Dolores Huerta, Co-Founder, United Farm Workers
Dolores Huerta, Civil Rights icon, discusses how she led a historic boycott against the grape industry to gain better working conditions for farmworkers.
Co-Founder, United Farm Workers
Dolores Huerta on how she led a historic boycott against the grape industry to gain better working conditions for farmworkers.
DOLORES HUERTA: I think the one thing that really kind of hooked me for life was going to the home of some workers who did not have linoleum or wood on their floor, only dirt. And yet these are people who are working. They're working very hard, and you know that this is wrong.
Growing up as a person of color, you just see so many injustices. As a teenager, you saw the way that I was treated, my friends were treated. And it just-- at some point you just wish that things were different.
Conditions in the fields were very bad. Farm workers are not respected at all, to the point that they didn't have toilets in the fields for workers. They didn't have cold drinking water. Workers were earning, like, maybe $0.75 an hour.
I said, Cesar, I think the only way that we can do this is if we boycott all California table grapes. And Cesar thought no, I think we should boycott potatoes because this particularly grower also had potatoes. And so I said, well, you know when people think of potatoes, they think of Idaho, they don't think of California.
Boycott grapes. Boycott grapes.
So we went ahead and started the grape boycott.
One of the tactics that we used very successfully is we got the chain stores to take the grapes out of the whole chain.
During the strike, there were times when my home was terrorized in the middle of the night, my windows broken when I'm there alone with my children. And we had shotguns and rifles aimed at us. When you're in the movement, when you're on this path for justice, you know that things are going to happen.
Within months we were able to win the boycott.
We, as women, that we've got to put big lights around our accomplishments, right, and around our ideas, and not feel that we're being egotistical when we do that because it's a way of letting the world know that yes, we as women can accomplish great things.
DOLORES HUERTA: At some point I remember being in a meeting of the United Farm Workers when all of the guys were just making sexist comments. And so I just started jotting down every time somebody made a sexist comment. And so at the end of the meeting Cesar would always say, does anybody else have anything they want to add to the agenda or anything to add to the meaning, and I just said, during the course of this meeting you, saying to the men on the board, have made 58 sexist comments. And of course they were shocked.
And no one said anything. But at the next meeting I kind of did the same thing. We forgot about it. And they ended up like with 23 sexist comments. So finally we got them down to five. And then the three. Of them maybe but then it was like they would come in the room and they would just be really careful about what they were saying. But I think it was important that we start-- we had to start from the top. So to speak.
DOLORES HEURTA: I believe that it's almost like natural that especially men will appropriate the work of women as theirs. And I think women, often, we don't think in terms of fighting for our ideas or fighting to make sure that our work is recognized. And again, when we think of the quote on quote team effort, it's kind of natural that we just give our ideas and give our work away and don't even think about how we put our name or our stamp on that work. We as women have to figure out a plan to make sure that we get credit for the work that we do.
DOLORES HUERTA: In the year 2006 on May 1st there were probably millions of Latinos marching around the immigration issue. And they were all chanting, Si, se puede, which in Spanish means, yes, we can. Well I originated that phrase. But everyone thinks that Cesar originated it, right? So I like to sometimes when I speak in front of a audience and especially Latino audience, and Si, se puede was originated by Dolores Huerta. And of course everybody laughs and claps when I say that. So-- but it's always a little awkward. But I think that it's also important for women to be able to take credit for the work that they do.
DOLORES HUERTA: So many of us think that we have to shower our children with so many material toys and benefits and things of this nature. And the most important thing is to give your children values and to teach them how to do things for others. From the time that they're growing up, that is again inculcated in them as children. And never ask your children do you want to go to a march, do you want to go to a demonstration or a picket line. Say to them we're going. Don't give them the chance to say no because even though they might complain, when they grow older, they'll be so thankful. And we want to give our children an inheritance of justice, right? Not jewels or property or money because they'll just fight over it, right? So the main thing to do is to give them this love for justice. And so that they can feel early on when they're young that they are part of a movement.
DOLORES HUERTA: I've got quite an arrest record. And that's for civil disobedience. You know. Civil disobedience. And actually most of the arrests though were just because we would go into the fields to talk to workers, and they would arrest us. And in fact, sometimes, we got arrested before we even spoke to the workers. You know, we just drive up to the fields, and then the police would just get us and arrest us.
I think everybody should go to jail some point in time. I think because when you're in jail, then you see people that are there that probably shouldn't be there. And I imagine now it's even worse than it was then.
DELORES HUERTA: I was raised with two brothers. And I think that made me think differently. I have an older brother, and I have a younger brother. So my mother, because she worked two jobs, you know, we were after the Depression when she was raising us. And so we were alone a lot. And so I did everything that my brothers did. I mean that was very natural to me. You know, we climbed the trees, and you know we played the Cowboys and Indians. And whatever my brothers did, I did. When they had their clubhouses, you know with all the boys, I was always been to the clubhouse because they needed a secretary, right? And so that was my brother's way of including me in everything that we did.
So it was kind of unusual for me to just see that women would just hang out with women. And that was novel to me.
DELORES HUERTA: During the grape boycott, while the farm workers went and they told stories. They went to churches, they went to union meetings. Community organizations. We passed thousands of leaflets on the street. I mean we would have in Grand Central Station, we were passing out like 20,000 leaflets a day. Grand Central Station, at the bus stops, at the theater district. Everywhere. We just blanketed the city with leaflets. We didn't have the money to pay for media. So we did it all with leaflets. And it was effective. And then farm workers would picket in front of the stores.
And we had like volunteers. We had schoolchildren in Long Island that would have their speakers bureau of junior high school kids that would go out to other schools and talk to other kids about the boycott. We had the teachers union that had a little video about boycotting the grapes by my young daughter, Juanita, was only like three years old. And she made a video saying boycott grapes. Right? So. I mean it was just, you know, just reaching everybody.
DOLORES HUERTA: I think the woman's moment really gave me the inspiration. I might say. Even though I did had this wonderful childhood with seeing my mother as a dominant figure of the family. Seeing this woman who was a business woman who could do so much, that was unusual. But then when I got into this other setting with farm workers, where women were more subservient, and it was different. It was very different for me. I almost had to kind of learn a role that I didn't-- I hadn't grown up with.
So when you saw people like Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda and people like that really getting out there in the front, it just made a tremendous amount of difference. It was-- it gave me like permission to be able to go out there, and not only be a leader in what I was doing, but to be able to put on that mantle, you know. And say I'm a leader.
DOLORES HUERTA: César Chávez and I started the Farm Workers Union. We had our constitutional convention for our union. And César was at the podium, running the meeting. And then he steps down from the podium and he says, did you get someone to nominate you for the vice presidency? And I said, no, I don't want to be an officer. I just want to serve.
And so then he said, well, you are crazy. You've got to get someone to nominate you right now. So I did, I went and got somebody to nominate me. And I think that was a typical mentality that women had and still have today. We have been so inculcated with this idea that we are the nurturers and the servers, that we don't think of ourselves as the leaders and the decision-makers. So that was something that I had to learn, that it's OK to be in a position of leadership, and in a position where you are giving orders and guidance to other people.
DOLORES HUERTA: I love to quote Benito Juarez who was the first indigenous president of the Americas, in Mexico. And he had this wonderful saying, that said, Respecting other people's rights is peace. Respecting other people's rights is peace. And I use that quote when I talk not only about women's right to choose, women's right to abortion, but also when it comes to women-- anybody's right about who they want to marry, who they want to live with, in terms of gay rights and lesbian rights. You know. Respecting other people's rights is peace.
DOLORES HUERTA: I was 25 years old. We wanted to pass this bill that would give people who were legal immigrants of the country their old age pensions. These are people whose children had gone to war, and so I went to see the assemblyman, and after I explained to him the bill that I wanted him to vote for, he threw his hotel key across the desk and said, come and see me at my hotel tonight if you want my vote. So I just stood up and walked out. I didn't even honor that with a response. I just stood up and walked out the door.
The sexual harassment was something that was prevalent. You just expected it to happen. I remember working and having to run around the desk every night. How could I get out of here without the boss trying to make a pass at me? Every single day, having to scheme, how am I going to get out of this office? And I think for younger women today, at least, we know that still happens. But now, at least women have a recourse-- somewhere that they can go to take care of a situation like this.
DOLORES HUERTA: Cesar and I both came out of this organization called the Community Service Organization. And Cesar actually didn't really pay very much attention to me. I was always following him around like a groupie, because I knew he was this great organizer. And he would just ignore me.
But then at one convention that I stood up and gave my report about we were trying to end the guest worker program of the time called the bracero program. And what I had done in my particular community to get 800 jobs for some of the farm workers that had been locked out because of the bracero program. Well, he was there, Mr. Fred Ross was there. Saul Alinsky from the Industrial Areas Foundation. They were all very impressed with my report.
Later on, when we were working together in Los Angeles, Cesar was organizing farm workers, and I had organized another group of farm workers in northern California. But both groups fell apart when we turned them over to their two other unions. So it was at that point that Cesar said, no, farm workers will never have a union unless we do it, unless you and I do it. And that was the beginning of the United Farm Workers.
DELORES HUERTA: I think we've got to change the way women are raised. And we're taught that we have to not get our little dresses dirty. That we can't be out there wrestling with our brothers. And our sisters. That we can't fight because that's not ladylike. And so as a result it just makes it so easy for us that we cannot defend ourselves physically, we can then be dominated and manipulated on the emotional level. On the psychological level. And then on the political level. And so we are not taught to be strong.
So that's why it's-- you know we think it's unusual then, which it shouldn't be unusual, that a woman can get out there and do things as well as a man can do.