¡Viva la Huelga!

By  |  November 15, 2016
“The Illuded Perception of Reality,” by Annie Donovan “The Illuded Perception of Reality,” by Annie Donovan

The fiftieth anniversary ceremony began with the singing of a corrido. As the guests of honor found their seats on the stage of the octagonal-roofed Kiosk on the first day of June, Daria Vera shuffled to the mic, gripping an official program with the lyrics on the back cover. The guitarist and accordionist struck up the first chord. Her deep, gravel-lined, distinctive contralto struggled to carry over the rumble of the cross-border freight trucks hemming us in on parallel one-way arteries of Highway 83 through downtown Rio Grande City, Texas. 

But then a high-pitched grito emanated from among the metal folding chairs lined up on the sidewalk, followed by a familiar cry:“¡Viva la Huelga!” (Long live the strike!) Daria’s singing rose up over the din of the traffic, over the murmur of greetings and fifty years’ worth of catching up. In time, her voice regained the volume and assurance of another era, as the corrido’s couplets began to tell its story: 

La cárcel de Rio Grande es cárcel muy afamada.
Encierran a los huelguistas por causa de sus ideales. 
Nos trajeron arrastrando pa’ cumplir con su deber 
Y nosotros protestando el derecho de comer. 
 
The jail at Rio Grande is a famous jail indeed.
The strikers are locked up there on account of their ideals.
They hauled us off to prison in fulfillment of their duty
When all that we are asking for is the right to eat.

I met Daria some three months earlier at her small house in the La Puerta colonia on the outskirts of Rio Grande City. A few broken-windowed trailers neighbored tidy stucco homes on winding streets wedged between the expressway and an abandoned gravel pit. From the door, I heard accordion strains blaring from an enormous blinking stereo. “I have to have music,” Daria told me. “When I wake up in the morning, first thing, I put on God’s music. Then, I put on my music.”  

She’d set out a Rubbermaid container filled with documents. After the establishment of United Farm Workers Local 2 in June 1966, Daria was elected secretary-treasurer. Although the record shows that Local 2 ceased to exist after the strike ended over a year later, amid police brutality and a catastrophic hurricane, she has remained its unofficial historian ever since.  

Daria pulled out a photograph of herself as a willowy, dark-haired nineteen-year-old lying face-up in the right-of-way of the nearby international bridge at Roma. Along with fifteen others, she is blocking vehicles from La Casita Farms transporting strikebreakers—illegally, strikers suspected—from el otro lado. Underneath the photo, she found the lyrics to three corridos, including the one she would sing to inaugurate the anniversary celebration. In the midst of a hunger strike, jailed protesters wrote and sang new verses. At her kitchen table, Daria began singing before I could even inquire about the tune. 

“I’ve been practicing them everywhere I go,” she said after she’d finished, her fingers still grasping the curled corners of the black-and-white photograph. “I’m the only one who hasn’t forgotten how they go. No one remembers.”

    

It began as a wildcat strike. Eugene Nelson, an aspiring novelist and union volunteer, had traveled to Houston in April 1966 to work on a boycott of Schenley liquor products. He arrived to the news that Schenley was already nearing a contract, among the first of César Chávez’s improbable victories in the Delano Grape Strike. So Nelson traveled to Rio Grande City, at the invitation of a used-car dealer and a washateria owner dabbling in organizing themselves. Shortly after arriving, he ascended the back of a flatbed truck in the centrally located San Juan Plaza—long since demolished—and proclaimed, “You are sons of Zapata! You must be brave!” The farmworkers’ strike was soon under way, without Chávez’s blessing. 

A few doors down from union headquarters, Daria lived with her husband, Mario, in a two-room converted shed. Mario earned $30 a week at a service station, and she made 40 cents an hour picking cantaloupes in temperatures that sometimes hit triple digits by mid-morning. For Daria and many Starr County farmworkers, the Schenley contract’s starting hourly wage of $1.75 was a dream. Seventy-one percent of county residents lived in poverty, making it the poorest in Texas. The average farmworker had a sixth-grade education and a life expectancy of less than fifty years. In two weeks—at least Nelson claimed—some 750 farmworkers had signed union cards. When the Starr County Melon Strike began on June 1, 1966, Daria woke before five to stand at the gates of La Casita, the largest of the six major growers targeted. Her job: bellow entreaties and insults at the scabs, or workers crossing picket lines. 

“The strike began with a wave of enthusiasm, with no conception at all of the difficulties facing the strikers,” Doug Adair, the editor of a Texas edition of the union newspaper El Malcriado, reflected near the strike’s end in summer 1967. “Nelson happened to get involved in the worst county in the worst state in which to win a strike.” 

Texas had a conservative Democratic governor, John Connally, and antiunion laws that prohibited picketing huelguistas from standing closer than fifty feet from one another. Unlike in California, where the end of the World War II–era bracero agricultural guest-worker program in 1964 created a tight labor market, Starr growers could bus in replacements from across the Rio Grande with relative ease and secrecy. Law enforcement—including the Texas Rangers, with their long, successful, and sometimes violent record of strikebreaking—tended to turn a blind eye. 

In one oft-repeated story, after a round of mass arrests in the fields, a sheriff ordered a jailer to round up all the women and get them to talk—about anything at all. “That’s the one,” the sheriff said, the moment he heard Daria’s inimitable voice. She was jailed on charges of “disturbing the peace.”  

 

At the ceremony, fourteen surviving huelguistas sat on the Kiosk’s stage facing the Starr County Courthouse, high on a hill a few blocks north. Many of them had been jailed on its third floor. In a story that’s unrecorded in the newspaper clippings I’ve read but was told to me in numerous interviews with strikers, jailed demonstrators heard a rumor that the Rangers were coming to take them to the fields and do what Stetson-hatted rinches had done to resistance-minded Mexican Americans for more than a century. So organizer Tony Orendain put a note in a matchbox and dropped it from the window to Daria, who’d been released earlier, along with Irene Chandler, the other female bridge blocker. Daria organized a group of strikers to form a human chain around the courthouse. As Tony told it to me, the Rangers arrived at the stroke of midnight, only to turn back around.

In September of 1966, Chávez had dispatched Tony to replace the inexperienced Nelson. To his credit, Nelson had emulated the tactics he’d seen succeed in California, including a march to Austin—modeled on Chávez’s famed peregrinación to Sacramento—that drew 15,000 to a Labor Day rally with Chávez himself. But as momentum stalled amid infighting and lack of leadership, Chávez began to see the Starr strike like an “unwanted child,” as editor Doug Adair put it. Whether the decision to send Tony was based on his formidable reputation as an organizer or Chávez’s desire to get him out of his hair is unclear. But Tony embraced his exile—if that’s what it was—relishing the chance to try things his own way. His arrival to Rio Grande City marked a newly creative, militant, distinctly Tejano phase of the campaign. If the Starr strike were a corrido, it had found its hero—or antihero.  

In matters of style and substance, Tony was Chávez’s foil. Chávez dressed as a farmworker; Tony was sartorially flashier, instantly recognizable by his black hat and curled mustache. Chávez was a third-generation American who struggled with how to treat noncitizens within the union; Tony was a twice-deported Mexican immigrant who argued for universal membership. Chávez was deeply religious; Tony was devoutly secular. Chávez advocated passive resistance; Tony had participated in acts of targeted vandalism against growers. Although they’d worked closely together since the 1950s, Tony called his mentor “Chávez,” a departure from the union’s first-name-basis culture.

In the same week I met Daria, I visited with Tony at his house in Pharr, forty miles east of Rio Grande City. He was a frail eighty-five years, using a walker and at times struggling to catch his breath. Still, we spoke for over two hours, his dry wit and propensity to speak in proverb-like dichos on full display. He wasn’t planning on attending the reunion, he told me. “Chávez took away my flute and my maracas. I’m not allowed.”

Just as the new melon harvest was about to start in late spring 1967, Chávez recalled Tony to California. By that time, the strike had been featured in the New York Times and had attracted the attention of a Senate subcommittee headlined by Ted Kennedy. As with his arrival, the reasons for Tony’s departure depended on whom you asked: Either he was needed elsewhere, or he was being too successful in Texas. Two years later, Tony returned to the Rio Grande Valley, eventually forming the breakaway Texas Farm Workers Union, which he directed until its disintegration in 1982. He chose to remain in Texas from then on.

“The situation for the farmworkers is worse than before,” Tony told me, toward the end of our interview. “Now, in Mexico they exploit us, they kill us. The only ones who manage to get here are those who can afford to spend $5,000 or $10,000. Then we’re picked up by Immigration and sent back where we came from.” About six weeks later, Tony suddenly passed away, carrying with him who knows how many other stories.

  

Ed Krueger and Alex Moreno were late arrivals to the reunion. Ed, whose degenerative spinal condition causes a severe stoop, leaned his light frame against Alex’s stout torso as they walked arm in arm. Both wore powder-blue shirts, although Alex’s was a four-pocket guayabera and Ed’s a neatly ironed Oxford. For fifty years, their lives have been linked by their roles in the strike’s most dramatic—and violent—moments. 

When it came time for him to speak on stage, Ed stayed seated, the microphone trembling in his hands. In 1966, he left his position with the Protestant Migrant Ministry in Oklahoma to accompany the strikers on behalf of the Texas Council of Churches. Now, at age eighty-five, he drives three times a week across the border to Reynosa, organizing workers at the maquiladoras—foreign-owned factories exploiting low-cost labor to manufacture products for export—in spite of a wave of cartel-related violence. In soft-spoken Spanish, deliberate but precise, he narrated his story: At a train-track melon blockade, a Ranger grabbed him by the belt with one hand and the collar with the other, dangling him within inches of a moving train. Ed’s wife, Tina, snapped photographs, but one of the lawmen seized her camera and exposed the film. In the police car, a Ranger said, “Krueger, you ain’t no preacher. You’re just a damn troublemaker.” 

Then it was Alex’s turn. Easygoing and assured, he spoke like the politician he’d become. As a freshman at the University of Texas, he joined the student-led Farmworker Support Committee and eventually signed up as a summer intern, learning community organizing with Ed. On June 1, 1967—a year to the day after the strike began—he was sent from headquarters to warn union member Magdaleno Dimas that the Rangers were looking for him. (Magdaleno, who’d served time for murder in Mexico, was frequently targeted for harassment, as Rangers zeroed in on those few strikers with existing criminal records.) Earlier that evening, a La Casita foreman had spotted Magdaleno out hunting for chachalaca, a chicken-size South Texas fowl; the foreman accused him of pointing a rifle at him. The bones of the bird were still on the table when Alex arrived at the same time as about thirty Rangers. On the sidewalk, Captain A. Y. Allee jammed his shotgun into Alex’s ribcage and then broke down the door. “All I could see was the house moving back and forth from so much force,” Alex said from the stage. Magdaleno suffered a concussion, broken bones, and internal bleeding; he was in a wheelchair for weeks. 

Unlike many strike stories I heard, what became known as the Dimas Incident is part of the historical record, documented in Allee v. Medrano, the Supreme Court decision that declared five Texas antiunion statutes unconstitutional and found a “pervasive pattern of intimidation,” as the district court had phrased it, by law enforcement during the strike. But the case wasn’t decided until 1974. In June 1967, a district judge issued an injunction outlawing picketing in Starr. Then, on September 20, Hurricane Beulah—at the time among the strongest hurricanes ever recorded—hit South Texas, wiping out an entire growing season. The strike was officially over.  

In the decades to come, young volunteers first introduced to organizing in Rio Grande City would spearhead voter registration campaigns and student walkouts in protest of inequitable schools, and many would go on to political office. As a state representative, Alex would author landmark legislation bringing water and indoor plumbing to thousands of Rio Grande Valley homes. “Although the Valley strike failed,” historian David Montejano argues in Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, “it succeeded in catalyzing the Chicano civil rights movement in Texas.” 

“The huelguistas brought many changes,” Alex said, at the conclusion of his speech, “not only to Rio Grande City, but to the state of Texas. But they didn’t see the benefit themselves.” 

 

As police blocked traffic after the ceremony—from the looks of it, the freight trucks were backed up for miles—the huelguistas led a march from the Kiosk to the Kelsey Bass Museum. They waved red Aztec eagle flags and sang more corridos as they passed one ornate but crumbling two-story building after another. Many storefronts were vacant, but outside El Cenizo Adult Day Care, the clients lined the street and sang along.

In the museum courtyard, a stone fountain gurgled while the strikers were feted with carne guisada and music from Austin folk singer Tish Hinojosa. Inside, there was an exhibit of archival strike photos, among them the one I’d seen of Daria on the bridge.

As the crowd thinned, Daria invited me to a backroom for cake. On our way, we crossed paths with Baldemar Diaz—vice president of Local 2—and his granddaughter Dora. Leaning his weight on a cane, Baldemar was dapper in a royal-blue shirt and immaculately shined shoes. At the strike’s outset, he’d left a comparatively good-paying job as a foreman at La Casita because, he said, “the strike people were my people.”

“I never knew he was involved in this,” Dora said. She’d been raised by Baldemar, and now was his home-health nurse. Even now, she said, “everything I’ve heard about him is from my other patients.” 

“The next time you see me,” Baldemar said in parting from Daria and me, “it’ll be in the graveyard.” Dora shook her head in mock disapproval and clasped his arm.

The cake had a photograph re-created in icing. Most of it was already gone, so you couldn’t make out much detail, just a few blurry black-and-white figures in one corner. Still, Daria was happy to get a piece, which she’d decided to save for later. 

Over the course of a few visits I made to her home, Daria’s truck was broken down, so I offered to drive her on a few errands. Our conversations turned from the strike to her life afterward. Her husband, Mario, took off for Houston, leaving her to support seven children—including two sets of twins—on a field worker’s wages. Later, she married Guillermo, another striker. It was a happier marriage, but he died of cancer almost four years ago. Since then, she’s lived on a Social Security check of a few hundred dollars a month. One errand was to the food bank, where a clerk said there was a waiting list of 1,000 people and told Daria matter-of-factly that she could visit another pantry some miles out of town. 

As we moved back into the courtyard, I carried the cake for Daria, who was loaded down with souvenirs for her personal archive. “How’re you feeling?” I asked, imagining that it must have been a long day. 

“Good,” Daria answered. “Real good. I’ve never been so proud.”

 

Ifound La Casita Road on Google Maps, but when I arrived, all I saw was a metal gate and a dirt driveway. It took three passes before I understood: this was La Casita Road, the gate the exact spot where Daria was arrested for disturbing the peace fifty years ago.

Where, though, were the fields? As my car thudded over ruts and rocks, all I saw were mesquite trees and cacti. I’d read that most of the large growers had pulled out after NAFTA left them unable to compete with Mexican farmers paying a fraction of Starr’s prevailing wage. Still, I’d expected someone would be tilling the land. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might have already gone back to its original thornscrub state.

Closer to the river, I did find a sorghum field, the crimson grain-heads—used mainly for animal feed, and harvested by combine—swaying uniformly in the wind. Hulking natural-gas tanks sprouted incongruously in their midst. Alongside one, a state trooper sat in a black-and-white Charger, part of the border “surge” that makes large swaths of Starr feel like occupied territory. (That morning, I’d counted thirty patrol cars between the county line and Rio Grande City, a distance of seventeen miles.) He blinked his lights at me, and I turned back around.

Still hoping to see a melon field, I set out to find a packing shed where Daria said her cousin worked and to which she’d given me directions. Next to an old Co-op gas station, I found a faded sign: STARR PRODUCE COMPANY. The company was the last post-NAFTA holdout among the large growers, not selling off until 2011. At that time, it was one of Starr County’s largest employers; now, most residents work for the Rio Grande City School District, the county itself, and Walmart. 

Among Starr residents today, it’s almost an article of faith that education is the only way out of poverty. The strike is a reminder of a time when it seemed possible that the hard work of supplying America’s kitchen tables could join the ranks of dignified professions offering decent wages, benefits, and working conditions. As labor declines, it’s not just that dream that’s lost—it’s the jobs themselves. Unemployment in Starr is 13.6 percent, the highest in Texas, and the poverty rate is 35.4 percent.

Through another gate and down another dirt road, I found a rusted metal structure, surrounded by barren fields littered with piles of spent irrigation drip tape. I did see one person working, zipping back and forth on a forklift, picking up a few last watermelon boxes from an otherwise empty concrete floor. I waved, but he drove off without seeing me. The harvest was already in.


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Daniel Blue Tyx is a freelance writer based in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. His writing has appeared in the Texas Observer, the Gettysburg Review, and Best American Travel Writing.