The open wounds of the Pharr Riots of 1971

Since 1996, October 22 has been recognized as National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation. This is one, of many, many stories regarding police violence in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.

Recently on Twitter, there was an amazing resource going around titled “Latino Urban Rebellions & Social Unrest in the United States”. It had more than a hundred different Latino uprisings that have taken place across this county. It’s an incredible resource, but it should also be pointed out that there were probably so many more revolts that were just never documented. But let’s take a look at the map that was provided with this study.

As you can see there is just one single arrow below Houston, just one arrow in South Texas, specifically just one arrow in the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley, and that one arrow is on the corner of Cage Blvd. and Bell Ave. in Pharr, Texas. That lone red mark is for the Pharr Riot of 1971.

Let’s start from the beginning. There were many issues going on with Pharr in the lead-up to what happened that night in 1971. One of the people who were at the center of the issues was Pharr Mayor R.S. Bowe. Efrain Fernandez, who was doing community organizing in Pharr during those days, wrote this in his crucial text Community Organizing In The City of Pharr (1974):

“It was the rigid grip of control Bowe had on the city that caused the most damage…Bowe used a clever system of rewards and punishments. If a person did not play ball with the administration, he might get thrown out of the housing project, or he might be harassed by the police when he visited his favorite bar, or his water bills might go up all of a sudden…Let it be sufficed to say that the full power inherent in city government was used and abused to the hilt. This included corruption in the police, the water department, the tax department, the city inspector’s department, and even in the staff of the city offices.”   

Like many of the cities in the Valley, the railroad tracks on Old 83 were the dividing line. In the segregated city of Pharr of the 1960s and 1970s, south of the tracks was considered the white (or “Anglo”) side, while the north area was tabbed the “Mexican” side. According to Dora Leticia Gonzalez in her great work A Look At The City of Pharr-Before And After The Riot, there were issues with the sewage, unpaved streets, water lines, garbage collecting, lack of streetlights and signs, and with the smell that was emanating from a lift station on the corner of Cypress and Bell Ave.

One of the people who fought to make Pharr a better place was Maria Magallan, who was living on Bell Ave. near that lift station and Cage Blvd.

“Yo siempre sentía como si algo le faltaba a Pharr,” (“I always felt like there was something missing in Pharr,”) Maria Magallan told me at her home in Pharr.  

Photo from Susan Law, from the Ya Mero newspaper.

Magallan started a group called Union y Fuerza to combat the issues that were present in her community. She couldn’t stand the way elected officials would ignore the problems that the most vulnerable were facing in Pharr. The way Bowe tried to get votes from people in her community especially bothered Magallan.

At gatherings, Bowe would offer tacos to the citizens of Pharr, according to Magallan.

“No me gusto por qué la gente se tenía que comer un taco que le da un Mayor? Por que?” (“I didn’t like it, why did the people have to eat a taco that the mayor would give them? Why?”) She would always ask herself why the situation was like this in North Pharr or as she still calls it “Pharr Chiquito.”

She credits Fernandez, who she met through organizing work, and late Raquel Orendain, of the Texas chapter of the United Farm Workers (later Orendain was with the Texas Farm Workers Union after the split of 1975) with supporting Union y Fuerza during this period.

Raquel Orendain. Photo from Norma Ramirez.

[Note: Orendain passed away during the 1980s, and Fernandez still lives in the Valley. I met him in 2014, but he very politely declined an invitation to be involved with a vigil we were holding in Pharr. To those that were close to him during the 1970s and 1980s, he took what happened during that era very hard.]

One thing that was happening in the community that was not being addressed, along with the previous list of issues, was the brutality that was being unleashed on Pharr boys and men by the Pharr Police Department.

According to Gonzalez, “some cases involved people with broken ribs, bruises and bumps all over their bodies, and swollen faces, which had occurred while the people were handcuffed or in their jail cells.”

She also points to two officers being the main culprits: Mateo Sandoval and Gilbert Zuñiga. Heading the department as chief at the time was Alfredo Ramirez, who was denying the charges from the community. 

For Magallan herself, this wasn’t just something she heard from other people, chisme from friends, but something she saw on her own. She vividly remembers when a teenage neighbor of hers was a victim at the hands of Sandoval.

“Lo golpearon,” (“They brutalized him”) Magallan told me about a neighbor of hers. “Era Mateo [Sandoval] el que lo golpeó, lo dejó sangrando y todo. Pero era menor de edad, [por eso] no lo metieron en la carcel. Efrain lo entrevisto a el [joven]. Era mi vecino, y yo tambien lo mire como estaba. Fue unas de las cosas reales. No fue algo que alguien los dijo, pero algo que vimos, que estaba golpeado.” (It was [Mateo] Sandoval who brutalized him, he left him bleeding and everything. But [my neighbor] was underage, [that’s why] they didn’t put him in jail. Efrain interviewed the young boy. He was my neighbor, and I too saw how he was. It was a real thing. It wasn’t something that someone told us, but something we saw, that he was brutalized.”]

Stories of people being beaten by police began to spread, and it got coverage in the ¡Ya Mero!, a community newspaper here in the Valley that was launched by an incredible editor and writer named David Fishlow, formerly of El Malcriado of California. In the Jan. 30, 1971 edition, a front-page story and a graphic photo were released of Guadalupe Lucio Salinas, a 24-year-old man that was severely beaten by Sandoval. The article also mentions Manuel Mata, a 44-year-old man that was attacked by Sandoval the week before the incident with Salinas. According to the piece, Salinas suffered cuts on his face, a badly swollen eye, and other injuries to the rest of his body. For Mata, he endured two broken ribs and lots of pain due to the blows that were inflicted upon him.

Photo from David Robles

Other reported cases of brutality, according to Fishlow in a Feb. 26, 1971 story in the Texas Observer titled “Pocho Flores is Dead” included incidents involving Daniel Vasquez and Noe Rocha being attacked.

The stage was set for a picket demanding justice outside of the Pharr Police Department on Feb. 6, 1971. Magallan, her daughter Oralia, Fishlow, Vasquez, Reymundo Lopez, attorney David Hall of the UFW, were some of the people present according to Gonzalez, along with several more people from the barrio.

Fishlow, in that aforementioned Texas Observer article, has a play-by-play of what happened that day:

“On Saturday morning, there was a picket line out front. A couple of dozen people, mostly teenagers and young people, with a scattering of children and middle aged working people, strolled up and down carrying signs saying “Mas justicia y menos garrotazos” (More justice and fewer beatings”); “No necesitamos policías salvajes” (“We don’t need savage policemen”); and “Fuera con Sandoval y Ramirez” (“Get rid of Sandoval and Ramirez”).

More and more people started joining in, and the chants got louder and louder. Estimates from Fishlow had the crowd at over 200 to 300 people, at a time when Pharr had a small population of less than 16,000. A conversation took place between Ramirez and Fernandez, where the chief accused the protesters of being abusive. Ramirez famously told Fernandez that they were just expressing themselves and to let them be. Ramirez would then call the fire engines, and once the orders were given, water started being sprayed at the protesters.

“Suddenly the high-pressure nozzles were opened,” Fishlow wrote. “Firehoses drenched pickets and spectators alike. All became chaos.”

Photo from The Monitor

This particular moment in the riot stands out very vividly for Magallan.

“Trajeron los bomberos y comenzaron a echarle agua a la gente,” (“They brought out the firefighters and they started shooting water at the people”) Magallan remembers.

She points out to Cage Blvd. and tells me how that street had many cantinas at the time.

“Cuando comenzaron los bomberos a echarle agua a la gente, las señores corrieron para este lado, y llevaban piedras [de sus casas]. Los men que estaban en las cantinitas esas salieron, y pues ellos ni sabían de qué se trataba. Pero salieron y dijeron, ‘Señoras, sabes qué, le vamos ayudar…No están haciendo nada malo ustedes.’ Pos si, salieron todos los borrachitos de ahí…y las señores les llevaron las piedras a ellos.” (“When the firefighters started shooting the water at the people, the women ran back to this side, and they took rocks [from their houses]. The men that were at the cantinas came out, and well, they didn’t even know what this was about. But they came out and said, ‘Señora, you know what, we are going to help you…You all aren’t doing anything bad.’ Well yes, so all the drunk men came out from there…and us women took rocks to them.”)

As all this chaos was unfolding, Vasquez was attacked once more by the police.

“In the midst of the water and rocks,” wrote Fishlow, “Ramirez ran out of the police station and jumped Daniel [Vasquez]. He was joined by two or three cops, and they hustled the terrified, struggling Daniel into the jail. Witnesses later said they literally threw him into a cell.”

The police released tear gas and then started firing their guns. People were now being arrested, and Magallan believes that more would have been incarcerated if the police had more vehicles and space in their cells. As all hell broke loose, one person by the name of Alfonso Loredo Flores, a 20-year-old bystander who stepped out of Ramos’ Hair Styling Center on the corner of Bell Ave. and Cage Blvd. was shot tragically in the head by a bullet that reportedly came from deputy sheriff Robert Johnson.

Alfonso Loredo Flores, with Lidia Ruiz Flores, his wife. Photo from Cassandra Nichole Garcia

One account claimed they saw Johnson pointing directly at Flores; another account from the investigation claims the bullet ricochet off the building and then hit Flores. The night of Feb. 6 closed with a bloodied Flores being picked up off the sidewalk and placed in an ambulance that led him to Valley Baptist Hospital in Harlingen. The next day he was pronounced dead.

Photo from Melissa Arjona

Flores left behind his father Manuel Flores, his mother Marta Loredo, his wife Lidia, and their child Belinda Flores.

Not much is known about Flores other than the details I’ve shared so far and that he was a construction worker who was home from his job. There was a massive turnout for his funeral and for a memorial march that was organized by the Mexican-American Youth Organization and UFW Organizing Committee.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed, this story was all over the local media. The Monitor, The Pharr Press, Valley Morning Star, ¡Ya Mero! all had front page stories.

Photo from David Robles

Photo from the Pharr Memorial Library

The narrative some of these publications were sharing tried to justify the abusive actions of the police that night, even though the testimonies from those that were present said it was, without a doubt, a case of police brutality.

“The papers were almost unanimous in saying the rock barrage started the whole thing. Eye-witnesses, including this writer, say that is nonsense,” wrote Fishlow at the Texas Observer.

Several of these publications also included listings of the people who were arrested, most of which were from Pharr, although there were a few that were from nearby cities. This list of those that were jailed comes from an issue of The Monitor newspaper that is at archived at the Museum of South Texas History: Ernesto Chavez Palacios, Rogelio Monte Longo Solis, Camilo Garcia Salinas, Rolando Garza Peña, Reymundo Pardo Lopez, Rene Saenz Lopez, Israel Brieno Garcia, Antonio Ojeda Jimenez, Trinidad Alvarez Piña, Jose Torres Pantajo, Cruz Velasquez Cortez, Daniel Flores Vasquez, Victor Rodriguez Martinez, Archie Garza Garza, Carlos Garza Balderas, Heriberto Vaquero Ramos, Juan Jose Mendez Chavez, Carlos Soto Avita, Jesus Maria Gonzalez Ramirez, Salvador Eustara Gomez, Juan Lopez Fonseca, Miguel Saenz Lopez, Ralph Walter Cavazos, Ruben Sanchez Zamora Jr., Reynaldo Ruiz Gonzalez, Tomas Garcia Rodriguez, Clemente Sauceda Sanchez Jr., Pedro Puga Garza, Jesus Edgar Delgado Ruiz.  

“The cops had not done a very good job identifying them and what their roles were [in the riot]. Most of those were charged with misdemeanors,” Hall explained to me.

We started to see local corridos being composed about Flores to remember him, honor him and pay tribute to him. Los Dos Gilbertos, an iconic conjunto from Edinburg, released a song titled “Alfonso Loredo Flores.” Of course, the most famous and best corrido is one that was composed and performed by Rumel Fuentes, titled “El Corrido de Pharr, Texas.” There are at least two other corridos that I know of, and one recent song by the local hardcore band Reinforce titled “Streets of Pharr 1971.”

The community organizing continued, as justice was demanded for everything that had gone down up to this point. This is a press release that was released by Union y Fuerza where they pushed for Ramirez, Sandoval and Zuñiga to be removed from their positions. They promised to do a picket a day, every day, for 12 hours going on from 9 AM to 9 PM. Magallan told me that the women in her community would alternate in time shifts to make this happen. A boycott of businesses was also planned for South Pharr, as they attempted to get Bowe and his entourage resign.

Photo from Susan Law

Photo from Dora Leticia Gonzalez

Susan Law, who was with the UFW then and who is retiring this year from TRLA, remembers this time period very well.

“Raquel [Orendain] and Mrs. Magallan were the leaders,” Law said. “There was this movie called Salt of the Earth, the men go on strike [in the story] and it shows how strong the women are, picketing and everything. So we showed that film at some place to a group of women, and I think everybody got inspired, as I recall. So the women started taking over [the movement in Pharr], the Pharr Police would not dare shoot at women or beat them up, or anything like that. They wouldn’t be able to do that, so a lot of us became picketers in front of City Hall, in front of Mayor Bowe’s house. It was really something.”

Photo from Susan Law

The news of the situation in Pharr would soon find its way to national television with “Strangers in Their Own Land”, a documentary produced by ABC News.

Thanks to the women that led the way, along with some assistance from The Concerned Citizens Committee and the Pharr Citizens League, Bowe and his four commissioners resigned. Also soon enough there were changes at the Pharr Police Department as well, as Manuel Chavez took on the chief role that was previously held by Ramirez.

As seen in the ABC News video, officials wanted to make an example out of Alonzo Lopez, who was there that night, and Fernandez. In the aftermath, Lopez was found guilty for his role in the riot; he ended up getting probation. Hall, along with Warren Burnett, represented Fernandez, who was acquitted. Johnson was able to win the civil trial for the wrongful death of Flores. Hall explained the reason to me.

“The problem was, the bullet was so malformed you couldn’t link it to anybody’s gun,” Hall said. “So they couldn’t do a match. There were hundreds of cops out there that night, and a lot of them were firing their guns into the air…we were just unable to make that physical connection…Johnson was in a place where more likely than not, it was him, but we couldn’t make that connection. We ended up losing that.”

The story about police violence in the Valley doesn’t end here though. In 1970, a 14-year-old boy named Victor Manuel Nava was killed by police in Brownsville. In 1981, national media centered its attention on McAllen, when video footage leaked out of the McAllen Police Department of officers beating people at their headquarters. In 1996, a police officer murdered 18-year-old Iris Yvette Hidalgo in Edcouch. Most recently German Ornelas was shot and killed by the Brownsville Police Department on Oct. 5. The Texas Rangers are investigating as the family demands justice for what happened. And there are many, many more instances of this type of violence that have happened, decade after decade in our community.

As Fuentes stated in his iconic corrido: “Y nos va seguir pasando, si no hay organización.” (“And it will keep on happening, if we do not organize.”)

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This article is dedicated to Alfonso Loredo Flores, who is buried at Guadalupe Cemetery in Pharr, a few blocks away from where he was shot.

Burial site of Flores

This article couldn’t have been written without the help of many, either through personal interactions or through what they wrote decades ago. Thanks to: Alexis Bay, David Robles, Susan Law, David Hall, Dora Leticia Gonzalez, Linda J. Swartz, David Fishlow, Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro, Efrain Fernandez, Cassandra Nichole Garcia, Jacqueline Armendariz, Pamela Brown, Pharr Memorial Library, Museum of South Texas History, Noemi Cabrera, and especially Maria Magallan. Thanks also to everyone else that helped along the way as well.