Interview: Delores C. Huerta, winner of 2007 International Peace Award

Dolores C. Huerta, President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder and First Vice President Emeritus of the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW). She is the mother of 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Dolores has played a major role in the American civil rights movement.

She is interviewed here by Andrew Bolton, coordinator of the Peace Colloquy held at the Temple in Independence, MO.

AB: I was wondering if you could talk about faith, how Jesus has made a difference.

DH: It goes with the whole spirit of nonviolence that’s nothing tangible that you can see. I also compare it with love. Love is a very strong force and you can’t see it, but you can see the manifestations of it. And the same thing with nonviolence, you’ve got to solely act on faith because you can’t see it, you can only see the results of nonviolence. This also has to do with patience. When we started the Farm Workers Union, people said “Farmers can never be organized. They’re too poor. They don’t speak English. How can you possibly ever do this?” And of course, the way you do this is with faith and hard work. But you have to really know that it can happen even if you can’t see it.

AB: And in fact, when I talked with Alicia, who I didn’t know was your daughter at the time, Alicia represented you really well. When I asked her about the Jesus question she said, “Of course faith, hope, and nonviolent methods informed by Jesus is inspirational.” So it was very simple, what Alicia said, but it really caught me.

DH: Well she was raised in the movement and the philosophies that we have lived by.

AB: The other thing I think which will be really interesting is how you sustain movements—how you start movements and sustain movements and lead movements to victory. Because in a sense where our denomination (Community of Christ) is at the moment, we’re just beginning to understand, we have this call to peace and justice as the primary mission of the church. How do we understand ourselves as a movement that others can participate with us on as partners in coalitions and so on? What about a theme, what can we call the theme so that it covers the multitude of things you could speak about and yet will help people come?

DH: One of the things that I have been thinking about is, in society we have to be able to have peace in order for people to be able to reach their aspirations and their potential. So we have to create a safe haven, so to speak, or a safe society so that people can do this and the only way you can do this is with peace. If we don’t have that then people are kept behind, people are oppressed, people live in poverty, and they have to struggle just to be able to survive. So as a society we’re not doing what we are supposed to do which is provide this safe, peaceful society so that people can function and society can function. And that has to be the responsibility of everyone, not just those in governance because we are the ones that put people in power to govern us and if we don’t hold them accountable then we can’t create this place. It’s everybody’s responsibility, not just those we elect and those in power. It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re accountable and do what they’re supposed to be doing, especially when they’re working with our tax dollars—we are paying them. We individually and collectively have got to be more responsible and not just blame others for what whatever is going on. Especially this center of violence in society that we are creating. Now especially in view of what happened—

AB: Yes, this week.

DH: —these people who were all killed. I guess now more than ever we need to start looking at peace. I remember when Barbara Boxer put in a bill for peace studies and everybody really killed her when she did that. They thought that was so weird and strange. But now it’s almost prophetic that we do need peace studies so that people can start learning about practicing peace and practicing faith. We need to do that because we are creating such a violent society in the United States. I don’t know if you saw—I was watching the news last night, and we are the only country—or we are the leading country that has a pattern of mass flames.

AB: Yes, and British. And the murder rate is 20 times less.

DH: And even in underdeveloped countries—we have a higher murder rate and we have more people incarcerated and our schools are becoming militarized. So it’s like we’re going in the wrong direction and yet we’re not doing anything to counter that at this point. And even religions—Kathleen Kennedy just wrote a book called Failing [America’s] Faithful—this is Robert Kennedy’s daughter, and even in our religions we are not taking the initiative to say that we’ve got to start peace studies, peace actions. Just in terms of our young people. And I feel that we are not doing enough in terms of the religious community—faith community—to fight racism. Right now when all of this Imus thing came out, and of course this is ongoing—the people that they lynched in Texas—all of the stuff that they’re doing against the immigrants right now, all of the hate talk out there against the people who are taking care of our children, cooking our food—I know Cardinal Mahoney came out really strong, but I don’t even think he’s doing enough to just fight the racism that’s on these radio shows and talk shows—attacking women, attacking immigrants, attacking people of color. We have to be more proactive, I guess that’s what I’m saying.

Andrew Bolton: You worked with Cesar Chavez in founding the United Farm Worker’s Union.

Dolores Huerta: Right. I co-founded the union.

AB: We hear about Cesar but we don’t hear so much about you. Is that a gender thing that has been happening?

DH: I think it always happens when you have women. That’s why they call it history. I think women tend to be overlooked. And also because Cesar was the president of the union—I was the vice president—he was the spokesperson. But even myself, and all the work that I did and thousands of other people that also did a lot of work. The work that I did—I was the political director, I was the strike director, I set up the contracts for the union, so I had a major role.

AB: And this was in the 1970s.

DH: We founded the union in 1962. We started as an independent organization—the National Farm Workers Association. And before that I had organized another farm worker organization called Agricultural Workers Association. I worked very closely with a priest, Father McCullough. We collaborated in forming that group. And that organization became AWAC (Agricultural Workers Association Committee) and then I worked with that organization—they started working with the labor contractors which were very damaging to the Latino community so then I left, and Cesar in the mean time helped to form another group for the packing house workers union and that one fell apart. It was at that point that we decided that we had to do it ourselves. So that’s when we started the National Farm Workers Association.

AB: I was from England and I was picking grapes—raisin grapes—in Selma—San Joaquin Valley. I thought to make some money and I was awful. It took me so long, and Mexican workers were so much faster than I was, and the Mexican workers were also very kind to me. I slept in a tractor shed. I was a student. So I’ve always felt a kind of resonance with these—and I’m a supporter of the United Farm Workers, have been for years, so it’s very interesting. That whole story connects with my story a little bit. So, you were successful in getting contracts and so on.

DH: Yeah, and I also directed the boycott, the boycott from New York to Chicago. And once we got the grapes out of the stores then we came out to the west coast and directed the boycott out here.

AB: And then you got the contract. That was successful in what year?

DH: That was in—the big grape contract was in 1970.

AB: Tell me the highest moment in your struggle for justice, or some of your best moments in the struggle for justice, and some of the lowest.

DH: The highest is of course when we got the contract—I think two really high points—one of them is the contract, when we signed those grape contracts, and knowing that the whole nonviolent effort that we had done, we did it. The growers had to sit there and sign these contracts. For the first time they gave workers their health plan. The other high point was when we got the Amnesty Bill back in 1986 so we were able to legalize 1,400,000 farm workers.

AB: Legalized as immigrants.

DH: Yes, which we’re working on right now.

AB: We’re hearing terrible stories about ICE agents in one of our congregations in California.

DH: The low point would have been of course when the teamsters came in and took away our contracts, which then resulted in the deaths of farm workers, and low point, I guess, is the five martyrs in the union that were killed. The first one was a young Jewish girl named Nan Freedman.

AB: Five martyrs. So teamsters came in…

DH: 1973 and those contracts expired and the union to this day has caught up to where it should be.

AB: So the teamsters, this was another union, right?

DH: It was a conspiracy between President Nixon, the head of the teamsters union Frank Fitzsimmons, and Alan Grant, the national president of the Farm Bureau Federation.

AB: That’s terrible. Unions are supposed to show solidarity. So then, the five martyrs, when were they killed?

DH: The first was Nan Freedman. She was killed, I believe, in 1970. Maybe it was ’72. And then the second martyr was an Arab, Nagi Daifullah, and he was killed during that whole teamster thing in 1973. The next one was Juan De La Cruz. He was killed within 24 hours after Nagi and was a farm worker. And the next one was Rufino Contreras, and he was killed in a strike in Imperial Valley—a lettuce strike. And the last one was a young farm worker from Fresno County, from Caruthers—Rene Lopez—and he was killed after they organized his company to vote for the union. They asked him to come to the car because they wanted to talk to him. He put his head up to the window and they pulled out a gun and shot him in the temple.

AB: Tell me how Jesus has inspired your struggle for justice.

EH: Pretty much what I mentioned earlier about the work that he did. Always working with the poor, giving dignity to the poor, which is of course what you do when you organized workers into a union—give them dignity and respect. And it’s always been interesting to me in terms of our Catholicism, the virgin Mary, whenever she’s appeared, she’s always appeared to farm workers.

AB: You wonder why Jesus turned out the way he did read Luke’s account of the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings while she’s pregnant with him. She’s not the nice young maiden in the pictures, she’s a radical. “My heart magnifies the Lord.” You hear about it a lot in mass.

DH: I’ll have to revisit that.

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