50 Years Later, Texas Farmworkers Remember Historic Protest

In 1966, laborers marched for two months from Rio Grande City in South Texas to Austin to protest nightmarish working conditions.

By Joy DiazAugust 10, 2016 10:28 am

This is part one of a two-part series looking at the historical 1966 farm workers strike in Texas.

Fifty years ago, farm workers in Texas walked off their jobs to protest their low pay and terrible working conditions. And in the searing summer heat of 1966, they staged a historic march across the state. Many were beaten and arrested, but most history books have overlooked it. Now, some of those original marchers are telling their stories.

Daria Vera has never forgotten that brutally hot summer back in 1966.

“Wait for me here,” she says in Spanish, as she goes to the back room of her tiny home. Vera comes back holding a box. And shows me some of her pictures.

Pointing to a little girl on the picture, Vera says, “This is my daughter. She was so little – probably two years old. Always with us, even during the strike”

In 1966, Vera was only 20. Both she and her husband picked onions and cantaloupes for a living, with their child by their side.

“Ranchers used to pay us 40 cents an hour for picking cantaloupes,” Vera says.

Wages were so low that kids as young as five years old would join in the picking to add to a family’s income.

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To put things in perspective – sanitation workers at the time made about $1.27 an hour. That’s three times more than a farmworker.

Out of the box comes another photo.

“They’re some of the farmworkers who went on strike,” Vera says. “Do you want to hear from them? Come, let’s visit Valdemar Diaz. He lives nearby.”

It’s a hot day in Rio Grande City, Texas, about 15 minutes from the U.S.–Mexico border. Trees surround the Diaz’ mobile home. We wait in the shade.

When Diaz joins us under a tree, he says before the strike, working conditions for South Texas farmworkers were the stuff of nightmares. Bathrooms were nonexistent. Medical services were a fantasy. Even drinking water was a luxury.

“I remember we would drink from puddles left by the irrigation system,” he says in Spanish, “full of frogs and crickets. We would push the critters out of the way and drink from the puddles.”

In the spring of ’66, the workers decided to walk off the job. Union leaders from California, including Cesar Chavez, came to Texas and helped organize the strike.

Their demands were simple: they wanted work contracts, wages of $1.25 an hour, water breaks and access to bathrooms.

“It was like heading into war, because ranchers were not budging,” Diaz says.

Indeed, ranchers dissed the farmworkers’ demands and called in the Texas Rangers. “They used to beat us up and would arrest us,” Vera says.

But the Rangers, their beatings and even the arrests failed to break the strike. So ranchers opted for a different route. They started busing in workers from Mexico.

Strikers knew their only hope for success was to damage the ranchers financially. So they blocked the U.S.–Mexico Bridge in Roma, Texas.

“They handcuffed me behind my back,” Vera says.”They dragged me across the bridge and arrested me.”

By summer, it was clear the strike was failing. But unrest was palpable all over the country. Inspired by the famous Selma march lead by Martin Luther King in 1965, farmworkers in Texas decided to march, too.

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“We started right about right here,” Erminia Ramirez Trevino says. She was only 13 the day the march kicked off.

“From Rio Grande City all the way to Austin, Texas,” Ramirez says. “It took us two months.”

But change took much longer: years. But was it all worth it?

“Oh, yes!” Vera says. “Workers should be proud of what we did.”

Today, fields in Texas have portable toilets and water stations for workers. Workers are entitled to earn the federal minimum wage.

One thing hasn’t changed though – farm work in Texas is still plagued with abuse. Those who dare to speak up on this side of the border continue to be easily replaced by those from the other side.