Residents of the Rio Grande Valley, like most Americans, were blindsided by the beginning of family separations in our own backyard last year.
Many of us questioned how our government could stoop to such levels of cruelty toward mere children.
A year later, the situation in many respects has only worsened: those children whose families are allowed into the country are subjected to squalid conditions in border detention centers, held without toothbrushes or showers, made to sleep on concrete floors or even sitting or standing up. Those whose families are excluded because of the “Remain in Mexico” program are living in makeshift camps and bathing in the river.
It is not a stretch to say that the current political climate is demanding much more from us than has been true in past decades. As we witness the depths of Trump’s inhumanity toward children playing out in front of us, other challenges loom. Hate groups are on the rise. The level of climate damage has grown so large that scientists say immediate action is needed to avert climate catastrophe, which could come as soon as the next decade. The president’s self-serving breaches of his oath of office verge on a Constitutional crisis.
While there are no easy answers to the pressing challenges of our time, there are sources of inspiration. One such source of inspiration is Rebecca Flores, former Texas Director of the United Farm Workers. In a moment that requires more from us—not just more of us—Rebecca’s leadership shows how people from different sectors of society can come together to make lasting change.
Starting in 1975, Rebecca led the United Farm Workers in Texas through a tumultuous period in state and national history not unlike what we are living today. The Watergate scandal and the escalation of the war in Vietnam threatened the limits of U.S. Democracy. Communities facing decades of oppression were rising up. The Chicano Movement and Black Liberation Movement were transforming the face of politics. And through it all, grassroots communities organized for a voice and participation in the decisions shaping their lives.
In that context, Rebecca began what would become a life-long pursuit of justice for poor and oppressed communities. Originally a farm worker from the outskirts of San Antonio, Rebecca went through a political awakening in the early 1970s, when, as a graduate student in Michigan, she participated in protests against the Vietnam war and learned about the effectiveness of mass movements. After meeting UFW President Cesar Chavez and organizing the local arm of the grape boycott, she moved to the Rio Grande Valley in 1973 to volunteer with the union.
In 1975, Rebecca was appointed by Cesar Chavez to lead the UFW in Texas, at a time when farm work was still very much a family affair. Entire families worked the fields and all members of the family experienced to varying degrees the injustices mounted on workers by racist growers. Families would hop from field to field during the short harvests of the Rio Grande Valley, working for many bosses before the harvest season finished. For that reason, Rebecca and union leaders decided to organize farm workers at the neighborhood level rather than at the worksite.
After being trained by storied organizer and trainer Fred Ross, she brought the community organizing model to the RGV. When farm workers invited union organizers into their homes, they could explore a range of injustices they experienced in the fields and begin to identify solutions. Through community organizing trainings, house meetings, and colonia committees, Rebecca and Texas UFW leaders built the union into a force that could elect leaders at all levels of government.
Farm worker organizing revamped in this way played a key role in electing a new generation of state leaders ready to fight for farm workers at the Capitol. The power that Mexican Americans were building in the fields fueled the power they were building at the ballot box and in the halls of the Texas Legislature.
This farm worker-fueled Chicano Movement went on to enact changes at all levels of society. The changes won by and with farm workers were some of the most transformative: clean toilets and drinking water in the fields, inclusion under workers compensation and unemployment law, raise in farm worker minimum wage, and pesticides controls.
Though she retired from the union movement in 2005, Rebecca Flores continues organizing to this day, now focused on refugee mothers and children. Later this month, she and other leaders of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition will be hosting a 3-day prayer fast in Laredo to denounce mistreatment of asylum-seekers and violence toward people of color.
While not all of us will dedicate our lives to community organizing, all of us can find a source of strength in connecting with those around us and building community. For the current moment in the Rio Grande Valley, that means coming together across sectors of society to win border policies that treat longtime residents and newcomers with dignity.
Editor’s Note: La Unión del Pueblo Entero will be recognizing former Texas United Farm Workers Director Rebecca Flores with the Lifetime Achievement Award at its gala this Friday in Edinburg. To RSVP or sponsor, visit gala.lupenet.org.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows Rebecca Flores and her children. (Photo credit: Samsonia Way).