Fighting Jim Crow in the 21st Century: an Interview With Dolores Huerta

Doloros Huerta and Dennis Bernstein.

Do the numbers. Dolores Clara Fernandez Huerta was born in the spring of  1930 in Dawson, a tiny mining town in the high hills of northern New Mexico. That means Huerta, the legendary co-founder of the United Farm workers, just celebrated her 91st birthday.

Indeed, Huerta continues to be a powerful voice in her quest to help develop leaders and advocate for the working poor, women, and children. According to the Dolores Huerta Foundation website, “she travels across the country engaging in campaigns and influencing legislation that supports equality and defends civil rights. She often speaks to students and organizations about issues of social justice and public policy.”

When She was 58, Huerta suffered a brutal police beating while protesting against the policies of then presidential candidate George Bush in San Francisco. A baton-swinging cop broke four of her ribs and shattered her spleen. she fought her way back to the frontlines of social change

Huerta is the recipient of numerous awards: among them The Eleanor Roosevelt Humans Rights Award from President Clinton in l998, Ms. Magazine’s One of the Three Most Important Women of l997, Ladies Home Journal’s 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.

In 2012 President Obama presented Huerta with her most prestigious award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Upon receiving this award Dolores said, “The freedom of association means that people can come together in organization to fight for solutions to the problems they confront in their communities. The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action. It is this right that sustains and nurtures our democracy today. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the equality movement for our LGBT brothers and sisters are all manifestations of these rights. I thank President Obama for raising the importance of organizing to the highest level of merit and honor.”

I spoke to Dolores Huerta about the current dangerous conditions faced by the farmworkers as a result of the fires and covid 19, about her work at the foundation and  about her current fight to protect the people/s sacred right to vote in the face of an upsurge in racist legislation  being considered in almost every state in the union, meant to limit the right and the ability of people of color to vote.

Dennis Bernstein: Dolores Huerta, delighted to speak with you again.

Dolores Huerta: Yes. I’m so happy to be here with you, also.

Dennis Bernstein: Well, good. Did you – let me – let’s start off this way. Let’s start off with Jim Crow. Did you ever imagine that there would be a new violent comeback of Jim Crow in the 21st century, that you’d be out there, street-fighting for the vote?

Dolores Huerta: Well, it’s always been there. It’s always been there. I know we don’t see it that much in the city where you’re in the Bay area. But in other places, it’s always been there. I’m down here in the valley. I’m in Bakersfield, California, Kevin McCarthy’s district. And all of the valley always has some voter suppression going on. We have to clear the ballots, as they say, after every election because they will throw people’s ballots out. We have had instances where people don’t even get their ballots to vote. We have registered people to vote, and they show up at the voting place and they say, oh, your name’s not on the list. But we know that they were there because we registered them. So, there’s always been a lot of hanky panky going on down here in the rural parts of the state of California. And the Republicans show up and try to intimidate people when they’re at the polling place. We’ve got poll watchers that lie to people and intimidate them. It happens after every election. So, we’ve had some of that voter suppression. Not the scale that we’ve seen with the Republican legislators are trying to do in so many, many states right now. Like Texas and places like that, in the south. But we have it here in California, also. But as I said, it’s not as bad as it is over there. But we know it’s really important we pass the For the People Act to do something about the filibuster.

Dennis Bernstein:  Don’t you think that the last president unleashed – sort of gave that group permission for all those closet racists and White Supremacists to come out swinging? I mean, we did see gallows and the Confederate flag in the Congress.

Dolores Huerta: Well, it’s always been there. The only thing that Donald Trump did is, he brought it to light. He gave people licenses to come out and show their true selves. I mean, as a person of color myself, I can just say that I’m 91 years old and I’ve lived with the racism that we have in our society all my entire life. And as all people of color and age. So, the only thing Trump did is he brought it out into the light. And in some respects, I think that’s good because all of the racists now have to self-identify. And now we’re seeing who they are because they’re coming out and we can see – and then we know that it’s probably – we always knew it was bad. But the fact that they’re coming out in some extreme ways, to try to hold on to the racist power, it’s alarming and it’s kind of scary. But I can tell you, we know that it’s always been there.

Dennis Bernstein:  You’re listening to Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio. We’re speaking with Dolores Huerta. We’re also joined by a friend of yours, Dolores, Miguel Gavaldon Molina. And I remember, back in the day, many years ago, we were watching the first protests of brown people demanding their rights in the streets of the United States. And Miguel pointed out all those characters with kids. And he said, they’re going to be voting soon. And they are here and they’re voting. But it does appear that now, the Republicans have 100 different ways to prevent them from voting now that they’re ready to pull the lever. So, welcome Miguel, and what do you think about that? I mean, we’ve got the people but – and we’ve got the majority. But they’re going to stop them from voting.

Dolores Huerta: Well, they’re going to try to stop them from voting and in some places, they might be successful. But that’s – we have a lot of great listeners and activists on this radio show, which is one-of-a-kind in California. And I just want to say to all of our activist friends that are listening to us, if you haven’t already done so, and I’m sure a lot of them already have, contact your friends back East and South, and wherever you have friends, and tell them to continue to send those emails to the Senator’s, and the U.S. Congress, to all the Senator’s to tell them to get rid of the filibuster so that we can pass the For the People Act. One person that we’ve been putting a lot of pressure on is a Senator from Arizona, Senator Kyrsten Sinema. And we definitely lean – she’s come out against the filibuster and changed really – I’m going to say – I almost said stupid – but dumb things that’s part of the Constitution, which it is not. And so, people out there, they can continue to help us. And if you have friends in Arizona, ask them to send emails to Kyrsten Sinema. I’m a member of the Feminist Majority Foundation. And I actually went to Arizona and tried to deliver 15,000 emails and postcards to – letters and postcards – to Kyrsten Sinema. But they wouldn’t even open up their office. Her office is like Kevin McCarthy here in Bakersfield. His office is never open. We can’t get in to talk to him. Same thing with Kyrsten Sinema. Kevin McCarthy is a Republican. Kyrsten Sinema is a Democrat, and so she shouldn’t be acting like a Republican. And we’ve got to keep the pressure on her to tell her she’s got to vote to get rid of the filibuster.

Dennis Bernstein: This is Dennis Bernstein. Also joining us is our Senior Producer, Miguel Galvaldon Molina. Say hello to your friend Dolores, Miguel.

Miguel G. Molina:  Well, it’s good to have Dolores on, always. It’s a privilege and an honor. But there’s one point, Dennis, that Dolores made, and that’s the filibuster. And even though there is a female senator in Arizona, a Democrat, a lot of what we call Demopublicans, who were moderate or liberal, you really can’t count on their vote. Because they’ll shift with the consensus of what is mainstream. But I think at this point, the Biden administration needs to take some bold action. They have the power. Bypass the Senate, if necessary. Just get rid of the filibuster. I think their administration is trying, Dennis, and Dolores to at least look like we’re trying to work with the other side. We’re trying to be bi-partisan. It’s not going to happen, and we’ve seen that for the last six months we’ve seen it. For the last four or five years. I think at this point, there’s a lot of issues. A filibuster’s going to be an answer to a lot. But the other thing, I think, that’s really important, and I know Dolores really takes this on. And that’s, we have a lot of young Latino students. We have a lot of Latino young people, who are DACA students. And, roughly a month and a half ago, one of the Federal judges ruled here in California, I believe, that – just threw out the case. Said, this is unconstitutional. It’s not – we’re not going to do this anymore. So, there’s roughly 800,000 young people that are in limbo at this point. I think the administration really needs to start looking at the Latino vote. These students, I believe like, 38,000 of them were essential workers – nurses, from DACA. So, they’re already contributing. They’re already doing things. And the administration has yet to take a stand. Dolores, how do you feel about the situation with the DACA students? And is there any hope that this administration will finally address it?

Dolores Huerta: Oh, the Biden Administration is completely and totally supportive of the DACA students, and that is part of the legislation that is now pending in the U.S. Senate. So, we’ve got – all these good laws are in the Senate right now. I guess it’s where the people – the equal rights amendment, which would put into the Constitution of the United States that women have equal rights as men. We don’t have that yet. That’s pending in the Senate right now. Then we’ve got the vote – [inaudible] the DACA students to give them a path to citizenship. That’s in the Senate. All of these laws are in the Senate. The pro-act, the labor union, that’s in the Senate. And – but if we can’t get past that filibuster, then none of this stuff is going to pass. In terms of the Biden administration, they are wholeheartedly behind the DACA students, and there is legislation so that they can continue to stay, work, and study in The United States of America. But again, it goes back to the Senate, as everybody knows, we don’t have to tell people because I know the legislatures here are very, very well-educated when it comes to politics. We’ve got a 50/50 Senate, and it only takes a couple of Democrats to peel off, like Kyrsten as you mentioned, to mess everything up. So, we’re just going to keep the pressure up on the Democrats to make them do the right thing.

Dennis Bernstein: Dolores, Dennis here again. I want you to, just for a moment, change the subject, and talk a little about struggles that you’ve been close to for so many years. We know, here in California, with the combination of the pandemic – the Covid pandemic, and the extraordinary fires, the farm workers are facing a particularly brutal moment. What’s your understanding of the situation now? Do you feel the governor has been responsive to some of their most crucial needs? I’m sure you don’t support the recall. But what do you think the governor’s saying and doing, or should be doing, about this added struggle facing the farm workers?

Dolores Huerta: Well, you know, there’s some situations that can only be mitigated. I’m thinking about, it’s been [inaudible] it’s been over 100 degrees. It’s been – for the last two weeks it’s been 105, 104, 106, 107. The heat has been really, really, unbearable. And the workers are still out there working every single day, picking the crops to feed the nation, they’re out there. I think the governor has done a lot. He was able to make sure that the farm workers themselves were – are able to be prioritized for vaccine shots. They had stimulus money to pay for the undocumented people, and he did that a couple of times. I don’t think any other state in the nation has done that. So, I think that, yeah, Newsome himself, has been really, really supportive of the farm workers. I think that the employers need to take a lot more responsibility than what they are because they should have the primary responsibility. They were able to get out the preventive PPE equipment for – the masks and other stuff that the farm workers needed. It was slow to start at the beginning. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of people out there that are not getting vaccinated. That, of course, is a big threat to everybody. So, we have to keep working on it. Our foundation, we have been doing door-to-door, and phone-calling, and getting people – making appointments for people to get vaccinated. We’ve been doing vaccine clinics every weekend. And we’ve also been doing food banks, so that people can get food to people that have food shortages. We’re doing as much as we can. And also, raising money to get resources for a lot of our undocumented people who are ineligible for some of the resources. But, yeah, the farm workers, again, they’re not appreciated the way that they should be appreciated. And they’re not expecting as much as they should be. So, we’ll keep – thank you for bringing the farm workers up because we should remember them every day when we sit down to eat our food.

Dennis Bernstein: Congresswoman Maxine Waters is sort of on the offensive, trying to figure out where all the federal money that was allocated through work that she did in the Congress, for landlord – for rent bailouts, which I know could affect farmworkers across California, and working-class people across California. Do you – are you pleased that Bush finally acted on the rent subsidy situation? And what are your thoughts on that? That’s pretty crucial, isn’t it?

Dolores Huerta: Yeah, it is. And it’ll be one of the most difficult resources to be able to give to people because there’s a lot of landlords that are not being cooperative. But we know that that is such a key issue right now that we have so many people that are unsheltered. So, that’s something that we have to really, really, focus on, and work on really hard.

Dennis Bernstein:  All right. Well, Miguel, final question for Dolores?

Miguel G. Molina:  Yes, yes. Yes, I do. And I think that it’s something that affects all of us. And particularly, some of us that have come from big families, farm worker families, domestic worker’s families. Well, there’s a situation at the border, and it’s been there since the former administration. And that’s the children. Dolores, is there any that – because I know that you are aware of the issue. And you travel up and down the border. Is there any hope that we’re going to see these children – I think there’s something – an estimated 7000. It could be even higher – that at some point, this administration will answer and actually release these children? And again, unite them with their families? We saw, I think roughly a month and a half ago, where the Vice President, Camella Harris was sent down to the border, and – to look at the issue. And then when she went down to, I believe, Honduras. And she made a public statement and she said, don’t come. That was really shocking to me, Dolores, because here, I saw a woman of color, whose parents both immigrated to the United States. I would’ve hoped she had a little more compassion and understanding. But it was almost as if the Statue of Liberty turned its back on these refugees seeking asylum, and said, “don’t come, you’re not welcome.” What is your take on that?

Dolores Huerta: Well, I really can’t speak for our Vice President. I think she has to speak for herself, as she may have been concerned because there’s so many dangers for the families that are trying to get into the United States of America. That may have been her concern. But as I said, I can’t speak for her. But I do want to say, – to let you know that, in Los Angeles, Supervisor Hilda Solis here, who was formerly the Department of Labor Secretary under Obama. They did a huge, huge, really, really, big reconciliation project here in Los Angeles. And I think they got a lot, a lot of the children reunited with families. It was a big, successful project that they undertook here. And I imagine some of that same stuff is happening in some of the other border cities. I really don’t have knowledge about what’s happening in places like Texas. But I do know that here, in California, that, as I said – and I have to know this because I know Supervisor Solis and she was able to give me that information. So, the other thing, too, before we stop the conversation. The census figures just came out that showed the Hispanics are now the majority minority. We knew that before –

Dennis Bernstein:  Yes.

Dolores Huerta: – but then, our numbers have grown. And here, in the San Joaquin Valley, and now we’re originally – we’re not just a majority minority. We’re the majority. Hispanics are now the number one in all of the Central Valley. All the counties of the Central Valley here. And so, I think that is something the politicians are really going to be paying attention to because that would – we’re right in the middle of redistricting. I’m sure that you already have some shows on that. But that is also very important. And some of the ones – I just want to mention this so people will know about it. But it is so important for people to go to those redistricting meetings. Some of our folks showed up at a redistricting meeting here in Fresno. And one of the person’s that you may know of, Hugo Morales, who is the Head of Radio Bilingue, he was the only person, I think, that had a microphone. And they had to share a microphone. They were very rude to many of the people who were trying to testify. In fact, one of the Commissioner’s came up to one of our people at the hearing – well, they had a hearing in Fresno. It was very disorganized where not all of the Commissioner’s had mics. And when Hugo tried to talk, I think it was hard to hear him. And then, another Commissioner in the hearing in Tulare County came up to one of our people that were testifying there, and said to him, “Listen, what difference does it make? So many of your people are undocumented, and they can’t vote anyway.” Well, because of the census and these numbers that showed that the Hispanic community is now the majority, it also means more representation. And so, some of these conservative people that have been in power in the white community are going to try to keep the Latinos from getting representation. And that’s here in California, in some of our rural areas. Now, we know, at the national level, that the Republican legislators are going to do a lot of this gerrymandering against – to try to keep people of color – black, and brown, and Asian, from getting the representation that they deserve. So, there’s a lot going on. And I’m glad Flashpoints is ready to let people know and flash that red light, and say, folks you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to pay attention because there’s a lot going on right now. Because these – this redistricting will actually – they’re going to make the district lines with the election that will be in place for the next 10 years.