Leslie M. Levy
Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta challenged people to step into action Monday, speaking to a standing-room-only audience in Newman Auditorium on the Santa Rosa campus.
The 89-year-old co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association (NFA), later known as the United Farm Workers (UFW), and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation encouraged people of all kinds to become activists in their own communities–to be a force for change themselves.
Her speech was followed by a sit-down question and answer session with SRJC president Dr. Chong, as audience members expressed their gratitude to Huerta before each question. Huerta answered questions about sexism, racism, politics, raising children while being an active volunteer and overcoming obstacles.
“I think the biggest obstacle we all have, as women and also men,” Huerta said, “is getting the courage to do the activist work that we need to do. So often we inhibit ourselves because we think that we don’t have the skills or the capacity to do what needs to be done.”
Sandra Aguayo, the last of the audience to be allowed a question, spoke enthusiastically of Huerta’s influence on her extended family over several decades. Aguayo’s aunt, Florentina Campos, lost her son to pesticide poisoning. He had been working at a commercial farm in the San Joaquin valley. An ardent supporter of Huerta, Campos and her family sued and were awarded enough money to educate all of her children.
Aguayo and her mother, Tomasa “Tomie” Aguayo, have long been local activists here in Sonoma County, also inspired by Huerta’s example and dedication over the years. Aguayo noted that her father, Graciano “Chano” Aguayo, was always supportive of both she and her mother, no matter where they went or how much time they spent volunteering.
Sandra and Tomasa, along with five other Latina community members, founded a local chapter of a national civil rights organization. “My mother and I at one point were heavily active in the Mexican American National Association when we began our county’s chapter – MANA de Sonoma County. Our travels to national conferences is where we first crossed paths with Dolores,” she said.
Her mother, Tomasa, said Huerta’s refusal to accept the word “no” became part of her parenting. “I told my children to always ask why that is the answer. Don’t just accept it without asking. No is not the end,” she said.
“We adore her. She’s very inspiring and empowering,” Aguayo said.
At the close of the event, Huerta, cupped her hands around her mouth as she rallied the crowd to join her in the chant of empowerment she coined, often attributed to her co-founder, Cesar Chavez: “Si, se puede!” or “Yes, we can!”
Her noon speech and Q&A in Newman Auditorium was followed by another appearance in Bertolini Hall, where students from SRJC’s High School Equivalency Program (HEP) presented Huerta with two student poems inspired by her legacy. The presentation was followed by a reception line out the door for audience members to greet and have their photo taken with the Hispanic American icon.
In an exclusive interview with the Oak Leaf News afterward, Huerta was just as expressive and exuberant as she was when speaking to her larger audiences. The 89-year-old didn’t flag a bit going into her third hour of questioning, her gaze intense and focused on her interviewer while photographers hovered and her small entourage of escorts and assistants chatted quietly in the background.
Each person who had a question for Huerta throughout the entire day was greeted with the utmost attention. The time spent sitting down with people in their homes, explaining and listening face to face has perhaps long passed, but clearly remains with her despite the thousands of public addresses she has given during her later years.
Huerta has a practiced ability to connect with any human being, on or off stage or camera. “Racism is used to divide people,” she said, “but we’re all one human family.”
The Trump administration has many Californians worried about racism escalating, among other issues. Huerta had an observation that may prove useful. “One thing that’s happened with the Trump administration – the racists are revealing themselves. That’s good. Because now we know who they are. You have the identification, you can start addressing it,” she said. “We always knew it was there. We were the ones who were the victims of it. Now we know where it’s coming from and now we can address it.”
When asked why she never ran for office, she said, “I’ve always felt that I’m an organizer. I don’t think I’m a politician.” Huerta’s skill is in bringing information to people, and moving them to act together for reform. The job of politicians, by contrast, is to enact new laws according to the will of their constituents. Huerta is vocal about publicly elected officials having their position for the sole purpose of serving the people. They are paid by our tax dollars, and “they work for us!” she said.
In an era when Millenials are often jaded about politics and distrusting of current politicians on both sides of the aisle, moving people to vote and get involved in activism at their local and state levels is as challenging as ever.
“That’s the dilemma that we have with young people. They don’t really understand that the only way to make a policy change is through a law,” Huerta said. She chuckled as she repeated herself to emphasize the importance of her point. “That’s the only way to do it, and so you’ve got to get into the system of making laws to make permanent change.”
She then explained that when she and Cesar Chavez first began pushing for toilets in the field for workers, they could only get them for those farms where growers contracted with the union. “In order to get them as a law for the state of California, we had to get it into a piece of legislation,” she said. “And then get the lawmakers to vote on it and get the government to sign it, and that happened in 1975.”
Huerta stressed that patience and perseverance are necessary for anyone who would attempt systemic change in not only our culture, but in policy changes. “We didn’t get it at the national level until 1982, so from 1966 when we started getting our contracts to 1982, that took a long time. But it happened,” she said.
“Young people need to understand that,” Huerta said. “We can march until the moon turns blue, but if you don’t have it written into a law, in a policy that can be implemented, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Always encouraging people to be bold in fighting for the rights of all people, Huerta is often praised for her wisdom. She laughed and said, “I don’t call it wisdom, I call it experience.” She believes that leadership is a result of experience, and that no one can become a leader without taking the first steps to gain experience.
“As you go through these different trials and tribulations in the work that we do, you learn something. The path to social justice is a long path, and along the way you get a lot of bumps in the road, but you learn from each bump that you cause and it just builds up your knowledge of how to handle different situations,” she said.
Huerta stresses that a person doesn’t have to be educated to make a difference, nor do they have to have a bank of knowledge to draw from before they begin affecting change. “When you get on that path, you don’t know everything, and you don’t have to know everything to solve an issue because you’re going to learn along the way,” she said.
The vision may start out clear and become muddied along the way, and that’s OK. “You may have one concept of what it is that you need to do, but you find out, ‘Oh, that’s not the way to do it,’ and you’ve got to turn in another direction,” Huerta said. “Again, when you run into an obstacle, don’t give up. If you have an obstacle that’s going to be a learning experience, and you’ve just got to go around that obstacle or go over it.”
In her speech in Newman, Huerta advocated for families who need childcare in order to volunteer with organizations, and expressed that she had a lot of help from her friends and family with her children, and that sometimes she took them with her when she traveled to demonstrations.
She expounded upon the need to surround yourself with other people later in the Oak Leaf interview. “You’re going to find the answer somewhere, and just keep asking — not only for answers, but also for help. We don’t have all the knowledge that we need and it’s not going to come by osmosis. You have to go out there and you have to fight and you have to learn,” she said.
To those who have fear or anxiety about stepping into their calling, Huerta said, “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourself, that you’ll be able to overcome whatever interior business that you have or whatever challenges are out there.”
She knows that her purpose as an organizer is to quell those fears in the people she seeks to help. “That’s what holds us back sometimes,” she said, “but you just have to go out there and ask and dig and research, and you’ll find what the answer needs to be — and if it’s not the right answer, that’s OK, too.”
A self-proclaimed born-again feminist, Huerta knows women often are the most reticent about getting involved in social justice related activism. “As women, we were never taught or pushed to be in the limelight. Our role in life was to be supportive, you know, especially of men.”
In the past, Huerta has been often overlooked or described as Cesar Chavez’s supporter, sometimes politely excluded from photo ops even though she was the one writing the contracts and was truly an equal co-founder of the farm workers movement. From her induction as the first Latino woman to enter the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 to President Obama’s bestowing of the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon her in 2016 and the release of the 2017 documentary, “Dolores,” Huerta is finally getting the recognition she has earned over more than 50 years of work.
“When you’re doing this kind of work, you’re not doing it for recognition.You are just trying to get the work done, to help people,” she said. She did acknowledge, however, that if women are to continue to progress toward equality, it is important that their contributions be recognized. “When you do get credit, it’s actually a model for other women, and especially for younger women. That they don’t have to be in the back,” she said.
It’s not a comfortable scenario any time a woman’s work is being dismissed or miscredited. “It’s always awkward for women…for them to stand up and say ‘Hey, I did that.’” she said.
Huerta often tells the story about the first time she became aware of her own personal power. She was sent to a state office to make a disability application for someone who had suffered a stroke. She was told that she would not be allowed to complete the application for him. When she returned, her mentor, Frank Roth Sr., told her to go back and ask to speak to the supervisor. She did, and she was able to complete the application.
That moment taught Huerta what Tomasa Aguayo would later teach her daughter, Sandra. Never take no as the final answer. Ask questions. Dig for answers, for the sake of future generations.
Herta said to Sandra, in answer to her question, “When you think of the legacy that you want to leave your children, have it be one of justice. Sometimes people think, ‘We’ve gotta leave property, we’ve gotta leave jewels…’ but don’t do it because they’ll just fight over it.” She recalled that Chavez’s net worth was less than $7000 when he died, “but he left and incredible legacy of justice for his children and his grandchildren.”
Dolores Huerta is finally getting the recognition she earned decades ago, and millions of people worldwide will forever be thankful for Frank Roth Sr. helping her find her voice back in her 20’s. Today she can look back over her long, full, victorious life and without hesitation proudly say, “Hey, I did that.”