Juanita Valdez-Cox was pissed. It was a Sunday night in early May, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott had just signed Senate Bill 4, the “Show Me Your Papers” anti-sanctuary cities law. SB 4 will allow, and even require, local law enforcement to investigate people’s immigration status even during minor traffic stops, then turn them over to border patrol or I.C.E.

Late into the night after SB 4’s signing, Valdez-Cox, executive director La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), tapped text message after message into her phone and got many messages back. LUPE, based in San Juan, Texas, is a spin-off of the United Farmworkers Union. Like its legacy organization, LUPE organizes low-income residents in the Rio Grande Valley. The people texting with Valdez-Cox were other LUPE leaders. They kept it up all night planning their next steps.

Juanita Valdez-Cox at LUPE’s annual Cesar Chavez March | LUPE

The next morning at an anti-SB 4 protest in McAllen, they decided to take the state of Texas to court. Soon they joined a lawsuit against SB 4 that includes, as co-plaintiffs, the cities of San Antonio and Austin. Dallas has also declared its intention to become a plaintiff, and Houston is considering doing so. Other separate suits are being brought by Maverick County, El Cenizo (a small town near Laredo), and El Paso County.

In the lawsuit for which LUPE is a co-plaintiff, LUPE and two other non-profit organizations, the Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education, and the Austin-based Workers Defense Project give their legal reasons for suing Texas. They say they fear “for the well-being of their vulnerable members.” They believe that with SB 4, “undocumented individuals will be deterred from seeking legal help from and participating in advocacy efforts.” And they’re afraid their members will be racially profiled. They’re pissed.

Valdez-Cox is 66 years old. She has spent most of her life feeling pissed and trying to do something about it, first with her dad and later with entire communities. She’s been an activist for decades, and a couple of years ago she was interviewed for a Texas Christian University oral history project about the African and Mexican-American civil rights movements in Texas.

Juanita Valdez-Cox in her office at LUPE San Juan | Debbie Nathan

She began her oral history by reminiscing about her migrant farmworker childhood, picking crops with her family in Texas, the Midwest, and the Upper West of America.

Here are some excerpts:                   

One time we were all bending over doing the thinning of the lettuce and an airplane went over us and sprayed us… We just felt like really cold mist on our back. But everybody continued to work.

My mom and dad and the others said that it was medicina…. medicine for the crops. But when we got into our truck, my dad got really pissed. Those pesticides were very syrupy … He turned on the wipers, and that thing just messed up the windshield real bad. And my dad got really, really pissed.

Years later… my mom and dad joined the [United Farmworkers] Union. Years later, we would get upset at my dad because he should have been upset that we had been sprayed, not the windshield. And we said — of course in Spanish — “How could you not realize?” Later he knew, and I’m sure he felt bad, because later, involved in the union, we worked really, really, really hard… to get safe pesticide restrictions. And we were very successful.   

The whole family didn’t speak English as well as I did, and so I was my dad’s translator. We were hoeing sugar beets in Fort Lupton, Colorado. My dad would say, “Let’s go. We have to go talk to the farmer. How many rows, and what is he going to pay us?” So I was always involved with my dad in that. And so I always questioned that “why.” Why so little for so many rows?

I couldn’t do anything about it, but I would just tell my dad.

And when they used to spray the pesticides on us again, we used to tell my dad they shouldn’t do that. When we didn’t have water in the fields. Or when I used to see the house of the farmer, and I used to see where we lived, I would say, “Why is it different Dad?”

“He’s the owner, and we’re the workers.”

I think there were a lot of questions that I had, and so when they joined the union it was like getting answers to those questions. I was able to see the difference in how things should have been… It was then that I said, you know, “There’s something wrong with this”

There’s something wrong with SB 4, too, and it’s slated to take effect on September 1. The national ACLU and ACLU of Texas have filed in court for a preliminary injunction to keep that from happening. A judge in San Antonio is scheduled to hear arguments on June 26.

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Debbie Nathan is part of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network.