SANTA MARIA — In 2012, the narrow road that connects the elementary, middle and high schools here was named after Maria Silva — an honor that represents the paths to education that her advocacy paved the way for generations of local students.
Frank Silva, Maria’s son, said that she saw the importance of investing in students’ education, and carried it with her throughout her work as a civil rights activist. This work included launching free lunch programs and much-needed bilingual classes where they were not previously available.
“Education was so important to her,” Frank, the eldest of eight, said. “She would say, ‘Yes, we do fight for better jobs and better paying jobs, but what we should focus on and get involved in is education.’”
Maria, who was born in Brownsville, died two weeks ago on Dec. 29, 2019. She was 88 years old, but her work in the school district, and her hand in creating nonprofits Su Clinica and the Military Highway Water Supply Corporation, continue her legacy.
Established in 1971, Su Clinica is a full-service community clinic based in Harlingen and has since opened four other locations across Cameron and Willacy counties — all focused on the mission of increasing access to health care for underserved residents and migrant farmworkers.
MHWSC was established the same year and works toward providing water and sewer services for the same people. Maria was on the steering committee of the organization, which now has treatment plants and stations spread across Cameron and Hidalgo counties, servicing about 11,000 colonia homes in rural and domestic areas.
Both Maria and her husband, Delfino Silva, were farmworkers and moved around the state, following crops — cotton and grains during the summer, and bell peppers, onions and tomatoes in the fall and winter harvests. They settled in Santa Maria in 1962, and never left.
Home meant a lot to Maria, and even after falling ill the last years of her life, it remained a source of comfort.
Maria was diagnosed with Alzeimer’s disease nine years before she died. It was difficult to hold conversations longer than 20 minutes with her “because one moment she was there, then she was gone,” Frank said.
“But she never forgot about Santa Maria.”
Maria, much like Santa Maria, is not known by many, but is dearly loved by those who do. The small town has a population of about 700, and is binded to the Military Highway. It can be driven through in less than a minute and has no stoplights.
Fields of cabbage, onions, cilantro and sugarcane dot the area. And much like the tall, burly sugarcane stalks that coat over acres of land there, so was Maria’s devotion to standing up for the rights of the people of her community.
In 1968, thousands of students in East Los Angeles schools walked out of their classrooms, demanding an end to racial discrimination against Hispanics. Soon, students in San Antonio and Edcouch-Elsa joined in. This was an integral moment in the Chicano movement, and Maria made sure that Santa Maria students took part.
After sensing inequality in the school district, which only had an elementary and middle school then, Maria organized a walkout of several families. The protest lasted three weeks, and in that time, a friend offered his home to Maria and others to host classes.
The walkout caught the attention of representatives from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which was later renamed the Department of Health and Human Services.
“She told them, ‘I could care less if you were white, black or polka dot,’” Frank said, mimicking his mother’s sass. “‘As long as you did what was right for our people, I wouldn’t be complaining or walking out.’
“And then they listened to her.”
The free lunch program and bilingual classes were then approved by the school board, and students started attending again.
Maria was also heavily involved in the rise of the La Raza Unida Party (The National United Race Party) which was born out of dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s ignorance of inequality against Hispanics. The party’s candidate, Ramsey Muñiz, ran for Texas governor in 1972 and 1974, making him the first Hispanic to have their name appear on a Texas gubernatorial general election ballot.
Maria was the head of organizing rallies whenever the politician came to town in the 1960s.
“She would put pressure on county commissioners and any elected officials in our county,” Frank said. “She was a tough woman.”
She did the same for César Chávez when he came to the Valley, and also worked closely with Antonio “Tony” Orendain, another civil rights leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers and founder of the Texas Farm Workers union.
“My mom was never in it for the recognition, or for someone to give her credit,” Frank said. “She said that she did not care, anyone could take it. She just cared that people got the help.”
Frank also recalled his mother being a genuine voice of the people, whose council and support was highly sought-after in the South Texas community.
“If people were having a problem, they would go to her, they would come to her,” he said. “They could complain to her and she would say, ‘You should have come to me first, but let’s go get things straightened out.’
“She was not scared to protest and stand up.”
Much like her life, Maria’s funeral was modest in size and humble in spirit, yet attracted people from everywhere to say goodbye to a woman who represented and defended them so valiantly.
Services were handled by Rudy Garza Palms Funeral Home and the burial was in Santa Maria. She is now reunited with her husband, as her final resting place — adorned with colorful floral arrangements and ribbons — is located beside his grave in the middle of an open field that’s surrounded by sugarcane.
“She did not get to see 2020 … I would still love to have her,” Frank said.