“Sí, se puede!” the Spanish rallying cry meaning “Yes, we can!” remains politically charged and culturally resonant. Many may know what “Sí, se puede!” means, but not enough people know it was Dolores Huerta who first came up with the phrase.
Huerta deserves a commemoration day of her own like her union organizing compatriot, Cesar Chavez. Along with Chavez, Huerta is one of the cornerstones of the Chicano labor movement, helping farm workers organize against the wealthy owners who exploited them. She helped women get involved in unions and paved the way for Latina activists to serve their communities and raise their families. Huerta did all this while raising 11 children.
Three of her kids now work with her at the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
We talked about how she became involved with the labor movement, what she’s working on at her foundation and how she feels about the #MeToo movement.
The Lily: What was it about the farmworkers’ struggle that caught your attention?
Dolores Huerta: I grew up in an agricultural community in California. At the beginning of my organizing, we were going door-to-door registering people to vote, and I came to a home where there was no cover on the dirt floor. The people had cardboard furniture. The children were malnourished and badly dressed. I know how hard farm workers worked because I grew up in that community, and I just thought that was so wrong. They’re being exploited.
When I was a schoolteacher, I taught farmworker children for one year and I saw the same thing happen. I would go to my principal to ask for free lunch programs or a shoe voucher and they gave me a hard time. I thought, wait a minute, I can do more to organize farmworkers to try and feed their hungry children.
TL: The documentary shows you had a tumultuous working relationship with fellow labor organizer, Cesar Chavez. You two would fight, you would quit or he would fire you, then you would show up first thing the next day for work. What was that like?
DH: We had some heated arguments. Sometimes, when people ask me, “Is there anything you regret?” I say, “Yes, I should have fought a lot harder!” There were some decisions that were made that I believe we shouldn’t have made, but I didn’t fight harder to prevent those decisions.
TL: Do you think things have improved for women participating in politics and labor movements?
DH: Yes, they definitely have. By the time Cesar passed in 1993, 40 percent of the [union] board were women. Even today, there’s a number of women on the executive board and in leadership positions throughout the organization.
TL: Were you ever hesitant bringing your children along while you were organizing?
DH: Yes, but my kids grew up very resourceful. My youngest son likes to say we had to share our mother with the world. My oldest son is a doctor, I have another who’s an attorney, and another who’s a chef. My daughter, Juanita, is a schoolteacher who just quit after 15 years to work at my foundation to help us with our social media and PR. My daughter, Camila, is now the executive director of my foundation, my daughter, Maria Elena, is the director of a YWCA center and my daughter, Angela, is a nurse. So my kids all came out really good!
TL: So a few of your daughters help you out with your foundation. Tell me about about your work there.
DH: We’ve been around for 15 years. First off, we started with construction work in communities where people didn’t have sidewalks or street lights. We organized the people to do these projects. In one community, we have a swimming pool, and in another, we built a state-of-the-art gymnasium. The air quality there was so bad, the kids couldn’t play outside. We’ve done a lot of murals, started health programs, and we’re currently working on a bike share program for farmworkers. But before we get that going, we have to make sure to pave their streets and cover the potholes.
One of our big focuses is on civic engagement, to make sure people register to vote and get people to run for office. Because so many suspensions and expulsions affect African American and Latino children, we have a lawsuit filed against our current school district in California. We settled that suit and now they have to change their practices. We’ve got to have cultural competency programs for the teachers, one month for African American History and one month for Latino history, and they have to have community forums so parents and students can give the school feedback in terms of changing the procedures.
We’ve also won a lawsuit against our board of supervisors against redistricting because the way they drew the lines, we didn’t have proper representation on the board of supervisors. We were going to file a lawsuit against the current high school districts for the same reason, and they decided to go ahead and change the school districts too! So we didn’t have to file the lawsuit.
TL: That’s a lot. How big is the foundation?
DH: We have about 27 people in three counties and we’re active in 10 different school districts.
TL: What’s next for the Dolores Huerta Foundation?
DH: We’re going to continue to expand our grassroots organizing to empower more people so they can become leaders. We have to start getting ready for the Census. We’re getting a proposition ready in California for major corporations to pay their fair share of property taxes. We’re in the phase of getting signatures.
TL: There’s a moment in the documentary where a professor points out how little credit you’ve been given despite your influential role in the labor movement. Do you agree?
DH: I think we as women, myself included, have the mentality that we’re here to help, support and accommodate. We never think of ourselves, although I think we think more about that with the #MeToo movement. We never think of ourselves taking those positions of power, and we not only serve on those positions, that we have a right to those positions of power. That we as women can make incredible contributions to our society. But sometimes we shy away, that we don’t think we’re capable or prepared enough. We got to change that mentality and how we educate our young women.
TL: What do you think of the #MeToo Movement?
DH: I think it’s great. I hope that it transcends sexual harassment, and looks at equal pay and the physical abuse women face. We’re exploited as women because we make many of the major purchases, yet, we don’t get the kind of respect we deserve from corporate stores. We should fight for early childhood education for our children. We shouldn’t have to worry everyday if our kids are going to be okay when we go off to work.
TL: Do you have any tips for people working within the #MeToo Movement?