McALLEN, October 27 - La Virgen de Guadalupe is surely, partly at the back of the success of LUPE— La Unión del Pueblo Entero (The Union of the Entire People).
At least faith in her and in traditional religious principles help sustain many of the leaders, workers, and supporters of that vibrant organization. More secular members and associates, too, see and appreciate the hard, often successful work for social justice performed by the Union.
LUPE celebrated its tenth anniversary Thursday night, October 17, 2013, at the splendid Valencia Event Center, McAllen, Texas. LUPE is an affiliate of the United Farm Workers (UFW), founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. He resides in the pantheon of non-violent saints such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. She is very much alive and well and was the main speaker and guest of honor at the recent festivities.
The event was, for me, a delirious, delicious trip down memory lane. I met again Miguel and Ofelia de los Santos, he, fellow professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, Edinburg, Texas, she a former student of mine there and former legal counsel for LUPE. I was invited by another well-known McAllen lawyer and successful novelist (e.g., “Strawberry Fields”), Mr. Jesús (Chuy) Ramírez.
Chuy (no one could ever explain to me how that nickname came from Jesús) was also a graduate student of mine. I would like to, but I am not going to claim I taught Ofelia and Chuy everything they know about politics; indeed, they taught me. He and other activists I first met when I came to the Valley of south Texas (Juan Maldonado, Leo Montalvo, et. al.) were instrumental in changing the political landscape here. They bravely opened up debate regarding fair, democratic representation. They challenged racist attitudes and habits.
Many other guests—some known to me, some new friends—were in attendance in the overflowing banquet hall. The hall was festooned with red silk napery, clipped with sparkling napkin holders and giant floral centerpieces. Chuy remarked that César himself, the humble man of the fields, of the people that he was and that he remained, might have felt a bit uncomfortable amidst the glamour and glittering ball gowns.
I suggest the event was a mélange of classes, ethnic groups and cultures, very much a new level of cultural and political fusion. Farm workers, UFW and LUPE workers and volunteers, upper-middle class supporters, professors and students all schmoozed with past and present políticos, even with former Black Panthers. Maybe not a “group hug,” but close.
The evening started with prayer, written by César: “Librame a orar por los demas; Porque Estas presente en cada persona. Free me, oh God, to pray for others; for You are present in every person . . . Ayudanos a amar a los que nos odean; Asi podemos cambiar el mundo.” Help us love even those who hate us; so we can change the world. There was prayer. There was poetry. There was music.
There was a presentation of well-deserved awards for staff and other members of special merit. There was a short history lesson by Ms Martha Sanchez, Community Organizer, including specifics of LUPE’s successes (lights in the colonias, drainage, improvement of access to health, steady lobbying with a difficult State Legislature in difficult economic times).
The “pi`ece de resistance” was the presentation by Ms. Dolores C. Huerta, co-founder of UFW. She also spoke the next morning at UTPA. Again, that appearance and inspiration took me back to prior visits by César himself. At that time I joined a few other University professors and a lively contingent of University students to serve food, provide traffic safety for the marchers, while we protested anti-union tactics of Gallo Wine and the sale of grapes and lettuce.
We tried to help farmworkers receive just compensation. Other areas of the nation were not so supportive. The Dallas School Board ordered more grapes for cafeterias. Nixon ordered more grapes, allegedly for troops in Vietnam to try to undercut the boycott. Even here, locally, we who picketed were met with jeers and middle fingers raised against our meager protests.
But we experienced nothing like the obstacles faced by Ms Huerta and valiant farmworkers and organizers. Goons of growers in the Valley shot at organizers in the field. One Christian minister was held with his head near a rushing train to intimidate. Many of the well-dressed members of the audience remembered those rougher days. Each did what he or she could. But probably none of us would have lasted without the inspiration of leaders such as Dolores.
Her biography is gripping. Her struggles for the poor and powerless started early in life. Her mother, Alicia, welcomed low-wage workers of all ethnic groups into the family hotel in Stockton, California. She joined with César Chávez in 1955, leading to the founding of the UFW in 1962. She worked for farm workers but also for women; eventually she coordinated with other feminist groups against sexism at all levels. She never forgot the non-violent basis of the organization. Her passion and fame has led her to being awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from President Clinton in 1996, the Ohtli Award from the Mexican Government, and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
One major leader, like either César or Dolores, can be a catalyst. Inspiration of charismatic leaders is important. But they both were and are always careful to give credit to the backbone of the movement, the workers, the masses, the poor seeking justice and those not so poor helping them achieve it. That includes, of course, some major businesses and institutions.
UTPA was a contributor to this event, as was the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. Mr. Alonzo Cantu, builder, the Hermes Music Foundation, Dr. Heidi Castańeda, Ms Sarah Fairweather, Ms Bianca Leal and so many more individuals and groups participated in many different ways. Many businesses donated items for a very attractive silent auction or bought ads in the program. LUPE’s tireless Executive Director, Ms Juanita Valdéz-Cox thanked them all. She is, I hope she doesn’t mind me saying--but she probably does--our own re-incarnation of Dolores Huerta.
Prominent political officials or candidates, too numerous to mention, as well as major law firms helped to underwrite the program. Ulterior motives? All ardent UFW/LUPE supporters from the get-go? I couldn’t say. Some yes, some no. But, at this point, it seems all is forgiven. There was a unity alight in the Valencia that night. It was not an ending, I think, but a new beginning for at least this part of a progressive peoples’ movement in this part of the nation.
The event took me back to exciting days of teaching walk-out students from Crystal City High School, Zavala County, along the Pedernales River. La Raza Unida political party led that fight. It took me back even further to free speech protests in Berkeley, and later, to civil rights demonstrations in Austin while studying at the University of Texas.
It took me back to marches for the poor with Ernesto Cortéz in the east side of Austin, to the march with him in Del Rio, when we faced the Texas Rangers. It took me back to less dangerous times (for me) in south Texas, working in electoral politics for fairer representation. Was I alone in imagining all these flashes of memories come alive in the Valencia? I doubt it. A thousand collective memories must have been raging through minds of the revelers—bitter-sweet thoughts.
I wish I could somehow collect them all. I wish I could convey to students and readers alike the heady, exciting days of the 60s and 70s. I am pleased at the progress made so far. But I realize that more remains to be accomplished. I pray Césars’ prayer: “Que el Espiritu florezca y cresca; Para que no nos cansemos entere la lucha.” Let the Spirit flourish and grow; so that we will never tire of the struggle.
So,”Sí Se Puede,” (Yes, You Can), a message which actually began with the farmworkers, was taken up by Hillary, and then become a national slogan on the presidential level. That was the very appropriate message I carried away from the event at the Valencia. So, Viva UFW! Viva LUPE! Viva César Chávez! Viva Dolores Huerta!
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.