Led by the church, 1966 farmworkers sought justice for all

Without the Catholic Church, the 1966 Melon Strike March might have never happened.

The march followed a failed strike in Starr County where hundreds of farmworkers took to the picket lines demanding more than 40 cents an hour for their work at the six major melon growers including La Casita Farms, a subsidiary of Hardin Farms of Salinas, California.

After several violent confrontations with law enforcement, including the Texas Rangers, the farmworkers’ cause was faced with a blockade. With few local supporters, they began seeking help from outside of Starr County.

“The church was critical to the success of the march and the strike,” said Rebecca Flores, Texas Director of the UFW from 1975 to 2005. “They always talk about a march but this was a peregrination. They always had the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is present in everything that’s ever been done with the farmworkers.”

Newly installed Bishop Humberto Medeiros of the Brownsville Diocese was the first to endorse the strikers, followed by the San Antonio Archbishop Emmett Lucey. But it was Erasmo Andrade who worked under Rev. Serrill Smith, of San Antonio, who first came up with the idea of the march to San Juan, according to a July 8, 1966, article in the Valley Evening Monitor.

“There was an explosive situation there,” Andrade said. “And all that was needed was an outsider to ignite the spark.”

Some 100 marchers took to the streets of Rio Grande City on Monday, July 4, 1966, headed to San Juan where Bishop Medeiros promised to host a special Mass that Friday at the Our Lady of San Juan del Valle Shrine. Rev. Robert Peña, of Los Ebanos, represented the bishop that Independence Day and read a letter from Madeiros over a loud speaker to the 100 marchers who originated that morning at La Casita community.

“It goes without saying that all men feel deep concern for the need of one another. The bishop is also concerned in a way proper to his office to help improve the material conditions in which God’s people work out their salvations,” Rev. Peña said, who added the bishop was giving his blessing to the march if its purpose was the search for justice for all, not only a segment of the population.

In La Joya, farm union leader Eugene Nelson also told a reporter Bishop Medeiros had sent a $1,500 check to help them pay for food, clothing and medicine.

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