Thursday, April 28, 2016

Remembering Antonio Orendain


By Benito Gonzalez and Manuel Torres, 4/13/16.

The first time that we met Antonio Orendain was in 1966. Orendain and some other organizers from the United Farm Workers (UFW) had come to talk to the farmworkers at the Weslaco labor camp, to unite the workers with others in Starr county. Orendain was the man with the black hat, as he was known then. The Valley, for the farmers and ranchers, was the “Magic Valley”. They would make huge profits from the crops that they planted like onions, tomatoes, melons, oranges, grapefruits, and many others. But for us, who work the land and harvest the crops, it was the “Valley of Tears”. That’s how Antonio would explain to the farmworkers, that we too had to put a price to our labor. Just like anybody else in the world, that we too are professional, like a doctor, or a lawyer.  And with that, he started his legend. From there on, the farmworkers were not afraid of being united as a group. Even further, Antonio and the union here understood that here in the border, we have to organize with immigrant workers. “The workers from Mexico are not our enemy.”

So every morning, we would get up at 4 AM and pass out flyers to the farmworkers at the Hidalgo bridge, where they would cross in the hundreds. The key to winning any strike or work stoppage was to organize the undocumented immigrant worker. After so many years of educating and organizing farmworkers on both sides of the border, they started to look up to Antonio and the Texas Farmworkers Union (TFWU). Whenever there were some problems with the crew leaders or the packing sheds owner, you could hear “Huelga! Huelga! Huelga!”

In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, hundreds of thousands of onion workers clipped onions in the fields throughout the Valley. At nighttime the workers would go looking for the TFWU office, looking for help from the organization and Antonio. One night a plan was formed with TFWU organizers, with Antonio as the lead organizer. It was agreed that the main reason that workers wanted to carry out a work stoppage was because they were not making the minimum wages of $1.25 per hour. Their pay was .25 cents a bucket (5 gallons), or .50 cents for a sack of 100 lbs. They also asked for use of bathrooms and clean drinking water.

That was one of the hundreds of strikes and work stoppages organized by the TFWU, here in Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties back in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s, besides the ones in West Texas, Pecos, Plainview, Muleshoe. Times have changed ever since NAFTA, with so much agricultural work moving south into Mexico and in other southern countries.

The legend of Antonio Orendain will live forever, and his goals of seeing a just society, where every farmworker is paid equally, treated fairly, and lives comfortably in a happy economy and political system for all. RIP our friend, our general, the struggle continues! A new movement is growing for a new world!

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