Civil Rights Icon Dolores Huerta: Tireless Rights Advocate — And Jazz Fan : Alt.Latino Civil rights icon Dolores Huerta visits Alt.Latino to talk about the new documentary about her life. We also talk history, politics and music.

Civil Rights Icon Dolores Huerta: Tireless Rights Advocate — And Jazz Fan

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From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. This week we have a very, very special show. Now we've had musicians, writers, film directors, actors and journalists on this show over the last seven years or so, all within the realm of Latino arts and culture. And this week, we're going to venture outside of our culture circle just a little bit to welcome civil rights icon, hero and warrior Dolores Huerta. Dolores, welcome to ALT.LATINO.

DOLORES HUERTA: Thank you, Felix. Thank you for having me here.

CONTRERAS: Now, I have wanted to get you on the show for a while to talk about music, and we'll get to that in a bit. But I'm really glad we waited because we're honored to have you here now to talk about the new documentary called "Dolores," an overview of your life and your work, as well as the work of the United Farm Workers. It was directed by Peter Bratt. Carlos Santana is the executive producer, and it is distributed by our friends at PBS Distribution. Now I'm going to play a bit of the film's trailer to give you all a sneak peek into this fabulous film. You can see the entire trailer on our website at


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Dolores is an icon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She's a civil rights hero.

CESAR CHAVEZ: She's the first general that I followed into war.

HILLARY CLINTON: She's not afraid to speak truth to power.

ROBERT KENNEDY: Dolores Huerta, who is an old friend of mine...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The FBI knew how dangerous Dolores was. Dolores came up with the slogan, si, se puede,

BARACK OBAMA: Yes, we can.

CONTRERAS: There's lots to talk about with Dolores Huerta, about the film, about the current state of affairs. And we do want to note to our listeners that there's no music in the first part of this show, but we're going to make up for it in the second part. We've got a very special treat. One of the things I want to do is I want to encourage everyone listening to go see the film. So I don't want to ask too many questions about what's covered in the film in terms of the political history or the history of the UFW. But I do have some questions that I've always wanted to ask you, and I think that's where we'll dive in. Your work with Cesar Chavez was historic, obviously. But did you realize at the time that you guys were changing or challenging history?

HUERTA: Oh, no. We were just trying to get some human rights benefits for farmworkers, things that other workers had had for, you know, many, many years and things like having a toilet in the field, cold drinking water, a rest period, the right to organize. You know, these are the things that we were fighting for. We didn't realize we were making history.

CONTRERAS: You know, we just drove through, with my sons, the Salinas Valley, a couple of weeks ago. And as we drove by, I saw the port-a-potties out there. And I pointed out to them, because they're teenagers, I said, see those port-a-potties? That's the direct result of the work of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. And I think that things that younger folks take for granted - don't understand that they weren't always there. And it took a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice to get even the most basic rights and working conditions.

HUERTA: And the sad thing is that we do have things like unemployment insurance and the right to organize for farmworkers in California and a good worker's comp when they get hurt in the fields that they - somebody pays their doctor and the time that they're disabled and that they lose work. But the rest of the country, the United States of America, does not have those rights for farmworkers. Only Hawaii and California have those rights for farmworkers.

CONTRERAS: Even after all this time?

HUERTA: Even after all this time. We do have the toilets at the national level. And all farmworkers are covered under minimum wage, even if they're undocumented farmworkers. And they all have to be - work in safe areas where their life's not threatened or their health is not threatened. So those we do have at the national level, but unfortunately, at the local level and state level, they do not have, you know, these benefits.

CONTRERAS: And I want to point out right now that in the film "Dolores," the struggle and how some of these things were accomplished is explained in the film. And the director, Peter Bratt, did a very, very good job of putting that together. You know, one of the things that strikes me is that, these days, immigration is such a hot topic right now so that field work is part of sometimes the national conversation when you're talking about immigration. But back, let's say in 1972 or so, it's when I first saw, living in California, in Sacramento, a picket in front of Safeway. And I asked my dad, well, what was that all about? And that kind of field work wasn't - it's almost like people wanted to sweep it under the carpet or not pay attention to it. And the rights and the working conditions weren't part of the national discussion.

HUERTA: It's one of those things where you think if you keep people hidden - and these are people working in slave conditions - and as long as you keep it hidden - not only that, but if you denigrate the workers, if you make them look like a subhuman, you know, that they're not really people, then you don't provide them a toilet; you don't provide them cold drinking water. And all of us have a direct connection every day that we sit down to eat. A farmworker, somewhere, picked our food so that we could have, you know, nourishment and life. And so that's why it's important that we constantly think of that connection and that we think also that we want our food to be safe. We don't want it to be poisoned with pesticides. So, you know, we hope that, you know, people listening will remember that, you know, when you sit down to eat, you know, kind of when you bless your food, also bless the people that picked it, that producer that shipped it, even in your grocery store, you know, the people that serve it up to you and in your restaurant. And so many of these people are immigrants. Yes. They're from Mexico.


HUERTA: They're from Mexico. And, you know, just remember, these are the people that are not only feeding us but, you know, cleaning our buildings, you know, building our buildings, doing the heavy lifting in our country, as they have done for centuries.

CONTRERAS: How did the film come about?

HUERTA: Well, it was Carlos Santana - you know, Carlos Santana, a great musician who has given us so much already with his music, and he wanted to give us even more. And he thought that this story was an important one that needed to be told, and so it was his idea. He contacted Peter Bratt, and Peter contacted Benjamin Bratt, his brother. And together, they put together this wonderful film.

CONTRERAS: And how long did it take to make?

HUERTA: Five years - and this is kind of interesting because when you see the documentary, you're going to say, wow, it's really addressing all of the issues that we're fighting today. How did they know? Well, artists are prophets. You know, when they started the film five years ago, nobody knew that Donald Trump was going to be the president of the United States.

CONTRERAS: You know, one of the things I've been doing lately is doing a lot of historical reading, and I'm zeroed in on this era of 1967, 1968. And I'm reading about politics and history. And I can't help but notice a parallel between George Wallace's campaign - his second campaign for president, for the '68 election - even to the point where he gathered enough signatures to get on the California ballot and surprised everyone - the press and the political pundits, - which, when I read that, it just had an echo of what we're experiencing now. And I read something that a writer wrote indicating that Donald Trump is the - what if George Wallace had won president.

HUERTA: Right.

CONTRERAS: What do you think about that?

HUERTA: No, I think you're perfectly right - I mean, the fact that he is so vocal and so visible in his attacks on people of color. And I think George Wallace was attacking the African Americans, and we know that Donald Trump is attacking immigrants and Mexicans and Latinos, which is ridiculous. But I think you're right - perfectly right in what you just stated.

CONTRERAS: Are there lessons in history to help us understand what we're going through right now, do you think?

HUERTA: Unfortunately, I think that's what's been left out of our history. And in the film - we do have a big segment in the film that talks about them trying to get rid of ethnic studies, as - you know, as they did in Arizona. Luckily, that has not been overturned in Arizona, where they have to teach ethnic studies in the schools. So if people's histories are not told, if their stories are not the knowledge, then, you know, this is why we get so much discrimination.

CONTRERAS: We want to encourage people to go out and see the film, as many people as possible, because I think that it does tell a very important story and also puts you in a place in history that maybe wasn't - had been overlooked in the past in terms of your contribution to the UFW in the very early days and throughout 'cause it shows very clearly and very distinctly in ways that I think have been overlooked in the past that you were very integral and very important part of that labor movement and that history.

HUERTA: But a lot of people sacrificed. And then we have the 17 million Americans. And many of you are listening right now, and I want to thank you. I want to thank all of you, and you should feel very proud because you are part of the movement to bring farmworkers their basic human rights. Those - all the people who boycotted grapes and lettuce and Gallo wines, we want to thank you.

CONTRERAS: One of the things that the film - Dolores reminds us are the historical signposts along the way during the struggle and during the fight for farmworkers' rights. But one of the things that I've always wondered about was the night when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. You were there that night, and he made a point of mentioning you from his - during his speech. What memories or images do you have from that night?

HUERTA: Well, as you can imagine, we were such - we were joyous, actually, because Robert Kennedy had won the primary. We were out there knocking on doors, getting people out to vote for him. Many polls had to close early 'cause everybody in the precincts voted for Robert Kennedy. So it was just an exhilarating moment. And then we lost him. And, you know, when people see the film - the film, by the way, is just so wonderful because it has so much content, and you're going to see Robert Kennedy. You're going to hear his last words that he said to the American public.

And by the way, the film has also got a lot of music, so it's not one of these really dry historical pieces that we see often in television or in the theaters. This has got so much life in this film. So when people come away from this film, you're going to come away - you're going to feel inspired. You're going to feel motivated. And you're going to see a lot of your favorite people in the film.

And by the way, my - the work with my foundation, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, that's what we do. We do grassroots organizing. We meet with people in their homes. We form an organization. We make an action plan. And then people get to work, and they volunteer to take care of the issues that are in their community and to get politically involved. We register people to vote. We get them out to vote. And then guess what? We get some of those farmworkers to run for office.


HUERTA: And they get elected to school boards and water boards and city council. So it's all about empowering people, and this is what the film is about, also - showing how the poorest, the most discriminated people, the farmworkers can take the power.

CONTRERAS: We also want to use this moment to give you an opportunity to talk about one of your passions, and this is something that I was surprised to learn - that you are such a big jazz fan. Tell us about your passion for jazz and how many times you drove from Stockton to San Francisco to go see the jazz?

HUERTA: Well, we were lucky 'cause in Stockton, many of the bands had to go to Stockton on the way to San Francisco, so we were able to see them as they stopped in Stockton. And then we would go to San Francisco and see the jazz at the Philharmonic concerts we had.


HUERTA: And I guess my claim to fame is I met Charlie Parker (laughter).

CONTRERAS: Oh, my gosh. Tell me about that. What was that like?

HUERTA: Well, I was dumbstruck. I couldn't talk. I mean, when I saw Charlie Parker, I just started staring at him, and I couldn't say anything. And it was a pretty awkward moment because I did have a lot that I wanted to ask him about, and I couldn't say anything. I was just frozen - just frozen.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

HUERTA: I went - I have met, you know, President Obama, and we worked with Hillary, Bill Clinton - many, many famous people. But when I met Charlie Parker, I was at a loss for words.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) We want to do something very special here on ALT.LATINO. Normally, I'm the one doing all the talking and all the hosting and playing all the music, but we want to give you a chance to - for the very first time, for you to be a jazz deejay, OK? So we're going to play - so I'm going to play a song, and then you're going to start the show. I'm going to turn my mic off, and then you're going to play music. And we're going to let you take over the board for a little bit. How does that sound?

HUERTA: Oh, thank you. It sounds exciting.

CONTRERAS: OK. Here we go.

HUERTA: And by the way, this is kind of old-school. You know, it's kind of old-school jazz because I am 87 years old, and I - but I was very lucky to have lived through that very important period of the formation of jazz and bebop.

CONTRERAS: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Well, you know, you're a pioneer in so many different ways. OK. So we're going to start the music, and then you're going to start the ALT.LATINO special jazz show. Stand by.


LENA HORNE: (Singing) Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather.

HUERTA: Hi. Welcome to a very special jazz edition of ALT.LATINO. I'm Dolores Huerta. We're going to play some of my favorite jazz tracks, and I'm going to tell you why they are special to me. And first up is Lena Horne and "Stormy Weather." As you know, we are now in a very difficult political era in our United States of America. We might say it's because of stormy weather. And also, Lena Horne was such a great singer and a very great actress, but she, like many of the Black performers of that time, were completely ostracized and eliminated. They didn't have the successful careers that they should have had to white audiences because they happened to be African American. What a loss to so many people. This is one of the few songs that got a lot of popular acclaim, "Stormy Weather," and the film that Lena also played in, which was "Stormy Weather." So we want to share it with you - and just to think of that history and how we have to change it.


HORNE: (Singing) Rockin chair will get me. All I do is pray the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more. Can't go on. Everything I had is gone. Stormy weather since my man and I ain't together. Keeps raining all the time. Keeps raining all the time. I walk around, heavy-hearted and sad. Night comes around, and I'm still feeling bad. Rain pouring down, blinding every hope I had. This pittering, pattering, beating and spattering drives me mad. Love, love, love, love. This misery is just too much for me. Can't go on. Everything I had is gone. Stormy weather since my man and I ain't together. Keeps raining all the time. Keeps raining all the time.

HUERTA: That was Lena Horne with "Stormy Weather." And next up is "Manteca" with Dizzy Gillespie and the great Cuban drummer Chano Pozo. And, you know, when they first met, Dizzy said I couldn't speak Spanish. Chano Pozo couldn't speak English. But what Dizzy said - but we both spoke music. And so they had this wonderful, great relationship. Unfortunately, Chano Pozo - he was shot. And, you know, that kind of brings us to two issues. No. 1 - that we have to think of our Latin American roots. We have to think of where our Latin music came from. It all came from Africa. Everybody, let's remember that - and also to think of gun violence. We have so much of that in our country, and we need to end it. So that means we have to be vigilant. We have to know what's going on and make sure that we can kind of end the gun violence in the United States of America. So let's hear some great music with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo.


HUERTA: Welcome back to a very special jazz edition of ALT.LATINO. I'm Dolores Huerta, and that was "Manteca" with Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie. And another one of our great favorites that we want to share with you is Billie Holiday, the timeless Billie Holiday, with "God Bless The Child." And why is that important that Billie, you know, was such a great, great singer and artist? Because we often think, you know, let somebody else do it. Somebody else can make this happen. No, Billie's message is, we have to be our own. You know, we have to be our own people. We have to be our own activists. We have to take responsibility, and this is what her song is all about. "God Bless The Child."


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own. Yes, the strong gets more while the weak ones fade. Empty pockets don't ever make the grade. Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own. Money, you've got lots of friends crowding round the door. When you're gone and spending ends, they don't come no more.

(Singing) Rich relations give crust of bread and such. You can help yourself, but don't take too much. Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own. Mama may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own. He just don't worry about nothing cause he's got his own.

HUERTA: Yes. That was Billie Holiday, "God Bless The Child Who's Got His Own" (ph). Let's take that seriously to heart and be our own responsible citizens. And then next up, we have Charlie Parker with "April In Paris" because - and I want to share this with you, too. You know, this great poet, Pablo Neruda, he said, don't despair. You know, don't cry. Remember, spring is on the way. They can cut all the flowers, but they can't hold back the spring. That is us. We are the spring, with Charlie Parker bringing us this beautiful, beautiful song.


HUERTA: So next up is both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie calling us to action with "Now's The Time."


HUERTA: So you've gotten your call to action. We've got to get engaged, and we've got to get involved. We've got to campaign. We've got to build our own wall of resistance in the U.S. Congress. Elections are coming up in 2018. Please get involved. You heard the call. Now's the time. So now it's my time to turn it back to Felix Contreras. Thank you very much for listening.

CONTRERAS: Thank you. That was perfect. You're welcome to ALT.LATINO to do a jazz show anytime.

HUERTA: Thank you.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) That was perfect. We're in the studio with Dolores Huerta, civil rights icon and jazz DJ, talking about jazz and also talking about the great documentary "Dolores" that will be out this week in theaters. Dolores Huerta, thank you so much for coming and sharing time with us.

HUERTA: Yeah. Thank you. And check the website,, and you can find out the calendar where it's being shown all over the United States of America. Please tell your friends. You know, tweet it out there. Put it on your Facebook because, you know, PBS doesn't have the big budget that big film companies do. So we very much depend on word of mouth, and we want you to help us out. See "Dolores" the movie. Thank you.

CONTRERAS: Thank you. Don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We are NPR's ALT.LATINO. Again, Dolores, thank you for joining us. This has been ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras.


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