Genoveva Puga, longtime advocate for farmworkers’ rights, died Sunday in Alamo at the age of 92.
March marked more than 40 years since her son, Juan Torrez, a Rio Grande Valley farmworker, was killed as a result of equipment malfunction while working for the Donna Fruit Company.
Puga’s son died on March 29, 1977, while Puga was working out of the state as a seasonal field worker. It took Puga days to return home after receiving word of his death.
In a photo capturing the moment, Puga located Torrez’s burial site at the pauper’s cemetery in Edinburg. She is seen crouched down with one hand on her head, while the other hand keeps her balance.
Torrez was buried there because the family could not afford to pay for a funeral or burial — an expense that would be covered by one’s employer.
In 2015, La Union del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, featured Puga’s photo in a gallery celebrating the history of the Valley farmworker.
On Monday in an interview with The Monitor, LUPE’s executive director, Juanita Valdez-Cox, said Puga’s work left a profound mark on farmworkers in the Valley.
Her son’s death and the subsequent fight for compensation from the Donna Fruit Company propelled Puga to fight for all farm workers’ rights over the course of the rest of her life.
After the company denied the family any compensation as a result of the accident that led to Torrez’s death, claiming he was an independently contracted worker, thus not covered by the company.
Jim Harrington, a civil rights attorney working in San Juan with the South Texas Project, and his colleagues heard of Torrez’s death, as had members of the United Farm Workers union.
Harrington said at the time there was a lot of discussion about the lack of protections for farm workers in South Texas, and had heard tragic stories like that of Torrez time and time again.
“That narrative came into the (UFW) and we were talking about it. I just thought it was really awful,” Harrington said. “…Then we had a larger discussion about the need for workers’ (compensation) because (at the time) farmworkers (were) excluded from workers comp.,” Harrington said.
One United Farm Workers member, Rebecca Flores, spoke with The Monitor Tuesday to reflect on Puga and her contribution to the cause for workers’ rights.
Flores, an activist and advocate for workers’ rights, went on to become the UFW’s director.
After the lawsuit against the Donna Fruit Company was thrown out of state district court, Puga and Harrington appealed to higher courts, eventually making it to the Texas Supreme Court, where in 1982, they were victorious in the suit and subsequently awarded a monetary sum.
“When somebody got hurt before or died, the family depended on charity, depending on the church, depended on family and friends,” Harrington said.
The win at the state supreme court would only be the first step in fighting for workers’ rights in the state.
Two years after the highest court in the state found the Donna Fruit Company was responsible for Torrez’s death, and after a special legislative session, in July 1984, Texas Gov. Mark W. White signed into law a bill that provided workers’ compensation for farmworkers in the state.
In a photo capturing the historic moment, the governor, with Puga and others by his side, signs the bill in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle church on July 20, 1984.
Flores, who left the Valley in 1983 to continue advocacy work in Austin, remembers Puga’s continued participation and work with the UFW.
“She was very quiet. A very quiet woman, very solemn, it was very hard to see her with a big smile on her face. She was very serious. I don’t know, maybe the, you know, the years of trouble and the struggles were on her shoulders,” Flores said.
Harrington said Puga’s fight to not let her son’s death be in vain led to the furthering of farmworkers’ rights and the farmworkers’ cause because it led to additional similarly argued litigation in the pursuit to protect farm workers.
“She was very resolute in terms of justice for her grandson and Juan’s wife And also that this change should not be a burden on other farmworkers, Harrington said. “That’s why she continued to work on this issue even after she won the case. She was very resolute — determined that this is gonna go forward. And she was gonna do everything that she could, to make sure that there was justice for the families, farmworker families.
Harrington said because of Puga’s efforts, millions in workers’ compensation benefits are distributed in the Valley region
“By bringing farmworkers under coverage not only protected them and their family, but it also brought a tremendous amount of money into the Valley,” Harrington said. “Compensation then pays for the hospitalization or the death, and it makes life easier. But it’s a financial investment that comes into the Valley.”
Harrington, who represented Torrez’s family for the entirety of the process, roughly from 1977 to 1984, said he was honored to have been along Puga’s side in her efforts to get justice for her son.
“I think my time in the Valley representing farmworkers was really a great time and one of the reasons is because I represented people like Ms. Puga who were really dedicated to justice, and who at personal sacrifice, of course, giving up her time, and all she did, was really inspiring, and it was an honor for me to be their attorney,” Harrington said.
Flores added that her role within the UFW even after the compensation bill was signed showed her level of dedication to workers’ rights and their cause.
Puga’s decades of work with the UFW, and those of members like her, were instrumental in getting legislation passed through grassroots means, the former UFW director said.
“She was very serious about the work she did and what she thought about the union, and everything that she did in the union,” Flores said. “She was a small woman, but you know what? She stuck to her guns and she did what she had to do, to remember her son and to leave a legacy for him and farmworkers in the Valley.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect LUPE’s correct name.