Ask a Feminist: Dolores Huerta and Rachel Rosenbloom Discuss Gender and Immigrant Rights
Dolores Huerta and Rachel Rosenbloom
Dolores Huerta—renowned labor organizer, immigrant rights activist, and feminist advocate—speaks with Rachel Rosenbloom (professor of law at Northeastern University) about the role that gender plays in today's struggles and social movements, especially those working on behalf of immigrants and workers. Drawing on her long history of organizing, Huerta offers insights on the contemporary political landscape—from the #MeToo movement to the fight for the DREAMers to opposition to Trump. Huerta's long history of fighting for social justice serves as a crucial guide for building a sustained and intersectional resistance.
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Rachel Rosenbloom (RR): Good afternoon, I’m Rachel Rosenbloom. I teach at Northeastern University School of Law, and I’m here today with Dolores Huerta. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know that there are a lot of demands on your time.
Dolores Huerta (DH): Thank you for inviting me.
RR: I think many people watching this video or listening to the podcast will be very familiar with your work, but just in case, for those who aren’t, I’m going to say a couple of brief things about you. Dolores Huerta was one of the cofounders, along with Cesar Chavez, of the National Farm Workers Association and later the United Farm Workers (UFW), and one of the principle architects of the UFW’s long-running grape boycott. In the 1980s and 90s, she became involved in the feminist movement with the Feminist Majority Foundation and other organizations. And in 2002 she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which engages in community organizing and training among low-income communities in California. And I’m leaving out a lot of things, because we’d be here all day if I described all of your accomplishments. But that’s the brief version. And we’re speaking today as part of the Ask a Feminist series that the journal Signs is doing, and our topic today is gender and immigrant’s rights. So thanks again for joining us.
DH: Good timing.
RR: I wanted to start with an issue that has been in the news a lot lately, which is sexual harassment in the workplace. Your roots are in the labor movement. You’ve spent many, many years working with farmworkers—including many women farmworkers. What is your perspective on the #MeToo movement and the sudden attention in the media and in society to sexual harassment issues in the workplace?
DH: Well, I think it’s an outgrowth of the times that we’re living in right now. I think that with a lot of the statements that “number 45” made about the way that he treated women or objectified women and sexually assaulted women, basically, and the reaction to that with the Women’s Marches, both the one last year and this year. And I think this kind of set the groundwork for women to become so enraged that they decided to start speaking out. And since it did start in Hollywood, of course it got so much media attention. And when women in Hollywood, who have so much at stake, when they come out the way they did and outed people that had sexually harassed them, that was the inspiration for so many other women to do the same. And when you talk about sexual harassment, then you go on to the next level and you talk about equal pay, equal treatment, promotions, etc., etc., etc. And so I think that’s what has been the fuel, you might say, that kind of energized the women in the United States that marched—and all over the world, because we know that this was not limited to the US. This deep-seated anger that has been just fuming and festering in so many women that just said “Okay, time’s up. We’ve just got to get out there and make our thoughts known.”
RR: You mentioned that the focus initially was on Hollywood, and that always brings a lot of attention to things. As an organizer, you sort of think how do you get those people to speak out on your issues? And this is an issue that they spoke out on right from the get-go. So I’m wondering about it as a broader movement, because a lot of the initial attention was to Hollywood actresses or to women in highly paid, prominent positions—executives in Silicon Valley, that sort of thing. What do you see as the potential of this movement for women who are in low-wage jobs, women who are working cleaning hotel rooms, working in the fields, many immigrant women doing those kinds of jobs?
DH: Well, I think it kind of gives them the inspiration that they can also come up. I think attached to that has got to be a lot of information that has to be delivered to working women and to immigrant women, because they don’t have that kind of visibility, and they don’t have the support system that women that are in the higher economic levels of society. They have more protections, you know, they have attorneys, they have people who can really support them when someone comes after them. And of course working women do not have that type of support, unless they happen to be in a labor union; otherwise, they’re still very vulnerable. So I think it’s up to us to disseminate information to women to let them know where they can go, where they can make their complaints, where they can be protected when they do make their complaints. And so while I think it’s a big, giant leap, you might say, into the future for women, then we have to still think about all of those women who are vulnerable because of their jobs and because its far more... because people are working as families, it makes their whole family vulnerable in terms of being fired or some type of retaliation being taken against them. So I think we have to be cognizant of that and do whatever we can in our communities to let women out there know, yes, there’s a place where you can report this, and it can be confidential, and you can be protected.
RR: Could you talk a little bit about the issues that you saw back in your days with the UFW in terms of sexual harassment that women faced in the fields?
DH: Well, as you know I’m 87 years old. So I can just say really I think, honestly, the majority of women my age had to face sexual harassment in all areas of life, especially in the workplace. But there were really no laws to protect us, and so we just had to pick out ways to protect ourselves. So to see this happening now at the level that it’s happening is so, my God, it’s almost unbelievable. And I think a lot of us are just so grateful that it is happening, that women are speaking out. And young women also, so it’s really great.
RR: Yeah, I was really struck by that open letter from women farmworkers to Hollywood actresses back in November, because the attention to this issue started with the Harvey Weinstein allegations and all of the Hollywood focus, and there was a march in Hollywood, and there was this open letter from farmworkers saying “we stand in solidarity with you, we understand what you’re going through,” and usually it’s the other way around. And I noticed when Time’s Up was launched earlier this month, in the opening statement—I mean, right there at the beginning of the statement by all of these people like Meryl Streep—the first thing that’s in that statement is that they were inspired by that letter and that they were sort of acknowledging how much these issues cut across class. So, do you think in terms of initiatives like Time’s Up, that they’ll really translate into real changes in the lives of low-wage workers?
We as women have to stand up and make sure that this wave of energy doesn’t end, that it goes deeper.Click To Tweet
DH: Well, I think in the lives of all women but I think we as women have to stand up and make sure that this wave of energy doesn’t end, that it goes deeper, and that we make sure that in our workplaces where we work, and the areas where we can have influence, we make sure that the discussion continues. Not only that but that women are not afraid to speak up but also know that when they do speak up, they can be protected. I mean, as you know, in our state legislatures all over the country, many of the state legislatures had rules to protect the men that were doing the harassing instead of protecting the women. And I think that’s where we have to look and examine every single legislature and see what do your rules look like? Because if it doesn’t start at the highest offices like the Congress and the Senate and our state legislatures, it gives us little hope of what we can do below that level. But I think it’s up to women to start asking the questions. You know, we’ve got the momentum right now, we’ve got the energy, but we can’t let it die down. I think that’s what really worries me sometimes when you have some real public display of energy from people that want to change things, but then they think that the message is the end. And the message is not the end, the message is the beginning.
RR: Spoken like an organizer. It’s a long-term effort, right?
RR: I wanted to switch gears a little bit and talk about what’s going on in terms of immigrant rights organizing in this country. When you were getting started as an organizer, there were very few women in leadership positions in the labor movement, or really in any movement, and your work was groundbreaking, in part….
DH: I want to challenge that.
RR: Okay, please do.
DH: I know we say that, and we say, “In history, you don’t see a lot of women.” But actually, you look at every single movement, whether it be the labor movement—you think of the Garment Workers’ Union, the strikes they had in New York City, for instance—it was all women-led. So, in all of these different movements that we had, we had a lot of women that are in leadership and they’re on the frontline. The problem is when the history gets written, they only recognize the men. The same thing with the civil rights movement, we had a lot of women besides Rosa Parks—you know, Dorothy Cotton—we had a lot of other women that were out there on the frontline. And yet when the books get written, they only focus on the men. So I think we have to challenge the way that history is written to make sure that the women are included. And in the labor movement also, we had women on the frontlines, and sometimes they get overlooked. I like to say that when the dust settles, and you institutionalize a movement, when you start putting the positions of power and they get either voted in or delegated or whatever, that’s when the women kind of drop off the radar, and then they’re not included in the power structure of that organization.
I think we have to challenge the way that history is written to make sure that the women are included. In the labor movement, we had women on the frontlines, and sometimes they get overlooked.Click To Tweet
RR: Well, that’s a point well taken, so thank you for pointing that out to me. You’re absolutely right. But nevertheless, I would say that at the time you were organizing there were very few women in official positions of power the sort you had—of vice president of the UFW—and what I’m struck by when I look out, for example, at the undocumented, you know the DREAMer movement today, is how many women—young women—are really prominent in that movement, and how many people who identify as LGBTQ. And I’m just wondering if you have thoughts on how those issues have moved over the course of your lifetime, of the kind of evolution of gender and sexuality issues within the labor movement, within immigrant rights or within progressive organizing more generally. I’ve read your recollections of sitting there and keeping note of how many sexist comments were made during meetings, that kind of thing. Do you think there’s been some positive change on that front?
DH: I think that there has. I think it’s kind of hard to measure it, because I think in many instances women are still hesitant to bring up—you know, say you have an open meeting with your boss and the partners in the organization […], and sometimes women hear those sexist remarks or they hear women getting put down, but they just haven’t found the courage or can’t find the courage to speak up when that happens. But I think what’s happening now is just giving women the feeling that they can actually speak up when these things are happening. Sometimes we don’t have the vocabulary either to say to someone, “you just made a sexist remark,” or “that really is on the fringe of sexual harassment,” because we have had this good-old-boy network for so long. We have to enable women to be able to speak up. So while we see it really strong on the national level, it’s kind of hard to know what happening in a some little Podunk town.
I think we can ... free two birds from one cage. In terms of digging down and making permanent change, we have the structure to do that in our society, and that’s our education structure. Click To Tweet
And I think we can, as my daughter says, free two birds from one cage. That is, in terms of digging down and making permanent change, we do have the structure to do that in our society, and that’s our education structure. But we have to really look at all the different levels of our educational structure and start changing the way that we teach women. We have to teach women to be strong. We have to teach women that they do not have to be victims, that they can stand up, that they can be leaders, that they can be assertive, and that they don’t have to hold back. But it’s going to take a lot of teaching at every level, starting with the pre-K level. To inculcate, in young girls, “yes, you are equal to the young man sitting next to you in your classroom, to the boy sitting next to you.” Because we know that even when I speak with elementary school children, I’ll say to them, “You know that boys and girls are equal?” And the boys will say, “Noooooooo,” and the girls will smile and they’ll clap. So, it starts at that level. So I think that’s where we have to start thinking about. And the same thing with racism. We have to start teaching at the prekindergarten level to children what the contributions have been of people of color to build our country in the United States of America and to build our world. So that we can get rid of racism, and we can get rid of misogyny and homophobia. But it’s got to start when the kids are really, really young.
You know, people shouldn’t have to wait until they get to college to get women’s studies or ethnic studies, or labor studies for that matter. And I think that’s got to be, if we think about the work ahead of us I think that’s where we have to start. Change the content of our educational system, train teachers, give them the materials—I think the materials are already out there, we just have to show people how they can access those materials—and start saying “we want to make a permanent change.” This is not just about one march that women participated in, it is about making permanent change to make sure that women, that girls are not objectified, that they are not just sex objects, that they are equal to men in our society. And that they get the same resources that men do for their education and for their jobs and for early child care so that every woman can be active in civil life and in civic engagement.
People shouldn’t have to wait until they get to college to get women’s studies or ethnic studies, or labor studies for that matter.Click To Tweet
RR: So where did you learn those lessons? Because clearly you learned those at an early age. Where did they come from in your own life?
DH: I was very fortunate because I was raised by mother; she divorced my father, thank goodness, because I don’t know what my life would have been like had my father had been in my life because my mother—my parents divorced when I was very, very young; I was like two years old or something like that. And I did live with my father from time to time. But, no comparison, my mother was just such a dominant figure. My dad, I wouldn’t say he was a chauvinist, but he was a very handsome man, a lot of women were attracted to him, and he was married six times or something like that. My mother divorced him because he was abusive to her, so she had the courage way back then in the thirties to divorce my dad. And she divorced my step-father also. So, we had this kind of tradition in our family that we divorced more than one. Then again, for women to be able to leave their husbands—and she was a businesswoman, you know? I think she was my example of being strong. She would always say to me, “Don’t forget to speak. Always have the courage to speak out, even when you think you might say the wrong thing because you can always correct it. But you’ve got to be able to let people know what you think, especially let them know what your ideas are.” I think a lot of women, we just remain silent because we’re afraid we’re going to be criticized. We have to figure out how we implant that courage, and I think those seeds of courage need to be put into young women when they’re in school, and we [should] forget about this nonsense that Prince Charming’s going to come by and give you a kiss and wake you up and you’re going to live happily ever after, which we know is such a falsehood and such a myth.
We should forget about this nonsense that Prince Charming’s going to come by and give you a kiss and wake you up and you’re going to live happily ever after, which we know is such a falsehood and such a myth.Click To Tweet
RR: Coming back now to the feminist movement, which you’ve been involved with for many years, and we’ve also been talking about all these other issues, we’ve talked a little bit of about immigrant rights, and you’ve alluded to a bunch of other issues and I know your foundation works on a lot of issues. You kind of epitomize multi-issue organizing. So, I wanted to ask you about intersectionality, which is a word you hear a lot these days within feminist organizing. You came to feminism after many years in the labor movement. Your foundation works on criminal justice, school-to-prison pipeline issues, and environmental issues and economic justice issues. How does your feminism shape your approach to all those issues, and how does your involvement in all those issues shape your feminism?
DH: I think, as I said my mother was a feminist, and I was always saw women in terms of not only the necessity for women to be in power. I think I understood all of the issues of feminism except one, and that was the right to abortion. Because of my Catholic upbringing, you know, when you start going to church when you’re a little kid, and you hear everything the priests have to say, then you kind of get tainted, I think, with those, I would call them, false values. So to be able to change my mind on that issue, I have to say it was a struggle. I have eleven kids, you know, so you can see where my head was at. So that was difficult for me. But in a way, I’m glad I went through that because it helps me to be able to transfer that transition to other women, especially to Latina women, to make them understand that this is a basic right that women need to have. And access to abortion is a human right that women need to have because if you cannot have control over your body, it’s very hard to control anything else. It was difficult, but I think other respects I did consider myself a feminist except for that one issue, which I know is a basic issue to be called a feminist. And I have to say Eleanor Smeal and Gloria Steinem, two women who I really respect and treasure, got me to come to that idea that abortion and women’s access to abortion is a human right.
RR: People evolve over time, movements evolve over time. Another thing that’s on my mind on that subject of evolving over time, not to get into things that happened in the distant past, but I think it’s safe to say that the labor movement has evolved a lot on the issue of undocumented immigrants, from a protectionist view to a much more supportive view.
DH: Well, I have to say this: I think sometimes the labor movement gets a bad rap on that, because back in 1986, when I was working on the amnesty bill to get undocumented people to get their legalization status in the United States, the labor movement was very supportive. There were certain labor movements like the SEIU [Service Employees International Union], AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], etc., that were supportive. You’re right, it has evolved, but I think it’s been evolving not just recently, but it’s been evolving over the last couple of decades.
RR: Right, it has been. And I think there are sort of different forms of evolution. If you look at the labor movement, there’s the evolving from a more protectionist stance to a more supportive stance. And if you look at the feminist movement, what I see is an evolving from not paying any attention to those kind of issues, to paying quite a bit. When I go to a women’s march now you see signs for DACA and the DREAM Act, you see all these things. And in the nineties, you’d go to a women’s march and it would just be a sea of pro-choice signs. It was kind of a single issue.
DH: We have to give credit to the DREAMers for doing that. Because the DREAMers came out, and they were very visible, and they organized on a national level to get people to support them to get the DREAM Act in the first place. And all of the immigrants’ rights organizations. And again, we’ll talk about the labor movement, remember that labor is composed of so many different organizations, they had some organizations like UNITE HERE, the garment workers union. They were in the forefront of the immigrant’s rights fight twenty years ago. Organizations like the Laborer’s Union, the SEIU, the teachers. They were kind of in the forefront of fighting for the immigrant rights movement. We had some of the more traditional—the building trades were maybe a little bit more late to the game, late to the party. But I would say that generally, the labor movement, on the policy level, they’ve been very supportive.
RR: I used to be a union-side labor lawyer, so I’ve experienced some of those differences between unions about certain issues like that! But just in terms of the present day, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the role undocumented immigrants is right now in the landscape of social justice organizing in the United States.
DH: Well I think the immigrant rights movement is a major part of the activism that is taking place right now, and in bringing groups together, as you said, when you were in the Women’s March you saw signs that were supporting immigrants’ rights also and DACA. So I think that they have probably been the glue that has created this intersectionality that we’ve been talking about.
RR: My final question to you has to do with the times that we are living through now—the complicated times that we are living in now. We have a white nationalist in the White House who is attacking immigrants, who is attacking women, who is attacking Muslims, who is attacking everyone, basically. I teach at a law school, so a lot of my students are in their twenties, and we have many activist students, and they’re having a hard time coping. This is sort of a new thing to them, to have this kind of a—I mean, in some ways it’s a new thing for all of us. But I’m just curious: You’ve lived through so much. You’ve lived through McCarthyism and Nixon and Reagan and good times, bad times…. What do you say to younger activists about how to get through moments like this and how to sustain one’s self?
DH: Well as an organizer, I see this as a great organizing opportunity. Because when people are challenged, and we’re being challenged right now, I think it really gives people the motivation to get involved. If they haven’t been involved before, then this is the time to do it. Because “number 45”’s attacking so many people, so that gives us a chance to say, “Okay, we’ve got to stand up not only for ourselves but for these other brothers and sisters and these other movements that are also under attack.” I’m glad that we’re talking a little bit more about labor, because at the end of the day, hopefully we can keep Roe v. Wade. We will get some kind of—I think the DACA students are going to be saved, according to the latest news today—hopefully it doesn’t change tomorrow.
RR: Right, it’s complicated …
As an organizer, I see this as a great organizing opportunity. Because when people are challenged, and we’re being challenged right now, I think it really gives people the motivation to get involved.Click To Tweet
DH: But I think the two issues we have to always include when we talk about intersectionality and the work that we do, again besides the civil rights issues and the criminal justice issues, are of course the environmental issues. To make sure that they always converge with the other work that we do so that we realize that we have to do something to stop global warming. Then the other thing I’m going to say are economic issues. And I think that’s the area where “number 45” is going to try to trick people like he just did with the tax reform bill. You know? Making it very public that these people got their thousand-dollar bonus. One of my grandsons was one of those because he works for the Bank of America. But my grandson realizes that that thousand dollars is just kind of a little buy out because they’re giving away millions but they’re going to save billions of dollars when it comes to the taxes that they’re supposed to be paying. So, we can’t take the economic issues off of the table. We’ve got to keep those issues in front of us at the same time that Wall Street is having a windfall, we see more people that are homeless. We see rents that are going to be rising. We see gentrification and where people don’t have a place to live. So, when we talk about this intersectionality, let’s keep the economic issues always as part of that conversation, to make sure that we don’t forget that. That we don’t forget about the people who have to work two jobs to be able to pay rent and make a living, and just to put food on the table. And that we get involved. In California, by the way, we’re going to be doing a proposition on the ballet to make commercial properties pay their fair shares of taxes. It’s called the Make It Fair campaign. And at the bottom of all of this of course is the vote. I’m glad I’m sitting behind this [backdrop].
RR: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Tell us about the background.
DH: Well with our foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, … part of the work that we do is to make sure that people get out there and register to vote. We do canvasing, we do phone banking—I’m actually sitting in our phone bank room right now. And we do this as part of a state-wide organization called California Calls. And we do canvasing and phone banking and voter registration to make sure that people vote. And we’re going to be doing a massive campaign of course here in California. But we want to invite people in these other states like Texas to register to vote. I know it’s difficult for people to register, they make it very hard for people to register to vote, but find a way to do that because—and this is what I’m saying, our only hope right now for 2018 is to build our own wall, in the Congress, of progressive congressional leaders that will stop all of the negative stuff that is coming out of the White House. And we shouldn’t leave our labor brothers and sisters behind, you know, organized labor. I know our agenda’s a full one, but I think if we keep supporting each other that we will be able to get a lot of our agenda through. And one thing I like to say to people: “You missed the sixties? Well, they’re back. Welcome.”
But in the sixties and the seventies, when all of these organizations were just beginning (you might say they were just in the birthing stages)—the green movement, the LGBT movement, and the second wave of the women’s movement, the Chicano-Latino civil rights movement—these were all just being born. But guess what? We’re all institutionalized now. We lived through the sixties and came out of the sixties, and in the seventies, we were a lot stronger. And we were able to change the culture and the policies of the United States of America. And you know what? I think when we come out of this era that we’re living in right now, I think the same thing’s going to happen. Because so many more people have become engaged and are becoming involved in movement building, and fighting for these causes that we’ve been talking about today. So, I think we’re going to come out stronger.
And as I go around, there’s a film about myself called Dolores that Carlos Santana produced, and I’ve been following it around all over the country. And I do that basically to just implore people: please get involved, please register to vote, please go out there and volunteer on campaigns to get other people out to vote. And I’ve also been quoting the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who said, “They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t hold back the spring.” “They can cut all the flowers, but they can’t hold back the spring.” So, I think the spring is going to come back with full force, with many flowers of justice that are going to be blooming, and we will smell victory at the end of this, when we get through this stage. Because then we see all the things that need to be corrected that are now so defined and so visible. And you know as a person of color and as women, we all live through this sexual harassment as part of our lives. With people of color, these discriminations and microaggressions that you live with every single day. So whatever we can do now in this chaotic stage that we’re in to be able to organize to change it, we have to do it. And I think we will come out ahead.
What I’ve been doing is I’ve been going around to all these audiences and I say, “Who’s got the power?” And I want everybody to say, “We’ve got the power!” “Who’s got the power?” “We’ve got the power!” “What kind of power?” “People power!” And then we say, “Can we go out there and organize?” And we say “Yes we can! ¡Sí, se puede!”
“Who’s got the power?” “We’ve got the power!” “What kind of power?” “People power!” And then we say, “Can we go out there and organize?” And we say “Yes we can! ¡Sí, se puede!”Click To Tweet
RR: And you of course are the originator of that term. We have that term because of you. And it’s amazing to me, that term—where would we be without it? It’s a rallying cry for so many people now. Every demonstration I go to. And we have you to thank for that.
DH: You’re welcome.
RR: Well thank you, on that note. I think I’m going to show the clip of you saying that to my students every time they come to me and say they’re losing hope.
DH: Ask them also, and you probably already do this, but like Michael Moore says, there are three things you should when you wake up in the morning: wash your face, brush your teeth, and call your congressperson, okay? So ask your students to please call their congressperson to demand that they vote on a clean DACA bill and to thank those senators that have stood up for the DACA students. You know, we can make that part of our daily ritual to call our congressperson on some pending legislation. And also ask them to get involved if they possibly can, get involved in a campaign because I believe knocking on doors, talking to people or even phone banking—that gives them the emotional fortitude. I call it Organizing 101. This is the way I got started in organizing, by out there talking to people door to door, imploring them to please vote. And I think that gave me the emotional fortitude that I needed to continue to be an organizer.
RR: Thank you so much for joining us today. It was really wonderful.
DH: You’re welcome. The film is going to be on PBS Independent Lens on March 27th.
RR: March 27th, wonderful. Thank you so much.
DH: Thank you, Rachel.
Rachel Rosenbloom is professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law and codirector of the Northeastern University Immigrant Justice Clinic. She teaches courses on immigration law, refugee and asylum law, and administrative law. Her scholarship focuses on the deportation system and the ways in which immigration enforcement increasingly intersects with criminal law. Prior to joining the faculty at Northeastern, professor Rosenbloom was a fellow at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, where she was the supervising attorney for the center's Post-Deportation Human Rights Project. She has also represented labor unions and workers in labor and employment matters.