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Still an Activist at 82, Dolores Huerta Calls Herself ‘a Born-Again Feminist’

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In the 1960s, Dolores Huerta organized in the fields -- spearheading a national boycott of grapes and lettuce, and making decent pay and working conditions a reality for thousands of farmers. After receiving a Medal of Freedom Tuesday at the White House, Huerta spoke with Ray Suarez.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, honoring labor leader and activist Dolores Huerta.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: In the 1960s, she organized in the fields and spearheaded a national boycott of grapes and, later, lettuce. She co-founded with Cesar Chavez the United Farm Workers union, making decent pay and working conditions a reality for thousands of farm workers.

Yesterday, she stood along with a jurist, an astronaut, a musician, a writer, and others at a White House ceremony. President Obama put the Medal of Freedom around her neck, the nation’s top civilian honor, and paid her this tribute.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Without any negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide grape boycott that forced growers to agree to some of the country’s first farm worker contracts. And ever since, she has fought to give more people a seat at the table. Don’t wait to be invited, she says. Step in there.

And on a personal note, Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan, “Si, se puede,” “Yes, we can.”

(LAUGHTER)

BARACK OBAMA: Knowing her, I’m pleased that she let me off easy, because Dolores does not play.

(LAUGHTER)

RAY SUAREZ: Today, I caught up with Huerta, 82 years old and still working as an activist.

Dolores Huerta, welcome to the program.

DOLORES HUERTA, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient: And thank you for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: You’re someone who spent a big chunk of your life fighting, pushing back, in constant debate with the establishment. Does it take a little getting used to, to getting your country’s highest honor?

DOLORES HUERTA: Oh, well, that’s — it’s such a thrill, and such an honor.

And, at the same time, it’s a humbling experience because it’s on the backs of so many other people that were out there trying to get justice for farm workers, people that went to jail, people that were marching, people who died just trying to get the things that other people take for granted.

So, I feel that I get this honor on their backs, basically, because of all the things that they did to be able to just make life a little bit better for the people who feed us.

RAY SUAREZ: During the ceremony, the president said no one sets out to win this honor. No one has a plan to win the Presidential Medal.

You were a schoolteacher. How did you make the move to go to work for the people who give us our food, who get us our food?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, I got involved into community organizing, and actually doing voter registration, going door to door, came to the homes of some of these farm workers and saw that they didn’t even have any kind of wood or linoleum on their floors. Their furniture was orange crates, and their children were barefooted.

And I thought, this is wrong, because these people are working very, very hard out there, picking our food every day, and yet, they can’t even afford to live decently. And so that’s kind of when I made up my mind that I was just going to quit teaching.

Also, being in the classroom, and these children that were my in the classroom were the children of the Dust Bowl, so they’re Okie and Arkie kids, and they were coming in there also and kind of hungry and threadbare.

And when I — I would ask my principal, can I get a shoe voucher for them or some clothes vouchers or something? And he would say, oh, no, their families, they drink up all their money. They really don’t — this is why these people are poor.

And I knew that was so wrong. So, I thought, well, it’s better to just get out there and start organizing the farm workers. And I decided then to quit.

RAY SUAREZ: You have been at this a long time. It was 1960 when you co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association. You were already working in poor communities for years.

Was it still unusual for a woman to do this kind of work? Was there resistance to you doing it?

DOLORES HUERTA: Initially, a little.

But, actually, what I found out is that when people know that you’re trying to help them and that you’re sincere about it, that they respond. So I didn’t get as pushback as I thought. Actually, people were very responsive, and I was very fortunate.

I learned my organizing method from a gentleman named Fred Ross Sr. He is a person — also the one that taught Cesar how to organize. And we organized through a grassroots model where we would meet in people’s homes.

And, by the way, I’m still doing that same thing today with my foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation for community organizing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you say that once people realize you’re going to help them, they accept it. But you were doing things that women had never done before, negotiating contracts with the growers during the earliest days of the United Farm Workers.

Were they ready to do business with a woman?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, I think, again, it caught them off guard. They really didn’t know how to respond, because they couldn’t do the usual forceful type of thing.

And when you would bring up to them and show them the conditions that the workers were working under, and they were kind of embarrassed, actually. And I think it was a big advantage to be a woman to be able to do those negotiations. It made them feel guilty.

RAY SUAREZ: American history is full of great teams, great duos that have done great things. And, certainly, Cesar Chavez and yourself and the United Farm Workers, a legendary story, but in many ways, it was he who became the face of the movement, and not you.

Was that part of the plan?

DOLORES HUERTA: Actually it was.

Right at the beginning, Cesar — and he said, is this going to be all right with you? And I said, fine, because, actually, when one does this work, you’re not out there to get any kind of fame or fortune. You basically want to help people better their lives.

And so — and he did say, now that I remember, he said, OK, he said, one of us is going to have to be the spokesperson. Are you all right if I’m the spokesperson?

Of course, I said yes.

I also have to say, though, that now, as a born-again feminist, I could call myself, that I realize at some point that many of us in the civil rights movement were out there fighting for our people, but we were not fighting for our women.

And so, at some point, I said, look — I said, we have got to get more women to be involved, more women on our executive board, more women on our ranch committees. And Cesar and I actually discussed this, and he was OK with that. And he then started appointing more women to be field directors and other women to be negotiators.

But he was sensitive to the fact that we needed women to be the decision-makers also.

RAY SUAREZ: You have been beaten, severely beaten. You have been arrested two dozen times, gave a big chunk of your life to the cause, spent years on the road when your kids were little, made very little money along the way.

Are there any regrets when you take stock, when you look back over your shoulder, or are you still, at 82, still kind of that same woman with the microphone at the picket line?

DOLORES HUERTA: When we started organizing the farm workers, people would say, how are you going to organize the workers? They don’t speak English. They’re not citizens. They don’t have any money.

But we would say to the workers, you have power. And they would say, what kind of power do we have? It’s in your person. And it is in your person. And you, together with other people, other workers, you can make the difference. But you have to remember that nobody is going to do it for you. If you don’t get out there and try to solve your own problems, it’s never going to change.

And that same message applies to everyone. Every one of our segments of society that are trying to make positive change or fighting for social justice, this is what we have to do, come together, organize, push back, take that direct action, and then we can make the world a better place.

RAY SUAREZ: Dolores Huerta, congratulations. And thanks for joining us.

DOLORES HUERTA: Thank you.