Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan

S2 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta is an American labor leader and civil rights activist who, along with Cesar Chavez, is a co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association. In this episode, she sits down to talk about her life's work and her ongoing activism.

AIRED: October 26, 2021 | 0:26:13
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TRANSCRIPT

In order to end the systemic racism

that we have, income inequality,

the homophobia, I think it all comes down

to two things really--

education and civic engagement,

and when you put that together,

it kind of sounds like democracy.

Corrigan: People have been organizing for change

for forever.

Movements for and against war,

for and against prohibition,

birth control, gay marriage,

minimum wage, voting rights, police reform.

The need for equity, which a 5-year-old

would just call fairness,

is deep and persistent and totally predictable.

Anyone who has raised kids or managed a team knows

that whatever you do for one you must do for the others.

Dolores Huerta is one

of our country's experts

in making things more fair.

The mother of 11 children,

the partner of Cesar Chavez,

a role model for Gloria Steinem and President Obama,

she has much to teach us

about how change happens in America,

in her case for millions of people doing

the invisible, back-breaking, essential work

that feeds our country.

I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More,"

and here is my conversation with one of the world's

most effective living activists--

Dolores Huerta.

Dolores Huerta, welcome to "Tell Me More."

Thank you.

So I've been studying you

for a while now, and I see

this connection between somebody

like Greta Thunberg or AOC

or the movements in Me Too

or Black Lives Matter or the Women's March.

I think there are a set of things

that your life can tell us...

Mm-hmm.

about how a successful movement works.

Mm-hmm.

You have to keep a superdeep connection

to the people at the heart

of the movement. Mm-hmm.

How do you think about your choices

to be close to the people?

When we started to organize farmworkers,

we came to the conclusion that the reason

that the prior organizing attempts had failed

is because organizers would come into an area,

they would have these strikes,

sometimes people would get killed,

and then they would leave,

and the farmworkers were stuck

with the consequences of their actions,

so one of the decisions that we made was,

no, we had to be there with the workers

and let them know that we weren't going anywhere,

that we were gonna stay there with them.

We met with people in their homes

family by family, and we did this for 3 years

before we ever had that first strike.

It's such grueling work.

Like, nobody would need healthcare benefits

and a pension more than a farmworker.

I'm sure I've never worked a day

that hard in my life, much less decades.

It would be wonderful if everybody could work--

ha ha--go out there into the fields

a couple of days of their life

to see how physically taxing it is.

You almost have to be like an athlete

to be able to go out there and work in the fields.

I remember when I started organizing

that the employers would say,

"Oh, we do the public a favor because we hire

these degenerates," and as you may know,

they weren't even providing bathrooms

in the fields for the workers.

These are workers that are picking the food

that is going to be put on a truck

and go to your supermarket.

I mean, they're feeding the whole country.

The whole country, and yet they didn't even have

the basic necessities that they needed

like cold drinking water in the hot sun, you know,

and of course, the other basic things like

rest periods, unemployment insurance,

the right to organize.

So they were pretty much at the bottom of the barrel.

Somehow, Robert Kennedy when he was running

for president got really interested

in the farmworkers. Mm-hmm.

[Cheering and applause]

Want a union they have said,

and that voice must be heard.

Corrigan: And then you started to really

help his campaign, and you two were

side by side the night that he was shot.

I feel like I read somewhere that you had

a lot of guilt after that.

Well, I felt very guilty because when I was escorting

Senator Kennedy and Ethel, his wife,

to the podium we were going through the kitchen,

and he stopped, and he went,

and he shook hands with everybody,

and then I thought to myself,

"He shouldn't be doing that.

That is very dangerous for him to do that."

My thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago,

and let's win there.

Thank you.

Huerta: And after his speech, somebody pulled out a mic,

and I thought, "Oh, my God.

That could have been a bomb,"

and to think that here it was the candidate

running for the presidency, and he had no security.

Right, and obviously, it's post-JFK, post-MLK.

And I--I didn't say anything because I thought,

"If I say something, I'm just going to ruin

the moment," the moment

that he was going to win California

and he was gonna be the next president

of the United States of America,

and I didn't say anything.

Woman: The maitre d' reported that

Senator Kennedy had been shot.

Man: He's been shot?

That's right.

Huerta: And so for many, many decades,

I felt so guilty for that moment

because I didn't speak up.

And when you went to bed that night,

did you think, "I can't do this anymore,"

or, "I can--I'll never stop doing this"?

We knew that when we lost Robert Kennedy

we lost a great friend,

but the work had to continue,

and so we really can't afford to ever have that notion

even enter our minds that we're going to quit

or that we're going to stop because--I like to quote

Cesar Chavez, who always said,

"The only time you lose is when you quit."

I know that we've had some big setbacks

after the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties,

but I think that now there's a new awakening

in our country. Hmm.

And people are seeing-- I think a lot of it

has to do with the social media.

People can mobilize very instantly as we've seen

with the Black Lives Matter movement,

the Me Too movement,

the environmental justice movement,

and then the other thing, too, is of course

teaching science because when we talk

about global warming,

we talk about women's reproductive rights, you know,

a lot of this is science-based,

and that has to be definitely stepped up.

Speaking of women's rights,

you were once pro life,

and now you're pro choice?

Well--

I always think it's so interesting

when people change their minds.

I'm a Catholic, and I have 11 children.

Let's just pause there.

Yeah. Heh! 11.

And then the idea that somehow

you should keep having children forever--

heh--and of course, when I met Gloria Steinem,

that was the first time that I ever had

that idea challenged, and at the same time,

I was struggling because I was seeing

the visible, again, biases and discrimination

against women,

and so I had that awakening in my own life

to realize that, "Oh, you know, women

"can never really go forward unless they have

control of their own bodies."

Yeah.

And so you might say I became a convert

to reproductive rights,

and of course, I owe this to Ellie Smeal

and to Gloria Steinem because they're the ones

that, you might say, showed me the way.

So that's another thing that a great movement needs

is a coalition.

So when you met Gloria Steinem,

she started opening your eyes to--

if there were a Venn diagram

of all the things you were trying to do

for farmers and all the things

she was trying to do for women

and all the things that other people were

trying to do for the environment,

that those circles, the overlap was

much greater maybe than you had noticed before.

How--how powerful is it to develop a coalition

that's broad, that's all moving

towards these sort of meta goals

of fairness and rights?

Well, it's extremely important,

and if movements can work together

to make this happen, we can accelerate the process

of social justice and fairness.

I think that you might be the world's expert

in something that everyone is trying

to figure out right now,

which is how do we make things more fair?

Oh, I think it's easy.

I should say I think the answers are easy.

How to get there of course is more difficult,

but in order to end the systemic racism

that we have, income inequality,

the homophobia,

the climate deniers, all of this,

I think it all comes down to two things really--

education and civic engagement,

and when you put that together,

it kind of sounds like democracy.

We do not teach the real history

of the United States and even of the world

in our classrooms.

A teacher once asked me-- a teacher--

"Why do they have all of these Spanish names

in California"... Heh.

"for cities and streets?"

I said, "Because it was part of Mexico."

Right. Well, you're famous for saying

that "We didn't cross the border.

The border crossed us."

And exactly, and we can say that we

were here before the United States

was the United States of America,

and that applies, I think, to all

of the indigenous people of the continents

of North America and South America.

One of the things I love to say,

especially to students when I speak to them,

is to remind everybody that we are one human race.

And it started in Africa.

Exactly! That's what I like to say.

You brought up the idea of building

the self-esteem of the group

that you're working for such that they

come to believe that they're

beautiful and worthy,

and then I saw somewhere where one

of your daughters said, "Brown is ugly,

and poor is bad," and I wondered

what your insights are over time

about how to feel good about yourself

in a culture that doesn't want you to.

If people understand where these types

of discrimination-- what the source is,

where they're coming from,

then they can deal with them.

There's nothing wrong with them.

There's something wrong with society,

and we have to let them know that

they are worthy, that they're valued

and not only that but that they have a place--

an important place in society

because oftentime, people feel, "Well"--

when we talk about voting and civic engagement

"Well, that's not for me.

That's for the politicians out there,"

but then we have to say to them

"No. You have a place.

"You are an important part of making justice happen,

"contacting your schoolboard,

"your city council, your supervisor,

"your legislature, your congressmen.

"This is part of a responsibility

that you have."

At some point, you have to believe

that if you participate there will be payoff,

so, like, as a woman when the Me Too thing

was happening, it was--I kept thinking

there are so many women who have been keeping

these secrets for all these years

because they think, "They're not gonna

believe me anyway,"

and so you have to somehow sustain

your belief that it will matter.

When we organize people, we break them up into groups.

"What is it that you need to get fixed

in your neighborhood?"

And they write them all down,

then they have the vote of priority,

and then they have to make an action plan

on how to make it happen, and then they do.

They do the work,

and then once they see "It works, you know,

"we did this, and what did we get?

"We got a neighborhood park.

We got our streets and our gutters paved."

Now this is, you might say, democracy in action

because they are learning by doing.

Another thing that a great movement needs

is a great rally cry,

and you came up with perhaps, like,

the best rally cry of the last hundred years.

[Chanting, "Sí se puede"]

Cesar Chavez was-- you know, he did 3 fasts,

the first one for nonviolence,

the second one it was actually in Arizona.

When I was asking these Latino professionals

"Can you come down and join us?"

And they said to me, "You can't do that

"in Arizona.

Only in California. No se puede,"

and my response to them was "Sí se puede"--

ha ha ha--"in Arizona,"

and that evening when I went back

and we told the people at the rally

that we had every night that I had responded

"Sí se pued"--everybody jumped on their feet,

and they started clapping "Sí se puede."

[Crowd chanting, "Sí se puede"]

And then it came out through Barack Obama

in "Yes we can." Yes.

And then there was kind of a great moment,

where you were given the Presidential

Medal of Freedom, and he copped

to the steal.

Obama: Dolores was very gracious

when I told her I had stolen her slogan,

uh, "Sí se puede," "Yes we can."

[Laughter]

Uh, knowing her, I'm pleased that

she let me off easy because...

[Laughter]

because, uh, Dolores does not play.

[Laughter]

But I was so grateful for that--for that--

getting the Medal of Freedom because,

number one, it came on the backs

of so many of the farmworkers

that, you know, were beaten, lost their homes,

went to jail.

You were almost killed.

Yes.

It was a totally peaceful protest,

and a police officer beat you so badly

that you had internal bleeding

and you had to have your spleen removed?

My ribs were broken, also,

and he hit me from the back.

Physically, it was very taxing

because I couldn't do anything.

So I had to wait to get well to be able

to start working again.

And you need to work.

Oh, yes. Yeah. We have so much work to do. Mm-hmm.

Another thing that an organization needs

is to be conscientious not to become

the aggressor, and you and Cesar Chavez

said from the jump, "No violence."

What does a movement lose when it turns

to violence?

Well, the one thing you lose is support.

We knew from the very beginning

when we started the Farmworkers Union

that we were going to use the philosophy of nonviolence

and follow the teachings of Gandhi.

Of course, Dr. King was doing the same thing

in the South because we were organizing

at the same time, and we said

right at the very beginning, "Don't be afraid

because we are not trying to do this in a violent way."

One thing that every great movement needs

that you guys exemplified as well as anyone

is leaders who are willing to engage

in healthy debate. Mm-hmm.

So you and Cesar Chavez argued a lot.

Yes, we did. Ha ha ha!

Talk about that.

I think that it's the way that women think,

which is different sometimes than the way that men think,

and so sometimes, I would see a thing

in a different way than Cesar would see it,

and then we would duke it out,

and sometimes, I won

like boycotting grapes instead of potatoes.

Tell me about that.

Well, Cesar thought that we should

boycott potatoes, you know,

for this big boycott that we're going to launch,

and I said to Cesar, "No. When people think

"of potatoes, they don't think of California.

They think of Idaho," and it was interesting

because I was in New York City,

he was back here in California,

and so I said to Cesar, "This is such

"an important issue that I think

"I should fly back to California,

and we can talk about this in person,"

but he didn't want to pay--he didn't want to pay

for the airplane ride back to California,

so he gave in on that one.

And he gave in a lot.

I mean, both of you kept returning

to each other after battle.

Oh, yes.

Like, there was easy repair between you.

You know, he never went to high school,

but he was very, very brilliant,

very, very smart, and he always surrounded

himself with people that he thought

would be smarter than he.

It was great to work with him

because he always had an open mind

and was always willing to listen.

How much of a thing was it

that you were a woman and a mother of 11?

Somebody asked Cesar, "Why do you have

so many women?"

Because we had women running our clinics,

we had women running field offices, you know?

He said, "It's easy. They do the work."

OK. So a great organization needs

women, and it needs women at the table.

So the United Farmworkers had tons

of women in the organization

as you described, but you were

the only woman in all the, like, team photos.

Mm-hmm. Why?

That was part of my feminist awakening

when I realized "Wait a minute.

"This is not right. I'm the only woman,"

and then there came a time where I was having to

kind of struggle with some of the male leadership

in the organization.

People had reported this to me,

that "They're telling Cesar that you're crazy."

Like when we fought for the amnesty bill

in 1986, people kept telling Cesar

"She doesn't know what she's doing,"

and everybody thought it was impossible,

and of course, we were able to make it happen.

Mm-hmm.

By the way, by the time Cesar passed away

in 1993, we had, like, I think, 4 women

on the executive board, so it did happen.

And there was also another thing

that it seems like you grew into,

which was letting your name be associated

with the work, like letting people

herald your leadership,

and you sort of resisted that

for quite some time.

What made you change your mind?

I think I did it more for the other women,

realizing that if I'm not going to stand up

and take recognition for the things that I do,

then other women are not going to do that either.

We have to do this.

We have to take credit for the work that we do

because then we inspire other young women

to do the same thing because otherwise

we fall into that societal pattern

that we are just as women born to accommodate men

and to serve men and to serve other people

and not take care of ourselves and serve ourselves,

so in fact, what I say to women when I speak

when you're trying to aspire for another position

or an opportunity and you think,

"Well, maybe I don't quite have the proper education,

or I don't have the experience,"

just do it like the guys do--

pretend that you do and learn on the job.

So if there's one thing about "Tell Me More,"

that comes out in every show

is that people are affecting one another,

and we love putting that on display,

so we have this segment called Plus One.

It's about laying bare the truth

that one life leads to another,

so will you tell us

about your Plus One Delia?

Delia--I met her when she was a young woman.

She was the first Latina legislator in Kansas.

When she left the legislature,

she got her assistant to run for her seat,

and then she was elected,

and she came back to Kansas and was appointed

the secretary of labor for the state of Kansas.

We wanted to share with you what she

had to say about you.

Delia Garcia: When I was going to college

is when I learned of Dolores Huerta

in one of my women's studies courses.

I was like, "Oh, my God. She's amazing!"

But it made me very mad that I didn't learn

about her in middle school or high school,

and as Dolores Huerta was serving as my mentor,

it made me extremely frustrated

that people did not know who she was,

and so I made it a point every time we went

into a setting where some didn't,

I would absolutely take the time

"This is Dolores Huerta.

"She is a giant civil rights icon,

who was woke before it was cool,"

and, you know, always making sure

people knew who she was.

Now they have a movie, now that she's in books,

Schools are named after her.

Just like there's Cesar Chavez Avenues

across the country,

there's now Dolores Huerta Avenues.

Kansas--we became the fourth state

to have Dolores Huerta Day on April 10.

People who normally wouldn't know her,

they do now in Kansas, and that's pretty cool.

My family were farmworkers

both on my father's and my mother's side.

We were raised in the restaurant,

Tex-Mex restaurant, so we're the oldest

family-owned Mexican restaurant in the state of Kansas.

We had a railroad tracks in front of our restaurant,

and we would see families jump off and hungry.

We'd feed them, and then us--

there's 5 girls in my family,

and we would just sit with them and, like, start talking

even though they spoke all Spanish,

and we spoke broken Spanish.

We would sit with them, and then they would leave,

and they would get back on the train,

and we wouldn't ever see them again.

A lot of our employees couldn't afford childcare,

and so my grandparents would allow them

to bring their children to work,

and then we would all play in the back room,

and that's sort of how we began to learn Spanish

was playing with the kids in the back room.

I knew I wanted to enter a life of public service

when I was about a teenager.

I had attended a conference in Chicago.

It was called the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute,

and I saw then Henry Cisneros,

who was the mayor of San Antonio.

I saw myself, and then like, "But he's a man,"

and then I saw Gloria Molina,

who was the first Latina elected in the state of California,

and there was this book, and it talked about her story,

and that was-- for the first time,

I thought that it was possible for me to

run for office one day,

but I made that promise to myself at--

I think I was 16 years old.

In 2004, I was elected the first Latina

and youngest female to the Kansas legislature.

In 2019, I became the first Latina cabinet secretary

for the Department of Labor.

It was the largest attended swearing in ever

in the state of Kansas.

My staff at the time, they knew I loved mariachi music,

and I--you know, I can't sit in a chair

when there's good music, so I just got up

and then pulled Dolores' hand, and we just started dancing.

It was just such a cool moment.

[Cheering and applause]

Dolores has always worked hard to make things better

for the next generation.

She has taught me the power of people

and organizing people,

and when we organize ourselves,

really when we can make good impact

for Americans and for everyone for that matter.

That's what she has taught me.

That's the legacy I want to continue taking forward.

Aw. She's awesome.

Such a awesome individual. Yeah.

When you would go to her apartment,

she had all of these young women

that were coming to Washington as interns

or looking for positions,

and she was like a mother hen. Mm-hmm.

So your family came to America, I think,

around the same time my family came to America,

which is to say a really long time ago,

way before you were born, way before I was born.

Mm-hmm.

And you once said, "No matter what I did,

I could never become an American."

Mm-hmm. And then years later

you were in the White House,

getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Do you feel like an American now?

Well...

I think being an American

is to fight for justice for everybody.

You know, when we talk-- I get--I get...

Mmm. This has never happened before.

When you think that people are discriminated

in their own country for no reason

except for their ethnicity or their color of their skin,

that--that is so sad, especially young children

that they just want to-- they just want to belong,

you know, they want to be appreciated

and given opportunities, and when that

is taken away from them, I mean, it's a--

it's a loss for everybody.

To be an American is to continue

the fight for democracy,

to fight for fairness.

I remember when I was in the third grade

and we were told about the Bill of Rights,

and I thought, "Oh, my God. We can do this," you know?

"We can actually not have a solider stay in our house

if we don't want them to?"

And that made me feel so proud to be an American,

and then as you go through life

and then you get all of these discriminations

that we suffer in school

and, again, harassment by the police,

and you see when you're fighting for justice

that you have all of this opposition,

and then you see it happening right now

when people are fighting for the democracy of our country,

but I think that we can make it happen,

we can--we can make our democracy live,

but it's not gonna happen unless everybody engages

until we make sure that everybody realizes

that they not only have a right

but they have a responsibility to engage.

Some people say to me "Well, you're 91 years old.

Isn't it time that you retire?"

I say no. As long as we know that there are

more people, that we can meet with them,

awaken them, make them understand

that they have a role and a responsibility

to make our government better

that we have to keep on doing it.

You're an amazing person.

Well, thank you.

OK. So we have a little speed round

at "Tell Me More."

If your high school did superlatives,

what would you have been most likely to become?

A dancer.

What's your go-to mantra for hard times?

Prayer...and music.

If I looked at your playlist,

what song would be the most listened to?

Uh, "Rhapsody in Blue."

Aw. Is there anyone you would like to

apologize to?

I guess my kids.

I know that they had some rough times growing up,

and, uh, there's no way that I can make it up to them,

but I'm glad they survived.

When was the last time you cried?

Uh, a couple minutes ago. Ha ha ha!

Ha ha ha!

It's a total honor to sit with you.

Thank you very much.

Well, thank you.


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