PHARR, RGV – A legend of Las Milpas will be honored by PSJA ISD with a ceremony on Friday morning.

PSJA officials will rename an elementary school in honor of the late Carmen Anaya, a highly regarded community activist and co-founder of Valley Interfaith who died in 2006. The school was built in 2007 and was called South Pharr Elementary. It was renamed toward the end of last school year to Carmen Anaya Elementary.

The ceremony takes place in the school cafeteria at 9 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 1.

“It is about time,” said former Pharr Mayor Fidencio Barrera. “No one deserves this honor more than Carmen Anaya. She was a lady who moved mountains for her community.”

Barrera was mayor of Pharr from 1982 to 1990. It was during this time that Valley Interfaith was formed and the City Pharr annexed Las Milpas. Barrera remembers many spirited debates with Anaya as he worked to get an international bridge built and she fought to get basic infrastructure services, like water and wastewater, connected in her community.

“Pharr was one of the first cities in Texas, if not the first, to get loans and grants for sewer lines outside the city limits. Carmen Anaya was instrumental in helping us get those grants for the colonias of Las Milpas,” Barrera recalled.

“We had our differences of opinion. We agreed on what needed to happen but not always on how to get there. With Valley Interfaith it always seemed to be their way or the highway. But, I had a lot of respect for Ms. Anaya. She was a very astute politician. She was underestimated by most of us. She knew what she wanted to do and she was very effective in building coalitions and getting people to work together to do that.”

Carmen Anaya, 1927-2006.
Carmen Anaya, 1927-2006.

When Anaya died, in May, 2006, Barrera gave this tribute to the Guardian: “I thought the world of the lady. She was a mountain mover.”

Carmen Anaya was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and moved to the United States as a teenager. She married José Anaya and the couple had six children, daughters Diana, Minerva, Consuelo, and Linda, and sons, José Jr., and Eduardo. Carmen and José worked as migrant workers for nearly 20 years, picking tomatoes, cherries, potatoes, and sugar beet in Michigan, the Dakotas, California and Oregon.

Later, the couple became storeowners, running the Anaya general store on Cage Blvd., for 30-odd years. Anaya’s son, Eduardo, an attorney, told the Guardian for a tribute story in 2006 that it was as a storeowner that his mother learned about so many of the problems in the community.

“People would talk to her about the lack of water, the lack of sewers, the lack of jobs,” Eduardo Anaya said. “She became passionate about helping people. She would always tell us we were smart, hardworking people who deserved better. She gave hope to people.”

It was in the early 1980s that John J. Fitzpatrick, then bishop of the Brownsville Diocese, asked a number of Valley community leaders to help him launch a church-based advocacy group. One those leaders was Carmen Anaya and the group became known as Valley Interfaith.

“As a leader in Valley Interfaith she joined in the relentless struggle to improve the quality of life for the children and residents of the colonias of South Texas,” remembers daughter Linda Resendez. “She only spoke Spanish but that never stopped her from communicating with people. She was a great communicator.”

Eduardo Anaya said his mother was most proud of helping to launch and build Valley Interfaith and in empowering a community that previously did not have a voice.

“Valley Interfaith mobilized a constituency that was not listened to before, and eventually it became very powerful,” he said. “In those days we did not have water or sewer connections and people said it could not be done. But my mother was a Christian and she believed in putting the Bible into action. Today, we have parks, schools, paved roads and lighting.”

Carmen Anaya’s tireless work for the people of Las Milpas was recognized in the May 2005 edition of Texas Monthly.

At the time of her death, state Senators Eddie Lucio, Jr., and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa were in Austin for a special legislative session. They passed Senate Resolution 263 in her honor.

“Carmen Anaya, a longtime community activist, helped build Valley Interfaith one of South Texas ‘ most dynamic grassroots organizations,” Hinojosa said. “The organization that she helped found has been instrumental in improving the quality of life for residents of the colonias.”

Lucio told the Guardian at the time that he would remember Carmen Anaya as a passionate advocate for children and a better quality of life for colonia residents.

“I credit Carmen Anaya for bringing an awareness of the plight of the under-privileged along the border to the Legislature and to Texas as a whole,” Lucio said. “Carmen could only speak in Spanish but we heard her loud and clear in Austin. I have good memories of her.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett spoke eloquently about Carmen Anaya. Doggett, who represented part of the Rio Grande Valley at the time, said immigrants like Carmen and her husband José Anaya have given much to their adopted land and that America is the stronger for their presence.

Here are Doggett’s remarks on the House floor on May 15, 2006:

“Carmen Anaya was a remarkable human being. Her life of 79 years both inspires us and teaches us. She was born in Monterrey, Mexico; a teacher, she moved to the United States as a young woman where she married José Anaya.

“For nearly twenty years, as their family grew, they worked as migrant farm laborers all across America — harvesting cherries in Michigan, tomatoes in California, potatoes in Oregon and sugar beets in the Dakotas. Eventually they opened a small general store in Las Milpas in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

“In Spanish, a milpa is a temporary field that is cultivated for a few seasons. But the colonia of Las Milpas was the permanent home of thousands, who had lacked running water, had no paved roads, and no jobs that offered a way to escape poverty.

“Even worse, most residents had little hope for a better future for themselves or their children.

“In 1982, Mrs. Anaya joined with other people of faith to found Valley Interfaith, a non-profit coalition of over 40 churches that, with the work of lead organizer, Elizabeth Valdez, has now expanded to represent some 60,000 Valley families.

“They already knew how to cultivate fields; together they learned how to cultivate hope and justice. For more than two decades, they have put their faith into action to empower the poor, help the impoverished help themselves, and hold elected officials accountable at all levels of government.

“With the very active and very vocal participation of Mrs. Anaya, Valley Interfaith brought clean drinking water to over 160,000 residents of many colonias like Las Milpas.

“It fought to pass living wage ordinances in twelve cities and raise the salaries of thousands. Valley Interfaith has created job-training programs that have found jobs for nearly 1,500 workers.

“Above all, through her work with Valley Interfaith, Mrs. Anaya inspired her neighbors to believe in themselves, in their communities, and in their ability to bring about change. Those, once isolated and frustrated, are now an organized voice with the ability to demand justice for their families.

“Last Monday, I visited with the family at the Anaya home in Las Milpas shortly after the celebration of a funeral mass in the Parish of Santa Cabrini at which Ernesto Cortez, Jr., who continues to provide the leadership for a network of groups like Valley Interfaith, spoke of her leadership and tenacity in a eulogy.

“Mrs. Anaya loved her church where she continued to attend choir practice twice a week. At the rosary, Ofelia de los Santos, a friend with whom I got to know Mrs. Anaya, spoke of how Mrs. Anaya involved her church in the quest for social justice.

“St, Frances, or Santa Cabrini, as she is known in the Valley, is a saint who is the patroness of immigrants. And it was Carmen Anaya, an immigrant to our nation, who spread the gospel through her words and deeds.

“Her example is particularly significant in the course of the ongoing national debate about immigration and particularly immigration from Mexico.

“Because two farm workers came across the Rio Grande to do hot, hard, demanding work, America has gained not only from their labors and example but also from their six children: José, Jr., who operated the family store, now works for the City of Pharr; Diana and Consuelo each provide leadership for our future as public school principals; Minerva, or Minnie, a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel, is now a homebuilder with her husband, retired Green Beret Colonel Chris St John; Eduardo, Eddie, an attorney and certified public accountant has the only law office in Las Milpas; Linda, a nurse, is an administrator at Cornerstone Regional Hospital.

“The life of service of any one child would be enough to make a parent proud, but think how much our country continues to gain from what each of these six are contributing.

“Her life and her children say more about family values than a thousand speeches from the floor of this Congress. And in the ongoing national debate about immigration, we should reflect on her legacy. Mexican immigrants like Carmen and José Anaya have offered much to their adopted land. America is the stronger for their presence.”