World-renowned Chicana activist Dolores Huerta has made a powerful impact on the world. But if you talked to her with no insight into her history, you’d probably never know it. The presidential medal of freedom winner is humble and gracious, but trust—her fight knows no bounds.
The icon will be featured as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series with the new documentary, Dolores. The doc traces her early beginnings, her work alongside Cesar Chavez, and the ways she revolutionized rights for farm workers.
As the political climate incites young students to participate in walkouts across the nation, CASSIUS spoke with Huerta for the elements of activism (and self-preservation) we can learn from her journey. The key takeaway? Speak up. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. Sí, se puede.
Read our chat with this dynamic Chicana force below.
CASSIUS: Before we even get started, I just want to thank you for the stepping stones that you’ve given me and my generation, and generations to come. You’re truly amazing. We stand on your shoulders.
Dolores Huerta: Thank you.
C.: I watched your PBS documentary, and I was super inspired when you tackled intersections with Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem. We’re getting to see that today, especially through Twitter, which obviously wasn’t around back then. What’s your advice for those who are using this tool, and how might have you guys used it back in the ’60s?
D.H.: Well, had we had it, it would have been a great way to mobilize people the way that we’ve seen people have been mobilized with the #MeToo movement, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with all of the different protests…. That would have been an incredible tool. But on the other hand, I do think that in order to really have a strong foundation, or more of a permanent organization, a type of structure, that you do have to have the people component. And I will just refer you to the Occupy movement which was very great, and made a lot of difference in terms of informing people about the inequities that we have in our economic system. But we don’t have any structure that was left in place. So if you want to have something that’s lasting, you have to have organizational structure also. So it’s not just something that happens and then it’s gone.
C.: That’s so true. I love that “Sí, se puede” is your slogan. And Obama is one of my biggest heroes, so that was a huge moment for me during his election campaign. You’re right, because in order to get him elected, it took the knocking on doors and that personal engagement as well as the social media part of it. But in terms of that quote, what did it feel like, hearing something that you coined used for this monumental epic campaign?
D.H.: Let me just go back a second, because I think that you touched on a very good point that people don’t always think about. And that is trying to create semi-permanent or permanent organization. Even the knock on the door—you can knock on the door and talk to somebody for ten or 15 minutes to get them to vote or to inform them on a particular issue. But in order to really organize people, you’ve got to spend not ten or fifteen minutes, but an hour with them. The way that we organized with my foundation and the way that Cesar Chavez and I organized the United Farm Workers—and before that the community service organization that we belonged to—we organized house meetings. And when I say house meetings, I mean Tupperware parties and tea parties, to give you an idea of what that is. That’s the way that you can truly educate and inform people. You want to inform them on why we need to access to abortion, how that should be a right. To take away people’s discriminatory attitude or ignorance on the issues of gay marriage, we’ve got to have a more in-depth conversation with people, and that’s what you do in the house meetings. And to your question of “Sí, se puede,” the way that happened—we would organize people to come join us for our nightly meeting that we had about nonviolence. And when I asked all these professional Latinos to join us they said, “No, se puede. No, se puede. We can’t do that in Arizona. We can only do it in California.” And my response was “Sí, se puede. Yes, we can.” We can do it in Arizona if we did it in California. So that’s where that came from. And of course we were thrilled when President Obama also used it.
C.: If they’re in activism, if they’re just working in the corporate world, wherever it may be, women always come across sexism. What struck me in the PBS doc was that people were calling you Cesar Chavez’s “sidekick,” and I find that so disrespectful. But you handled it with so much grace and humility. What would your advice be to women who are dealing with macroaggressions like that, but also microaggressions in the workplace as well?
We can learn on the job like the guys do! They often don’t have the qualifications, they just jump in and they learn on the job.
D.H.: We can do a whole lecture on that [laughs]. I think the main thing that I would say to women is, number one, we have to not inhibit ourselves. Do not hold ourselves back. And that is so difficult for us as women because we are so used to being accommodating, being supportive, because these are the roles that we have been culturalized into. This is the way that we have been raised, to be accommodating and supportive, never thinking of taking the wheels ourselves. That’s something that we as women number one, have to say, yes, I can do it. I can be a boss. I can take the power. I can sit on the board. I can sit on the legislature of the Congress. I have enough intelligence. A lot of times when we do see opportunities arise, we don’t take these opportunities, because somehow we think we’re not prepared enough. But the thing is this: We can learn on the job like the guys do! They often don’t have the qualifications, they just jump in and they learn on the job. That’s what we as women have to do. We have to take a deep breath and just say, yes, I can do this! And I think that’s just the main thing that we just have to remember. And also apply for those positions! We shouldn’t have to wait for those opportunities to open up for us, but actually think, okay, I can step into those shoes and I can do this work. I think we have to change our mindset, and think, I’m not going to hold myself back. And say that over and over again to ourselves.
C.: I love that. I’m going to put that on a sticky note on my desk. As a shy person, I definitely hold myself back sometimes.
D.H.: You have to speak up. My mother used to tell me all the time, “Don’t be afraid to speak up.” Even if you make a mistake, and that’s okay, too! Every time we make a mistake we learn. Our mistakes are our biggest teachers. And if we can remember that, then we won’t hold ourselves back. And always remember that we as women, we have special powers, and our special powers are called intuition. Even if in the moment we can not completely explain it. And if we want to tear down the systems of oppression against women, against people of color, we’ve got to act on it. And I think the biggest thing, and it may sound simplistic in a way, is courage. Courage. This is what we need to step out of our comfort zones. That is what I called learning leadership. Because leadership can’t be taught, it can only be learned. And it can only be learned by doing.
C.: It was really cool seeing you on the Oscars stage while Common and Andra Day were performing. It was great to see so many generations of people speaking out for so many causes. What would you say to the youngest activist on that stage? What’s one thing that you wished you had known when you were starting out as an activist?
D.H.: Well, I think that what I learned is again, not to be afraid. You have to go out there and know that while you’re doing the work, you’re learning. You are strengthening your emotional fortitude, so that removes the fear of the actions that you are going to be taking. And just be committed. Be committed. I think that the biggest thing as an activist you have to learn, is that as an activist, and as a so-called leader, your job is to organize other people to help you. Don’t do everything by yourself. Your job is to get out there and organize other people, and to also get involved. And whatever learning that we are able to gain, we need to share that with other people. Whatever power, because when we learn something we become more powerful, and we have to share that with other people. Always remember, that when you share the power it grows. Just like love. The more love you share, the more love grows. The more you share the power, the more it grows.