The day a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner called me a racist
If anyone deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it's Mrs. Huerta. Although we agree on few things politically, she has my deep respect for her passion and hard work promoting fair treatment of those who harvest our nation's crops -- often by hand while stooped over in the open where temperatures well exceed 100 degrees.
I'll never forget the day I met Mrs. Huerta; it was at a Fresno, Calif., TV station where she and I were taping one of those early-Sunday-morning public affairs shows as panelists discussing farm issues. It was in the station lobby after that taping, during what I thought was a light, innocuous conversation, that Mrs. Huerta called me a racist.
Did I deserve it? I didn't think so at the time, and now nearly 30 years later I can hardly remember the details of what we talked about. It wasn't an interview; it was one of those 'nice-to-meet-you' type of conversations before parting.
I was the farm editor at The Hanford Sentinel then, and in my work I certainly had more routine encounters with farm owners than I did with farm workers. I think I made some comment about the labor needs of farm operators, and Mrs. Huerta drilled me with a glare, and said, "How can you say that? I think you're a racist."
At that, she stood up, turned on her heel, and left the building. I was a 24-year-old kid at the time, who probably didn't belong on any TV public affairs program, and I was pretty stricken. I had no idea what I had said to offend her. She was well-known, I was not, and offending her was the last thing I wanted to do.
She had an impressive resume even then. Mrs. Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with labor icon Cesar Chavez back in the early '60s. During agricultural strikes and other labor unrest she always was one of Chavez's principal lieutenants.
She was a firebrand three decades ago when I was passing acquaintances with her, and more than a little rough around the edges. She'd get in your face in a moment, no matter who you were, if she detected anything less than full support for her labor causes. I saw it happen to plenty of other people, before and after it happened to me. In her work Mrs. Huerta has been arrested 22 times.
She's lived her life in a "you're-either-with-us-or-against-us" world, and I think she considered me to be on the other side. I was, after all, making my living covering the farm business, where conflicts with organized labor are routine -- particularly there in California's Central Valley, a UFW stronghold. I'd never met Mrs. Huerta before, and had no idea what might set her off.
Later on, when I told the story to other UFW organizers, one of them just shook his head and chuckled, saying, "Yeah. That's Dolores."
Mrs. Huerta is 82 now and I haven't encountered her since my early days as a newspaper reporter. She's won the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Outstanding American Award and the United States Presidential Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which along with the Congressional Gold Medal is our nation's highest civilian award.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural, or other significant public or private endeavors."
Mrs. Huerta also has been an elementary school teacher, and is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation in Bakersfield, Calif., which advocates for health, environmental, education, economic, and youth issues. She also is an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America -- the largest socialist organization in the U.S. and principal U.S. affiliate of the Socialist International.
Mrs. Huerta is a mother to 11 children, and grandmother to seven, and considers her proudest accomplishments to be, "Spanish-language ballots for voters, public assistance for immigrants, toilets in the fields, drinking water protection from pesticides," and an immigration act that gave legal status to more than a million farm workers, according to The Daily Beast. To call Mrs. Huerta formidable is an understatement.
So there I was standing flat-footed in a Fresno TV station, a fuzzy-faced kid just a couple of years out of college, who had just offended Mrs. Huerta enough for her to call me a racist. Crestfallen? You could say that.
Then I noticed it; in her haste, Mrs. Huerta had left her purse behind. I picked it up and went looking for her in the parking lot, where I found her, searching for that lost purse. I handed it to her, and she gave me a thank-you and a sheepish little smile. We ended up parting on reasonably good terms ...
... and I can't recall that she ever called me a racist again.