Dolores Huerta discusses workers' rights
BROADCAST: Apr. 16, 1975 | DURATION: 00:49:53
Activist Dolores Huerta of United Farm Workers discusses farm laborers and immigrant rights; includes excerpt of Cesar Chavez, excerpt from Viva La Causa, and interview with Roberto Acuna.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Dolores Huerta Well, it's--the song is, was about the women in the Mexican Revolution. And "Adelita" was the story of a schoolteacher who joined the revolution and I guess it was sort of dedicated to her. She was a person who was, I guess, quite active and she sort of became a, a myth and a symbol of the, of the women in
Studs Terkel Well, we'll come of course to the women who were the farmworkers and their role, yours specifically, as well as your life. I thought perhaps in, before you talk about your life, this friend of yours, someone you know, Roberto Acuna, and I asked him once about working his job and he remembered his childhood, and this is what he remembered. [pause
Roberto Acuna Arizona.
Studs Terkel Arizona.
Roberto Acuna And the thing here is that she would go out there and, and try and scratch a living even though she was pregnant and she couldn't go out to, to get any type of medical attention because she knew darn well that there wasn't enough money to keep us eating, you know. So I went through the awful experience of having to take lunch to school every other day, sometimes not even every other day. I'd go barefoot to school. And the bad thing about that is that, not so much going barefooted, but that they used to laugh at us. They used to make us think like we were something out of this world.
Roberto Acuna Yes, the majority were. There was only about 15 kids that were migrants, that used to come and stay there some time for the rest of the season. And they would laugh because you bring tortillas and frijoles, or in English beans and tortillas to lunch, and they would have their nice little compact lunchboxes with a cold milk in their thermos and they would laugh at us because all we had was dry tortillas, you know. And I realized then like I realize now that it wasn't their fault. And another experience that I had later in life, I was still in school, it must have been about sixth grade. I wanted to become--not become, I wanted, I wanted to be accepted. And it was during the Fourth of July, just before maybe a month or so before, and they were trying out students for this patriotic play they're going to have. So I set up my ideals, I wanted to be or play the part of President Lincoln, Abe Lincoln, because I saw in him the man I thought I could, you know, relate to. So I learned the Gettysburg inside and out so I could have the part and I, I would go home and I'd study. I'd be out in the fields picking the crops and I'd be studying and memorizing. I'd come home, I'd be taking a shower and I'd be studying. I learned it inside and out. I went to school for the tryouts to find out who was going to get the part of Abe Lincoln. So each person went through their recital, but I was the only one that didn't have to read or stutter over it because I learned it. And the part was given to a young girl who was a grower's daughter because she had better diction. And she, she had to read it out of the book, but she had better diction, and I was very disappointed simply because I didn't have to read it out of the book. The only excuse they gave me for not giving me the part was because my Spanish accent was too heavy and they couldn't understand it at the time. So I, from then on decided that I would not participate in any play, any activities that were to be part of the school activities, so I just forgot about it and went to the fields. I quit school about the eighth grade and I went to work in the fields. And anytime anybody talked to me about politics, about voting, any time they talked to me about civil rights I would ignore it, because I knew that I didn't see any of that in school. That's a funny thing that those years you know, usually for a young person are very sweet memories you know, but to a farmworker, to myself and other people like myself, that is, it's, it's a very degrading thing because you can't express yourself. They wanted us speak English in the school classes, I mean, yeah, in school classes on the grounds, and lot of us were not educated in English to begin, with so we had to-- [recording
Studs Terkel As Alicia, Alicia Medina is here, as Roberto Acuña your friend and his is telling the story, he said he was born in the fields, too. He started working he's about seven, eight I think, is that familiar to you? Do you hear this?
Dolores Huerta Well, that is, I guess, the story of the vast majority of the Mexican-Americans in this country. And the thing that's tragic about it is that Roberto's story could be told again today by a farmworker who is now following the crops in California, Texas, Oregon, and even New York State, and I imagine right here in Illinois. So that it hasn't changed at all. It's still exactly the same, and in some cases I think it's, might be even worse because when Roberto was young, when I was young, there was radio but there wasn't television. And now the children can see on television what other people have and what they don't have, and the whole degradation or the whole feeling of this humiliation, this inferiority that is instilled into people is just so devastating that it's--I think poverty is one thing. People can understand poverty. They can understand not having enough to eat, but they can't understand racism and they can't understand the kind of degradation they, like the scene that Roberto described, because that there is no explanation for. I mean, there's no excuse for that.
Dolores Huerta Well, I was born in a coal mining town. My fa -family were all coal miners. My dad did farm work and also, along you know, I was born during the Depression. And my father had to migrate to the states of Wyoming and Nebraska and following the sugar beet crops, so when we were very small, we you know, went along with my dad and lived in the tar paper shacks and saw all of the life that a farmworker lives. There was a tremendous stigma attached to farm work, so my mother and my father divorced. I went to California with my mother, my mother had a good head for business, so she worked a couple of jobs and always managed to open up a small business. And because of the stigma about farm labor, she would never let me as a young girl go into the fields, because women in the fields are treated pretty badly. An attractive woman, particularly, well, not even that, but you know, you're sort of a prey to the labor contractor or the foreman you know, you, you have to be subjected to all kinds of indecent advances. And so my mother didn't want me working in the fields, my brothers worked all the time, but she, she, she, she didn't want me to be in the fields at all. She would let me go to some of the packing sheds after I used to tease my mother because I told her "You retarded my education," and after I grew up and then I started going into the fields also. And of course was shocked at the kind of brutal work that you have to do as a farmworker. It's not--the work itself is so brutalizing because of the tonnage that you have to pick. I mean, it's just not like picking an apple and putting it into a basket or picking a tomato, you have to grovel. You have to be on your knees. You have to bend over, you have to crawl, and the speed at which you have to work makes farm work--to be, to be a farmworker you have to be as physically fit as an athlete or a dancer. It's that, it's that kind of excruciating exercise and this is why you see a farmworker maybe who was 30 and that farmworker already looks like they're 45 because of the brutalizing speed of the work. And you know, it's the, the whole idea of just, say as a woman working in the field where you don't have a toilet, you know, that kind of degradation, and you, if you're in a tomato field or nowhere where there's a tree and you have to go to the bathroom, there's no place within 20 miles that you can go to the toilet at, because you're way out in the middle of a field somewhere. And, you know, having to bare your body, having to drink out of a beer can, you know, that, that, that everybody in the crew is drinking out of the same beer can, with people you don't know. And this is the water that you have to drink hot water with, out of an empty beer can. And these things are deliberate, you see. It's not because somebody forgot to bring them water. It's just that this is very deliberate. It's the whole idea of, of degrading the worker. And the idea is to kill the spirit of that worker to the point that the worker will no longer want to stand up, where the person begins to see himself as a subhuman individual. So it's all aimed--it's all done very, very deliberately to keep the people down.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Want to ask you about the conditions themselves of course. When did you, you, Dolores Huerta, who are now so eloquent in speaking of this, when did you get the feeling that you had to--were you aware of this all the time, that there was a possibility of something else?
Dolores Huerta Well, I always worried growing up like Roberto did about this not being accepted, about what was different about us as Mexicans, you know, why, why weren't we--I mean, that was just something very different and I, I had the usual humiliating experiences and experiences of racial discrimination which were--in fact, they even got so bad in my lifetime that almost had a nervous breakdown when I was about 13 years old because I couldn't comprehend why even in school where my papers were so very good, the teachers would never give me good grades because they accused me of having other people write my papers for me. You know, never being accepted no matter what you did, you just couldn't be accepted. And so I was very concerned about racial discrimination. And then I got into the whole farm labor situation sort of indirectly, although I was raised in a hotel where all the people were farmworkers. They fed us, you know, a woman had a small hotel and she had people that would rent a room for a dollar a day. And so this is the way that she
Dolores Huerta Yeah, it was like, yes, she raised us in this, in this little hotel. But I hadn't really gone out, you know, into the homes of some of the families of those workers and I went out there, we were doing a voter registration drive with Fred Ross, the man who organized me and who organized Cesar, and we went into some of the homes of people that I knew, kids that I was going to high school with, and you saw that their homes didn't have any, they didn't have floors. I mean, they had dirt floors, they didn't have wooden floors. They didn't have plumbing. You know, many times the stove was just a little single burner. And then you start think -- and I had been out in the fields and I knew how hard the people worked. And then you see the kind of housing that they had. And boy, you say something is wrong. And that was during the time when they had all of the Mexican braceros here who were behind barbed wire, and you know just, you saw this whole sordid horrible system. And I just got, you know, felt like I had to do something to, to change it. Then I, I started teaching school as a matter of fact, I had a chance to go to college. And I was in, in a classroom and I would see the children of the farmworkers come in. And these were white children, by the way, that school I taught in. It was a segregated neighborhood, the segregated school so there were just a few Mexican-Americans, just a few--no Blacks at all, a few Filipino, a few Asians, but you would see the children come in there with their little, you know, bones sticking out of their shirts and with their tee-shirts, I mean with their little tennis shoes all raggedy, and you couldn't do anything. As a teacher I would try to get free milk for the children, I would try to get free lunches for them. You could see that they were obviously hungry and ill-clothed, but the principal, who also was from Arkansas, who was with one of the Grapes of Wrath people, his attitude was, if they want
Dolores Huerta Right.
Studs Terkel That's--
Dolores Huerta That's very common too, because they don't want to identify, and he felt, "Well, if they want free lunches they have to go down to the welfare department. They have to grovel. You know, they have to beg." This kind of inhumane, so I just decided one day that Fred Ross and I were registering voters out in front of a cannery, and I had a report from my school, school semester, and I just made the decision right at that second, I'm not going to go back to being a schoolteacher because as a schoolteacher I can't do one thing to help these children. Maybe as an organizer I can. And I guess that was a very important decision, because I, I decided to, to stay in organizing and then afterwards once Cesar started the union, he asked me to join him when he started organizing.
Dolores Huerta Well, I feel very strongly that, that, I feel very strongly that the children should be, for one thing, I believe, I guess in, I guess in that sort of a religious sense in that, you know, children should be allowed to be born. And I also feel that there's so much work to be done, that I hope that out of my 10 children, if even half of them, you know, will get into organizing and will work to help--I, I'm not interested in my kids being attorneys or being professionals or, or you know, if they want to do something like that, good. Well, you know, I wouldn't try to keep them because I want them first of all to be happy. But I'm hoping that out of all, all of my 10 children that at least a few of them will feel the sense of the need to work for justice strongly enough that they will stay with people and work with people and help, help people to get together an organization.
Studs Terkel How long--so then you joined Cesar Chavez, and we'll hear his voice too, as you remember in Hard Times he was reflecting his childhood and humiliation and memories. When--how long now have you been working with the farmworkers?
Dolores Huerta Well, I started working with the community service organization in 1955 and that's when I first got involved with farmworkers in the Mexican bracero system and what have you. And then when Cesar started the union in 1962, then I officially started with Cesar then, but we had worked with, we had formed a couple of labor organizations, I worked with the agriculture workers organizing committee and with another group called "Agua" that was chartered by the meat cutters. I organized that group of people in Stockton, my, my hometown.
Studs Terkel An organi--you're a woman, now we come to one of these things, you know, women and you and battles and work, and we hear, you know, among the Mexican and Mexican-American people, among men, you know, the old--the phrase is, is a Spanish phrase, "machismo," well, Anglos have it of course, it's one of the problems in the world today. How did, did the men accept the women finally as, as colleagues in the battle?
Dolores Huerta Well, I think that that's a little over. I, I think that the stig--not--but stereotype was a little bit--but what machismo means is guts. You know, machismo--women can have machismo. Wom -- you know machismo means that you're, you're that you, that you, that you, that you feel a sense of your own strength and your own power to get out there and do things. And I, you really don't find that much discrimination against women among poor people, and that's not only true about Mexicans, but that's also true about Black, white--
Studs Terkel That's
Dolores Huerta Thats, see because among poor people, you have the woman of the household, she is right there by the side of her man, working if need--you know, working out there, and of course when you get into a strike situation you see the women out there picketing, you know, you're going to see that when we talk about the film later on, the women are right out there in front you know. And, and so you, you have more of a partnership, I think, in the family situation. And they don't get hung up with all of these, you know, what I should do or what you shouldn't do. I think the farmworker women see, say, like the, the feeding and in of, of the family as a labor of love, you know they don't see it as a burden. They see children, the whole concept of children is very different. You see children as a blessing. You don't see them as a burden. You know, you don't see them as somebody's taking your time away from to do something else. You know? I guess that's one of the reasons why I insist on, on having children is because I want to prove to people that you can be active and also have a family. And sure, your kids aren't going to get all of the attention that the middle-class child would get, you know, but they're getting something else in return, which is they're, they're being involved in something very
Studs Terkel This is interesting because in Chicago there's a woman named Marylou Wolf and she's become very active, mother of nine children. And she was in the home all the time, and one day she realized something had to be done in the community and became a leader and a spokesman. And though she is Italian-American, you know what I mean, the, the, the parallel, a working, working-class woman of course. That, that happens. And so we come to the question of children, by the way, and labor. For years this has been the case, the whole family to survive hasn't been used by the labor contractors.
Dolores Huerta Again, it's, it's another thing that is, that is deliberate. The--among the farm workers because of the speeds at which they work, a farmworker by the time he's 40 is worn out. And so then the labor contractor will say to the farmworker or the employer, the grower, they'll say, "You want to work? How many, how many manos do you have at home? How many hands do you have at home? So then that farmworker is forced to bring his family into the field. If that man wants to eat, he has got to bring his children into the field or he does not have a job. Because what, what the, the way that the employer sees that is they hire the man and his wife and the children, that's one, and they pay them with one paycheck. You see? So they're getting the work of, of, of many people for the price of one. It's exactly the way that they do it. Now that farm worker, if he is 40, if he is 50 even more so, cannot get a job unless he brings his family in there. It was interesting that during the strike, the grape strike in Coachella in 1973--
Dolores Huerta In California, right. After the farm workers went on strike there, the Teamsters Union made up a leaflet with their horse symbol on it asking 12-year-old children to come in and pick grapes. You know, a leaflet recruiting 12-year-old children to come and pick grapes.
Studs Terkel This is interesting about the--we know some of the growers, certain wine companies, Gallo here say, we have a contract with the Teamsters. Teamsters say they represent the farm workers. What's interesting is that during all these years of struggle when the Farm Workers Union was just being born, Teamsters weren't interested. Once the farm workers play a role, they suddenly become interested. How come?
Dolores Huerta Studs, it's not even that noble. The Teamsters Union has represented cannery workers in California, these are Spanish-speaking cannery workers since 1938. My mother was in the cannery workers strike that they had in California, and the AFL-CIO organized the cannery workers and turned them over to the Teamsters on a silver platter. To this day those Te -- those cannery workers don't have any--they don't have any benefits. You know, for the, for our union in three years that we had our contracts, we set up five medical clinics. We, you know, without any tax, you know, tax money. These are clinics that we built. We raised the money for them. Five good, competent, staffed clinics. We paid out four and a half million dollars in medical in medical payments to farmworkers. You know, we built a service center, we built a retirement village, and we have a credit union for the farm workers that has lent the farm workers about two and a half million dollars of their own savings and paid them a dividend. You compare that record of three short years for what we did for our members with the 20 years that the Teamsters have had those contracts in the canneries. See, their, their interest is not in helping our people at all. Their interest is in continuing to keep the farm workers and the Spanish-speaking people in California politically impotent, you know, without any kind of participation in, in government, to keep them voiceless, you know. That their interest is actually in helping the growers to keep the, the Mexican people totally oppressed. And so that's, that's why I say it's not even that noble, and I don't know whether you know this or not, but one of, their, their president of the Modesto local, Ted Gonsalves--
Dolores Huerta Modesto is where Gallo is headquartered. The president of that local Ted Gonsalves of the Teamster local in Modesto, California is in jail, and he's been sentenced--he got a one-year jail sentence for receiving a 10,000 dollar bribe from the lettuce growers, and he's in, he's in, he's already put away and so on. You know, you can go right through their whole list of people out there and that's exactly where they're at.
Studs Terkel By the way, there's a quite--you might have, this guy's being in jail, there's, there's a quite beautiful movie tonight, I might as well mention it now than later, it's--involves the strike. It's a film, a documentary called Fighting for Our Lives, and it's the Farm Workers Union and there's songs and music in it, but also we see some of the guys and the words of these guys who want to break the strike and how remarkable how they think, it's called Fighting for Our Lives at the El Palacio Theater tonight at 4040 North Sheridan, eight o'clock, and you, Dolores Huerta, you're going to talk there too, aren't you?
Dolores Huerta Right. And I hope people can come to see that, because they're going to see a different farm worker than they saw in Migrant in the NBC white paper. They're going to see a farm worker that has had a taste of dignity, you know. A farm worker that had a little bit of control out there in the fields over the way that he worked, you know, where he was free from pesticide poisoning and, and they're going to see those farm workers fighting for their contracts, and well that, the spirit that--when, when people see that spirit, then they're not going to believe any of this propaganda that the Gallo people and these other people are trying to put out that the, that the farm workers do not want the United Farm Workers. I like this--do you kn - do you know about the full-page ad that came out today?
Dolores Huerta Yeah, there was a full-page ad by the Gallo--the Gallo Wine Company is spending about 13 million dollars in a big propaganda campaign and they're trying to get people to stop supporting the boycott. And of course, Cesar has said that their millions will not buy them the truth, no matter how much money they spend, they can't buy the truth. And they are saying that--well, we we have asked them for an election. We had an election at Gallo, first of all, that they've kind of, forget to mention in the ad. In 1966 we had an election at Gallo which we won under the state mediation service. And then we got a, had a contract, and we had a contract there for six years, and in '73 they turned around and did the same as the grape growers and signed a back-door agreement with the Teamsters. And 12 executives, Sterling Carey of the National Council of Churches and 12 executives of the National Council met with the Gallo people and offered, Cesar offered to put up a bond for an election. We wanted an election so badly in '73 that we were willing to pay for it ourselves. The union was willing to pay for it and the National Executive Council took this offer to the Gallo Wine Company, and they refused the offer. They are, they won't have an election because they know that we'll win. Even with the strikebreakers that they've brought in, they know that we will win.
Studs Terkel The picture, by the way, shows of -- I see some remarkable scenes of these strike leaders, but this, the, the important thing, one of the things, you just said something, the taste of dignity is there among the farm--they're, they're not groveling anymore, you know, not fearful.
Studs Terkel You know, some of the questions come, of course the big question of the growers' use of the illegals, the people who come, the desperate people who leave Mexico just for survival and bread, and that becomes a problem, doesn't it?
Dolores Huerta They don't leave Mexico. They, they send recruiters into Mexico to bring them up here. It was just like The Grapes of Wrath, you know where they showed the people recruiting people in, in, in the, in the Southwest? They send people into Mexico and they've asked people to come here. You know, they send recruiters down into Mexico, and then they bring them up here, once they're here they de--they charge them two to three hundred dollars per person, they deduct it from their paychecks. They don't get paid. They, they, they're housed like animals, 30 to 40 to a room without any sanitation. They're injured. We, we discovered a, a farm worker, an illegal who had been picking peaches, and the ladder broke and the, the broken ladder went up his anus, and they didn't even take this man to a doctor. And one of the farm workers found him and took him over to one of our clinics. But this man could have died, but they don't care, to them they're just, they're just tools or implements, you know, they're not people. That, it's a horrible thing, and there's no--the Teamsters Union is, is con -- also cooperating and the growers and the, and the government in letting this happen. It's a terrible thing.
Dolores Huerta Oh, these people. Of course they support the union. What are they going to do? They're brought in here, they don't know where they're gonna go work at. They're told "We have a job for you in California." They don't know whether they're going to come and break the strike or not break the strike. They, they pull out 20--by the way, they pulled out 20 farm workers out of the Gallo Wine Company last week and on Friday, on April the 11th, two farm workers were electrocuted at the Gallo Wine Company. Because in our contracts we have very strict language about the use of machines. Well, they brought in a hydraulic stapler in there that hadn't even been tested, and two of the farm workers who were operating that stapler were electrocuted.
Dolores Huerta Well, it's, it's the, the thing is that, again, in our contracts we have very, very, you know, strong safety protections. You know, we, we, we don't let them use DDT or Aldrin or Endrin or any of these dru -- pesticides if it's harmful to consumers. Well, now it's business as usual. Now that they have the, take, you know that we have, they have stolen contracts from us, they're just using pesticides the way that they always did before.
Studs Terkel Let's return, we'll return to Dolores Huerta my guest just describing the life of farm workers and herself and the farm workers in their battle and may the question of machines, we'll hear Cesar Chavez's voice, more songs and more about lives. In a moment after we hear from Jim Unrath and this message. [pause in recording] Dolores Huerta's my guest, she's the first vice president of the Farm Workers Union, she's speaking tonight. Oh, speaking isn't the word, just talking of her life and lives of her colleagues and people she knows, farm workers, at the Palacio Theater and this very beautiful film, Fighting for Our Lives, this documentary will be there, it's 4040 North Sheridan, eight o'clock tonight. You said we're talking about machines now. There's something new in the world has happened. What about technology and farm workers?
Dolores Huerta Well, it's, it's not, some machines are good. Some machines are bad. The machines that totally replace the workers like the cotton machines, like the grape-picking machines for wine grape are very bad, and I'll tell you why, because we, there's an article in today's paper that they're going to give the cotton farmers more subsidies. All right, you, some of these cotton farmers are big oil companies like Peet Gas and Oil, Tenneco Gas and Oil. These are men who are already so, corporations that are already so fantastically wealthy that they don't need any more money. The Jamar Corporation's another one. They--you know, they get a million dollars, three million dollars, four million dollars from the taxpayers not to grow any cotton. Okay, then they have--they don't give that money back to anybody. It doesn't go to workers, because they have a cotton-picking machine that picks the cotton, right? You have grape-picking machines. The wine companies have been making fabulous fortunes, so they develop a machine that's, by the way, developed by the taxpayers because, you know, they do it through the agricultural extensions and the universities, and then they put this machine out, and what happens to all of those farm workers who did that work? They'll have to go on welfare. So you have the taxpayers giving these men subsidies number one, not to grow things. You know, they get up at the crack of noon not to grow something, and then, then they develop machines for them, you know, and then they have to put the--then the taxpayers have to support the people who were put out of work by the machines. Now, what do these corporations do with all this money? I mean, what can they possibly do?
Dolores Huerta That's right. And, and the whole, the whole thing is pretty rotten. Now, another, another problem with technology. Let's take the tomato machines. They have a tomato machine that goes in and they develop these horrible tomatoes that the machine picks. But the, but the savings don't get passed on to the consumer. A, a, a, a housewife goes into Jewel Tea and she has to pay, you know, a fantastic amount of money for her tomatoes. That tomato didn't cost anything to pick, nothing. But they don't pass the savings on to the consumer, you see. So it's a one big giant rip-off all the way down the line, and we think that it's got to be, there's got to be some, not all of the benefits of technology should go just to the corporations, especially when they don't pay a thing to have them developed.
Dolores Huerta And they, well, sure, that's true. And also they shouldn't, they shouldn't expect the far -- like Gallo Wine Company did last week, they shouldn't expect to experiment with live people on machines that are not yet perfected, and they end up killing two of the farm workers. One of them was a 21-year-old kid that was killed, you know. This is wrong. I mean, they shouldn't have this, they shouldn't have the right to do this. And if we would have had that contract like we had before, those men--they couldn't have brought that machine in that field. No way that they could have brought it in. We wouldn't have let them. You know, we're not going to let them experiment with our people. Once under Reagan they had this pesticide that they wanted to use our farm workers, our grape pickers, to experiment with this pesticide to see how harmful it was. Thanks a lot!
Dolores Huerta As guinea pigs to test the pesticide, and we're saying, "No, you can't do that." You know, this is what the whole struggle is about. It's about farm workers being able to say, "You can't do that to me. You know, you've got to let me live a decent life and, and a good life and an adequate life with, you know, adequate earnings, but you're not gonna, you're not
Dolores Huerta Well, we, we don't know the exact numbers, but the estimates have been that anywhere between 800 and 1,000 people are killed yearly by pesticides, and then what they do, the local doctors will doctor up the reports to make it appear that they weren't pesticides. They'd say he died of meningitis or they died of sunstroke, and the whole thing is so out of control, and the -- see again, you go back to your oil companies. They push these pesticides on the farmers. Sometimes some of these smaller farmers don't--or the, say the supervisors like Tenneco Gas and Oil, they, they own one million five hundred thousand acres of land. They have grape fields, they have onions, they have citrus, they have everything, and they push the pesticides, and the people don't know what they're using.
Dolores Huerta We do have a, a couple of small contracts with small farmers. We have one farmer who only has 9 acres of grapes, and we have another one who has a couple of hundred acres of grapes, and they are very decent people, because you see they grow food to feed people. They don't grow food to make exorbitant profits. So they are very decent human beings, and that is the kind of a farmer that America thinks that we have. But they don't realize that we don't have that kind of a farmer. What we have is we have agribusiness. We have these greedy corporations who are making their money from oil and who are making their money from agriculture, and that really want to control the food supply.
Dolores Huerta And what they do is they squeeze them out of the market. You have people like Tenneco again. They have the Sun Giant label, they have just planted, like, thousands of acres of almonds. Okay, they're going to squeeze every small almond grower out of business because they can't compete with them on the marketplace. You know, they have this national distribution. And then what they do is once they squeeze the small farmers out, then they totally control the price of the crop, and what they do is that they destroy food. You know, they talk about world hunger. Well, the Del Monte Corporation was responsible for the destruction of about 64 percent of the peach crop in 1971. They didn't pick it because they didn't want the price of peaches to go, to go down. And the citrus--well, 19 percent of the walnut crop was destroyed last December. You know?
Dolores Huerta Absolutely.
Dolores Huerta And it's a direct line, because first of all every time somebody sits down to eat, a farm worker is feeding them. A farm worker somewhere has picked that food, and that food that, that you see in the store that, you know, it comes directly from the field. Farmworkers' hands have touched that food and it hasn't gone through any other process. They pack the, the food in the field, it's put on a boxcar and it's shipped to the market. And it's taken into the, into the store, into the supermarket. So that comes directly from the farm worker. Now if that food has been picked where there isn't a toilet, that food may be contaminated. You see? That's why it's so important to get those contracts back, you know, so that the farm workers be, can have their toilets and their hand-washing facilities and so, like we did with our medical teams. We went into the labor camps and gave people tests for tuberculosis, you know, to see if there were any contam- comtaminable diseases and we pulled them out of the labor force, you know. This is the kind--because we care about, about -- we depend on the consumers, you know. Like right now, we are totally dependent on the public to win our, our struggle for us. We can't--as people will see in the film, we can't win through a strike, because they, you know, they arrest our people, they beat them, they kill them. So we have to bring our fight here to the cities and then we have to ask people to help us get justice by, by not buying the product, by not buying grapes, by not buying the iceberg lettuce, by not buying the Gallo wine.
Dolores Huerta Bibb lettuce is okay, and by the way, we promote the Eastern lettuce, too. We don't have any dispute with the, with the Ohio or any of the Eastern lettuce, New York, New Jersey lettuce. We promote that lettuce. We ask people to buy that. And also the other kinds of lettuce. But it's just the round iceberg, the one that looks like, like a cabbage, you know. The head lettuce.
Dolores Huerta Well, Chicago has always been a very sympathetic community. See, our big problem is that we haven't got the money to buy a full-page ad like the Gallo Wine Company. They can buy a full-page ad and put down four or five lies in there, and we haven't got any way to buy a full-page ad, so we've got to just appeal to the public through the, through the regular media, you know, because we haven't got that kind of money to be able to buy ads.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about yourself and the people. We should hear, perhaps, the voice of your friend, your colleague, your brother-in-law Cesar Chavez, and this is his memory in, when I saw him several years ago, you remember, and this his memory of childhood himself, suppose he -- following the crops. I should ask you about that phrase, too. "Following the crops."
Cesar Chavez Oh, I remember such things as having to move out of our house, and my father had brought in a team of horses and a wagon, and we had always lived in that house and so we couldn't understand why we were moving out. And I tried to ask him why, and he would tell me that "Well, we're moving to another house." But to me that wasn't enough of an explanation because why should we be moving into another house? I remember it very vividly because when we got to the other house, it was a worst house. It was a poorer house. And then the next recollection is we were in California and we were migratory workers. It was a strange life. Although we had been poor, we knew every night that there was a bed there and there was, this was our room and there was a kitchen and well, there was sort of settled life, you know. And we had chickens and hogs and eggs and all these things, but that all of a sudden changed, and well, when you're small you, you can't figure these things out, except that you know something is not right, and you, you don't like it, but you don't question it and you don't let that get you down. You sort of just continue to move. But going back I remember that this must have had quite an impact on my, especially my father, because he had been used to owning the land, and all of a sudden then there was no more land. We were pretty new when we went and we had never been migratory workers, we were green, and we were taken advantage of quite a bit by the labor contractor and the crew pusher in some very severe ways. You know, we trusted everybody came around and every time that you're traveling in California with all of your belongings in your car and it's very obvious that up on top of the roof. And you know, so this is bait for the labor contractor. So anywhere we stopped there was a labor contractor offering all kinds of jobs and good wages and we were always deceived by them. We always went trusting them and so we got into some real predicaments there, but there were strikes in those days everywhere, but the strikes never--most of the strikes were, for instance, we were one of the strikingest family, I guess, that my dad would just--didn't like the conditions and he began to agitate and we'd leave and then some families would follow and we'd go elsewhere. Sometimes we'd come back and find a job elsewhere, so we'd come back and sort of beg for a job, and the employees would know and they would make it very humiliating to, to get back.
Cesar Chavez Never.
Cesar Chavez No. The humiliation that you go through is so, so cutting, so damaging. I will never forget it, for instance I remember along the highway there were signs in most of the small restaurants that said "White trade only," and my dad read English, but he really didn't know the meaning. And so he went to get some coffee, a thermos for my mother. And you know, when you're a kid, you--he asked us not to come in. So we, we followed anyway and we went into this small restaurant and he walked in and asked for a coffee, and this young waitress said, "We don't serve Mexicans here. Get out of here." And then she turned around and continued her conversation. I'm sure that she never knew how much she was hurting us but, you know, it, it stayed with us, and it's, it's those places where we'd go and we'd say, "Well, there's not enough money. We can't live on 17 cents. I started earning 12 cents an hour when I started working.
Cesar Chavez That was in agriculture. Other places were paying then 25 cents an hours, but we were getting 12 in the fields, and "We can't live on 12 cents an hour." He says, "Well, if you don't like it, you can go. You know where to go." The fact that he wasn't paying more money wasn't the most important thing then. At that point the disregard, you know, for, for justice, you know, becomes the, the total problem. You know when they say, "Well, you don't like it, then there isn't anything you can do. Shut the door." And that is what sticks in there.
Cesar Chavez He worked in agriculture until oh, some 10 years ago, I guess. He couldn't work any longer. He was too old. He's getting some Social Security and also still suffering because of the inadequacies of social security coverage for farm workers. All other workers are getting what, 80, 90 dollars a month. He gets, I think it's 42 dollarsm simply because he was a farm
Cesar Chavez Never. Some people put this out of their minds. Forget them. I don't. I don't want to forget them. I mean, I don't want to let them take the best of me, but I want to be there because this is what happened and this is the truth, you know. It's history.
Dolores Huerta Well, I was thinking about, he was saying about his father, his father still likes to plant, and he has a little plot of land, I guess just a few yards of land, really, in which he puts his tomatoes and he--he grows the best tomatoes in the world. They're not the artificial tomatoes. I'm feeling it's just, that's a very sad thing that the people who really love to farm can't farm.
Dolores Huerta Oh yes. When Cesar mentioned they were working for 12 cents an hour, we had a meeting with a representative from the Philippines. And he was telling us that the Filipinos in the Philippines are right now receiving 12 cents an hour for picking pineapples for the Del Monte and for Dole corporations. So, you know, that it's the people in other countries are being similarly exploited. And I guess in some countries, and even here now, the wages that a farm worker is earning would be equivalent to the 12 cents an hour right now because there are no protections.
Dolores Huerta Right and that can be, that has been eliminated. You know, when we have contracts we set up the hiring hall, we get rid of the labor contractor, we make him illegal and we are able to, to, we are able to plan the labor, plan the workforce, you know, so that the farmer doesn't hire say 600 people to do a job in two weeks. We make him hire 300 and they can do that job and two and a half months. And so you expand the, the length of the workforce and some miraculous things happened in Delano after we got those contracts because farmworkers bought their homes, they built their homes, you know, right in the area, they put -- kids could go to school. We had 11 children of farmworkers go to college the first year that we got the contracts, which is just a miracle in itself. But that migrancy is a forced migrancy. You know, people don't like to drag their kids around the country. But they have no job security, so they have to, you know they fire them and they have to keep
Dolores Huerta Well, from the beginning, and I think I learned some very important concepts from Cesar that I'd like to share with you, and one of them was that people really had to understand organization in terms of how important it was. I remember one of the first jobs that Cesar gave me was to, to collect dues. You know, the members voted that they were going to pay three-fifty a month dues. So I would go into the homes of some of the workers, and you go into a home where the children don't have any shoes, where they've got orange boxes for furniture. There's obviously no food anywhere around, you know, that you can see. And you ask that farm worker to give you three dollars and 50 cents for their dues. That was a very hard thing for me to do, but it was a very good thing, because number one, it taught me not to be paternalistic, right? To understand that, that the worker had to pay for his own organization, had to build his own organization. And secondly, it was good for the workers because they understood that organization was more important than eating, You know. Because if, if, if farmworkers are going to overcome their problems, they've got to have that organization, they've got to have that union. And I guess that's true about most people, because the one thing that we proved in Delano during the short time that we had that labor peace when we had those contracts is that poor people can solve their own problems. Poor people--you don't have to have a college degree or a formal education. You know, Cesar's a grammar school dropout, and that people can solve their own problems if they are given a chance to form their own group of people, to form, to form their own organization. We proved that, and that, that's you know, they just have to be given that chance, that's all, just a chance to be able to do that.
Studs Terkel So it seems to me that your experiences there, too, helped in this observation of yours, this, this growth of yours, too, that being an organizer and these various encounters you had with, with the people themselves, the farmworkers, that they, they have a stake now in many ways. They see it in several ways,
Dolores Huerta Well, it's more than that to farm workers. It's their total life. I mean, if anything is ever going to change for them or their children, this is it. And there's no other hope. This is the only hope the farmworkers have. And sometimes people say to us, "How can you keep going?" Well, we keep going because we have a lot of hope and we have a lot of faith, and we know that, well, when eventually, if we just stay with it, you know, until we die, I mean, we are going to have a total commitment that we're going to stay with this movement until we die and we're going to build a national union. And maybe we'll be--we're boycotting grapes and Gallo wine this year and who knows, next year we might be boycotting citrus or Del Monte or somebody else. And we want people to understand that we're here for, we're here to stay. We are here to stay. We're not going to go away. We're going to stay and we want
Studs Terkel Something else you said about the consumer that's interesting, you know that, in fighting for the betterment of the life of the farmworker, it helps the consumer, too. The very fact of sanitation itself.
Dolores Huerta Oh, there is not one house person that wants to eat the food of exploitation. There is not one person that wants to see their--eat food that is picked by child labor, or that's picked in a field where there's--nobody does. You know? And people want to help, but you just have to tell them how they can help. By the way, we have a very good training program now where we're asking people to come and join us to be able to do this organization, because we have about fifteen hundred people working out throughout the country, working on the boycott, and we're trying to get another 1500, and all we need is just, you know, people that just give us enough money for to eat, you know, just some money because, you know, we don't get wages, we work for 5 dollars a week. And all we need is enough food to keep on going and to pay our telephone bill and our gasoline, what have you. And we want to ask more people to come and join our movement to work with us for six months. And it's a fantastically rewarding experience, because you really learn more about psychology, economics, politics just by working in, in. in getting people together, and we have, we would like to have people come to Chicago to help us here, New York or any other place that they might want to work.
Studs Terkel And fruit in Michigan I know. But the various people, not just Chicano, not just Mexican-American people, Mexicans, that's a wide variety. You have, you have Flipino people, you have Asiatics.
Dolores Huerta We have a lot of Black farm workers also in Florida. About 60 percent of our membership is Black. And the director of our Florida operation is a Black farm worker from California, Mike Lyons.
Dolores Huerta Poor whites also, and the great beautiful thing about our contracts are that the racial barriers break down. You know, when people are working together for justice they, you know, the whole racism thing just--I think that's why racism is so promoted because if people stop looking at each other with, you know, with hostility because of their differences in color, then they start looking at the real enemy, who is a person that is putting them down.
Studs Terkel You know, it's interesting, Peggy Terry, who is white who was poor, is poor, or was poor during the Depression remembered picking grapefruit, and a little Mexican kid next to her when she thought she was different, you know, and then she tells these marvelous stories of suddenly recognizing the, the common bond. This little kid, you know, was eating some very hot peppers and she, oh, she's, he's "You want some?" And she was unaccustomed to it, of course her mouth was on fire and he tore off a grapefruit and he gave it to her. And then she realized, you know, the kid and the family are pretty much what she is. You know, in, in the same plantation as someone put it. This is part of it, too, isn't it?
Dolores Huerta We saw something beautiful that happened when Nagi Daifullah got killed. He's, this is an Arabian brother. We have a couple of thousand Arabians that have been brought in to work in the grapes and in agriculture and when Nagi was killed, the Arabians turned to Marshall Ganz, who is a vice president of our unit who is Jewish, and they said, "Marshall, would you lead us in prayer?" And Marshall, his father was a rabbi, but Marshall turned to Adelina Gurrola and said, "Adelina, let's all say a rosary." You know. So, so here we are, Arabs and Jews and Catholics and Protestants, everybody kneeling down saying a rosary for Nagi Daifullah, an Arabian brother who was dying. But this is a, this kind of brotherhood can be created, you know, it just has to be--if people just have to--it has to be organized, you might say, you know, people have to be brought together in community and it can happen. And we're very--I guess the reason I feel so strongly about our movement is because I know that, that this nonviolent movement of brotherhood can really work, because I've seen it work. You know, I believe in the miracle of goodwill and the miracle of people getting together to make, to make justice happen. I know it's going to happen.
Studs Terkel Of course part of the movement, part of the work of the farm worker is music, song. It's always there, isn't it? I'm thinking "La Casa", this album. We heard "Adelita" earlier, what's one, "Ninos Campesinos", that's the one -- what the, the children of, of workers, children of, of farm workers. Can we hear this song? You find this. Good.
Studs Terkel Is
Dolores Huerta Well, it was written for my children and the other children of the strikers in Delano who were very much involved, they kind of grow up on the picket line you might say, and you know they're talking to the children that are brought in as strikebreakers and, it's, it's
Studs Terkel It's just occurred to me, that before we say goodbye and, and talk about the program that I'd remind the audience, the children, many of the children, that's all they've known all their lives, isn't it? Since they've grown up on the picket line.
Dolores Huerta That's right. My, my, one of my little boys was eight years old when we came to New York City on the first boycott, and he's now 17, you know, so they've grown up in the union, and I know it's, it's good for them because the wonderful thing about them is that they have a conscience about other people and that to me is so fantastic. They will not tolerate any kind of exploitation of anybody. And that, to me that's the greatest gift that they can have. Yeah, that's, that's more important than a college degree.
Studs Terkel Dolores Huerta is my guest. She's the first Vice President of the Farm Workers of America, and she'll be talking tonight at the Palacio Theater where this very beautiful film, which I happened to see last night, is playing. It's 4040 North Sheridan, eight o'clock, and the film is called Fighting for Our Lives, and I imagined our lives, our is the word involving many, many people. Dolores Huerta, viva la huelga. Thank you very much.
Dolores Huerta Thank
Dolores Huerta I, I was just going to invite people to join with us on a, on a march that we're going to have on May the 10th. We're going to be meeting at Montrose Park on Lake Shore Drive and Montrose at ten-thirty on May the 10th and Eliseo Medina will be heading up that march, and we'd like to have as many people as possible. We're going to walk over to Jewel store to ask Jewel not to bring in any table grapes this year. And I'm hoping that people would use their power in that respect and do that and just talk to their, to talk to their local store manager and ask him, please don't bring in any grapes. You know, help the farmworkers get those contracts back. Let's force the growers into an election in California and Arizona. And if they could also talk to their liquor store and just ask them not to bring in any Gallo wine or Ripple or Thunderbird or Madria Sangria or any of those wines. That would be, they would be doing the farmworkers and Cesar a great big favor if they could do that one little thing.