November 21, 2018

PHS Junior Journalist Teams Up With Civil Rights Activist Dolores Huerta

ACTIVISTS FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE:Andre Biehl, Princeton High School junior and reporter for the Latino Migrant Teen Journal, met iconic farmworker and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta in person last month at an event celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month at Rutgers University-Camden. Biehl, who had researched Huerta’s long career on the barricades, interviewed her over the phone last summer, and was excited to finally meet her. (Photo courtesy of Andre Biehl)

By Donald Gilpin

When legendary farmworker and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta addressed a large crowd at Rutgers University-Camden last month, in an event celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, Princeton High School junior Andre Biehl was more than just a casual spectator. 

Before she delivered her speech, Biehl, youth editor and contributing reporter for Latino Migrant Teen Journal, had met Huerta in person to follow up on a phone interview he conducted with her over the summer. A version of that interview will be published soon on the American Anthropological Association blog in advance of its upcoming meeting, where Huerta is giving the keynote speech, and another version of the interview will be published in Latino Migrant Teen Journal.

As part of an independent social science project, Biehl volunteered with the New Jersey-based nonprofit Migrant Worker Outreach over the summer, interviewing Hispanic blueberry pickers at several migrant camps in the southern part of the state. As he talked to them and learned about their lives, Biehl decided he wanted to learn more about what the future holds for these migrant workers.

He reached out to the 88-year-old Huerta, 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and cofounder along with Cesar Chavez of what is now the United Farm Workers.

“I was thrilled when she agreed to do the phone interview over the summer,” Biehl said.  “She is such a kind person and so eager to engage others, and I was very excited to meet her in person at Rutgers-Camden. She is an icon of civil and labor rights movements, but her legacy and can-do spirit are especially inspiring today. It was incredible to get a few moments with her to go over the details of the interview before her talk.”

Biehl recalled many memorable moments from his encounters with Huerta. “One of the things that interests me is the way different social movements learn from and feed off each other,” he said. “For example, she told me of a volunteer lawyer who had suggested the Delano grape boycott. He had worked in Selma and Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr. She is so eager to get her message out that she encouraged me to keep writing and even gave me her number, telling me to reach out if I need more information.”

Huerta, originator of the United Farm Workers’ motto “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”), taken up by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, was a lead organizer of the five-year Delano grape strike, one of the most important commercial strikes in U.S. history. She worked toward the establishment of the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and her efforts also led to the establishment of disability insurance coverage for California farmworkers.

Today she heads the Dolores Huerta Foundation that is working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for Latino and African American high school students in her community. A staunch believer in the power of political organizing to effect change, Huerta has spent her life as a political activist, fighting for rights and better working conditions for farmworkers and the oppressed.

At the time Biehl interviewed Huerta, a new documentary about her life called Dolores by award-winning filmmaker Peter Bratt had been released, and Huerta had just returned to her home in California from Texas, where she had joined activists and concerned citizens to protest immigrant family separation.

In her interview with Biehl, Huerta spoke about the importance of engaging people on a personal level in mobilization efforts. “If you’re trying to get them to respond and get motivated to make the sacrifices to get organized, you have to have a relationship with them,” she said. “You don’t talk to community leaders. You go directly to the people, and we do this by meeting them in their homes.”

She emphasized how important it is to engage politically and to spread awareness of laws that protect the rights of farmworkers. “Some of the rights that we won for farmworkers are now covered throughout the country,” she said. “For instance, workers have toilets; they all have to have toilets in the fields. They have to have drinking water in the fields.  That is the mandate all over the United States. All farmworkers are covered by minimum wage laws, even if they are undocumented. Growers can’t have workers in conditions that might be a danger to their health or safety.” 

In responding to a question from Biehl about hazards faced by female farmworkers, Huerta noted, ”There’s a lot of fear out there, and it’s very difficult to get women to report because they fear for their lives. They fear for their families and always worry about retaliation.  So it’s difficult for them. But there are laws, and [there is] a lot of publicity on Spanish radio and television and there are people who go out and talk about it and let women know they have protections. It is crucial for women to know where they can access protections when there are violations.”

Huerta said she considers herself a “born-again feminist,” deeply committed to protect vulnerable populations, particularly women and the undocumented. She also spoke about the impact of climate change on the welfare of farmworkers and about the country’s current political climate.

“The heat is always an issue,” she said. “Farmworkers can die out there in the fields when it gets too hot, especially if there are no protections for them. This obviously affects their health. It is happening all over the country because global warming is everywhere.” She also mentioned the challenges of poverty, lack of housing, and no daycare for children.

Huerta continues to work for political solutions to these problems, “still knocking on doors” at age 88, urging organizing, campaigning, and voting for progressive candidates. “People must vote so that we can get a decent immigration law passed and stop the deportations of the farmworkers who are undocumented,” she added. 

Biehl, a Spanish language student and a volunteer at Arm in Arm (formerly Crisis Ministry) in Trenton since he was in sixth grade, became interested in people’s life stories through his volunteer work. “The story of a person can teach us about larger problems society faces and also have an inspiring force,” Biehl said. 

His encounter with Huerta seems to be helping him to shape his life. “One of the things that I heard Dolores Huerta saying over and over again is that there is always an opportunity to make change, even when a situation looks really dire,” Biehl recalled. “She is an incredibly positive person who inspires others to recognize their own power. I hope that I can take that lesson, along with my interests in civil rights history, and combine them into a lifelong career of service and civic engagement.”