MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

An Interview with Dolores Huerta

"I would like to be remembered as a woman who cares for fellow humans. We must use our lives to make the world a better place to live, not just to acquire things. That is what we are put on the earth for."

Editor's note: Last fall, Dolores Huerta was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she announced the launch of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. The foundation aims to train grass-roots activism in the person-to-person organizing style Dolores and Cesar Chavez made the cornerstone of the United Farm Workers (UFW). At 73 years of age, Huerta appeared before an audience in attendance at the University of New Mexico Student Union ballroom. After her address, and despite a full schedule, Dolores agreed to be interviewed by Southwest Research and Information Center staff member Frances Ortega. The interview was conducted on October 29, 2003, three weeks after California's gubernatorial election.

Frances Ortega (FO): Dolores I have questions first that relate to California and the recent elections (Gubernatorial). I'm wondering with (Arnold) Schwarzenegger elected, people had information about him and yet did not respond. What do you think happened there?

Dolores Huerta (DH): First of all the information about sexual assaults didn't come out until about four days before the election. It was a Thursday and the election was Tuesday. I guess it was about five days before the election. That didn't come out. Although I think people knew about it, but nobody brought it out. It was kind of interesting because he (Arnold Schwarzenegger) was saying from the beginning to the Governor (Gray Davis) don't use what they call pink politics or whatever, you know. So here the governor's campaign didn't bring it out. It was actually brought out by the LA Times. They had done an independent investigation that I think took them seven weeks to complete. Now remember, there was a short time frame for the election - from the time of the election qualifying, to the time the election took place. It was a two-month period. I'm not sure about the dates on that but you can check that out. There were 2 million absentee ballots that were cast before the election. The other thing I didn't talk about today was that they merged precincts. Especially in the minority areas you had like three thousand people in one precinct, and people couldn't find their polling places, people couldn't.

Many people registered never got their ballots. Many people of color, especially Latinos, were turned away from the polls. You know it was very chaotic and they tried to stop the election, and couldn't stop the election because they felt that many people would be disenfranchised. And actually, the people who didn't vote were the people disenfranchised in that election. And so it was very hard for the election to react. That is essentially what happened.

Schwarzenegger said the attacks were by the Democrats, but it wasn't, it was an LA Times article. The media never really pushed out these women. We of course had a press conference with some women's organizations and we had one women who was a maid in a hotel where he (Schwarzenegger) molested her. And yet when we had a press conference about that, we had no media on that. I think the Latino media was the only one covered, but not the Anglo media. I think CSPAN was there. So the media had a lot of impact and influence in that.

FO: Women are needed in the political process, What do you think needs to happen for that to occur?

DH: Well, women have to realize that they have a responsibility to be active.

Let's go back to the election. (Cruz) Bustamante running did not help at all. It confused the voters, especially the Latino voters. The way that they (Californians) saw that was, that Bustamante and Davis were running against each other.

FO: So do you think that the Democratic Party didn't do a good job of helping voters?

DH: It was too fast and they couldn't get it in gear. If the election time was longer, I think he would have lost. The Governor (Davis) had such a great reputation you know.

There was a gender gap of ten points by the way of women who voted against him (Schwarzenegger).

FO: Just now I was hearing someone talk about feminists and feminism. How did that come into your life and do you use it to describe yourself?

DH: Yes, in fact I am a board member of the Feminist Majority (FM) and their organization.

FO: How were you introduced to the word and its ideology?

DH: Well, actually I was introduced to it early on in New York City, because I was fortunate to be in New York when the Women's movement started and Gloria Steinem was a great supporter of the Farmworker's Union. Although, I have to say that for the first years I was so focused on the Union, that was my concentration to focus on the boycott and the Union, and at some point in the 1980s I said, "Wait a minute, something is wrong here."

FO: I will always remember you wearing symbols for women and for the huelga.

DH: Yes, que viva la mujer!

FO: Yes, and the question is, "Which one?" you know "Que Viva la Mujer!" Which one? Because as you know, so many people can identify a man (activist) by name and that's not the case so much when it comes to women.

So I am exploring the lives of Chicana activist as change agents for the environment. What is the relationship between women and the environment?

DH: Well, I know that the pesticides, you know for women who are in the fields, the chemicals that are used in industry, women are more adversely affected, because they (women) are less valued than men. The farmworker's-there are more incidences of cancer. There was just a recent study that came out about four or five months ago that women have more cervical cancer among farmworker women, and by that we say Latinas and in the Silicon Valley where pesticides are being used.

FO: You know I think I heard about that study and right away there is a counter attack about these studies, purported by science and industry - the role of science and industry. Sometimes industry is powerful and have their perspectives reflected in the results because they are able to pay for that research.

DH: Did you hear about that recent one with IBM? Where they were making the computers chips?

FO: Was this just recently, a few weeks ago?

DH: Yes.

FO: Actually I was in California three weeks ago and I was in a small town listening to a radio show where again this questioning of science of those studies finding high cancer rates among women. The talk show focused on "is there a difference between men and women?" and going back to old drawing boards and divisions between men and women from a health (biological) perspective, and I think it confuses the audience into thinking about difference rather than incidence.

DH: Yes.

FO: I think your work specifically puts the issues up front and that other groups use health perspectives to describe gender differences and can miss the point. What recommendations do you have to clarify the issues and help to get mainstream audiences to understand the complexity, and to allow your message to get across?

DH: Do you know Jane Delgado? Do you know of her? Jane Delgado is from California. She is the head of the Hispanic Council (National Alliance for Hispanic Health) and she has done so much work and she has been there for so long and is a real genuine person and very committed to her work and what she has done in the Latino communities, but all over the country, not only in California. But she would be the person to interview. Of course, the Farmworkers Union did a lot of the work on the pesticide issue. Cesar (Chavez) did his 36 day fast to get the message across about pesticides. Have you seen the NO GRAPES video that we did?

The other issue I want to mention is the morning after pill. The Feminists Majority is the one that did all the work on that and to get it into this country. I mean they went to Europe, they found someone to manufacture the pill. They did all the work during the Clinton administration to bring it to our country. In California we have it and the governor signed the bill that you can get the pill in what they call behind the counter and I think there are five other states as well. You are supposed to take the pill in the presence of a doctor. In other words, it is accessible now and available to women. It was sponsored by the Feminists Majority who paid for the whole campaign. In fact right now they are paying for clinical trials because right now this pill may reduce cancers. And the Feminist Majority is paying for these clinical trials of women. We are trying to get universities and these laboratories to do more clinical trials. The National Institute of Health wants to do something. I didn't bring the paper with me. I had it with me because I was at a board meeting last week and there are a number of other cancers described in this work. If you like, I'll send you a copy so you can add it to your work. Now that we are talking about this, the Feminist Majority needs to write a whole paper on what they did, because they were using it in Europe for the last twenty years. I think in France. They (FM) had a (woman) model come over (to the U.S.) and bring the pill and get arrested in order to get the publicity and raise awareness about the issue and how the U.S. was against this pill.

FO: It is such an honor to be with you here today. In good health and strong for the rest of us. I think you are right that our country is at a crossroads.

I was wondering when I hear you talk about your Mother and how influential she was in your life and the need to take responsibility in our communities. What are some specific examples that you use in teaching within your own family about the strength of women and abilities to influence political powers?

DH: I think what we can teach our children. My mother was a strong woman. She divorced my Father and took us to California, held two jobs. This was after the depression. She was a business woman, she had a restaurant and hotels, she owned a business. So that was my role model growing up. I was not taught that women were subservient to men and women were not second class citizens. My role model was my Mother. I think it was a learned behavior in a way to say " wait a minute, I'm not supposed to serve the man." And that is not the way I grew up. My brothers and I were raised equally. My brothers had to clean and wash the clothes. I never had to serve my brothers, you know, cook for them and iron. And of course in the Latino culture that is not the way it is. The women are supposed to serve the man. My kids grew up where the girls did not have to do for their brothers. My sons had to do it for themselves because I was gone so much of the time you know. They had the privilege to take care of themselves and to be resourceful. But you know the Feminist wars, so to speak are continual. You know women-wouldn't it be great if women had a little Geiger counter that they could use on a guy and then later could say "I'm not going to let you mess up my life!" (roar of laughter)

Because we know there are so many strong women and that they will meet the wrong person and you know… There is a huge percentage of men who do not support women. Then unfortunately due to the media (we) are forced to look up to males that are the Macho types instead of looking for the men who are supportive of us. Men who are supportive of us are called wimps and sissies. Women need to look for someone who will support us. Of course guys are always looking for someone who is going to support them. That is something that we need to start teaching our young women. The person you are going to marry has to support what you want to do too, and not to just support what they want to do. Like one of my daughters supported her husband when he was in Harvard Law School, and then he came back and divorced her with three kids. And that is the history of so many women who are very supportive to our men but they do not support us. So women have got to fight. That culture of Machismo is not going to change, the woman are going to have to change. It is us, we have to change. Even if it creates conflict, and many times as women we don't want to have that conflict or confrontation. Of course it can be very dangerous for us too. That is why I think it is important for women to belong to organizations of women to get that support that they need to gradually educate the men in their world and in their lives. And especially we need to educate ourselves. I remember a woman at my house, she had a little boy and she was from Mexico and would say, "ay mi'jo salgate de aqui-de la cocina!" You know, get out of the kitchen, instead of saying, "hey, get back in the kitchen and help out in the kitchen, I belong in the kitchen-you belong in the kitchen! You have to wash dishes. You have to cook."

What I said about men being independent, I meant that. But a lot of women still think "no no, that is not their place." This is my kitchen and not have their son in there. I have a son by the way who is a chef, and he is a much better cook than any of us.

FO: Where do you find your inspiration?

DH: I think that when you see inequalities and the things that are wrong in this world, that gives you energy. Struggle gives you energy. La lucha de energia. Especially seeing that you are able to accomplish some things when people come together and that it makes a difference.

FO: Thank you so much.

DH: You're welcome.

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"Una cosa es vestir y alimentar a nuestras hijas, sin embargo lo esencial es enseñarles que otras personas — fuera de ellas mismas — son tambien importantes. Lo mejor que pueden hacer con sus vidas es dedicarlas al servicio de los demás."

"Giving kids clothes and food is one thing, but it's much more important to teach them that other people besides themselves are important, and that the best thing they can do with their lives is to use them in the service of other people."

--Dolores Huerta

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