Civil rights leader Antonio Orendain died Tuesday April 12, 2016
...a great friend, dad, leader
Civil rights leader Antonio Orendain died Tuesday
James Colburn: Farm labor organizer Antonio Orendain sits Saturday at his home in Pharr.
Antonio “Tony” Orendain, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union with labor and civil rights leader César Chávez in 1962, died Tuesday at McAllen Heart Hospital. He was 85 years old.
Orendain’s work was remembered Wednesday by activists in the Rio Grande Valley who continue to fight for immigrant and farm worker rights.
“Mr. Orendain leaves a legacy of struggle on behalf of the farm workers in South Texas and California. His work on behalf of those who toiled in the fields under disgraceful conditions and for unspeakably low wages lives on in the memories of thousands. May he rest in peace and power,” reads a statement released by La Unión del Pueblo Entero.
When Orendain crossed the Mexican border into California in 1950, he was 20 years old, had a sixth-grade education and began laboring on farms. He soon met Cesar Chavez and worked with the Community Service Organization.
It was 1966 when Orendain came to Rio Grande City to help with a farm workers’ strike on La Casita Farms, according to an obituary submitted by his family.
A story published in The Monitor in 2008 painted a picture of the ‘66 melon strike. Farm workers wanted their 14-hour work days shortened to eight and the minimum wage increased from 40 cents to $1.25 as well as collective bargaining and an end to the green card program that allowed Mexican day laborers to commute to work every morning. In June, workers refused to pick melons. In October, Orendain led members of the local United Farm Workers Organizing Committee to the middle of the Roma bridge and straddled the international boundary while chanting, “We shall overcome” in Spanish. The strike failed, but Orendain continued his fight, moving his family to San Juan in 1969 and establishing a union presence in the Rio Grande Valley.
“The only thing that we are asking is that the farm worker be recognized, (that) he put the price on the sweat of his work, just as, for example, the gas stations put a price on gasoline or the bakeries put a price on their bread,” Orendain said in a 1974 radio interview with KMUL in Muleshoe, Texas.
Hector Guzman Lopez, coordinator for Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center, a local immigrant-worker advocacy group, called Orendain a hero for taking up an “unwinnable fight in Texas.”
Meanwhile, Eduardo Martinez, 29, a local activist and Pharr native who cofounded Curando RGV, a local group dedicated to bringing awareness to social causes in the Valley, said Orendain did so much for the community that the community should do more for him. Streets and public places should be named after Orendain, Martinez said.
“Orendain was one of the giants of farm worker organizing, and so much of what he knew, so much of that history is now gone forever,” Martinez said. “His story, his legendary fights against oppression and for the rights of farm workers on both sides of the border, continues to be an inspiration for so many of us. A lot of what he did, and most importantly, how he went about it, has influenced me and many of my friends who are in the organizing scene here in the Valley or beyond.”
The Texas Farm Workers Union was established by Orendain in 1975 when it became apparent to him that Chavez was not going to work to help South Texas farmers. He also hosted a daily radio show and produced a Spanish newspaper called “El Cuhamil.” He led multiple strikes in an attempt to obtain fair wages for farm workers and led a group of farm workers on a march for basic human rights that started in San Juan and ended in Austin with a meeting with Gov. Dolph Briscoe in February 1977. The march was extended to Washington, D.C., in June, starting with 40 farm workers and ending with about 10,000 workers and supporters, states his obituary.
Manuel Torres, 60, of Weslaco, was living in a labor camp in the ’60s when he saw Orendain speaking with politicians running for office. State representatives at the time, Torres said, were disappointing because they did not represent the farm workers’ interests, but Orendain was a fighter. The group became organized and united, he said, and they were able to increase the price of buckets of onions from 25 cents to $1.
Torres’ brother, Jose, 63, also worked with Orendain and commented on the man’s intelligence and respect for the world. Jose Torres said Orendain taught him to be calmer and work with different people.
Orendain’s union dissolved, but in a 2008 interview, he said his efforts were not wasted. As a Mexican immigrant, he felt compelled to act, and in May 2009 he was recognized with a Texas Senate resolution.
“When we got here as a family in 1969, farmworkers had no worker’s compensation, no unemployment insurance and there was no pesticide regulation,” Orendain’s oldest son, Abel, a McAllen lawyer, told The Monitor in 2009. “In the early ’80s, farm workers got these rights. He didn’t do it directly, but he did more for the plight of farm workers down here than anyone else.”
Orendain is preceded in death by his wife Raquel, son Juan Antonio Orendain (Maura Reyes Orendain), and grandson Ganesh Shrestha. He is survived by his children Amada, Nina Melanie (Miguel Baeza), Abel (Lillian), Nancy (Mahesh Shrestha), and Joseph (Carmen), his long-time partner and companion Susan Law, as well as 20 grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be held from 5-9 p.m. with a 7 p.m. rosary Friday, April 15, at Memorial Funeral Home in San Juan. Funeral Mass will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 16, at St. John the Baptist Catholic Parish in San Juan.
“What would happen if everyone in the world went to school, if everyone got his diploma in law or medicine?” Orendain asked in the 1974 radio interview. “I say to you, ‘Listen, do you want to work the land?’ You would reply to me, ‘No, I am a lawyer; I don’t work on the land.’ Supposing no one worked the land, the land isn’t going to produce by itself … What we are seeking is, just as they say, ‘I am a professional attorney’ or ‘I am a professional businessman or a professional banker,’ that it be, ‘My profession is working in the fields, and from there God gave me my living, not to live wealthy, but at least with the basic necessities that the rest of society is used to.’ That is what we are asking.”
Andrea Perez, Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro and Julie Silva contributed to this report.Weslaco ISD does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, gender, or disability in providing education services, activities, and programs, incl