In an exclusive interview this week with The Stream ranging from the latest "Cesar Chavez" movie to issues impacting Latinos in the United States, prominent labor rights activist Dolores Huerta said that getting U.S. Latinos to express their political power through voting is the biggest challenge facing one of the country's fastest-growing and most populous minority groups.
"We have many people who are comfortable to vote but just don't vote," Huerta said on the phone from her office in Bakersfield, Calif.
Her comments come at a time when voter turnout for eligible Latinos has declined, according to Pew. Although a record number of Latinos – an estimated 11.2 million – voted in the 2012 national elections, turnout was at 48%. This is a drop from 2008, when an estimated 49.9% of eligible Latinos voted. In contrast, the 2012 turnout rate for blacks was 66.6% and 64.1% for whites.
Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1962 with Cesar Chavez and now heads up the Dolores Huerta Foundation, believes that the lack of political interest has to do with how little value Latinos place in voting. Such revelations are important, she says, given that bills surrounding comprehensive immigration reform — strongly favored by Latino voters — still languish in Congress.
Labor rights activist
"Basically our people don't realize that their vote is important," Huerta said. "They don't give themselves any self-worth. They don't realize how important they are to the whole system of democracy, and that their votes are needed."
Having organized for more than five decades, Huerta believes that her latest cause will have a lasting impact. Latinos were 16.9% of the U.S. population in 2012, or about 53 million people.
In 2012, Pew estimated that 17.6 million Latinos were under 18 years of age and that by 2030, there could be an additional 16 million new voters who are Latino.
"We explain to people that they are important, that they are part of the United States, that they have to engage, that they have to contribute, and it is a responsibility that they do so," Huerta said. "Once we make them understand that, they will come out and they will vote. But it is almost like a one-by-one basis."
"They don't realize that they have power. Latinos feels as if they have been discriminated and they think that they don't matter. But once they understand that they do, it is incredible to see how they get involved."
Future of U.S labor movement
Huerta, whose rise to national prominence with Chavez came from her early UFW (original known as the National Farmworkers Association) days and a grape boycott that called attention to the working conditions of California farmworkers, also shared her thoughts on the future of the U.S. labor movement, saying that a push to try to destroy it would be "dangerous."
"You have democracies in danger when you do not have labor unions, because labor unions are the organizations which represent the working people," Huerta said. "And the majority of the people in the United States of America are workers. We are the majority. So when you take away [unions'] right to organize, their right to form collective bargaining, it sets a very dangerous period in our democracy."
Citing recent actions against the fast food industry and Walmart, Huerta noted unions do face obstacles and pushback when it comes to organizing. Such problems have led to critiques that unions have chosen to accept corporate money for their causes.
For example, in recent promotions for the "Cesar Chavez" movie, Budweiser logos were marketed with scenes from the film. Although Huerta is no longer part of the UFW, she think the criticism is unwarranted.
"I can't think of any union anywhere who has 'sold out.' I think all the labor unions I know are all trying to work hard to gain representation for their workers," Huerta said. "So to say that any labor union has 'sold out' is totally a misrepresentation."
"Cesar Chavez" movie
The new "Cesar Chavez" movie opened on March 28 to mixed reviews and low box-office numbers. Starring Michael Pena as Chavez, Rosario Dawson as Huerta and America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, the film has been the topic of much discussion and even dissent. Huerta, who was reportedly not consulted for the film, still believes Hollywood was right in telling this story – a story she personally lived.
"Our stories in terms of the Latino community, in the Latino space, rarely ever make it to the big screen," Huerta said. She noted that young Latinos are strong supporters of Hollywood films.
Huerta added that the story of California farmworkers in the 1960s is one few Americans know because "our society is basically structured in silos, so people don't really exhange stories with each other and [Hollywood] is the only way people can know how the farmworkers lived, the obstacles they had to go through, the conditions. This is what this movie does."
Huerta admitted that the first time she saw the movie, she cried from the emotion of the story. But she was more touched by all the other people who saw the film.
"Many people came out of the movie with tears in their eyes because they remembered what their grandfathers or their fathers had to go through, or what they themselves went through as farmworkers," Huerta said.
She also noted that one of the film's scenes, when the Chavez character learned of Sen. Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968 via a radio news report in the car, was not accurate.
Huerta said that most of the UFW leaders were in Los Angeles that day registering new voters when they heard the news.