Maria Gomez was hunched over onion furrows when she heard about the strike.

In 1977, Maria, her husband, small children, and three siblings were all working the onion harvest when farmworkers spontaneously walked off the job to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Her family urged her not to join. They feared losing their already meager wages and not being able to pay bills.

Maria was afraid, too. She was born on the U.S. side of the border, which made her a citizen. But her parents were undocumented, and she grew up on the Mexican side. When she moved to the U.S. at about age 15 to work the fields, she brought with her a fear of immigration officers.

She also brought with her a deep sense of right and wrong. Right away, she recognized the injustices of field work: long hours for low pay, no drinking water or bathrooms, excluded from most laws protecting workers.

Years later, when the strike came, she saw her chance to change all that. “El miedo que se lo lleve el viento,” she recalls telling her family at the time. May fear be carried away by the wind.

She took her kids and joined the strike.

March is Women’s History Month and the birth month of farmworker leader Cesar Chavez. It is an occasion to learn the stories of farmworker women like Maria Gomez, who won improvements Valley residents still enjoy today.

Maria and her fellow strikers didn’t win their strike. They were up against wealthy agriculture corporations and a handful of Anglo politicians who controlled the Valley’s political and economic power structure. The small, spontaneous strike couldn’t keep workers out of the fields for long.

But she joined a generation that fought for and won rights and protections for farmworkers in Texas. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, farmworkers, students, clergy, and Texans of all walks of life brought the cause to their own communities and set of issues.

With strikes, walkouts, electoral campaigns, and lawsuits, Maria and other farmworkers won legal and legislative victories throughout the 1980s. They won rights like an increase in minimum wage, workers compensation, drinking water and bathrooms in the fields, and protections from chemical pesticides.

Over the years, the challenges facing Valley residents have changed. What hasn’t changed is our sense of our worth. We are worth paychecks that equal the true value of our work, quality schools that prepare our children for the future by teaching the truth of our past, and safe air, water and energy that our families can depend on. We are worth more than doctor’s visits that bankrupt us, streets that flood every time it rains and this current crop of politicians who shame and blame Black and brown Texans and new immigrants for our struggles.

Over the years, the handful of politicians trying to exploit our divisions have also changed. But the lesson farmworkers like Maria Gomez have to teach us remains the same: we are stronger when we are united. And when we unite, we can win what all Valley families need to thrive, whether we’re women or men, young or old, white, Black or brown.

Maria continues applying that lesson today. Now, Maria volunteers with La Unión del Pueblo Entero, helping colonia residents organize for public services like paved roads, streetlights and protections against flooding.

It’s time for us to join together – across race and place – to demand that the people who govern in our name recognize our worth and act in our interests. Join Maria at LUPE’s annual celebration of farmworker leader Cesar Chavez this March 26th. We will gather for a caravan and driveby rally, beginning at 9 am at LUPE’s San Juan offices on Business 83 and Cesar Chavez Rd and ending at Edinburg Municipal Park.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by John-Michael Torres, communications coordinator for La Unión del Pueblo Entero. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Torres can be reached by email via: [email protected]

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