In commemoration of Women’s History Month and Farmworker Awareness Week, we wanted to uplift six women who helped change the Rio Grande Valley for the better. These women fought and organized around issues affecting farmworkers, domestic workers, colonia rights, and against police brutality.
The Valley has been home to many great organizers, both past and present. Although this list only scratches the surface, the contributions these women have made to the Valley are tremendous.
1. Raquel Orendain
Raquel Orendain first arrived to the Rio Grande Valley in the Spring of 1969. At the time, she worked with the United Farm Workers (UFW), out of the office in McAllen. Alongside Maria Magallan and the Union y Fuerza group in Pharr, she played an important role in organizing against brutality from the Pharr Police Department. She supported the work of Magallan and helped set up various gatherings for Union y Fuerza, including a pivotal screening of “Salt of the Earth”, a 1954 film that inspired the women from Union y Fuerza. In 1977, Orendain, now with the Texas Farm Workers Union, took part in the famous “March For Human Rights”, a 2000-plus miles march demanding human rights for farmworkers and the repeal of ‘Right to Work’ laws enacted through the Taft-Hartley Act. After that, during the latter part of that decade, Orendain worked at Colonias del Valle, which was based out of San Juan and is known as the first colonia rights organization in the Valley. At Colonias del Valle she started as a teacher’s aide and would eventually go on to become the director of that program. Orendain was so important to Valley farmworkers during the time she was alive. During her lifetime, she was one of the few women leaders within the farmworker movement in the Valley. She passed away in 1985.
2. Juanita Valdez-Cox
Juanita Valdez-Cox was a migrant farm worker who grew in the Rio Grande Valley. As a young adult, she joined the United Farm Workers, where she would perform volunteer work during the 1970s and 1980s. During the 80’s, she worked as a head start teacher and then as a center director in Hidalgo County. In 1979, inspired to fight against the discrimination she saw around her, she relocated to Austin to become a community organizer. She left Austin, returning to the Valley to start working full time for the UFW in 1981, where she would eventually be promoted to Texas statewide director in 1995. During that time Valdez-Cox is credited with helping establish Proyecto Azteca, a non-profit self-help construction organization that serves low-income families in Valley colonias, and Centro 16 de Septiembre, a non-profit that according to Erik Toren, a UFW organizer during the 1990s, aims to “empower farm workers to run their own organic farms.” In 1999, she was elected into the UFW’s national executive board. Four years later in 2003 she helped transition the local UFW chapter to its own organization, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). Valdez-Cox currently serves as the LUPE director.
3. Juanita Valdez
Not to be confused with the LUPE director, this Juanita Valdez is best known for her leadership role during the 1979 Onion strike in Raymondville. At the time, the group of workers were striking to demand more than the 25¢ that they were being paid by the Wetegrove ranching family per bag of onions. Valdez was one of the key strike leaders during this uprising. She was featured in the Hart Perry documentary Valley of Tears. She currently resides in California.
4. Maria Magallan
Maria Magallan is best known for her key role in launching Union y Fuerza, a group of women from the same neighborhood in Pharr who organized to fight the issues that were present in their community. Some of the issues that Union y Fuerza addressed were sewage disposal, garbage collecting, lack of streetlights and signs, political corruption and police brutality. Magallan was one of the people who helped organized the protests and pickets against police brutality in 1971 and was present during the Pharr Riot of Feb. 6, 1971. She and her group of Union y Fuerza continued the protests in the months that followed, helping change Pharr for the better. She still resides at the same neighborhood in Pharr where all this took place during the 1970s.
5. Carmen Anaya
Originally from Mexico, Carmen Anaya and her family settled in Las Milpas during the 1970s. She quickly began working with her family and community to make her colonia a better place. She got involved with Valley Interfaith and worked on colonia legislation and demanded street lights, access to water and sewer systems, street paving and more for her colonia. For a brief period in time, Anaya and members in her community almost succeeded in making Las Milpas its own city before it was eventually annexed by the City of Pharr in 1987. Anaya passed away in 2006, but her memory is kept alive through “Carmen Anaya Day”, which is celebrated every year at Carmen Anaya Elementary in Las Milpas.
6. Rosa San Luis
Currently residing in Harlingen, Rosa San Luis is the domestic workers rights organizer for Fuerza del Valle, a workers center in the Rio Grande Valley. San Luis first got involved with Fuerza del Valle in 2014. By the end of that year, she would be one of the co-founders of the the domestic workers committee. In 2015, alongside local organizer, Samantha Herrera, San Luis represented the Valley and the domestic workers committee in the national We Belong Together “100 Women, 100 Miles” campaign. The two walked on a 100 mile pilgrimage that lasted 8 days. After those 100 miles were completed and the two returned to the Valley, the domestic workers committee led a monthly “Caminata por Derechos Migrantes” (“Walk For Migrant Rights”) from Oct. 2015 to Aug. 2016 in various cities across the Valley. San Luis currently coordinates the domestic workers committee, organizing meetings, and facilitates worker rights workshops in the community.