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Dolores Huerta Reacts To Cesar Chavez Bust In Biden's Oval Office

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go back to the new administration now. New presidents and their families are expected to put their own personal touches on White House decor. So it was for the start of President Biden's tenure this week. On Wednesday, Inauguration Day, Biden sat down in a newly redecorated Oval Office to sign his first executive orders. And one piece of art stood out, positioned right behind him, nestled amid a group of Biden family photos. It was a bronze bust of the late civil rights activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Chavez dedicated his life to advocating for farmworkers. He pushed for better wages and working conditions and was one of the founders of the United Farm Workers of America, or UFW. Dolores Huerta, a famed activist in her own right is also a co-founder of the United Farm Workers. She worked alongside Chavez for many years, so we called her to hear her thoughts on this moment. And she is with us now.

Dolores Huerta, welcome back. Thank you so much for talking with us.

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: So what was your reaction when you heard that President Biden had chosen to honor Cesar Chavez so prominently in the Oval Office?

HUERTA: It's really a very strong message that the strongest person in the whole world, the president of the United States of America, would have a bust of Cesar Chavez, a very simple, humble farmworker, a leader, a person who stood up for gun violence, who dedicated his life to make life better for the poorest of the poor - to me, that was a very strong message. And it really indicated that the president is saying to everybody, I am your servant leader, and I am here to serve you.

MARTIN: And I'm not trying to make you the spokesperson, you know, for all Latinos. But we couldn't think of another Latino leader who has been so honored with a presence in the Oval Office - I mean, that his likeness is there, along with other iconic figures in U.S. history - Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln. And I just wondered, does this - how does this speak to you as a Latino?

HUERTA: Well, a very strong healing moment, I think, for all Latinos, especially when we have been under such vicious attack under the Trump administration. It was an acknowledgment, and it was not only for Latinos. I think it was for all people of color. And it was also a big acknowledgment, I think, for all working people and for labor unions also.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention that you endorsed Joe Biden for president last May, but you also were part of that celebratory event which was held on the evening of Inauguration Day in lieu of balls because of COVID You know, people aren't having those big parties, and so there was a big - kind of a big television show performance that you were a part of, that you read words from a prior president - so so many important and symbolic moves. But I assume that you're not just interested in symbolism. What other moves are you looking for?

HUERTA: Well, you know, we have a lot of work to do, and then to support President Biden in healing the country and bringing the country together. And the words that I spoke were from Franklin Delano Roosevelt about being afraid of fear itself. And I think that we have a lot of fear in our country, and we have to remove the fear, and we have to go forward.

MARTIN: So what has this last four years been for you? I'm just wondering how you've navigated these last four years when there was leadership in the country that very much was opposed to many of the things that you worked your life for. And I wondered if you were disheartened at any point.

HUERTA: Well, it was very disheartening to think of so many things that we have worked for - trying to get social justice, racial equality, women's equality, income equality - and to see that we were taking so many steps backward. So it's very refreshing to know that now we can go forward, that we have a new president, a new vice president, and that - people that have the same values as most of the American people.

MARTIN: And what do you think that President Biden's priorities should be? I mean, he's done a lot of - taken a lot of moves in the first couple of days. I mean, he's signed a number of executive orders on things like workplace safety during the ongoing pandemic, immigration reform, just to name just a couple of - what do you think his priorities should be?

HUERTA: Well, we know that one of them is to try to control the pandemic and, of course, try to bring our economy back to health. But also, I believe I - begin by having the (unintelligible) challenges also making a big brushstroke against hatred and against xenophobia and the racism that we've seen manifest itself. And this is very, very important because we can't bring our country back together until we start respecting each other.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you've seen the bust that's in the office, right? I mean, it's borrowed from the Cesar Chavez Foundation, so you've seen it. Do you like the bust?

HUERTA: Well, I think it's a very beautiful bust. Yes. It's a very beautiful bust. And it's - of course, it's in the likeness of the ones that they did for - of President Kennedy and for Robert Kennedy and for Dr. King.

MARTIN: So would you want a bust of you or would you kind of go more for an oil painting?

HUERTA: Oh, no, no, no, no. I would love to have a bust of myself. That would be a great honor. But in the meantime, we're just so happy that President Biden chose to have Cesar Chavez as a person in his office. I mean, that is a great honor for everyone.

MARTIN: That is Dolores Huerta. She's a longtime civil rights advocate and a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America Labor Union.

Dolores Huerta, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HUERTA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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