Marker commemorates birthplace of 1966 Farm Workers Movement

RIO GRANDE CITY — The story may not be found among the pages of history textbooks, but the inception of the 1966 Farm Worker Movement will nonetheless be remembered with a historical marker unveiled here Thursday.

The Starr County Industrial Foundation, former members of the United Farm Workers Movement and members of La Union del Pueblo Entero — or LUPE — came together for the unveiling of the marker at South Texas College’s Starr County campus.

The marker is meant to commemorate the demonstrations that occurred in Starr County more than 50 years ago and pass along those memories to people who weren’t alive at that time.

“When we talk about what these stories are, for us they’re just stories,” said Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation. “This wasn’t in the history books. These stories don’t make it to the books to tell each and every one of us that Cesar Chavez’s movement started in Starr County.”

On June 1, 1966, more than 700 farm workers in Rio Grande City went on strike to demand a minimum wage of $1.25 per hour, an increase from the 45 cents per hour they were being paid to pick melons.

To draw more attention to the issue, on July 4, 1966 a group of 120 marchers began a more than 490-mile trek from Rio Grande City that ended in Austin on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 1966, where Cesar Chavez addressed them in Zilker Park.

A handful of people who participated in those strikes were present at the unveiling to share their experiences with STC students.

Daria Vera recounted how she, another woman and 14 men from California blocked the international bridge in Roma.

At about 8 p.m., law enforcement arrived and arrested the men, Vera said, but she and the other woman remained until 11 p.m. when they too were arrested.

“They twisted my entire arm, as much as they could,” she said in Spanish. “They dragged me for a good length.”

Incidents of violent clashes with law enforcement at the time are well-documented, specifically with the Texas Rangers.

“The Texas Rangers were always used to put down Mexican-Americans and especially people in unions,” said Alejandro Moreno, a volunteer with the United Farm Workers. “They tried violence here; there were people who were hurt by them; they tried to provoke people so they could respond to them, and yet the people followed Cesar Chavez’s view that we should peacefully ask for our rights and the Rangers had the most trouble with it.”

As a result of those encounters, a 1974 Supreme Court case, Medrano v. Allee, limited the jurisdiction of Texas Rangers.

To make this event a reality, Benavidez said she approached the STC board of trustees, and there was no hesitation among them to make it happen.

“They very easily accepted that we find a way to put this marker in our campus,” Benavidez said, “so that every student coming through the halls of South Texas College would be proud and know that this is where a movement started.”