial workers have, no overtime. But I think the most terrible thing about the condition was that the employers did not respect their workers enough to give them a toilet, a porta potty in the fields. They were denigrated and insulted.

Anderson: So, I know that you worked very closely with Cesar Chavez on this, a well-known American labor leader, civil rights activist. What was that working relationship like for you?

Huerta: Well, it was very fulfilling. We were able to accomplish a lot, being able to get, again, these benefits that farm workers did not have that other workers had, like unemployment insurance and toilets in the fields, disability insurance, the right to organize into a union and to pass that legislation that really helped farm workers a lot. So, working with Cesar was very fulfilling, as I said, but sometimes, there were some tensions. I'll give you a good example. When we started the grape boycott, Cesar thought we should boycott potatoes. And I said, "Now, Cesar, when people think of potatoes, they think of Idaho. They don't think of California." So I finally convinced him that we should boycott the California table grapes instead of potatoes.

Anderson: You convinced 17 million people to stop buying grapes. It's an amazing feat. How did you do that?

Huerta: We had farm workers that went to Europe, farm workers that went to New York and Chicago and Texas and everywhere. And, you know, asking people just not to eat grapes and not to shop at the stores that carry grapes. And that was very, very successful. So in a year and a half, we got 17 million people not to eat grapes.

Anderson: You know, women's erasure from history is often something that does happen. And I'm wondering if you ever think that you were perceived as sort of being in his shadow, in some ways.

Huerta: It was difficult for me -- I think it is for many women -- to say, "Oh, no, I did this, and I want to get the credit for what I did, and I'm okay with taking the spotlight." It's been a path, I think, for myself and for many other women. But I think that is changing, because we see the young women of today that they are out there, they're in front, and they're taking the mic, and they're using their voices as loud as they can.

Anderson: You were arrested more than two dozen times, most recently in 2019. You were beaten by the police. How have those experiences really had a lasting impact on you and who you are?

Huerta: I was very fortunate to grow up into a very integrated community in Stockton, California. And so many of my friends were African-American, Asian, and some Anglos. And so we were a pretty integrated group growing up. But the police, it bothered them. They would always harass us and stop us, search us, et cetera.

Anderson: So, what happened with the police in 1988? I mean, describe the circumstances that surrounded the police brutality, the beating that you faced.

Huerta: Well, I was the unfortunate victim of a police beating in 1988. We were protesting the first Bush, elder Bush, who was running for the presidency at that time. He had a press conference in Fresno, which is right in the center of the Central Valley of California, the agricultural community, to say, "There's nothing wrong with pesticides. The government takes care of pesticides." Well, we know that's not true. So, he was going to be speaking in San Francisco at the St. Francis Hotel. We had a press conference saying, "No, he is wrong," and explained to them the harm that pesticides do. So we joined this huge rally against him at that point in time. That's when the United States was very deeply involved in Central America. It was a peaceful rally. People who had big signs like "U.S. out of El Salvador," "Bush Noriega, that's the ticket." And then the police moved in and started beating people up, and I was one of the victims of that beating. I had my ribs broken. My spleen was splattered. They couldn't even find it. It was pulverized. And I was disabled for a few months.

Anderson: So, you've led such important changes in earlier eras in this country. And we're in another massive era of change in this nation around everything from social justice to health equity to women's rights and equity and more. What do you make of the changes that we've seen thus far, and what do you think about the rate at which it's happening?

Huerta: We are in a very, very important and critical moment in the United States of America, even speaking about police. We have this awakening that is going on where people are being made aware of the -- how many, many people of color have suffered under the policies that we now have in the United States, in terms of policing, in terms of education, you know, so many, many areas -- housing. We can go on and on. But now I think there is an awakening. But we know this also has to be a reckoning, and some of these issues have got to be fixed.

Anderson: I think it's safe to say that, in many ways, you are well ahead of your times on many issues, when we're talking about intersectionality, when we're talking about LGBT rights. What do you think led to your passion for these values of inclusion?

Huerta: Well, all of these values are values of justice and human rights. And no human being should be discriminated because of their sex, because of their color, because of their sexual orientation. You know, but there is a third gender out there, and we just got to stop, you know, educating people so that people are not discriminated because of who they are. If someone is LGBTQ, if they fall in love with or marry someone of their own sex, that doesn't affect your life at all.

Anderson: Your phrase sí, se puede, yes, we can, inspired a whole movement of change for farm workers, but it later helped to inspire the election of President Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States. How did you feel when he adopted your phrase, and what did he tell you?

Huerta: Well, when I first met President Obama, he said to me, "I stole your slogan," and I told him, "Yes, you did." I'm really glad that it was useful to help him get elected in his campaign. And, you know, he did so much good work while he was the president.

Anderson: And I know that you're still working. You're still at it. You turn 92 in 2022. Tell us a little bit about your foundation. And what advice do you have for young people about how we can all get to the place where all of us can say, "yes, we did"?

Huerta: At our foundation, we're doing so much work. Right now, we're working a lot on education. We're working to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, and we're also working against COVID-19. We're doing vaccine clinics every weekend. We have canvasses going door to door to sign people up to get their vaccine shot. We're doing food banks, also, to bring people food. And of course, we also have a youth program, a civic action program where we're registering voters and getting people out to vote and informing people about the different propositions here in California. To every young person out there, in fact, everybody out there, that we really have to get involved in the elections, and we can do this by phone banking, by going door to door, by telling other people, by getting other people to register to vote, because democracy does not work by itself. It takes us to make it happen. So, yes, we can. Sí, se puede. Every one of us. Every one of us doing the work. Yes, we can.

Anderson: Dolores Huerta, thank you for all that you've done, all that you continue to do, and thank you for being here with us.

Huerta: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you very much.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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