EDINBURG, Texas – Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez has described farmworkers as a “cultural jewel” of the Rio Grande Valley.
Cortez made his remarks on social media following a proclamation that Hidalgo County Commissioners Court passed unanimously in honor of Juanita Valdez-Cox, the retired former longtime leader of La Unión del Pueblo.
“After two decades as the executive director of La Unión del Pueblo, helping the organization grow into a regional powerhouse and earning the distinction of being called “legendary” by The Monitor newspaper, Juanita Valdez-Cox has retired from her role as executive director,” Cortez wrote.
“Hidalgo County Commissioners Court congratulates Juanita Valdez-Cox on her retirement and thanks her for her relentless advocacy on behalf of a cultural jewel of our region: the farmworker.”
Here is the proclamation the county commissioners approved expressing gratitude for Valdez-Cox’s work:
Whereas: a cultural and historical mainstay of the Rio Grande Valley has been the farmworkers who have toiled the fields of the region’s agricultural economy for centuries to provide food for this country; and
Whereas: the title of migrant farmworker has become a badge of honor for many community leaders including Juanita Valdez-Cox whose childhood memories include the pain of working in unforgiving fields under harsh conditions for little pay and even less respect; and
Whereas: among the institutions that have worked diligently to protect the interests of farmworkers is the United Farm Workers of America, the legacy of civil rights giant Cesar Chavez; and
Whereas: in 1976, 29-year-old Valdez-Cox, then the director of a Head Start program, began volunteering for the United Farm Workers of America and two years later joined the farmworker organization full-time; and
Whereas: Valdez-Cox, in the tradition of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, began a lifelong journey advocating on behalf of farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley, ultimately becoming state director for South Texas and founding La Union del Pueblo Entero to help organize local laborers; and
Whereas: as a testament to her tenacity and commitment to a politically powerless group, Valdez-Cox would go on to secure several legislative victories on behalf of farmworkers including banning the forced use of short-handle hoes; clean toilets and drinking waters in the fields; worker’s compensation; and unemployment for farmworkers; and
Whereas: among the keepsakes that Valdez-Cox has accrued over her career of service to farmworkers is a medal signed by Cesar Chavez showing his appreciation for her support of the 1988 grape boycott that won national acclaim for the rights of farmworkers; and
Whereas: after two decades as the executive director of LUPE helping the organization grow into a regional powerhouse and earning the distinction of being called “legendary’ by The Monitor newspaper, Valdez-Cox has retired from her role as executive director.
Now therefore, be it proclaimed that the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court hereby congratulates Juanita Valdez-Cox on her retirement and thanks her for her relentless advocacy on behalf of a cultural jewel of our region: the farmworker.
The proclamation was signed by Cortez and county commissioners David Fuentes, Eduardo ‘Eddie’ Cantu, Everardo ‘Ever’ Villarreal, and Ellie Torres. It was attested to by Hidalgo County Clerk Arturo Guajardo, Jr.
After the resolution was read aloud to the court, Valdez-Cox addressed commissioners. Here is what she said:
“Good morning Judge Cortez and commissioners, your staff, members of LUPE and the organizations that are joining us today, which is ARISE and Proyecto Azteca.
“I want to thank each one of you for this recognition. Commissioner Ellie Torres for working with Joaquin (Garcia), director of organizing and also Carlos Sanchez. I don’t know if he’s here, but always on the phone making sure that I was going to be here because I’m spending a lot of time in San Antonio. Like the judge knows, we’ve had a conversation about the situation we are going through in the family, with a family member that is critically ill. And so I thank him for that, to make sure that I was going to be here on this day.
“Judge Cortez and commissioners, over the years our paths have crossed many times as we have worked, sometimes together and sometimes apart to improve our county and make it a better place to live and to work. Together we have seen much progress towards that common goal.
“Today, those who attend the meetings are offered the opportunity to participate in English or Spanish. Thank you very much for that. Everyone can hear in their own language and share their opinion on some decisions made that guide our county towards a better future.
“Back when I was beginning my career as a volunteer organizer with the United Farmworkers, along with my colleague Maria Gomez, I remember driving past the fields with hundreds of workers and no toilets were accessible, where drinking water was not provided to the workers. Today, when such conditions are encountered we can call the health department who has the responsibility to visit the fields, to visit with the growers, to visit with their crew leaders and require them to provide toilets and drinking water for all workers.
“Now, this morning, it was so nice, coming here to court, I passed by a field. It had hundreds of workers that are already harvesting the onions. This is the season for the onions. And I was happy to see that the toilets were there. We always check because if they aren’t, we need to make sure that we report that. Nobody goes to work when you don’t… they give you drinking water, they give you a toilet.
“It’s incredible to me to realize how it was and how those whose hands harvest these crops and have them at the stores available for all of us could be asked to work without a toilet, without clean drinking water and with the dangers of pesticides. So I was very happy to see that. And just because we see toilets doesn’t mean they’re clean. So that’s another whole other issue that we need to report.
“Also, for what seems like ages, families have complained about the dangers encountered in unlighted colonias. We’re beginning to make some progress in that area. But still, many communities lack streetlights, we can do better. And I urge you, I know you work hard by urge you to try harder.
“At the same time I want to congratulate the court for having adopted new rules governing the development of new subdivisions that guarantee decent conditions in all subdivisions. I know that this was something that was very difficult because there were guidelines in there that sometimes fall on the homeowners. But, it is making a difference because now you have to work with the ones that were developed before. So, at some point in time, we’re going to get to a point where that won’t be an issue and that is what all of these folks and staff work towards.
“I grew up in a Colonia known as Colonia Seca. I think County Treasurer Paul Villarreal was born in that in that Colonia too, and we remember the days of no access to running water. That was common all across the region. Today, nearly all communities have drinking water in their homes. Reaching that goal was difficult but thanks to hard work again by colonial residents and the determination of this court to see gradual progress, now we are in a better place. The safety of the water is another issue.
“As I mentioned earlier, our joint journey goes back more than four decades. I have reached the end of my personal journey in that respect, and I am pleased with the progress that we have seen in some areas. That does not mean that all our work is done. At LUPE, with the new executive director, Tania Chavez, who has been with us, this organization, for 12 years, the work with all of you commissioners continues. I urge each of you to remain committed to continue the efforts to make our county all that it can be.
“I know that thousands of members of LUPE, ARISE and Proyecto Azteca have in their hearts the same commitment and dedication to continue working for the changes that will improve their daily lives. They will let you know which are the most pressing issues. They will also let you know they will be present. Thank you for working together and the efforts together that have been made. Listen to them. Join them and move forward to a county where progress and opportunity continues for all. Thank you so much. And I really appreciate the words that we’ve had, County Judge, on the on the situations that we’ve been through. So, thank you, Ellie, and all of you, Commissioner Villarreal.”
Editor’s Note: Juanita Valdez-Cox tells the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service that Colonia Seca, where she grew up, translates to Dry Ghetto. It was so named because it had no potable water. Now, she says, it is called Colonia Nueva and it has water, street lights, and even a park. The official name on the deed is Schroeder Subdivision. It is about a mile and a half outside of Donna, Texas.
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