‘Dolores’ tells the story of the fight for human rights, equality and an end to racism
Oct. 10, 2017
At 87 years of age, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta has been railed by critics, betrayed by friends and nearly beaten to death by law enforcement. But that hasn’t slowed her down one bit.
In the 1950s, there were few laws put in place to protect farm workers – and even fewer for immigrants. Huerta saw this, and worked with fellow activist Cesar Chavez to fight for labor rights and racial justice. The documentary “Dolores” chronicles her story, and aims to bring Huerta to light as one of the most important historical figures that history forgot.
Huerta has continued to make a significant impact on Arizona throughout her career. The 2010 ban of ethnic studies by then-Attorney General Tom Horne was justified by a speech Huerta made in Tucson, where Huerta claimed that, “Republicans hate Latinos.” When asked about her past remarks, Huerta told Horizonte that she believes “there’s a big problem with racism in the Republican Party.”
Jose A. Cardenas: Good evening and welcome to a special edition of "Horizonte".
Video: 90,000 people were poisoned in the fields of the United States of America.
Video: Farmworkers founded the whole idea of environmental justice.
Jose A. Cardenas: We'll talk to civil rights leader Dolores Huerta about a new movie on her life in the fight for farmworkers' rights in America. All this coming up straight ahead on "Horizonte."
Jose A. Cardenas: Dolores Huerta has dedicated her life to fighting for social justice for all and farmworkers' rights. She founded the united farmworkers union along with Cesar Chavez and she is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. "Delores" is a documentary that tells the story of her life and commitment to social change. It also highlights the role she continues to play as an activist and civil rights leader. This week, Huerta is in phoenix for the local premiere of the film.
Video: Dolores is an icon.
Video: She is a civil rights hero.
Video: She is the first general I followed into war.
Video: She's not afraid to speak truth to power.
Video: Dolores Huerta who is an old friend --
Video: The FBI knew how dangerous Dolores was.
Video: Dolores came up with the slogan si se puede.
Video: Yes, we can.
Video: You were a young girl growing up in America in the '40s. You must have had a dream.
Video: After I had seen the miserable conditions of farmworkers, Cesar Chavez said we have to organize a union. You had this ambience around you that you could really change the world.
Video: Beyond question the largest gathering on behalf of farmworkers in California history if that.
Video: I wish they would all come back to where they came from. We had no labor troubles.
Video: She did what needed to be done.
Video: She had a firm belief in what she's doing.
Video: We're never giving up.
Video: She infects you with it.
Video: 90,000 people were poisoned in the fields of the United States of America.
Video: Farmworkers found the whole idea of environmental justice.
Video: She's a very volatile individual.
Video: People wanted to see her in a more traditional role.
Video: I left a couple of my children behind. That's part of the sacrifice that we made. That we had to make. It's still pains me when I think about it.
Video: People in power have no idea of the true hero’s of this country.
Video: I would not have been able to see what's hidden in the fields of our country without Dolores.
Video: We're knee deep in sexism when it comes to why she isn't studied and why people don't know her.
Video: Latina girls need to see statues of you.
Video: We want to set the record straight. Women cannot be written out of history.
Video: Down with racism! Down with racism!
Joining me now is Dolores C. Huerta. Welcome back to "Horizonte." It's been a long time. I want to talk first about the making of the movie. The one thing that comes through from the director's comments evened in the movie several comments is that it's an attempt to set the historical record straight, to give you the credit you deserve for everything you've done, not just with farmworkers, but in other civil rights activities. What's your view of that?
Dolores C Huerta: I think there's a lot of people that were in the movement, in the farmworkers movement, we had five people who were assassinated just trying to get basic human rights for farmworkers. Nobody knows their names. And many people who were beaten, that went to jail, people who lost their homes during the strike and nobody knows their names either. So I -- I like to -- I like to really describe the film as historical moment where the farmworkers were the poorest and most discriminated people of all were able to reach their goals even with the opposition of powerful people like Richard Nixon, the president of the united states, the governor Ronald Reagan, the farm bureau fed. And yet the farmworkers won. With the help, of course, of the American public, just to get toilets in the fields and cold drinking water and relief periods and safety standards. So I believe that that's where the credit goes.
Jose A. Cardenas: That may be where the credit goes and is your style you are giving credit to others but the people who made the film emphasize it was important to tell your story. Luis Valdez says nearing the beginning you are the most vocal activist whose voice is really not heard, her story is not heard, and the producer talks about this almost deliberate erasure of your role and while we're talking about that, let's talk about the people who were involved in putting the movie together, beginning with Peter Bratt is the director, brother of the actor Benjamin Bratt.
Dolores C Huerta: And Carlos Suntan you who produce the film. It was his idea to make the film in the first place. They are the ones who are responsible for the film. I think the film, although it's a very historical document, and very entertaining, by the way, it's not boring, so we want people to see it, and don't think you are going to get bored because you're not and it's also relevant to what's happening in today's world.
Jose A. Cardenas: I do want to get your thoughts on your view whether we have made any progress over the last many, many years of your career. But let's talk about the story that it does tell, beginning with your involvement in the organizing movement. You started your career as a teacher.
Dolores C Huerta: Yes.
Jose A. Cardenas: Then you were drawn to activism. Tell us about that.
Dolores C Huerta: Well, as a teacher I saw the conditions of the farmworker children in my classrooms. I went to doors registering voters. I saw families where they had cardboard furniture and orange crates where they kept their clothes. They had no type of linoleum. Only dirt floors in their homes. You saw children that were malnutrition. And knowing how hard these farmworker families worked, to see the conditions they were having to live in I thought that was something we needed to do something about. And since I had learned from organize -- some organizing skills from the great Fred Ross sr. --
Jose A. Cardenas: That was with CSO.
Dolores C Huerta: Community service organization.
Jose A. Cardenas: You were an organizer there and so was Cesar Chavez. That's how you met.
Dolores C Huerta: I was a volunteer organizer. And Mr. Fred ross, who was the one who organized me and also organized PESA, later I was able to meet Cesar. The one thing we had in common was the condition of farmworkers and felt something had to be done about that and probably the best thing was to organize a union.
Jose A. Cardenas: Sentiment he had, and I think you agreed, was it wasn't going to be done through CSO. You needed to form your own union.
Dolores C Huerta: Actually we wanted to go through CSO but at the board meeting they had they voted us down and voted not to support an organization of farmworkers. Initially that was the plan, to go through CSO, to make it like a pilot project within the community service organization but when we had our convention they voted against us.
Jose A. Cardenas: One of the themes in the movie is your role, the role of women, overall in the movement. But particularly at your level, and we showed some pictures while we were talking. You're the only woman in the room.
Dolores C Huerta: Yes, that was at the board level and unfortunately we know -- we have so many boards throughout country and we have so many country -- countries that do not have women in leadership, and i do very strongly believe that we do have to have women in leadership. In fact, i like to say if they're making an important decision and there are no women in the room they're going to make the wrong decision. That's how important I think women's voices are.
Jose A. Cardenas: What was that experience like for you, at least the perception of the Mexican culture as it is very machista, male centered, and the pictures just show you five and six or seven or eight other men in the room in the decision-making roles. What kind of prejudice did you encounter?
Dolores C Huerta: Well, among the farm workers not that much because I had been a founder and I had been an initial organizer of the farmworkers so I got a lot of support. Where I got the pushback was from a lot of the leadership in the union, from the other men leadership, because they would either try to take credit from my work or prevent from doing what I thought I needed to do, and they were trying to undermine we often with Cesar. One of the things, Cesar had a lot of faith in my work and so we worked well together. I think that's an ongoing thing opinion the machismo is not limited to the Latino community, as you know. We can see that by our last election. We saw the most qualified woman probably in the united states who lost to a man not as well qualified, Hillary Clinton. The so the the machismo is very deep in our society as is racism, homophobe yeah, bigotry, all these isms that infect and poison our society.
Dolores C Huerta: While there weren't that many women in leadership roles in the union, there were a lot of women involved in the union itself and something that Cesar appreciated, your ability to get them involved. How hard was it to get the women involved in the movement?
Actually when the strike started, it started in the grapes and 50 percent of the workforce in the grape fields was women. So that was just a natural evolution that women are the ones that manned the picket lines and in the marches and cesar's wife helen chavez, and her sisters, were all grape workers. While we were forming the organization, Helen Chavez worked in the fields to help support the organization. So we had a lot of women you might say were the worker bees of the organization, but they were not at the board level.
Jose A. Cardenas: One of the comments made by the directors is that you were a feminist as a child and tribute that in part to your mother who was a business woman.
Dolores C Huerta: Right. My mother was a dominant person in our family because she divorced my father and she made the decision, she was a strong member of the community in terms of always contributing and making decisions for the community. She started the first Mexican-American chamber of commerce in Stockton, California. So she was a leader in the community. A very quiet person, but also very effective.
Jose A. Cardenas: One of the comments that was made is that the movie intends to show your life, warts and all. And I presume one of the warts that they're referring to is the fact that you sacrificed a lot with respect to your own family. That was shown a little bit in the trailer. You had 11 children. Have 11 children. But you weren't able to spend much time with them, and they talk about the -- their pride in you, but the pain that that caused.
Dolores C Huerta: Well, I think that all of us mothers, you know, that is the one thing we always worry about, especially working mothers, especially single mothers, who is going to take care of our children. That's something every single day we wake up, is my child going to be okay while i go to work and earn a living for my family. To me that called for a great need we have in the United States to have early childhood education so that we know our kids are safe while mothers are working and obviously my children had to sacrifice more than other children. They weren't able to have a nice middle-class upbringing that I had because my mother was a business woman. My children were very deprived of a lot of things kids take for granted. But, on the other hand, they grew up very, very strong. And I -- I know we do have this worry when they ask, how are we able to do that. I say, you have to ask for help. I had so many people help me with my children. I had my mother, my aunts, my cousins, neighbors. Everybody that I could possibly find to help me take care of my children while I did all of this work. Then I took my children with me. I took my children to New York with me. I took them to Chicago, to San Francisco. Any --le as many as I could take with me I would.
They do talk about the positives that came from that. The movie itself is really a history of the United States during this time period. There are a lot of historical figures who appear. One segment shows you standing next to Bobby Kennedy the night that he was assassinated. Tell us about your relationship with him and the impact his death had.
Dolores C Huerta: Well, Robert Kennedy was a great supporter of the united farmworkers, as he was with the African American community, the people with Appalachia. He had that ability to go down and really connect with the poorest people of all, and having worked with Bobby Kennedy, it also really made you realize there were people out there that were very powerful people that really cared about the poorest of the nation like the farmworkers. Unfortunately, as the movie shows, we did lose him, but there is one line in the movie, I am going to be a spoiler, where he says, just before he gets killed, he says "we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens," as he was accepting the fact he had won the California primary, was probably going on to win the presidency of the United States and those were his last public words, "we have a responsibility to our citizens." that to me is what the movie is all about, the responsibility we have to our fellow citizens, be they homeless, mentally ill, farmworkers, you know, people that are disabled. We all have a responsibility, and we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens to make our country a better country, you know, to get involved in voting, get involved in campaigns, making sure that we elect progressive candidates that are going to really work for the people and not work against the people, taking care of our environment, you know, getting rid of the racism in our society and the misogyny. I think we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens.
Jose A. Cardenas: Of course, the other significant death in the movie is that of Cesar Chavez. Many people expected that you would become the leader of the union after he passed away but the executive committee or council decided otherwise.
Dolores C Huerta: Well, I was part of that council. Unfortunately, the movie does give a misinterpretation because I chose not to run for the presidency of the farmworkers union.
Jose A. Cardenas: There is -- the suggestion is you thought it would be harmful to the you know you know because of all the distractions your presidency might cause –
Dolores C Huerta: It wasn't so much -- again, the movie they take things out of context. The one thing, I was 63 years old when Cesar died and I felt that we had to pass on the presidency of the organization to a younger person, you know, to be able to take the organization forward, because leadership is something that you cannot pass on. It's got to be lived. You've got to go through the trials. You've got to go through the tribulations. You've got to be able to have that emotional fortitude. You got to live that. That's why I wanted to advocate for a younger person. The other thing, I was very involved in the feminist movement. At the time Cesar Chavez passed away, I had taken a leave of absence.
Jose A. Cardenas: You had gone to New York --
Dolores C Huerta: I had gone to Washington DC Actually. We were trying to get more women to run for office. In California we changed the state legislature in 1992 and in that one year we got more women elected to the state legislature, more women of color ever than in the history of California and Cesar knew I was doing that important work. He totally supported what I was doing. But then I felt if I took the presidency of the union, number one, I felt it should go to a younger person. Number two, I would not be able to do the feminist work that I had to do. Unfortunately -- and there were some squabbles after Arturo Rodriguez got elected because there were other people that also wanted to run for the presidency and so there were some internal fights that we had within the organization, and I think that the movie kind of gives the wrong impression during that period.
Jose A. Cardenas: So Gloria Steinem appears several times in the movie and says she was afraid of you.
Dolores C Huerta: Yeah, I could understand why. I love Gloria Steinem and I didn't think I was a very fear some person.
Jose A. Cardenas: But you went on to take an important role in feminist politics. How would you assess the impact that you had, the efforts you just mentioned about trying to get more women elected, the farmworkers -- kind of your body of life work, how do you look at it now? What do you see as the accomplishment?
Dolores C Huerta: Well, as an organizer I see the accomplishments, they have to be measured by the kind of leadership you create. As an organizer your job is to go out and create community, create leadership, and so I can say I can measure my life by the how many people I feel I was able to get to step into leadership roles and to go on and to organize other people. I think that's the way I want my life measured, how many communities were able to organize, how many communities were able to get on, to take on the issues in their community, and know that they have the power to do it. This is why people say, why don't you retire? You're 87 years old now.
Jose A. Cardenas: You're still out there organizing.
Dolores C Huerta: Isn't it time to take a rest? No, we can't. There is so much work to do. We have so many places, especially our low income people, especially people of color, that need to be taught those skills of organizing so they know they have the leadership within themselves but they have to step up and we have to give them the skills to show them how they can correct issues in their community. They may not have a college degree or even a high school degree but they have the intelligence to be able to go and run for a school board, run for city council, run for a water district. You know, be able to make policy differences in their own community to make --
Jose A. Cardenas: And speaking of people who were involved in the farmworkers union and with you and who have gone on to some of these other positions, Raul Grijalva, congressman from Arizona, is featured in the film as well. What's your relationship with him? What do you think he has been able to accomplish in congress that's consistent with what your message is?
Dolores C Huerta: Congressman Grijalva is co-chair of the progressive caucus, and Raul really stands up for many of the ideals I believe. We know he has been a leader when it comes to the whole issue of climate change and the environment. This is one of congressman Grijalva's big contributions while he has been in the congress. He is a person that has stood up to also -- he has become a big and influential voice for civil rights, for all people of color in the United States.
Jose A. Cardenas: And he is not the only Arizonan featured in the movie. Some others are there, and not -- our former attorney general, superintendent of public instruction Tom Horne is there and that covers in the flap covered in some detail in the movie when you visited a -- when you said republicans hate Latinos.
Dolores C Huerta: Actually, that statement came about because the students -- there were two high schools together, but they had had a walk-out. What I was saying to the students, I said, you don't have to walk out again. They had walked out once in protest. I said you don't have to walk out again. Stay in school, and what we can do is send a little postcard to John McCain, for example, the republican senator from Arizona.
Jose A. Cardenas: So it was a question.
Dolores C Huerta: It was a question that came out -- in the movie it came out republicans hate Latinos. But it was a question, why to republicans hate Latinos? Now i'm saying it's a prophecy because of everything that's happening in California, Pete Wilson, republican governor of California, took away affirmative action. He took away bilingual education.
Jose A. Cardenas: Proposition 187.
Dolores C Huerta: Proposition 187, which is like a 1070 law. Then here we have Donald Trump making all these -- insulting Mexicans, insulting a judge because he was of Mexican descent. It goes on and on. And there is a big problem of racism, I believe, in the republican party.
Jose A. Cardenas: Is it worse now?
Dolores C Huerta: Well, it's very overt now. I think it's always been there. Like with Pete Wilson. But now it's right out in the open. As al sharp ton says, they've taken often the hoods and put on the suits. It's very, very visible. But in some ways I think it's good. As an organizer, I say it's better now that we can see and the faces of the racists coming out and acknowledging the racism with the alt-right and white nationalists and neo-Nazis. They're acknowledging they're racist. I say, this is a cancer and a poison in our society, and it's time that we did something about it, and so we've got to get into every single school, starting with kindergarten. What the contributions of people of color, the Native Americans whose land we took and never compensated them. The African slaves that built the white house and the congress and many of the buildings in Washington D.C. The Mexicans and the Filipinos and the Chinese and people from India that were brought in to build the railroads and build the bridges and build the infrastructure of this country. That is not taught in our schoolbooks. That's why we need ethnic studies. So our children of color will have the dignity that they deserve to know what their ancestors have done. And our white children will also have that knowledge so they can realize that if you're white, that doesn't make you any better than anybody else. You know, you're just like everybody else. Reminding everybody we only have one human race, and that's homo-sapiens and our human race came from African, which means we're all Africans.
Jose A. Cardenas: Another element of the movie that comes through clearly is you as a role model. You received a number of awards, recognitions, including from the president of the United States. We have some video we're going to show here. And one of the awards you received you got a $100,000, no strings attached, and you didn't keep it for yourself.
Dolores C Huerta: That's what I used to start my foundation with because I believe that's what we need to do. We need to continue organizing people at the grass roots level, teaching them that they have power, and the only way you can do that is by having organizers go into community and those organizers we have to pay them so that they can support their families while they do this organizing work.
Jose A. Cardenas: Another topic of the day that I would like to get your thoughts on, on this situation with daca students. What can we do there?
Dolores C Huerta: I think that the daca students are going to stay here. I'm making that prediction.
Jose A. Cardenas: You think the dream act will pass?
Dolores C Huerta: I think that the dream act will pass. I think that what the president is doing is trying to build that border, build that wall between Mexico and the United States, and I would like to say to the president, you want to build a wall, use the map of 1848, and you can start that wall in Oregon.
Jose A. Cardenas: When most of the southwestern United States was part of Mexico.
Dolores C Huerta: Exactly. You would have to give California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado --
Jose A. Cardenas: I have seen those maps, and they also say Mexico will pay for that wall. Let me just comment on a couple of other things. One, there are some light moments in the film, some interesting tidbits about you. One is your love for jazz.
Dolores C Huerta: Yes. I love jazz. And I always say my claim to fame is I met Charlie parker and I knew Dizzy Gillespie.
Jose A. Cardenas: You continue to pursue that hobby.
Dolores C Huerta: Mostly by listen to jazz. In Bakersfield we do have -- it's known for country music but we have a lot of jazz musicians. We have a jazz workshop. It's free. It's open to the public they bring in musicians from everywhere. A couple weeks ago we had a group from New York city that played there. It's kind of fun. No matter how tired I am, if I leave the office and I’m exhausted, I go down to the jazz workshop.
Jose A. Cardenas: So you truly have led a wonderful and fully rounded out life. Thank you so much for joining us on "Horizonte" to talk about it. Good luck on the movie.
Dolores C Huerta: Thank you for having me.
Thank you for joining us for this special edition of "Horizonte" tonight. For "Horizonte" and Arizona PBS, I’m Jose Cardenas. Have a good evening.
In this segment:
Dolores Huerta: Political Activist
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