In 1966, farm workers from La Casita Farms marched from Rio Grande City to the steps of the Texas State Capital to demand social change in the fields and in their communities.
At the time, the conditions faced by farm workers in Texas were excruciating. Sanitation was non-existent and clean drinking water was sparse. Unemployment and worker’s compensation did not exist for these Texas workers and what they picked determined what they were paid. An hourly wage was not guaranteed.
On Friday, Oct. 21, Our Lady of the Lake University‘s Center for Mexican American Studies and Research celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the 1966 Farmworkers Strike and March with “La Cosecha,” a full-day event of living history testimonials, academic presentations, and lucha manifestations in art and performance.
Rebecca Flores, who was the Director of the Texas United Farm Workers Union (UFW) for 30 years, moderated testimonios from huelgistas and provided factual references throughout the morning and afternoon panels. In the afternoon, U.S.-Mexico economic integration discussions provided the context for presentations about the music, art, and poetry of el movimiento.
A highlight of the afternoon was a performance by Nephtali De León, who shared a retelling of the march in verse.
Daria Arredondo Vera was a huelgista from Rio Grande City who participated in the 1966 strike and march. She shared a story during La Cosecha’s “Living Legacies” panel about creating a human barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border in Roma, Texas.
“There were 14 men and two women who decided to block the bridge,” she said. “When the men were taken to jail, the women laid across the bridge. Cars were everywhere. ‘No tienen verguenza,’ (we told the Texas Rangers). We were dragged, handcuffed, and arrested for fighting for our rights.”
Flores explained that most of the workers involved in the strike were legal residents of the United States. Strike-breakers were transported from Mexico to Rio Grande City to diffuse the impact the strike had on the local agricultural economy.
The 1966 Rio Grande City Melon Strike and March lasted from July 4 to Sept. 5, 1966. Huelgistas traveled through towns across the Rio Grande Valley: La Joya, Mission, and San Juan, where a mass was held for the marchers.
“From there,” Flores said, “every parish gave us support. Every morning would start with a prayer.”
It was a sacred pilgrimage. Faith kept them going.
Flores recounted the route: “We went through Edcouch and Raymondville to Falfurrias, then hung a right to Kingsville where vaqueros from the King Ranch welcomed us with a great dinner. They put up a big carpa.”
Carlos Guerra was from Robstown, Flores said. “He organized the students at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.” Guerra was a long-time activist and journalist in San Antonio who died in 2010.
“Workers picking cotton along the way put down their sacks and joined the march,” Flores added.
According to Flores, the march was not welcomed in Kenedy and Karnes City, but when the huelgistas arrived in Floresville, 400 people greeted them. Then, when they arrived in San Antonio, the parishioners from Mission Espada joined them on Route 181. They arrived at San Fernando Cathedral where Archbishop Robert E. Lucey offered a mass to hundreds.
“Workers needed a minimum wage,” Flores said. “We had to bring farm workers up to par with other industrial workers. This is why we marched.”
Arredondo Vera said she was 29 years old in 1966.
“We went pueblo a pueblo until we reached Austin (and) walked 16 hours per day,” she said. “Our shoes had holes in them. People would pray for us and bring us sandwiches. When we arrived at a ranch, the lady who lived there asked her husband, ‘Why don’t we give them the burro?’”
The huelgistas put a serape on the burro and named it ‘$1.25,’ the minimum hourly wage they demanded. It marched all the way to Austin with them, a symbol of their mistreatment in the fields.
“We did what was right,” Vera recalled. “We fought for dignity. Back then, we would take cardboard boxes to el monte (to have some privacy). There was nothing in the fields. Now, there is fresh water and porta-potties. Now they give the farm workers breaks. They never used to do that.”
Flores shared good news about the commemoration.
“A historical marker was approved by the state at Rio Grande City, the birthplace of the Farmworkers Movement in Texas. A marker at the Courthouse in Edinburg is in the works. Corpus has also approved a marker that will sit next to the Selena statue. We are currently working with the cities of San Antonio, New Braunfels, and Austin for commemorative markers there.”
Efrain Carrera also told a testimonio about la huelga.
“I was involved from the beginning,” he said. “The UFW came to educate us about our rights. This was my second education, my real education. It was more important to me than my 12 (years) in school,” Carrera said. “If it weren’t for la huelga, we would still be living in the dark ages.”