“Has she really retired?” Asked of Rebecca Flores, former Director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero (The Union of All the People), Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
The question was rhetorical, humorous, asked by current LUPE Director, Juanita Valdéz-Cox in a guest column titled “What Rebecca Flores’ Leadership Teaches Us in Challenging Times” that appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian on Oct. 8, 2019.
Ms. Flores returned to a hero’s welcome Friday night, October 11th, 2019, at a “Biennial Gala,” in Edinburg, Texas. Answer: she hasn’t retired. She continues to work for justice in her native San Antonio, associated with Interfaith Welcome Coalition, helping mothers and children of refugees, seeking asylum.
Paul Chávez is now president of the Chávez Foundation, which focuses, among other things, on affordable housing and adequate infrastructure. (One stage, with a photo of intense flooding, was the pointed question: “Como Podemos ‘Seguir Adelante’ si No Podemos Salir de las Casa?” (How Can we ‘Press Onward,’ if We Can’t Even Get out of the House?”) That is, “government officials, please deal with drainage and flood control.”
Chávez reiterated that same focus in his keynote speech: “deal with details, start with basics.”
Chávez’s overarching theme (and of the entire event) was almost Biblical: “Be Not Afraid.” Don’t be afraid of the racist, classist opposition. And, in organizing and helping the cause of the UFW, don’t be afraid to prepare for and to take on new tasks. He emphasized his father’s favorite focus and injunction: “read, read, read, educate yourself.”
Chávez understood that some non-members may be confused about the multiple acronyms: LUPE/UFW/Foundation, etc. His way to simplify: “just think of it as a ‘Movement’,” with multiple, necessary ‘tracks,’ appropriate to specific and local needs. Chávez and his father studied and applied principles from farmworker experience but also from Peter Drucker’s principles of management. I found it an original model of organizational ingenuity. Trust was central; he remembered fondly, in his later speech, “my Father had more faith in me than I did.”
Another striking characteristic of the “movement” (and of the gala event): the presence of so many strong women. Strong and oh, so colorful: the gala invitation to come in “Hispanic Heritage” attire struck a respondent note, as the ballroom shimmered with gaily colored “Oaxaca” style huipiles and vividly colored Mexican rebosos; many of the men in jeans and traditional boots, one even equipped with bandoleras. The dress fused (or clashed?) with the glittery decór of the hall.
Well-known local lawyer and author (and one of the founders of the local “Chicano” movement), Jesus (Chuy) Ramírez, was the master of ceremonies. His introduction led off (he had “no fear”) with references to old wounds—Texas Rangers killing Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the early 20th Century—and to current insults to poor but patriotic, tax-paying workers (they and about 200 supporters and voters this night).
These good citizens face failure of governments to attend to basic needs, such as adequate drainage or preparation in the colonias—where thefarmworkersactually live—for flooding. Even the conjunto which performed—Sonidos del Agua—sang, to appreciative applause, of poor neighborhoods, flooding, and of people organizing to combat discrimination and being ignored by their governments.
The audience was replete with many Valley political leaders: Hidalgo County Commissioner, Precinct 4, Ellie Torres; Judge Fernando Mancias, Mari Sauceda Regalado, president of Texas Democratic Women, and Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Norma Ramírez. The audience responded with many “VIVAS!” especially as trophies were awarded. LUPE leaders honored were Alberta Ramírez, with the “Si Se Puede” award (you guessed right; Hillary’s first campaign borrowed the phrase from the UFW, then Obama’s from hers); Norma Aldape with the “Auto-Ayuda” award (Self-Help); and, finally, the “Lifetime Achievement Award,” to the honoree, Rebecca Flores, presented by Texas state Rep., Terry Canales of Edinburg.
Flores easily slipped between English and Spanish (her BA Degree from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio; and her Master’s Degree from the University of Michigan). Almost all leaders are bi-lingual, a source of their power. She marveled at the 50-plus years of survival of the movement: “many said we couldn’t make it,” but we did more than survive; “we won some major victories.” Such as outlawing the short-handled hoe, pesticide controls, minimum wage hikes, “bringing water and toilets into the fields.” (In my interview with her, Flores laughed as I reminded her of her practical, but victorious threat, to reluctant, scoffing Texas legislators: “if there are no bathrooms, guess we will just have to pee on your tomatoes.”
Later, Pablo/Paul Chávez echoed the same Churchillian refrain: “never, never, never give up” and even the earlier Rooseveltian refrain: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear, is Fear Itself.” All the main speakers addressed the current “climate of fear,” opposition from national and Texas administrations to the persistent needs of farmworkers. But they also noted the continued need to fight for immigrant rights—that fight has always been about justice, now in new ways, with more difficult foes. But LUPE/UFW, its leaders, old and new (lots of younger fledgling leaders), men and so many women, are standing up, emboldened by their slogan, “We’re Stronger Than Fear!”
They all prayed an establishing prayer, as they do at every meeting, one that reminds us of St. Francis Assisi, but composed by César Chávez himself:
“[Dios], Concedame valentia para servir al projimo, Porque en la entrega hay vida verdadera…
Nos acordamos de los que han caído por la justicia; Porque a nosotros han entregado la vida…
Ayudanos a amar aun a los que nos odian…”
“[God], Grant me the courage to serve my brethren—For in service there is true life…
Let us remember those who have died for justice–For they have given us life…
Help us love even those who hate us…“