Melon strikers marched to Austin for justice, dignity
By Enedelia J. Obregón
At the heart of Catholic social teaching is the church’s proclamation that “human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.”
Fifty years ago, farmworkers in Rio Grande City in the Rio Grande Valley were not treated with dignity and their hardscrabble lives were not seen as sacred.
Out of desperation, hundreds of men, women and children went on strike on June 1, 1966, for higher wages in the middle of cantaloupe season in Starr County. Their pay at the time was 40 cents an hour for back-breaking labor.
Organizing a movement
They organized themselves into the Independent Workers Association at the urging of union organizer Eugene Nelson, who had traveled from California to help the cause. The workers later voted to become part of the National Farm Workers Association, the predecessor to the United Farm Workers.
Many, including former Texas UFW director Rebecca Flores, consider this the birth of the Chicano movement in Texas.
“They sacrificed a lot,” Flores said at the June 1 commemoration ceremony marking the beginning of the strike.
The strikers and a handful of allies endured violence at the hands of the Texas Rangers and local sheriff deputies who were used by the local melon growers to try to break the strike. Many were arrested.
Magadaleno Dimas was beaten so badly that he was hospitalized for four days with a concussion. His daughter Bertha Leticia Dimas, was 2 when her father died in 1973. The family believes it was a result of the beating.
Half of the strikers were women such as Daría Vera, who threw her body across the international bridge in nearby Roma when growers tried to bring in day laborers from Mexico, offering to pay them more than they had the strikers.
“I was shouting ‘no, don’t cross,’” she said at the ceremony.
Vera, who had worked picking melons since she was 7, was quickly hauled to jail.
The march to Austin
The workers wanted $1.25 an hour. The melon growers refused. So that July 4 –– ignoring the brutal Texas summer heat –– they set out on a 400-mile march to Austin to ask then-Gov. John Connally to call for a special legislative session to enact a state minimum wage law of $1.25.
They arrived on Sept. 4 and stayed at St. Edward’s University. The next day, Labor Day, the workers were joined by about 10,000 supporters as they walked the final miles from the university to the Capitol.
The marchers never got to meet with Gov. Connally. He and then-Attorney General Waggoner Car and then-House Speaker Ben Barnes met the group just north of New Braunfels. Connally told them he would not be at the Capitol when they arrived and even if he were, he would not meet with them or call a special legislative session for a minimum wage bill.
By then, only 13 of the original 66 marchers remained. One of those marchers was Herminia Treviño Ramírez, who at 13 was the youngest marcher. She marched with her father and sister and remembers wearing out her shoes and fainting in the summer heat.
Ismael Díaz, 72, was also one of the marchers.
“People were very nice to us,” he said. “They gave us food and would march with us a little bit.”
The march was long and hot, he said. But so was picking melons for little money.
“We just wanted a better life for our families,” he said.
In Austin, they got permission from Holy Cross Brother Raymond Fleck, then president of St. Edward’s University, to stay in Madam Cadillac, a vacant residence hall. The next morning, he had breakfast with United Farm Workers co-founder César Chávez, who came to offer support. Fleck was among many at St. Edward’s who joined the march to the Capitol.
Upon arriving at the Capitol, Brother Fleck wrote in his memoir that “Governor Connally, true to his word ... was not there.”
The strike didn’t succeed because growers brought in replacement workers. Neither did it change the minimum wage law. But it put an end to the belief that Mexican-Americans were content living in poverty.
In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court (Allee v. Medrano) found that the Texas Rangers, the Starr County Sheriff’s Office and a local justice of the peace conspired to deprive the workers of their rights by unlawfully arresting them without due process and physically assaulting them to prevent their exercise of free speech and assembly rights, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
To commemorate the march, St. Edward’s will hold a Mass on Sept. 11 at 10:30 a.m. at Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel. A plaque will be dedicated in honor of the marchers at noon in the Mabee Ballroom, which is on the third floor of the Ragsdale Center. After food, music and speeches, a commemorative march to the Capitol will begin at 1:30 p.m.
Aside from the Sept. 11 march, the Center for Ethics and Leadership at St. Edward’s University, 3001 S. Congress Ave., will host a panel discussion with some of the original marchers. It will be held on Sept. 7 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Fleck Hall, Room 305.
Labor Day statement
This Labor Day, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, the chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Catholics to remember that “Millions of families still find themselves living in poverty, unable to work their way out.”
In the annual Labor Day Statement from the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Wenski said, “Dignified work is at the heart of our efforts because we draw insight into who we are as human beings from it. Saint John Paul II reminded us that human labor is an essential key to understanding our social relationships, vital to family formation and the building up of community according to our God-given dignity.”
Families suffer when their primary providers do not make enough money to provide the basic necessities for their loved ones, he said.
“Poverty rates among children are alarmingly high, with almost 40 percent of American children spending at least one year in poverty before they turn eighteen. Although this reality is felt nation-wide, this year new research has emerged showing the acute pain of middle and rural America in the wake of the departure of industry,” he said.
“This Labor Day, we draw our attention to our sisters and brothers who face twin crises — deep trials in both the world of work and the state of the family ... Let us always remember in these difficult times the Lord’s offer of ‘rest’ for ‘all you who labor and are burdened,’” Archbishop Wenski concluded.
The statement can be found at www.usccb.org.