When I was in school, the history we were taught had little connection to the Rio Grande Valley. It was very difficult for me to engage with the material. However, once I started exploring the stories of our community on my own, I became fascinated with the rich history surrounding us.
You won’t find Valley history in mainstream books or in class. Unfortunately, local stories remain obscure through no fault of the people here in the Valley. Schools, colleges, universities, and local media outlets don’t do enough to connect students and our population to the actual history of our communities. As a result, access to our history and stories takes work. It requires a willingness to talk to friends, community members, and being out in the streets.
As Julio Coreño’s story shows, our stories, our history, is worth the work.
The Texas Farm Workers Union (TFWU) was founded in 1975. Despite its contributions to the Valley, it’s an organization that isn’t often discussed as much as other, more nationally known unions and organizations. Established by Antonio Orendain, who first arrived to the Valley in 1966, the union lasted until 1982.
A few months before the Orendain’s death in 2016, I was hanging out with some old-time members of the TFWU. That night, I learned about Julio Coreño, an openly gay member of the TFWU.
Coreño was also one of the most visible members of TFWU, a union that I and my close friends had been greatly influenced by for so many years. My interest was immediately piqued.
Soon after learning of him, I found photos of Coreño in El Cuhamil newspaper, the bi weekly and bilingual periodical that was distributed by the TFWU in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (Note: Interested readers can find copies at the UT-RGV library in Edinburg.)
In 1977, the TFWU marched from San Juan to Austin, then ultimately to Washington, D.C., walking more than 2,000 miles demanding human rights for farmworkers and to repeal ‘Right to Work’ laws protected in the Taft-Hartley Act. Coreño was one of those marchers.
While exploring the archives, I learned that alongside other TFWU members he was one of the people highlighted in Luis Guerra’s “Hasta La Gloria” (1977), the famous and definitive artwork of the “March For Human Rights” of 1977.
I had the opportunity to talk to Guerra. He referred to Coreño as being Two Spirit, an Indigenous identity that predates Western LGBTQ terminology, but I can’t find any other person or source that also refers to Coreño as having that identity.
“Man, that guy was strong,” Guerra remembers of Coreño. “Whenever we would go through a little town, he’d be carrying El Cuhamil, the newspaper. We’d be marching, and he would be going back and forth, side to side, crossing the streets, handing out the newspaper to all the people that were watching us. So he’s walking twice as much as everyone else. I thought that was really impressive.”
I talked to Norma Ramirez next. Through her family, Norma is someone who was involved with the TFWU from the very beginning. As the daughter of Claudio and Virginia Ramirez, two TFWU leaders that resided in Pharr, Norma spent her youth at TFWU gatherings, meetings, protests, pickets and marches. Her father was one of the most visible TFWU leaders and even got mentioned in Esteban Jordan’s epic two-part corrido for the March for Human Rights: “Marcha del Campesino” and “Siguieron Los Campesinos.”
“Eran 30 campesinos que empezaron a marchar,
Ivan señoras y niños y la Virgen de San Juan,
Decía Claudio Ramirez el que marcaba el compás,
Son 20 millas por día las que tenemos que andar.”
Norma was a part of this march, although she humbly describes her involvement in it as being ‘part-time’ since she would travel back and forth between being at the march and being in the Valley.
She spent a lot of time with Coreño during that era and describes him in very vivid words.
“Throughout the march el era el cook,” Norma said of Coreño. “He was very funny, he was a very nice person. So many memories with him.” “Tenía mucha energy,” Norma added. “Chaparrito, morenito, el hair todo esponjado, tenía mucha energy el. He was a very good person.”
Upon Norma’s suggestion, I next reached out to Susan Law. Law has worked at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid for decades and has been involved in farmworker circles since the 1970s. She’s a great historian of local history. Law only interacted with Coreño a few times, but she recalled a few things.
“The last time is when I went with Antonio [Orendain] to see him where he lived in Mercedes,” Law said. “He was known to be a great cook, and there he cooked outside [his home]. Antonio loved him and loved to tell stories about him.”
Throughout my rounds, everyone I talked to always mentioned how much Orendain loved Coreño.
Another person who also said that was Alejandro Rosel, the son of Hipolito Rosel and Dolores Rosel, key figures of the TFWU. Hipolito was significant in the construction of El Cuhamil, the space in San Juan that was the headquarters for the TFWU during the 1970s. That hall is now used by La Union del Pueblo Entero.
Although he was just a young child at the time, like Norma, Alejandro grew up around the TFWU. He remembers the marches, the BBQs, the construction of houses for TFWU members, the gatherings, the pickets, and the drinking. Apparently, there was a lot of drinking.
“He drank a lot, drank a lot of beer, to the point that he would fall asleep anywhere,” Alejandro said about Coreño in an interview with Hector Guzman Lopez, who assisted me by asking questions about Coreño to Alejandro. “My dad [Hipolito] and Mr. Orendain would always care for him. Would always [say] ‘Orale’ and pick him up, put him in the truck. I remember being small, and my dad and Ramiro Garcia carrying him and putting him in the truck cause he was drunk.”
Lopez asked for clarification of how Alejandro knew that Coreño was gay.
“He was very open about it,” Alejandro said. “People knew [he was gay], and that’s what I mean. At that time [in the world], they bullied people like that…In our organization, I don’t recall anyone doing that. The leader [Orendain] respected him a lot ’cause of his passion.”
Both Norma and Alejandro shared stories of times Coreño had crushes on different TFWU members. Alejandro also added that Coreño was well known in his hometown of Mercedes.
“He was very known here in Mercedes to have partners,” Alejandro told me.
While trying to find more information about Coreño, I came across an obscure interview by David Holmes Morris at the Austin History Center in the Austin Public Library.
Morris, a writer and reporter for many publications over the decades, first met Coreño through Enrique Lopez, who was the head of the TFWU support group in Austin.
“I got really interested,” Morris said over the phone when asked about when he first learned about Coreño. “Here’s an openly gay man who is a farmworker.”
Lopez drove Morris down to the Valley and arranged the interview with Coreño.
“He was a really interesting guy,” Morris said. “He had a really good sense of humor but he was serious about politics, serious about the union. Very good guy, very interesting man.”
The interview would be published in Gay Austin on July 1978, titled “Gay and Proud, Julio Coreño: A Farmworker.” The interview helped establish details about Coreño’s life: He was born in Guanajuato, never went to school, and only spoke Spanish.
The article also revealed the insight Coreño had at the time in relation to himself, farmworkers, academia, and the systemic abuse farmworkers faced and continue to face.
“[M]any people have told us that we should go to school since the government has so many education programs, and stop going around like trouble-makers and agitators,” Coreño said in Spanish, with an English translation printed by Gay Austin. “So why are we struggling? I tell them that if education were enough to end all the exploitation if there wouldn’t be any more exploited campesinos, I’d go to school. But if I go to school and, nevertheless, there is still exploitation for hundreds and hundreds who are out in the fields, then what good does it do for me to go to school? They still won’t respect our opinions.”
Coreño also shed light on growers and how they treat their workers.”They want to have a lot of people so when a bunch dies, or one dies, they put in ten more,” Coreño said in Gay Austin. “They want to have extra people like machines. They don’t want to lose them, they’re not going to lose, for example, ten trailers of cantaloupes, ten trailers of whatever is waiting there without ice and without being crated, so it moves, it has to be moved.”
The topic of the “March For Human Rights” also came up, specifically President Jimmy Carter’s refusal to meet with the TFWU when they arrived to Washington, D.C. after a journey of more than 2,000 miles. In the interview, Coreño was able to articulate the important impact the march had and how effective they were in being able to communicate their message through the communities they passed through, building power and momentum along the way.
“I think it was a good idea even if he didn’t talk to us, because for us, for me, for the union, we weren’t going because we were so anxious to see him because, after all, we weren’t going to kiss him. What mattered was talking to the people, to the poor people, to every class of people, poor and not poor, to anyone who would support us. That was our idea.”
Despite the personal hardships and challenges that Coreño would have undoubtedly experienced as an out gay farmworker man in the Valley, by all accounts he was an amazing leader. “He was, if somebody had a lot of energy and passion, aside from Orendain, it was Julio,” Alejandro said. “He was always in front of the march. In whatever video you see, you see him barely because he was always in the forefront, and he would be walking fast. He was always in the front, disseminating the newspaper, and he didn’t need to be told, ‘Hey, can you help us.’ He was always on the call.”
The people I spoke to could not confirm a date of death for Coreño but it is believed he passed away in the year 2001.
Coreño’s story continues to live through the different memories that people have about him, and the stories they continue to share and spread about the TFWU and the work they did in the Valley and beyond.
Stories like Coreño’s are extremely important to share. They help us remember, learn and recognize that this area of ours has always been fighting for our rights. We’ve always had and continue to have fierce fighters. The battle continues to this day with different groups and organizations fighting in the Valley for reproductive justice, labor rights, farmworker rights, LGBTQ rights, colonia rights, and much, much more. Learning about Coreño served as a reminder that our stories are rooted in our communities and in work involving a large group of people, each doing their own part. Even if mainstream books and academics won’t remember us and our history, we must.