Dolores Huerta is having a bit of a celebrity moment. It began in 2012, when President Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom award for coining the slogan “Sí, Se Puede,” an early predecessor to his own campaign slogan, “Yes, We Can.” Now, she’s the subject of a documentary, “Dolores,” which was conceived of and produced by Carlos Santana, directed by Peter Bratt, and is screening around the country this fall. But the 87-year-old community organizer is far from your typical celebrity.
Huerta gave up a middle-class life in the 1960s to become an organizer in the farmworker movement and she has been unwavering in her dedication to improving the lives of marginalized people in California’s agriculture country ever since. Huerta organized the 1965 Delano grape strike and worked alongside Cesar Chavez to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), the predecessor of the United Farm Workers’ Union (UFW), which formed three years later. The grape boycott that she organized in 1973 led to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, a groundbreaking law that allowed farmworkers to bargain for better wages and conditions, and still sets the state apart from the rest of the nation in that regard.
In 2002, Huerta received a $100,000 prize for creative citizenship and used it to establish the Dolores Huerta Foundation (DHF), a hub for grassroots community organizing in California’s Central Valley, along with several of her children.
Civil Eats spoke with Huerta about the film, motherhood, and the ways her foundation is building a legacy of slow and steady change in farmworker communities.
At a recent event in San Francisco, you mentioned that Carlos Santana had called and suggested making this film about you. What did he say he that convinced you it was a good idea?
I didn’t need to be convinced because Carlos has been a friend of mine for the last 40 years or so. He has been actively supporting my foundation since it started. And, knowing his commitment to the Latino community, there was really no other option (laughs).
You said that you had been approached before about other documentaries. Why now?
Well, I just I wasn’t ready yet. Many of the offers came just as I was starting my foundation and I wanted to focus on getting our community organizing practices and methods established and building the organization.
It sounds like the foundation is at a place where you can focus outward a little bit. What are you most proud of in terms of what the foundation has been able to accomplish so far?
Well, the main thing is that we build leadership in low-income communities and organize people so that they can they have a sense of their own voices and their own power. We teach them the processes of changing policies through organization. And that’s very time-consuming, very tedious work. In our model, each organizer has to meet with 200 people in their homes, a few people at a time. Then we call them all together and have them vote on whether they want to start an organization or not.
Then they have to decide what their priorities are; what are the things that are most urgent that need to be changed in the community? And it’s usually a big laundry list because these are poor people. But then they have to vote on their priorities, make an action plan, and then volunteer to make it happen. [That could mean] crafting a petition, going door to door, making a plan as to how to put pressure on the proper authorities … like going to school board, city council, or board of supervisor meetings. And in the process of doing all this volunteer work, then guess what? They become leaders.
It’s so rewarding when you see ordinary people who are able to accomplish such great things. Just in terms of the infrastructure, we’re talking millions of dollars in infrastructure that they’ve been able to bring to their communities for things like sidewalks, streetlights, swimming pools, and neighborhood parks.
Organizers [working with DHF] have also passed tax measures. One community passed a one-cent tax increase that’s bringing in $1 million a year of police, fire protection, and recreation for youth. Other communities have passed bond measures to improve the schools in their communities. Many of our organizers have gotten themselves elected to school boards, water boards, and recreation boards. In one example, a woman—and this is a woman who has very broken English and never went to high school or college—got herself elected to the school board. A when a school wanted to get rid of the breakfast program for farmworker children because the principal said it was too much paperwork, she got rid of the principal.
Another women got herself elected to the utility water board and they found out that the manager of the water board had gotten fired from another water district for embezzlement. And so she got rid of him. And then she looked into the bank records and found out there was a quarter of a million dollars missing from the water district. She called in the grand jury and they arrested the clerk of the water board a few months ago. I’m not saying the clerk is guilty … we don’t know if she’s guilty but she might have information about who took the money—and that’s a lot of money!
This is the kind of work we do. The California legislature passed a law a few years ago that said all of the school districts get their money directly from the state. In addition, they get money for low-income English learners and foster children. But many of these school districts are not spending their money the way that they should. And so we organized the parents to make sure that schools are spending that money appropriately.
So instead of working from the outside, you’re really trying to build power and encourage folks to work with the system to change it.
We don’t go in there and say we’re going to fix this for you. We organize the people in the community so that they are the ones that take on the fight. And then when [our foundation] leaves that area, we actually leave leadership and power and training to take on whatever should come into the community that needs to be addressed.
Is that the next wave of effective organizing?
It’s not really the next wave; it’s the way that we’ve always organized. In the NFWA and the IFW, that’s how I organized the farmworkers—in their homes. We help them understand that they have power to change their situation. And that if they do not become active and organized, then nothing changes. They can’t wait for somebody to come and do it for them.
Once they understand this process and they have the power to change policy—and politicians—they really feel empowered and they want to go on and keep organizing. It’s wonderful. I call it “magic dust.”
When you see all of these stories about the sexual harassment of women and the fact that we have not enough women in power. [It’s important to] get in to people’s inhibitions and help them overcome their fears—and that is exactly what we do with our organizing.
This film is raising your profile. But you were often overshadowed as a leader because you are a woman. Do you feel like that has shifted?
I think, as women, especially back in the 60s and 70s, we would shy away from leadership. Women are sometimes hesitant or wary of power because we think of power as a destructive force instead of a positive force.
And we see it used against us in some cases.
Right. It’s a matter of seeing power as a way to work for good of the many, and understanding that power is something that we can share and that we need to share. And the more that we share it, the more it grows. It’s something like love. The more we love the more it grows. And I think if women see power in that light, then I think it changes the way that we perceive it and it’s a way for us to understand that we, as women, we can take the power. And not only can we—we need to take the power.
I’ve been quoting Coretta Scott King, who said, “We will never have peace in the world until women take power.” But I like to use the word “feminist” instead. “Until we have some feminists in power…” Because that would include men who care about workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights, reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, etc.
You’re a mother of 11 and your children are a big part of your story. Do you have advice for other folks who are trying to balance their work with the rest of their life?
We have to ask for help. It’s very hard for women to do. We feel that if it’s my kids, it’s my responsibility—but I never could have done what I did as an organizer without asking for help. I had to ask my mother, my aunts, my cousins. Then, when I was working with the farmworkers in Delano, I didn’t have any family nearby so I asked the farmworkers for help with my children. One of Helen Chavez’s sisters, she took care of one of my youngest child, Angela, for about three or four years, actually.
I had left her in Stockton with some of my cousins and I brought her back with me and two weeks later the strike broke out. I couldn’t be running the picket lines, getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and getting home at 11 o’clock at night—and having to worry about my youngest child. I think it’s very hard for us to do that. But by the same token, I think that we need to demand free early-childhood education for our children. Because, as women, we’re not going to be able to engage in civic life if we don’t have people to share the responsibilities for our children with.
And the film doesn’t really show this, but we did have childcare in the farmworkers movement. We had the first Montessori school for farmworker kids. And all the women in the movement, they all worked. It was not just myself.
How are the fear of deportation and other negative immigration policies impacting farmworker communities you work in? What are you hearing? And is there anything that your foundation has done to help?
Like other organizations, we’ve tried to pass immigration reform. Of course we haven’t been successful. But do we have attorneys come to give advice. We’ll have 200-300 people show up at those forums and we do it several times a year. We’ve also worked with DACA students in these communities. In one example, we’re working with one of our local credit unions to give them loans.
I’ve done a lot of lobbying in the past [about immigration issues]. I had a major role impacting the amnesty bill in 1986 [or the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986] and almost 2 million farmworkers got residency in the U.S. You know we’re in it for the long haul.
It’s going to devastate the local farmworker force. Instead of trying to help the farmworkers who are here right now, they’re deporting them. Then they want to bring in another swing force, a couple hundred thousand new workers—that’s really a lot of workers. I mean there are only about 500,000 workers in California [currently]. You’re talking about bringing a third of that number over to replace the local workers. It’s going to drive down wages; it’s going to be devastating for the farmworker community.
Dianne Feinstein also has a bill in the Congress called the Blue Card Program that would allow the farmworkers who are here right now to stay and work.
Who else is doing important work on the labor front that you want to highlight?
Well, you still have the UFW out there organizing. They face a lot of opposition from the growers, and they’re taking [the growers] to court for refusing to obey the law, which they’ve always done. There’s the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida; there’s another group called FLOC in Ohio; there’s a group in New Jersey called CATA. So, you have people out there; but ultimately the only way they’re going to be able to change the laws in those other states to get what we’ve won here in California is by electing legislators who will pass the laws that give them the ability to organize use collective bargaining agreements.
In New York state, Kerry Kennedy has been trying to get a bill passed that would give farmworkers a six-day week, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance. But she’s been working on that for about 12 years. It takes a lot of organizing at the grassroots level to make these changes.
Is there anything else that you want the average American to understand about how their food is grown?
Well, one of the things I would love to see is the [regulation of] all the chemicals that are on our food—all of the toxics and pesticides—to get taken out of the EPA, and put under the Department of Health and Human Services. That would ensure that Americans would know that their food is safe. And right now we can’t give them that guarantee.
The trailer for “Dolores” is below; find a screening of the film near you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.