New America Media, Profile, Khalil Abdullah,
Posted: Jul 04, 2009
Editor's Note: At nearly 80, United Farmworkers Union co-founder
Dolores Huerta personifies the phrase she coined, "Sí se puede!"
which President Obama borrowed and translated as "Yes, we can!" New
America Media editor Khalil Abdullah interviewed Huerta, who was
honored as an extraordinary older woman at the AARP Diversity
Conference in Chicago.
Dolores Huerta will be forever linked with Cesar Chavez and Philip
Vera Cruz as a co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in
the 1960s. As director of a grape workers strike and a national
boycott against grape growers for the meager wages afforded their
workers, Huerta was instrumental in orchestrating efforts that led to
a major victory for the UFW and the labor movement.
Huerta, who left the union several years ago to found the Dolores
Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield, Calif., proudly announced at the
AARP Diversity Conference in Chicago, "Next year I will be 80." She
was honored at the conference as one of the nation's extraordinary older women.
The energetic Huerta dedicated her foundation to supporting efforts
in community organizing. She told the 600 attendees that one former
organizer President Barack Obama told her, "I stole your slogan."
In English, Huerta's phrase, "Sí se puede!" which galvanized the
farmworkers movement, translates as "Yes, we can!"
In an interview, Huerta noted, "I still work with farmers and we
teach the importance of the unions, but I wanted to include other
activities as well." She has become a frank critic of America's
failure to value elders and calls for new strategies to bind
"I think the elderly have a lot to contribute to society, and the way
to do it is to have seniors incorporated into the community" rather
than promoting programs that "shut them off in a corner." She
encourages communities to devise ways to tap the knowledge and wisdom
older adults have to offer.
"Our whole society is so youth focused," Huerta contended, and "Anglo
or U.S. culture demeans elderly people." Generally, she believes,
"cultures of color have more respect for elders." Traditional views,
though, are being challenged by the rapid aging of the Hispanic
population in the United States. Expected to more than double in the
next two decades, the Latino population of those age 65 or older will
yield increasing numbers of older adult children caring for very
Although Huerta noted that Latinos are deeply reluctant to place
their elders in nursing homes, sometimes those in their 50s or 60s
face their own debilitating medical conditions and may not have the
strength to assist their aging parents. Unable to lift their parents
from a chair, bed or bathtub, these aging boomers will increasingly
confront their "pangs of guilt," she said, over finding a
long-term-care placement for a frail parent.
Huerta acknowledged that "the longevity facing baby boomers,
especially women," will only intensify the stress on families trying
to cope with aging relatives. She conceded that government cannot do
everything, but refused to accept the conservative political position
that the Social Security system should be downsized. In order to
provide an effective safety net for families, she said, "More
economic resources need to be appropriated." That's a goal, she
added, best accomplished through continued pressure on politicians.
"You do it the same way you organize communities," she stressed.
At the local level, Huerta described her foundation's organizing
success in one California county. Using techniques such as petitions,
the foundation helped local citizens gain infrastructure improvements
from the building sidewalks to the construction of a gymnasium where
none had existed before.
Huerta said a county supervisor told her that the newly organized
citizens had become his eyes and ears, resulting in a shift of the
county's budgetary priorities to be more responsive to people's real needs.
Although Huerta advocates for a stronger government role, she also
urges people to take responsibility for personal behaviors that may
negatively affect the well being of families. "Diabetes is rampant
among blacks, Latinos and indigenous peoples," she stated, citing but
one of what she termed "the terrible individual diseases" that are
exacerbated by unhealthy diets and poor nutrition. She emphasized,
"Preventative health could save us a lot of money in terms of health costs."
Educating communities about sound health practices requires effective
communication, Huerta said, and she's concerned that the increasing
failure of individuals to communicate is an ominous sign of a fraying
society: "We don't know how to talk to each other."
While waiting in an airport, she said, "I watched a family of four, a
man, a wife, and two kids. The parents were on their cell phones; the
children were on their Gameboys. No one was talking to each other."
Even accomplished adults may lose opportunities for vital personal
connections. Huerta recalled that while on the campaign trail in
2008, she sometimes traveled with other well known personages. When
their formal duties ended, though, each retreated to his or her cell
phone or text messages even though they were still seated within
easy conversational range of their companions,
The mother of eleven children, Huerta said she, her children and
grandchildren, make a conscious family effort not to lose the art of
conversation. Any family will find strength in communication, she
said, "and I just don't mean the nuclear family." For Huerta, the
term family extends to those who define themselves as such,
"including the LGBT family."
Huerta attributes her determination to pursue her beliefs to her
mother and the influence of other strong women and feminists she has
encountered and befriended over the years, especially "Ms. Magazine"
founder Gloria Steinem and former National Organization for Women
President Eleanor Smeal.
One possibility she has seen realized is the nomination of a Latina
for the U.S. Supreme Court. "I'm thrilled," she said of President
Obama's selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.