THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta
“They need our voice, our insight…our intelligence to make the right decisions. We have to keep working until we can make that happen.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, February 2022
DH: My name is Dolores Clara Huerta, and I was born in New Mexico on April 10, 1930, and my family goes back 14 generations in the State of New Mexico.
JW: Please tell us a little about your childhood and the kinds of things that led you to become the person that you became.
DH: My mother was who I was raised by, because my parents divorced when I was just a kid. And my mother was an entrepreneur. She worked two jobs. I was born right after the Depression or during the Depression. My mother worked two jobs until she saved enough money to open up her own business. She had a diner which she managed and operated for many years.
Then during World War II, she actually gave up her restaurant and took over a hotel. One of her friends, a Japanese woman who was interned with the other Japanese that they took up to the concentration camps, asked my mother to take over her business, and my mother did. She was a very successful businesswoman.
My dad was a laborer. He worked in the fields. He worked in many different jobs. He also was an assemblyman in the State of New Mexico. He was in the service in both wars, World War II and the Korean War. When he came out of the service, he went to school and became a public accountant. He was always a great organizer. He always liked to organize workers. When he got out of the service, he worked at a military base, and he organized them to be part of one of the labor unions, the American Federation of Government Works, I think it’s called.
JW: They both were strong role models for you.
DH: Yes, they were.
JW: Did you have siblings?
DH: Yes, I had two brothers and two half-sisters. My mother remarried and I had two sisters.
JW: I know you were very active, following in both parents’ footsteps in different ways before you got involved in the women’s movement. Please tell me about your early years.
DH: Well, as a youngster, and my mother always pushed me out there to do public events, so I took the dancing lessons and the music lessons and danced in public. I did a lot of folk dancing, and then I studied flamenco dancing, which I love, and that was my aspiration to be a flamenco dancer. But I lost my teacher because she went on to dance with the famous Jose Greco dancing troupe. And I thought I was too young to leave and join her. I was only 17 or 18 at the time, and I didn’t feel I was ready and I felt that I was too young.
I didn’t join the Greco troop and stayed in my hometown in Stockton. But I was very active in many different church organizations, sang in the choir at two different churches. And we had a social group of women, and we would have dances and then we would make charity baskets which we would give out at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I always felt that there was nothing really solved by us doing that, but it was kind of a good feeling. And I was a Girl Scout for ten years, from the time I was eight to the time I was 18.
So I was very active. I formed my own organizations of teenagers because we didn’t have a lot of facilities for teenagers. Through one of my mother’s friends, I was able to get a storefront where we brought in ping pong tables and a jukebox and had tables to play games in. But the police shut us down. They just didn’t like the idea that you had all of these young Anglo women hanging out with black kids and Asian kids and Mexican kids. So, they shut down our youth center.
And then we had a good friend who was a Methodist Minister, and he said, well, you can come over to my church and you can have your youth center there. We loved that because there we could actually play basketball. But guess what? The police shut that one down, too. I ran into the minister later on. He had moved to Berkeley, and he told me that the police had gone to him and told him that he couldn’t do this. He couldn’t have all these kids hanging out at his church. That was way back in the late 40’s. That was what was going on.
JW: When did you get involved in organizing?
DH: I always had that part of being an organizer, but in all of these groups that I belonged to, I never saw any real difference or any changes that were being made. But I was very fortunate to meet a real organizer named Fred Ross, Sr. Mr. Ross had been involved in organizing the people that came from the Dust Bowl to California. There’s a famous movie called The Grapes of Wrath.
Fred Ross was able to get a job at this place called Sunset Labor Camp, south of Bakersfield in a town called Wheatpatch. And he became the person who ran that labor camp. He had been a teacher at the University of Southern California. So that was his first exposure to work with real poor people. He got very involved in being the manager of that labor camp. I think he’s a prototype in the movie.
He became the prototype because he knew John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie and Henry Fonda. He met all of them because he was there when they were doing the film The Grapes of Wrath, and it was very fortunate that when we were in New York City on the Grape Boycott, just before John Steinbeck passed away, Fred was in New York and was able to visit him in the hospital before he passed away. Isn’t that something? Kind of a coincidence.
Anyway, Mr. Ross taught myself and Cesar Chavez and many others how to do grassroots organizing. I was invited to a meeting with one of my teachers there and my former teachers. In this meeting, Mr. Ross explained to us how we can get poor people and ordinary people to get involved, to make changes in the community. He showed us this method of organizing. And I was so enthralled that actually once I learned some of the basics of organizing, then I decided to quit being a teacher and become an organizer.
JW: What were some of the first organizing campaigns you were a part of?
DH: We learned a method of organizing and it’s a very simple method, but it’s a method that takes a lot of patience, and a lot of people just don’t have the patience to see it through. If I say the word “Tupperware” to you, does that strike a bell? They bring a few people together, families in their homes, and you talk about the issues, we talk about how these particular issues can be solved, but then we say to people, it’s not going to happen unless you commit to make it happen.
This is our organizing model that we used to form the Community Service Organization, which is the group that Cesar and I came out of, that Mr. Ross helped organize. Then we used that same organizing method for the United Farm Workers, and I still use that same method for my foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation. But the whole idea is to convince people that there’s work out there that needs to be done, this civic work that needs to be done in your community. But guess what? You have to do it. Nobody’s going to come in there and do it for you. Not only that, but if you don’t get involved, if you don’t become the activists to make it happen, it will never change. You are the ones that have to make it happen.
JW: Amazing. Well, this discussion isn’t really about the Grape Boycott, but I need to ask you a little about that.
DH: Well, it was really interesting because we were able to get the American public, 17 million Americans to support our boycott of California table grapes and also not to buy in stores that carried the grapes. And the farm workers went all over the United States, to New York City, to Chicago, to Florida, to Canada. Some of them went to Europe and told people, okay, this is what farm workers are going through in California. They don’t have toilets in the fields. And you have a lot of women out there that have to hide behind a towel or sheet when they go to the bathroom. They don’t have hand washing facilities. They don’t have potable drinking water. They don’t have relief periods.
They have very miserable wages, they are treated very harshly on the job, and they can’t form a union. And they carried that message. Then the American public, they know that the farm workers put the food on the table every single day, and we have that connection with farm workers, responded by just not eating grapes, by boycotting grapes and by boycotting the stores that carry the grapes. And 17 million Americans supported the grape boycott. Then the employers had to come to the table and sign contracts with their workers to give them the basic human necessities that they needed.
JW: Wow. And I understand you met Gloria Steinem in 1973. Is that right?
DH: Actually, it was 1968.
JW: Okay. Tell me what that was like and how she may have affected your thinking.
DH: Well, in so many ways. We had one of our organizers that was working in New York, and she’s the one that was able to meet Gloria. And then, of course, when I went out there to work on the boycott, I got to meet Gloria also. She was just such a champion for the farm workers because everywhere she went, every rally she went to, every place she went to, she advocated for the farm workers and for the boycott. She was a great champion for us.
And that was when the National Organization of Women, they were just in formation, and so I got invited to many of these different conferences that they had and conventions that they had. So, again, I was able to get all of these women to support the farm workers. But it was really interesting because I was so focused on the farm workers that I really wasn’t paying attention to what the women were fighting for. For reproductive rights. Gloria had to turn me around on that because growing up in a Catholic family, like many of us Latina women, being taught that abortion is a sin and not realizing that abortion is a right that women need to have.
I have to thank Gloria and later on, Eleanor Smeal, who is the head of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Ellie asked me to be a member of that board of the Feminist Majority Foundation just a couple of years after they had formed as an organization. Then I was able to really understand that abortion is a right that women have and need to have. A woman has to be able to control her own body if she’s going to control her own life. And what an essential right that is, which is, of course, contrary to my Catholic teachings. But it took Gloria and Ellie to really make me understand why it was important for women to have that right.
JW: I know you did work on some issues that affected a lot of women as part of the Farm Workers Union. Talk about that. What were some of your concerns?
DH: Well, there’s a lot of women that work in the fields, especially in the grape fields. About 50% of the workforce are women. And, of course, women were subjected to a lot of sexual harassment and discrimination. But even in our own union, I was the only woman on the executive board for many decades, and I had to keep pushing so that we could get other women on the board. By the time I left the union, about a third of the board were women. And today the National President of the United Farm Workers is a woman, and her name is Teresa Romero. And the majority of the people on the board are women.
JW: Wow. That’s really amazing.
DH: A lot of progress.
JW: I know you worked on some issues about, as you mentioned, treatment of women and working for AFDC, Aid for Families and Dependent Children. Can you tell me about any of those campaigns? What was involved?
DH: Yes, that was an important campaign that we did, and it was not just for women that are citizens of the United States. We were actually able to pass a law way back in 1963 that people who were legal residents of the United States that were documented, that they could also be eligible for public assistance, which was aid to the blind, aid to the disabled, aid to the aged, and then aid to needy children. And that was amazing because we were able to get so many families covered with that kind of public assistance that they needed.
JW: Was it just in California that the changes were made or nationally?
DH: Well, actually, it was started in California, but the person who helped us pass those bills, the great Philip Burton, then became a congressman, and then it was able to expand at the national level.
JW: What did you do for women’s pay, because you started out by saying they weren’t paid as much as the men?
DH: Well, that has been an ongoing issue, and I guess it was the Lilly Ledbetter Act that finally at the national level, said that women have to be paid as much as men, although I think we still have some work to do in that respect, because I think the Lilly Ledbetter Act led more to the equal treatment and that women have to have the right to be able to be promoted to supervisory positions.
And right now, as you know, we’re fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment, which is stuck in the US Senate. And if you get that part, that will be part of the Constitution of the United States, that will be the 19th Amendment. And that would address a lot of the issues, even women’s reproductive rights, if we can get that passed.
JW: Do you have a particular memory of an event or campaign about women that you’d like to talk about, or some anecdotes?
DH: I would love that. The Feminist Majority Foundation, we did a campaign to get women elected. And we went to the State of California and also to New York State. And I think we did another in one of the States in the south to get women to run for Congress and to run for state legislature. In one year, in the state of California, we got 30% of the legislature to be women, in one year.
We got the largest number of women ever elected to the state legislature. Latina and African American women. One of those women that got elected at that time, Hilda Solis from California, went on to win an assembly race, went to the Senate, became the first Latina in the Senate. And then she was the first Latina in the presidential cabinet when she became Secretary of Labor under President Obama.
JW: She’s an amazing person. We need more of her out there.
DH: But we had to do this campaign. There were three of us. We went up and down the State of California and said to women, okay, you have to run for office. Sometimes we would get four or five women in a meeting. Some places we would get ten. Sometimes we would be lucky to get 20. And we would say to them, we’ve got to have more women to run for office. And you’ve got to go out there and recruit somebody to run. And if you can’t find anybody, one of you has to run and they would say, “Oh!”
But it happened and we did get them to run in a couple of races that we could have won. But actually, they sent somebody in there to sabotage. I came here to volunteer for your campaign, and it was always a guy and of course, they were there to sabotage the campaign. We could have picked up a couple of more seats here and there. But it was interesting.
You probably have heard of the great Willie Brown, who was the Mayor of San Francisco. Willie was the speaker in California, and he was very upset that we were getting all these women to run. One of my good friends and I won’t mention his name because he’s still active in Democratic Party politics, he called me up saying, “Dolores, are you crazy? Why are you getting all of these women to run?” And I said, “Well, has anybody ever said you were crazy because you’re getting men to run for office?” And of course, that was the end of that conversation. By the way, that person and I were very good friends, but I would not want to embarrass him by saying who he is.
JW: I hope he learned from that experience. But you didn’t want to run yourself?
DH: No, because I really see myself as an organizer, and I like to say I like to put them in and take them out. If they’re not doing their job, we have to take them out. We got this young woman elected here in California to the state Senate. We all did the walking for her, and then once she got into office, she started siding with the employers and not with the workers. We all made a mistake, but who knew until she got elected? So now she’s in a runoff with another woman for the state Senate. Anyway, this time we’re not going to endorse her.
JW: Hopefully the other person will win. You are continuing to be active in a number of things. What else are you active in?
DH: We have the Dolores Huerta Foundation which I started after I left the Farm Workers Union. We are doing so many things. We’ve got a strong educational program where we organize students and parents. And they go to school board meetings. We are active in 17 different school districts covering about 150 schools, or more. And we organize the parents and the students and they go to the school board and they make recommendations.
Over 40 of our recommendations have been accepted. And I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of them was that they had over $350,000 in the school district to put more police on campuses. We got that changed to say, we don’t want any more police. We want that to go to more counselors, more help with the teachers, and more help with the students. So that’s just an example. Also, before the pandemic they were going to close summer school. And we said no, the kids need summer school. And we did a big campaign on that, and the summer school stayed open.
We sued our high school district here in Bakersfield, California, because there were 2,500 students expelled in one year. The vast majority of those students were black and brown. And we sued them for implicit racism. We won the lawsuit from 2,500 expulsions; it’s now down to 21. We’re working on the school-to-prison pipeline.
We are doing Covid vaccination clinics every weekend. We have people going door to door to sign people up for their vaccination shots. We’re doing food banks every weekend. We had ten food banks in one day. We have a youth program in our organization also.
And we just finished redistricting our maps that we did with our foundation and were accepted for the Central Valley of California, the farm work area, which is about the size of four states. Anyway, the independent Commission accepted our maps in total. This is for the congressional and the Senate and the assembly races. We’ll be doing a lot of work now on getting out the vote and registering people to vote.
We have a big youth program also, in all of the areas where we organize, four different counties, we have a youth program in each area. And that is to get youths, you might say, to fulfill themselves, to help them grow, and also to keep them involved and grow their leadership by doing the different actions that we do in our organization. We’re up to about 50 full-time staff people right now. And then we have our canvassers, which can go anywhere from 40 to 100 depending on what project we’re working on. We are really quite busy.
JW: When you look back on your life, do you see one or two accomplishments that you’re most proud of? Something you’d like to talk about?
DH: Well, I could say a couple of dozen. We spoke about this major bill that we passed before the United Farm Workers, to have the people that were legal immigrants to get public assistance. But here in California, before they had the same system that they have today in Texas, where to register to vote, you have to find a deputy Registrar to register you. Well, we got rid of that law back in 1963 where I was able to pass in the state legislature of California, a bill that if you’re a US citizen, you can register anybody that is eligible to vote, you can register them. And that completely changed the numbers of people that are registered here in the State of California.
And we passed another law, disability insurance for farm workers. Eventually, we passed unemployment insurance for farm workers and, of course, the right to organize into a Union for farm workers also. Also, that people can get their ballots in the Spanish language, get their driver’s licenses in the Spanish language.
And then the big bill, the Amnesty bill of 1986, which we got with the help of Ted Kennedy, Durbin and Schumer, Howard Berman from California, a great congressman who’s not in the Congress anymore, but we passed this big Amnesty bill that really helped about 2 million farmworkers get their legalization status under that bill. So that was a biggie.
As you know, right now we’re working on the Equal Rights Amendment, which is the big one that we have right now in the US Senate. And I’m on the board of the Feminist Majority, as I mentioned. The Equal Rights Coalition actually gathered 15,000 petitions and signatures to deliver to Kyrsten Sinema, not that it did any good. And by the way, this is going to be the 50th anniversary of Ms. Magazine. It’s still alive and you can download it.
The Feminist Majority bought Ms. Magazine several years ago. Gloria Steinem is still very involved with the magazine. It’s an awesome magazine. It’s won many prizes. I would recommend that you try to get it. This is a really pivotal year for women, as we know, because again, what’s happening with Roe vs. Wade, with the Equal Rights Amendment, with Nancy Pelosi, hopefully, I think she has it that she’s going to stay on as speaker of the House. This is a very pivotal year for women. We just need to get as many women involved and if our democracy is going to be saved, it’s going to be saved by women.
JW: I want to ask a concluding question. How did all the activities and interests in women’s issues affect your personal life? We heard how it affected your professional life. How did it affect your personal life?
DH: I really think it has affected my personal life because myself, like many women, we were always socialized to not take credit for our work. And it’s something I had to learn how to do because so often the work that I did, the guys took credit for my work. And I think for women, too. And I got to say for myself to stand up and to fight for ourselves is hard. It’s not easy. We have to make that transformation internally and intellectually, that we have to stand up for ourselves and we shouldn’t be shoved out of the way or stand behind somebody or stand to the side of somebody.
I think women have to learn how to stand in front of somebody. And I don’t think it’s easy because we have been so socialized from the time that we’re little girls to be quiet and not to be disrespectful and to wait until they’re called on to speak. My mother, thank God, she would tell me, “If you need to say something, speak out. And even if people criticize you, you’ve got to speak out, find your voice.” And again, even if you might feel embarrassed at the moment, but you’ve just got to learn how to speak out and speak up. And I think that’s hard for women to do.
JW: Well, is there anything you’d like to add as we close?
DH: Well, I always like to quote Coretta Scott King, who said, “We will never have peace until women take power.” And I think that’s something that I like to share with women and keep working until we see the day where we have our representation, 50% on every single legislator, public board anywhere in the world. That we have 50% of the people on those boards where they are making decisions that affect everybody. That we have 50% of those boards are women.
And I like to say if we do not have 50% – and I’d like to use the word feminist because we know that not all women are there yet – that if we’re not there in those numbers, they are going to make the wrong decisions. Okay? They need our voice, our insight, to be able to make the right decision, our intelligence to make the right decisions. We have to keep working until we can make that happen.
JW: We have a way to go, but we will get there and we appreciate everything you’ve done to make the improvements we have and thank you so much for this.