Dolores Huerta is 84 years old. In 1930 she was born in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work as a labor leader and activist, having spent her life working for immigrant rights, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. She was a very early member of the United Farm Workers and is a role model among the Latino community.
Here she is interviewed in 2011 when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom.
Below is a moving excerpt from a 2013 interview with Huerta from Frontline. Read the full interview here:
To somebody who knows nothing about the problems of sexual assault among female farmworkers, how did you become aware of it?
I became aware of it as a young woman, and my mother would never let me work in the fields. She would tell me, “You can work in the packing sheds,” and at first I didn’t know why.
And then when I actually did go out and work in the fields, then, like all of the other women, I saw the foreman coming and hovering around you. And of course that was something that made you very nervous, because you didn’t know if they were just looking at your work or if they were looking at you.
Then eventually talking to other farmworker women that were working out there, [I found out] that this was part of the job, so to speak, that you had to kind of be careful, because somebody in that field would come and try to invite you, or they would start looking at you, making these advances. And of course it was bothersome to a woman to know.
Many of the women, of course, that work out in the fields, they wear these bandanas, as you know, to keep the sun off their faces, but also it’s kind of a protection in many ways from trying to keep the foreman from looking at them.
You mean hide yourself?
It’s kind of a way of hiding yourself, right. So this has been one of those hazards of the job of being a farmworker, because the way that farmworker women are treated, they are looked at as sex objects, actually, when they are out there in the field.
Is this in your experience something that is tolerated by management? Is it part of the landscape?
One of the issues that you have with farmworkers generally is that the employers do not take direct responsibility for their workers. Over the years it’s become more of a common practice that employers will hire labor contractors. They outsource the work, so to speak.
And these labor contractors that they hire, many of them are former farmworkers themselves, and they’ve never been trained in human resources or human relations management, so the type of tactics that they use to manage their workers are pretty [far] back in the 19th century. What they use to manage their workers is fear: fear of losing your job.
Of course this then comes to [the surface] when a women is a victim of sexual advances. Then what she’s worried about is not only losing her job; she’s worried that her husband will lose his job, or her brother or her boyfriend or somebody in the family. It might even be a cousin, because many of these families work together. So the whole family can get fired if a woman complains that she’s being sexually harassed.
When you were starting the [United] Farm Workers union early on, was this a priority to deal with this issue?
It really wasn’t, I have to say, … except let me just say this: toilets. There were no toilets in the fields, so women literally, when they had to do their business, they would have to go together. They would have to get sheets or towels to cover themselves. There were no toilets.
… It did not become a national law until 1985 that farmworkers had to have toilets in the fields. Before that time, especially for women workers, it was extremely embarrassing for them, because you have some places where you had row crops — asparagus, tomatoes, daikon, lettuce, all of these types. There was no place that a woman could go to the bathroom. So this was part of it. This was demeaning [for] a farmworker generally but demeaning [for] the women in particular.
So the issue of sexual assault or violence at the workplace, that wasn’t something you could address if you didn’t even have a toilet yet.
That’s true. And I think at this point, when we started organizing farmworkers, Cesar Chavez and myself, farmworkers were getting paid like 70 cents an hour, 70 cents to 90 cents an hour. I remember that Lyndon Johnson, as the head of the Senate, refused to pass a bill that gave farmworkers a minimum wage of 50 cents an hour.
So the big pressing issues were feeding the family. This is what people talked about: How do we earn enough money to feed our families? …