The Forgotten Civil Rights Leaders of Starr County

Categories:

Heritage Travel

By Eliot Stone, THC Heritage Tourism Program Specialist

Standing on the shoulder of FM 755 in Rio Grande City, the THC’s contracted videographer, Curtis Craven, and I watched a series of local residents drive into the open air bays of Power Strike Car Wash. We were in Rio Grande City to film a short video (below) focused on the history of American civil rights-era protests in the region for inclusion in the THC’s Hispanic Texans mobile tour. Earlier that day, Benito Treviño—local ethno-botanist and owner of Rancho Lomitas—informed us that the car wash sits atop the site of a former theater, in which members of the National Farm Workers Association assembled in the 1960s to organize labor strikes in Starr County. As South Texas mud flowed off the running boards of an enormous Chevy truck through the car wash’s steel drains into the earth below, I looked at Craven and asked, “Do you think the people washing their vehicles connect the car wash’s name, Power Strike, with the history of this place?”

He chuckled, “No.”

During World War II, battlefields in Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific demanded staggering numbers of American troops, causing widespread labor shortages in domestic industry. In order to offset labor shortages, the U.S. partnered with Mexico to develop the Bracero Program. The program eased immigration restrictions on unemployed Mexican agricultural laborers suffering from the effects of the Great Depression in Mexico and granted American farm owners access to these same laborers who were willing to work in exchange for room and board. The benefit of virtually free agricultural labor to the U.S. economy rapidly became apparent to American policy makers and business owners as American farm owners brought in Bracero laborers.

Following the end of World War II and the return of American troops, the Bracero Program continued to supply American farmers with Mexican agricultural laborers who demanded little to no monetary remuneration, inadvertently undermining American farm workers’ wage bargaining capacity with farm owners. As farm workers’ wages plummeted nationwide, civil rights leaders voiced American farm workers’ grievances.

Cesar Chavez—California-based farm worker and co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—attracted national attention to the struggles Californian farm workers faced, staging strikes, sit-ins, and rallies throughout California. While Chavez’s story is widely known, few Texans today are aware of the negative impacts the Bracero Program wrought on Texan farm workers, nor are many Texans aware of the heroism, self-determination, and dignity Starr County farm workers displayed in the face of often abject working conditions in South Texas.

Forty-nine years after the American civil rights-era high water mark, Treviño—now the owner of a successful wildlife sanctuary and educational park outside Rio Grande City—remembers his father’s participation and leadership in the NFWA chapter meetings held in Rio Grande City. Craven and I visited Treviño in Rio Grande City, and on the porch of his family home, he recalled for us the days of the strike.

“My father was a leader of his community,” Treviño said. “He was a pastor in a local church and worked in the fields around Rio Grande City. As conditions worsened leading up to the strike, my father and other workers began to correspond with Cesar Chavez and the NFWA, and then opened a chapter in Rio Grande City under the guidance of Eugene Nelson. The community pulled together to decide what to do.It was during the fall of 1965 in the old theater—where the car wash now stands—that they began discussing the strike.”

In the spring of 1966, Rio Grande City residents and farm workers throughout Starr County began picketing farms, protesting the presence of non-U.S. laborers. “The workers picketed because they wanted to let the community know the state of their working conditions," Treviño explained. "Their wages dropped to 25 cents an hour and below, there were no toilets available for workers in the fields, and drinking water was often brought to the workers in buckets the farm owners filled in the Rio Grande without filtration. And remember, my father and the others who protested these conditions were Texans and U.S. citizens, many of whom were born here in the U.S., and whose families lived in this area since before Texas existed as a state.”

While picketing the fields caught the attention of local residents and authorities, the protests did not realize any change to working conditions. Taking matters further upstream, the Starr County chapter of the NFWA then staged a sit-in on the international bridge connecting Roma to Ciudad Miguel Alemán in an effort to stop the flow of Bracero laborers. Daria Vera, a Rio Grande City resident and former treasurer of the Starr County chapter of the NFWA, was the last person forcibly removed from the bridge. She agreed to participate in an interview for our short film, and invited Craven and me to her home in Rio Grande City. Seated at a small table in her kitchen, Vera told us why she decided to blockade the international bridge.

“Antonio Orendain and Eugene Nelson helped to organize our strike, but many people from Starr County worked together to make the strike impactful,” she recalled. “During La Huelga [the strike], we took extreme measures to protect our livelihood and our community of workers. We knew our actions would cause trouble and that we would likely be arrested, but we didn’t care. What else could we do? Laborers crossing the bridge seriously threatened our existence.”

Though the Roma bridge sit-in was momentarily effective in slowing the flow of Bracero laborers into Starr County, the sit-in did not attract much attention beyond Starr County lines. The strikers then decided they needed to do something to capture the attention of the entire nation if any changes to their conditions would be realized. With the organizational assistance of Orendain and Nelson, a group of Starr County farm workers staged a 400-mile march from Rio Grande City to Austin to protest at the State Capitol.

Graciela Garcia—Treviño’s sister—participated in the march to Austin. Back at the Treviño family home, she gave us a firsthand account of the march. Working through a clearly pained hesitation, Garcia began, “As we walked along the highways, every day we had to keep our spirits high. We didn’t know what the march would do for us, but we knew that staying in South Texas was no longer an option. People driving by as we marched would stop and give us food and sometimes clap for us, which gave us hope. There were also many homes and hotels we stayed in along the way; the owners fed us and let us sleep for free. They knew what we were going through and they helped us.”

After nearly two months on the road, march participants arrived in New Braunfels, where Gov. John Connolly met the protestors en route in an attempt to dissuade them from continuing on to Austin. Garcia—visibly indignant—recalled meeting the former governor.

“He tried to shake our hands as he told us we weren’t welcome in Austin and that nothing could be done for us," she said. "I thought, ‘Don’t smile at us and offer a handshake, only to then to tell us we’re helpless. If you came all the way here to stop us, you know we have power.’ Meeting him just made us more determined.”

On Labor Day of 1966, the farm workers’ march arrived in Austin greeted by more than 10,000 supporters gathered at the Capitol. Garcia recalls arriving amidst the crowd. “There were so many people and such excitement,” she said, “that even after two months of marching, we felt energized. We realized immediately that this march was successful. With all the people and cameras gathered, the country would know our story and come to understand why we did what we did. It was incredible to feel so empowered, particularly knowing what we left behind.”

The protest at the Capitol disbanded after several days, and many farm workers returned to South Texas, unsure what—if any—effect the march would have on their lives. However, some of the marchers remained in Austin to continue petitioning lawmakers. Treviño elaborated on his sister’s story: “My father stayed in Austin and continued the protest on the Capitol steps daily for nine months. He talked with senators and representatives as they came and went from the Capitol, doing all he could to enhance their understanding of the workers’ struggles in Starr County.”

In years subsequent to the march, the State of Texas and the federal government passed a series of laws in support of farm workers, requiring farm owners to provide sanitation and clean drinking water for farm workers. These legislative actions—in combination with similar successful strikes conducted across the country and the end of the Bracero Program—increased civil protections for Texans and Americans. Treviño offered his take on the outcome of the march. “No matter what, farm workers’ lives are difficult," he said. "It’s hard work for little pay. But at least now farm workers know we have a voice and the ability to organize. We did what we had to do and our lives are better for it. For that, we can only feel pride and satisfaction.”

After Craven and I completed the interview with Garcia and Treviño, turned off the camera, and began loading our vehicle, Garcia approached us, tears welling in her eyes, and said: “The march was difficult, you know? We thought people forgot about us and our efforts. Though things improved for us after the march, we began to think the march meant nothing because no one talks about it.”

And in a way, Garcia, Vera, and other Starr County strike participants have reason to feel forgotten. Vera now lives in her small home on the outskirts of Rio Grande City. Though no longer responsible to the NFWA, she still maintains an archive of photos, documents, and memorabilia from the days of La Huelga in a stack of Rubbermaid tubs. Removing the lid from one, she retrieved a manila file containing a series of carefully preserved papers. Pulling a letter emblazoned with the U.S. Senate header, she placed it on the table and said, “This one is from Ted Kennedy, congratulating us for our work. You see, people recognized what we were doing in those days.”

Photographs and letters from well-known civil rights-era political figures and community leaders continued to flow from the bins, illustrating Vera's and other Starr County residents’ deep involvement in the struggle for farm workers’ rights. Such a high-profile collection begs poignant questions: With so much recognition and support realized during the strike, why did the story of the 1966 Starr County Strike not gain lasting permanence in Texas public consciousness? Why is the history of the strike not featured more prominently in Texas history textbooks, educating Texas youth on the contributions Texans made to the civil rights movement in our state and the nation? Why—with strike participants still alive and with such archival materials still extant—do our state museums not contain exhibits featuring our own civil rights heroes?

Leaving Vera's house, Craven and I took our farewell, Vera's pride still palpable in her gaze. “Thank you, guys, for coming here," she said. "My daughters always tell me they are proud of me for what I did on the bridge. I’m glad to know you think what we did was important, too.” And we do.

If you like this post, please subscribe to our blog via RSS or email.

Comments

My family moved from the Gonzalez, Tx area to the Brownfield, Tx area in 1939 to pick cotton. I don't remember what the pay was per hundred weight. Mom and Dad decided that we should stay. The housing wasn't good. That winter Dad and my older brother joined a group of other men in clearing brush land for farming.

During the 1940 summer we hoed cotton. Pay was twenty five cent an hour for grown ups. For me at 8 years old it was ten cents per hour. In our pick up carried our water in a 10 gallon milk can. Bathroom breaks were behind any bush we could find.

Except for better pay nothing changed up to l953 when I quit doing farm work.