Farmworkers on strike block traffic on the Roma bridge in Roma, Texas, in 1966. (Courtesy of AFL-CIO)
Daria Vera has never forgotten that brutally hot summer in 1966.
She goes to the back room of her tiny Texas home and comes back holding a box of pictures.
“This is my daughter,” Vera says in Spanish, pointing to a girl in one photograph. “She was so little — probably 2 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.
That was the summer, 50 years ago, when Texas farmworkers walked off their jobs to protest their low pay and terrible working conditions. And in the searing heat, they staged a historic march across the state. Many were beaten and arrested.
It’s an event often overlooked in history books, and now, some of those original marchers, such as Vera, are finally telling their stories.
“Ranchers used to pay us 40 cents an hour for picking cantaloupes,” Vera remembers.
Wages were so low that kids as young as 5 would join in the picking to add to a family’s income.
Just to put things in perspective, sanitation workers at the time made about $1.27 an hour — three times more than a farmworker.
Out of Vera’s photo box comes another picture.
“They’re some of the farmworkers who went on strike,” Vera says.
One of those farmworkers is Valdemar Diaz, who lives in a mobile home in nearby Rio Grande City, Texas. It’s about 15 minutes away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Vera knocks on the door, calling out, “Campadre!”
When Diaz comes outside, he says — in Spanish — that 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, full of frogs and crickets,” Diaz says. “We would push the critters out of the way and drink from the puddles.”
Workers decided in the spring of 1966 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,” Diaz says, “because ranchers were not budging.”
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 even beatings and 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. To do that, 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 alone was failing. But unrest was palpable all over the country.
Inspired by the famous Selma to Montgomery March, led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, farmworkers in Texas decided to march, too.
“We started right about right here, from Rio Grande City all the way to Austin, Texas,” says Erminia Ramirez Trevino, who was only 13 years old the day the march kicked off. “It took us two months.”
Change, however, took years longer.
Today, fields in Texas have porta-potties and water stations for workers. Workers are entitled to earn the federal minimum wage.
“Workers should be proud of what we did,” Vera says.
One thing hasn’t changed though: farm work in Texas is still plagued with abuse. And those who dare to speak up on this side of the border continue to be easily replaced by those from the other side.