SAN JUAN, RGV – State Rep. Roberto Alonzo has added his tributes to the late Antonio Orendain, a civil rights leader, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union and founder of the Texas Farm Workers Union.
Orendain died aged 85 on Tuesday. A funeral mass takes place at 10 a.m. on Saturday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in San Juan.
Alonzo, a migrant farm worker in his youth, went on marches with Orendain in support of farmworkers during the 1970s. At the time, Alonzo, who hails from Crystal City, Texas, was a student at the University of Texas in Austin.
“Antonio Orendain was very charismatic. He brought to light the plight of farmworkers in Texas. When the UFW decided to concentrate their resources in California, Orendain fought to improve the very bad working conditions in Texas. My condolences go to his family. I share this loss with all the farm worker families of Texas. His passing should not and will not be forgotten,” said Alonzo, who is national president of the labor caucus of state legislators.
Farmworkers did not receive the support or recognition they deserved in the 1960s and 1970s, Alonzo said, pointing out that even some middle class Hispanics in South Texas thought they were too radical. Their rhetoric and direct action made some feel uncomfortable. Some called them communists.
“Orendain was a great organizer. Despite all the negative attacks, he kept the faith, he kept on working. People should not forget that. Today, Mexicanos are in the legislature, on city councils, in the highest echelons in Washington, thanks to people like Antonio Orendain. We should remember the fight he and others mounted for better wages and working conditions. He did it because it had to be done.”
Asked why the Texas Farm Workers Union did not get the support of other unions, Alonzo said: “Back then, the AFL-CIO was against immigration reform. Now, it is one of their top three issues. But we still have a long way to go. The leadership has make this a Top 3 issue. We have to take it down to the membership.”
Alonzo said the situation with the AFL-CIO was not dissimilar to the NAACP not supporting Texas’ inclusion in the Voting Rights Act. President Johnson passed the legislation for southern states in 1965. Texas was not covered by the act until 1975. “NAACP fought against Texas being included but look at its impact. Now, we get elected and protected thanks to the Voting Rights Act. You fight for things, you show persistence, one rally does not cut it. It is the continuation. It is not a single win. It is maintaining the fight.”
Here is Orendain’s official obituary:
PHARR, RGV – Antonio Orendain, civil rights leader, co-founder and original long-time Secretary-Treasurer of the United Farm Workers Union (UFWU), and founder of the Texas Farm Workers Union (TFWU), died on April 12th at McAllen Heart Hospital, surrounded by his family and friends.
An undocumented immigrant from Mexico with a 6th grade education when he came to the United States in 1950, Orendain worked as an agricultural laborer in his early days, where he developed the goal that someday workers would be able to ‘put a price on the sweat of their own brow.’ After meeting Cesar Chavez in California and working with him in the Community Service Organization, (CSO), he devoted himself to that goal.
In 1966 Orendain arrived in Rio Grande City to work in the farm workers’ strike that had begun against La Casita Farms, his first visit to the ‘Valley of Tears,’ as he eventually referred to the ‘Magic Valley.’ He returned to California in the spring of 1967 at Chavez’s request to resume the work of the union in California, and the Rio Grande strike eventually was brought to an end by the arrival of Hurricane Beulah in September 1967.
The Rio Grande Valley drew Orendain back, however, and he moved his family to San Juan in the summer of 1969. Working originally from the office of Colonias del Valle in San Juan, he worked to establish a union presence in an area that was at the time primarily known for its agricultural production. He was able to raise funds to open a union office in McAllen, from which he operated a service center for workers. The center included attorneys, (the first free legal services operation in the area) and with the help of Dr. Ramiro Casso, a medical clinic. He taped and broadcast a daily 15-minute radio program on KGBT-AM called “La Voz del Campesino” which reached as far as Central America and volunteers published a newspaper called “Ya Mero!” All of these activities served as a basis for building a farm workers’ union.
After the Diocese of Brownsville donated ten acres on Business 83 and Morningside Road to the union in the early 1970’s, Orendain organized funds and volunteers to build a permanent home for the union. “El Cuhamil” was the name he gave the site, an Indian word meaning land which is not arable, the type of land given to the poor. Volunteers worked weekends and whenever possible to construct the building which still stands at the corner of what is now Cesar Chavez Road and Business 83.
In 1975, separating from the UFWU, Orendain established the Texas Farm Workers Union and led union organizing in agricultural fields throughout Texas. With the use of a daily radio program, a Spanish-language newspaper-this one called “El Cuhamil”– and organizing in the fields, Orendain led a series of strikes to try to force growers of agricultural products to pay fair wages and to institute fair working conditions. His efforts were condemned at the time by the agricultural growers, but many years later recognized by the Senate of the State of Texas in a Resolution/Proclamation on May 26th, 2009.
Orendain was self-educated as a union organizer, but was well-read in the areas of History, philosophy and religion. His sense of humor was appreciated by all who knew him; he had a “cuento” or “dicho” for every occasion. He met with Robert Kennedy in Delano, California in 1968 and traveled to places as far off as Egypt and the former Soviet Republic, (as a guest of the state) and Iran, (on invitation from the Iranian Students) and met with the President of Brazil and President Luis Echeverria of Mexico.
In February 1977 he led a group of Texas Farm Workers on a march for Basic Human Rights and Collective Bargaining Rights from San Juan, Texas to the State Capitol in Austin, Texas and met with Governor Dolph Briscoe. Not satisfied with their lack of results with the Governor of Texas, the farm workers then began a march in June of 1977 to Washington, D.C. The march from Austin to Washington, D.C., began with a group of 40 farm workers and grew to approximately 10,000 farmworkers and supporters when they arrived in Washington. When President Carter refused to meet with the farm workers, they formed a picket line to draw attention to the need for Basic Human Rights and Collective Bargaining Rights for the farm workers of Texas.
He is preceded in death by his wife Raquel, son Juan Antonio Orendain (Maura Reyes Orendain), and grandson Ganesh Shrestha. He is survived by his children Amada, Nina Melanie (Miguel Baeza), Abel (Lillian), Nancy (Mahesh Shrestha), and Joseph (Carmen), his long-time partner and companion Susan Law, as well as 20 grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren.
Pallbearers will be grandsons Abel Antonio Orendain, Daniel Antonio Balles, Miguel Paz (Mischa) Orendain Baeza, Marcos Abel Orendain Baeza, Joshua Anthony Orendain, Jonathan Abel Orendain, Ramesh Amado Orendain Shrestha, Joseph Anthony Orendain and Jake Russell Orendain.
Visitation will be held from 5 to 9 p.m., with a 7 p.m. rosary Friday, April 15, 2016, at Memorial Funeral Home in San Juan. Funeral mass will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 16, 2016, at St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish in San Juan. Interment will follow at Roselawn Cemetery in McAllen.
Funeral services are under the direction of Memorial Funeral Home in San Juan.
Editor’s Note: The image of Antonio Orendain is courtesy of Oakland Museum of California. The main image accompanying this story was provided by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo.