Brenda Garza | The Rider
Last Friday marked 50 years since the march from Rio Grande City to Austin, where thousands of melon farmworkers, tired of low wages and poor working conditions, went on strike to demand $1.25 an hour.
On July 4, 1966, strikers began the long journey. When they arrived in Austin, 10,000 people, including religious leaders and sympathizers, joined the farmworkers. People from almost every union in Texas showed their support.
The march did not get the farmworkers the minimum wage they sought but began the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in Texas.
The commemorative 50th anniversary assembly began Friday morning at the UTRGV International Trade and Technology (ITT) courtyard in Edinburg with La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) officials welcoming the crowd.
LUPE was founded by the late American labor leader and civil rights activists Cesar E. Chavez in 1989 and established in the Rio Grande Valley in 2003 by Executive Director Juanita Valdez-Cox with the belief that when people work together, they can impact change.
United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez addressed the audience and honored the last standing heroes of the movement, Daria Vera, Guadalupe Guzman, Graciela Treviño and Efrain Carrera.
“They made decisions that made a tremendous impact on our society and it’s because of their actions that I’m here today,” Arturo Rodriguez said. “It was these heroic actions of these individuals, and others, that changed the course of my life and literally millions in this country.”
Imelda Cadena and Roel Tovar, migrant counselors at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, said they had about 50 migrant students from different PSJA schools in attendance, including their parents.
“It’s part of our culture,” Cadena said when asked how she felt about the event.
Tovar said he recalls his childhood as rough and tiring. He said there was no proper place to go to the restroom. There was no water unless they brought their own and there were no periodic breaks.
“Wages were very low and it was back breaking work,” Tovar said. “You were bent over all day, you were in the sun and it was strenuous work. When you think of the low wages, it’s almost like slavery.”
More than 150 people marched along University Drive, waving U.S., Texas and vibrant red flags with the emblem of LUPE imprinted on them.
People from all walks of life were marching to celebrate the anniversary, including Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez.
“I’m here giving my support to all those individuals that did so much,” Ricardo Rodriguez said. “Their actions have changed so many things. Being a migrant worker myself and my parents still being migrant workers, I see what’s happening and what’s changed and it’s because of what these individuals did 50 years ago [that started] the Civil Rights Movement.”
John Michael Torres, communications coordinator for LUPE, said he was surprised with the outcome of the march.
“The fact that students, who were in many ways a part of the Chicano movement [then], now are participating in this event, honoring our own history, learning about the history and still doing that work that is so essential to the nation of putting food on our tables is an honor,” Torres said.
Seniors Isaias Saenz and Naomi Martinez of Southwest Early College High School were two of the 50 PSJA migrant students participating in the march.
Martinez said she has been a migrant student since the sixth grade. She and her family travel every year to California and Washington to pick melons, grapes, apples and watermelons.
“I feel proud to be a migrant,” she said. “It feels inspiring to be here [and] to see everybody marching.”
Saenz said he started picking green beans in Wisconsin at age 15 with his family.
Asked how he felt being part of the march, he replied: “It makes me feel I’m part of something, for once.”
All of the supporters smiled from ear to ear during the entire march and chanted “Que viva el pueblo” until they arrived at Edinburg City Hall. There, they were greeted with water, commemorative pins and memorandums.
As they entered the auditorium, black-and-white photographs that illustrated the march of 1966 were on display.
Valdez-Cox gave a brief recap of the historical march before proceeding to the acknowledgments.
Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and Arturo Rodriguez unveiled a historical marker that will be placed in front of the courthouse in Edinburg. The historical marker was made in honor of the men and women who marched to Austin, in protest of the 40-cents-an-hour wage, and will be unveiled at the courthouse courtyard on a future date.
“It was a dream, it was a vision, it was the tremendous faith in each one of us that we had it in ourselves to do what was right, to do what was necessary, to make sure that we were treated with the respect and dignity that we deserved,” Arturo Rodriguez said.