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Labor activist Dolores Huerta on the pandemic, voting rights and jazz

At 91 years old, Dolores Huerta, the iconic farmworker activist who worked with Cesar Chavez, is still pushing for worker rights and the rights of women. The director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation is the keynote speaker at the 29th Annual Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta Celebration in Albuquerque at The National Hispanic Cultural Center.

KUNM: Dolores, you are in your early 90s. And you're still very active, what keeps you going?

Dolores Huerta: Well, we know that there's a lot of work that we have to do, especially right now in the United States of America. Our country is in a crisis, you might say, to see if we will continue to be a democracy or not. And we see what's happening in places like Ukraine, where people are fighting and dying to have their own government to elect their own leaders. And in the United States, we see that we're having problems with that, because we have a lot of voter suppression that is going on in some of our states, where they're trying to keep people of color from voting. We see a lot of laws that are attacking women's reproductive rights, a lot of attacks on our transgender people, the most vulnerable people in our society, and against the people of our LGBT community. And so I think we're in a crisis right now. And so what keeps me going, we have a lot of work to do, people!

KUNM: What has the pandemic revealed about workers' rights in the US, especially the rights of undocumented workers?

HUERTA: Well, it's revealed that number one, we have a lot of our essential workers, which are farm workers, janitors, people that work in the hospitality industry, or home care workers, health care workers that are not being protected. And many of them not given the essential, protective gear that that they needed. We also know that they have underlying health issues that has caused so many of them to suffer greatly from the pandemic, but also so many of them have died. So the pandemic has really put a spotlight on these health disparities that we have in our low income communities of color.

KUNM: You helped lead a voter campaign supporting Robert Kennedy, one of the first widespread campaigns to reach out to poor Chicano and Latino workers. What are your thoughts on today's issues of voter suppression?

HUERTA: Well, it is essential for democracy that people have the right to vote. So when you attack it, when you are attacking people's right to vote, you are attacking democracy, that's what people have to understand, you know, voting is the foundation of a democracy. And so we really have to, you know, call out those people that are trying to do that. They're trying to keep their power so they can keep the hate going, and continue to keep people divided. And we saw that it got so bad that they were actually trying to overturn the election of President Joe Biden. Well, the thing is that we cannot let them win. You know, we have all got to engage in the political and the voting process, to make sure that those people, those politicians, those senators, those people in the house of representatives that are doing this, we have to take them out of office, because they are right now the obstacles that we have in our country for a free and just society.

KUNM: The Dolores Huerta foundation teaches community members to organize for themselves for social justice, how have the methods for successful organizing changed since you first became an activist?

HUERTA: Well, I still believe that we have to do that person to person, family to family type of organizing at the grassroots level. But at the same time, we know that there are the devices that people have now with their cell phones and their computers and Tik Tok and Instagram and Facebook, that a lot of organizing can be done virtually. And it's really a blessing. Because when you think of getting people together to do a march or protests, or just to get out information on a particular issue, well, you could do this instantly now with the devices that we have. But one caution, I just want to say specifically young people, yes, it's important to march in protests to get the issues out there to people so they'll know why it's important for them to make a commitment to join the movement. But remember this it has to be put into a law. It has to be put into a law were that law can be implemented, that it can be enforced, and that people can be held accountable to make sure that the law is actually implemented the way that it should be.

KUNM: The Texas school board voted to remove you from their history curriculum in 2010. What are your thoughts on the continuing challenges to teaching critical race theory in schools?

Huerta: The people that want to keep their power, and that power of suppression and trying to erase history, that people that are trying to keep not only myself out of a schoolbooks but also Toni Morrison, the great African American writer, the real history of the United States of how this land was taken from Mexico, how was taken from the Indigenous people, the slaves that really built our country that built the White House and the Congress, and so many of the federal buildings that we see, they want to erase that history. They know that if they can keep people divided on the issues of race, and the issues of women's reproductive rights, that if they can keep people divided on gay issues, then the corrupt and the greedy will keep their power.

KUNM: You're recognized for your work in California, but you're from New Mexico. What do you see as some of the issues in New Mexico and what should we do about them?

HUERTA: Well, I know that New Mexico has always been, as I call it, a very humanistic state. I always tell people when I travel, that I was born in New Mexico, and I recommend that people go to New Mexico to get humanized. Because this is a state where people are so friendly and the climate is so amazing that it I call it a healing climate, a healing state, here in New Mexico. I think that New Mexico has the same problems that we have in other states, which is, of course, poverty. We have a lot of poor people here like we have in other places. And I know, we've had a great governor, who has done great things, Michelle Lujan, and some amazing representatives in the Congress in the Senate. But I think we have to just ask New Mexico senators and congressmen to join us in the fight, to change some of the things to keep fighting for universal health care, universal higher education for all of our college students. I know we have to do this at the national level. But we can start by having our representatives fight for us and to pass these laws. I know that your senators voted for the laws that I'm talking about right now in the House of Representatives. But we always need the leadership of the state of New Mexico to help us.

KUNM: You're a big jazz aficionado. Who are your favorite jazz musicians?

HUERTA: Well, unfortunately, I'm kind of stuck in the past, you know, and I had the good fortune of meeting the the originals of bebop, like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and so many of the great musicians. I still love jazz to this day and I try to hear it as often as I can. In fact, where I'm at in Bakersfield, California, we have a jazz workshop every week where people come together and play jazz. So jazz, I think is a very good form of music. I also like classical, I like Spanish Mexican music, also, Spanish flamenco music, I absolutely love. But I think music also is something that is very healing. And I guess that's one of the things that we have to push for not only in our educational systems to get all of the history of the people of color the Indigenous people into our schoolbooks, but also that we should be able to have music and art and drama in schools, and maybe have the equal amount of money for arts that we have for sports.

Yasmin Khan covers worker's rights in New Mexico, with a focus on Spanish-speaking residents. She is finishing her Ph.D. in human geography and women & gender studies at the University of Toronto where she studies refugee and humanitarian aid dynamics in Bangladesh. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from UNM. Yasmin was director of The Americas Program, an online U.S. foreign policy magazine based in Mexico City, and was a freelance journalist in Bolivia. She covered culture, immigration, and higher education for the Santa Fe New Mexican and city news for the Albuquerque Journal.
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