EDINBURG, RGV – The past couple of weeks have been poignant for La Unión del Pueblo Entero and supporters of farm worker causes in the Rio Grande Valley.
First, an historical marker was unveiled next to Hidalgo County Courthouse honoring the famous 1966 Farm Worker Strike and March that sparked the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in Texas.
Then, LUPE held their annual César Chávez March and Rally in San Juan. The event honors the birthday of the United Farm Workers co-founder. This year, Chávez would have been 90 years old.
The historical marker in Edinburg was created under the direction of the Hidalgo County Civil Rights Movement Committee, chaired by Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and comprised of educators, historians and local members of the Civil Rights movement. Funding for the marker was provided by the Hidalgo County Historical Commission.
In the summer of 1966, hundreds of men, women, and children in Starr County organized with the United Farm Workers to demand fair wages. To secure statewide attention they walked to the state Capitol in Austin. On July 7, Edinburg Mayor Al Ramirez greeted the marchers passing through the city on their way to mass at the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan.
“The 1966 Farm Worker Strike and March was the spark that initiated the Chicano movement here in the state of Texas,” said Rebecca Flores, former director of Texas United Farm Workers. “We don’t want it forgotten.”
In addition to Flores, another attendee was civil rights activist Ed Krueger, who had been hired by the Texas Council of Churches, an association of Protestant churches, in the mid-1960s to help the plight of farm workers in Starr County.
Also in attendance were LUPE director Juanita Valdez-Cox, Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, Jr., himself a former farmworker, and Alex Moreno, Jr., of the County Historical Commission.
The plaque reads:
In summer 1966, hundreds of men, women, and children harvesting cantaloupes in Rio Grande City and Starr County organized with the United Farm Workers and demanded growers raise wages from 40 cents to $1.25 an hour. When their demands were ignored, farm workers walked out on strike and picketed the fields. On the first day of the strike, the Texas Rangers arrested the leader of the farm workers.
The workers did not give up. On July 4, 1966, a core group of 30 strikers began a peaceful 400-mile march through South Texas communities to the State Capitol in Austin, gathering support for their cause along the way. On July 7, Mayor Al Ramirez greeted the marchers to the City of Edinburg on their way to a Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of San Juan served by the new bishop, Humberto Medeiros, who endorsed their cause to raise wages to $1.25 an hour. They continued through Weslaco, Edcouch-Elsa and continued on their mark which took them throughout South Texas towns.
One hot August day, as marchers rested on the side of the road north of New Braunfels, Governor John Connally, Attorney General Waggoner Carr and Speaker of the House Ben Barnes stopped on their dove hunting trip to South Texas to tell them, “No need to continue because we won’t be at the Capitol when you arrive and we will not consider a minimum wage bill in a special session.” That did not deter the marchers. On Labor Day 1966, the strikers with 10,000 supporters, marched the last four miles from St. Edwards University to the state Capitol.
The strike continued into 1967. Los Rinches (the Texas Rangers) and county sheriff’s deputies brutally beat and jailed them in order to break the strike.
As a result of the walkouts, a Texas minimum wage law finally passed the Legislature in 1970. In a 1974 ruling (Allee v. Medrano), the U.S. Supreme Court found the Texas Rangers, Starr County’s Sheriff’s Department and a Starr County Justice of the Peace conspired to deprive farm workers of their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly by unlawfully arresting and physically assaulting them. The U.S. Supreme Court in the ruling permanently enjoined the Texas Rangers and its officers from intimidating workers in their organizing efforts.
The Rio Grande Valley melon strike was the beginning of the Chicano Movement in Texas.
The United Farm Workers members and supporters erected a building brick-by-brick in San Juan and opened its doors to the community in 1972. The original Farm Workers Union Hall in Rio Grande City was in a theater at North Flores and Ringgold Streets. Catholic Bishop Humberto Medeiros donated this 10-acre site to the Alliance for Labor Action. On August 31, 1970, the property was transferred to Cesar Chavez’s national farm workers service center, now the Cesar Chavez Foundation.
The building in San Juan and the Farm Worker Movement continue serving farm workers and other low-income residents to this day in Hidalgo County.
César Chávez March and Rally
Bishop of Brownsville Daniel Flores spoke at the LUPE rally in San Juan. So did San Juan Mayor San Juanita Sanchez, Flores, Valdez-Cox, and Rodriguez. A replica of the Farm Worker Strike and March historical marker was unveiled at the LUPE compound.