Our Hands Belong to the Valley

To some they’re “the Mexicans,” to others they’re “the pickers”; they often call themselves “Chicanes,” and they are also Texans mostly poor and abused ones.

When I was first beginning to work in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, in an effort to understand rather poor and vulnerable Spanish-speaking children whose parents are field hands, constantly at work harvesting all sorts of crops grown on the rich river soil, I was told by a member of the Texas Rangers that I had a Lot to learn, some of which he was quite willing to point out: ‘Texas isn’t just a state. This is the nation of Texas. We once were an independent country, and even if we’re now in the United States, we’re not like other places. And these Mexicans who live here in the Valley, they’re from another country. Even if they spend their whole lives here, they don’t feel at home, and they shouldn’t, because they’re different.” It was, to say the least, confusing; he was telling me that the Chicano activists I had met in San Antonio, and the Mexican-American migrants 1 had known in Florida (they would come from Texas and go back there every year) and was getting to know in the Rio Grande Valley were all doubly un-American, so to speak aliens in a nation within a nation.

My impulse at the time, of course, was to dismiss the Ranger as a member of one of the more obvious (and dangerous) paramilitary groups 1 had encountered in the South. Like the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the Rangers are more than state police who give traffic tickets, rescue the injured, aid the stricken, protect everyone from criminals, come to the aid of suddenly beleaguered villages or towns The Rangers are a virtually all-white force of well-armed men who for years have made sure that Texas’ Mexicans (as the Rangers 1 knowkeep on referring to many thousands of their fellow citizens and neighbors) stay well within certain bounds. Let a field hand begin to question the social and economic system he is part of; let him begin to talk with his fellow workers about their common plight; let him so much as speak back to a foreman, never mind a grower; and worst of all, let him begin to organize on behalf of labor unions, so that farm workers, like millions of other workers, will have a union to represent them; let him, in other words, begin to assert his American citizenship, and soon enough the law, in all its sudden, arbitrary, inescapable power, will be down on him, and hard indeed. “You have to watch some of these Mexicans,” that Ranger told me, “because they are getting the same itch the colored have. We’ve always had no trouble here, or very little of it. The Mexicans know that they’re lucky to be living here. If they lived in Mexico, they’d be a lot worse off. The trouble is, people come in here, and start stirring them up, telling them how bad it is, their life. Most of our Mexicans are smart enough not to listen. But a few, a small number, they get taken in. That’s where we have to be on guard. We can’t let violence get going.”

He was not in the least facetious when he spoke. He was being earnest and candid, and he was beyond question sincere. I have talked with him, on and off, for several years. One cannot begin to understand how the Rio Grande Valley’s Spanishspeaking people live—the obstacles they are up against every minute of their lives—without getting some sense of what the Texas Rangers have in mind as they go about their business, not to mention what the growers want from the Rangers as well as from the “pickers” the word one grower I know keeps using when he talks about the men and women who harvest his crops.

That grower is no swaggering, self-important boss, who speaks of his field hands as if the Civil War had not changed American social and economic history. He is a quiet, courtly man; he majored in history at the University of Texas, and has a fine library of rare books, and an enormous and tasteful record collection. His mother’s family, he is quick to say, came to Texas from neighboring Louisiana, and before that, North Carolina’s eastern shore. “Way back, my people grew tobacco. Here we grow vegetables—lettuce, tomatoes, celery, cucumbers. I could have left the land; I could have gone to Houston or Dallas. I learned all about business, so that I could run this place efficiently. For a year or so I almost said good-bye and left, but I couldn’t. I like to visit Houston, but I can’t picture myself living there. It’s the same way with our people here; they think to themselves that they should pick up and leave—go to San Antonio, and be ‘free!’ They can call themselves Chicanos up there, and can talk back to anyone—that’s what one man said to me. He said, ‘I’m going to leave, and when I get up there to the city I won’t be tied to anyone. I’ll be able to do what I want to do.’ Of course, I wished him the very best. I told him that I bore him no ill feelings. I told him he could leave when he wanted, and if the sheriff gave him any trouble, not to worry, I’d speak up. I don’t believe in holding anyone down here. Sometimes the Rangers get a little overenthusiastic; they pick up these Mexicans and ask them where they think they’re going, and tell them they’d better watch out or they’ll be shipped back to Mexico. You can’t do that; if a man is a Mexican-American he isn’t a Mexican. He has his rights, and that’s all there is to it. Naturally, I can’t keep track of every policeman, nor every Mexican working for me or someone else.”

He is not pretending to be unaware of what, in actuality, he knows a good deal about—the way uneducated, utterly impoverished, and defenseless field hands, migratory or stationary, have to watch their every step, lest they get what the Ranger I have quoted above calls “ideas.” He spells out forthrightly, and without (he would claim) any intent of bigotry or arrogance, what the “problem” always turns out to be; “These people, they’re not like us. I don’t have anything against them. I’m in favor of treating them fairly. The problem is, they’re like sheep, and they need a leader. They believe in the strong man. They follow the crewleader, the real smart Mexican who tells them where to work and when to show up for work and when to stop and go home and sleep. They follow the priests, too. Now, if a man doesn’t know what to do, and can’t learn in school, and won’t learn English so he can speak it good, and he’s real good at planting or harvesting, why shouldn’t he work in our fields? That’s the kind of work his father did, and his grandfather, back to God knows when—I can’t recall the year it was that the Mexicans came to this country. Anyway, why should anyone go whispering ‘union’ in the ears of these people? Why should anyone be inciting them to break the law, to take the law in their own hands? That’s what I call taking advantage of people, using them for all kinds of political schemes. I asked a crew-leader the other day, I said to him: ‘Are your people happy?’ He said; ‘Hell, yes!’ I believe him. I’ve asked the people themselves. I’ve gone right to them, and said that if they have any complaints, the thing to do is express them, tell us what’s bothering them, so there won’t be any misunderstanding. This is a good state. Texas. We treat everyone fair and square. You can’t expect one type of people to become another type; I mean, there’s no use saying a rich man is the same as a poor man, or an Anglo is the same as a Mexican. I believe every person deserves a fair break, but you have a nation and its laws, and a state and its laws, and you can’t turn society topsyturvy, no sir.”

In fact, one can become a little topsy-turvy mentally, trying to make sense of his remarks, those of various Texas Rangers, or the more subdued, if not downright evasive, comments of other growers in the Rio Grande Valley. Over two million Chicanos, or approximately one fifth of the ten million Chicanos nationwide, live in the state of Texas. Over half of the Mexican-American population is concentrated in the forty-sevencounty South Texas area, particularly in the agricultural counties which straddle the Mexican American border, though almost half (46 percent) of the state’s Chicano people now reside in the five major metropolitan areas of Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio. During the 1960s the state’s Chicano population increased by 45.3 percent as contrasted with an 11.8 percent increase in the Anglo population and 15.7 percent in the black population. Demographic data for South Texas indicates that young, better educated, potentially skilled Mexican-Americans are leaving the area, and though there is some gain through migration in the older age groups among MexicanAmericans, Anglos of all ages continue to leave South Texas. Of the children born between the 1960 and 1970 census, 31 percent were Anglo and 69 percent Mexican-American. However, almost one quarter (22.5 percent) of the Spanish-surnamed residents between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine have migrated out of the South Texas area, while all other age groups showed modest gains through in-migration. The consistent departure of Anglos from South Texas yielded a net loss of 9.4 percent of the Anglo population during the 1960s.

If one spends enough time in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where some counties are made up of 80 or 90 percent Spanish-speaking people, there is every likelihood that the more restrained observations made by the Ranger and the grower will be replaced by cruder, and even obscene, outbursts reflecting the frustrations that so many thousands of Spanish-speaking Texans face. The infant born of Mexican-American parents stands a lesser chance of living to adulthood than his Anglo neighbor. Infant mortality statistics for 1973 indicate that for every 1000 live births, there are nineteen infant deaths among Spanish-speaking families, as compared to fewer than seventeen among the Anglo population. The overall unemployment rate for the state of Texas was computed to be 4.4 percent in July, 1974, but the SpanishAmerican rate stood at 6.6 percent, and blacks fared even worse at a rate of 7.1 percent. Individual counties in South Texas, wherein large numbers of Mexican-American families subsist on the meager wages migrant farm workers earn, tell a much grimmer tale. Starr County, with a 97.9 percent Mexican-American population, showed a 21.2 percent unemployment rate for its Spanish-speaking residents, as compared to a 12 percent unemployment rate among Anglo inhabitants.

Here is a twenty-three-year-old Chicano who was born near Crystal City, Texas, and . who, for all his youth, feels ready right now to be buried there: “I’d like to get out of here, or I’d just as soon die that’s how I feel a lot of the time. Just because you’re born in a place doesn’t mean you should have to spend the rest of your life there. I’ve thought of leaving in the middle of the night, before the sheriff and those Rangers would know what happened. They keep an eye on us: if we talk of joining a union or leaving here, they come up and tell lies, tell us we owe all this money, and tell us they’ll throw us in jail, and tell us we’ve been ruining the grower’s property. The growers pay us practically nothing in wages. The houses they have us living in, they’re no good. They have us working from sunup to sundown; and then they won’t even let you say a word they don’t like. The crew-leader watches everything we say or do. And if they decide to get rid of us, then they practically order you out of the county: Git, the Anglos say, and we git up to San Antonio. If they suddenly need more men to pick the crops, the men are there, fast: wetbacks brought over from Mexico-cheap, scared labor, that’s what the grower himself says. There are thousands and thousands of people from Mexico who would beg, borrow, or steal to be in this country, to be American. I wonder how many other people in this country live the way we do the guns over our heads. If the grower is unhappy with our work, he tells the foreman, and he tells the crew-leader, and we get warned. They have people driving around in trucks, with rifles on the roofs. My little brother says the teacher gives lectures on how America is a free country, and Texas is one of the best states, because it’s so big and so rich; but all she says has nothing to do with us. We’re not the right kind of Texans.”

He stops, a little surprised by the bluntness of his own remarks. Nor is he usually inclined to think of himself as a Texan or a non-Texan. He knows that he is a citizen of the United States, but he also knows that to many (to just about every Anglo he meets) he is a Mexican who happens to have been born here. (Of the some 11 million persons residing in Texas as of the 1970 census count, almost 18 percent were found to be of Spanish surname. The remaining population was 69.5 percent Anglo and 12.5 percent black.) He speaks both Unglish and Spanish, the former in a broken way that requires editing if his remarks are to be read easily by the readers of this magazine, the latter fluently. He works hard as a field hand, has caused no one any trouble, and, at first glance, seems “happy.” The Anglo foreman who watches over him, and hundreds like him, singles him out as especially industrious, as “no problem whatsoever”— high praise indeed from that particular “boss,” as he is called. (The grower, when he appears in his white Lincoln Continental, is referred to as “the boss’ boss.”) Of all the field hands, why should this one, a favorite of sorts to the handful of Anglos who run things, feel discouraged and at times bitter-especially since he admits that many of his coworkers are, at the very least, not too troubled by their fate, or so it seems on the surface?

He is introspective enough to ask that question of himself, in his own way: “I sometimes look at my hands; they hurt, and so I look at them. I remember when they were little, like those of my youngest son. I remember, later on, when I noticed hair growing on them. I remember when my father said to me that I had better get ready to use my hands—every day, out in the fields. He pointed at one field, and said it was part of the Valley, and that my hands, our hands, belong to the Valley. There would be no Valley-not the kind we have, anyway—without our work, he kept telling me. I didn’t know what he was talking about then, but I sure do now! I shouldn’t complain, though. They have promised to move me into the packinghouse; then I would stand and try to spot the bad vegetables as they move on the belt; and I wouldn’t work so hard, on my knees all day long. The foreman said that one day I might even get to help him out—get to help watch the ‘others.’ He’s always talking about the ‘others’—as if I’m not one of them! I feel very bad, listening to his insults in silence! I feel like the worst of cowards. There must be a way for us to speak up and make the Anglos listen to us, and stop treating us like the lowest of the low, like animals-the kind they feel they can shout at and even kick. But I wonder why I get upset. The priest says that God loves the poor, and He was poor when He was here on earth, and He was always being called bad names, like we are. In the next world, we’ll be on top, that’s what the priest tells us. I’m not so sure, even if he is sure. Anyway, we’ve got to live our lives in the Valley of Texas, before we go up there to Heaven, and this place is like Hell must be, that’s what I believe.”

What is life like for him? He is one of thousands who labor in the fields of the southernmost of Texas’ counties. They are counties whose population is overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking. They are counties in which a handful of Anglos own just about everything, and almost everyone else (be they called Chicano, Mexican-American, Mexican, or Spanish-speaking people) is poor, very poor. The statistics, numbers and more numbers, show the grim inequality which obtains. The median income for a Chicano family residing in Texas, according to 1970 census statistics, approached $6000 ($5897), three thousand dollars less than the median Anglo income of nearly $9000 ($8929). The more depressed counties of South Texas (with eighteen of the twenty-one high-unemployment counties in all of Texas, and with a per capita personal income of only 65 percent of the national average) reflect a steeper dip in the Mexican-American family’s standard of living. Hidalgo County, for example, with nearly 80 percent of its residents bearing Spanish surnames, shows a median income of $3958 for a Mexican-American family, compared to $4776 for a neighboring Anglo family.

One out of every three (35.9 percent) Spanishspeaking families in Texas lives in poverty, while only one out of ten (10.6 percent) Anglo families is considered comparably poor. And the statistics become even more dismaying in the lower Rio Grande Valley; for example, in Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy Counties, over half of the MexicanAmerican families (56.8 percent) subsist in poverty, as opposed to less than a fifth (18.8 percent) of the Anglos who live there.

No psychiatrist faced with such “data” need doubt that he will find despair among even the Chicano activists of Texas, never mind the state’s hundreds of thousands of farm workers or lowpaid urban “common laborers,” as they are called in some “socio-economic” reports. One thoughtful and sensitive union organizer has repeatedly acknowledged to those he works with how difficult it is to do his kind of work in Texas: “I started with Cesar Chavez in California. We had trouble there. We still have trouble there. But at least we are a force; at least we are beginning to confront the growers; and at least we have some allies. Even in Florida, where a lot of Chicanos have gone to pick crops, we’ve made a little headway, not much, but a little. Here it’s very hard. In Florida we have the people who took part in the civil rights struggle; they try to help us. In California there are a lot of people who are with us and the unions are strong there. This state is different. It’s not really in the South, and it’s not a progressive state, like California. It’s run by oil millionaires and bankers and big ranchers and the growers down here in the Valley.

“I’m not saying that there aren’t a lot of very fine Anglo people here in Texas; they’d like to change things here, as much as we do. But they’re not able to win most of the elections; I guess that’s the trouble. So, you have these Texas Rangers, and you have the kind of governors we’ve had, and you have the Texas Legislature - and I’ll tell you what it all adds up to, so far as my people are concerned: we’re poor as can be, and we have no doctors to see us, and the worst schools you can imagine, and we’re hounded to death if we try to organize and protest, and there’s no way for us to get our message across, or even work among our own people. I’ve been arrested twenty-three times, and beaten up, and driven from one county to another, and dropped off and told not to come back. I’ve been told to go to New Mexico, where there are a lot of people like me, and where the Mexicans and the Anglos share power that’s what one sheriff said to me. He said that my trouble was that I didn’t know the difference between Texas and places like California or New Mexico. He said that in Texas the Mexicans aren’t going to be allowed to ‘take over.’ I nodded. What else can you do when a guy has two guns on his belt and a rifle beside him, and a button nearby that will bring ten or twenty more guys, all armed like him? This is a free country, they tell you in school. Texas is a great state, one of the best in our democracy, they tell our Chicano children. But who can believe it, if he’s one of us?”

His children are among those he worries about. They are fourteen, twelve, nine, and seven. His wife wanted more, but he broke with the Catholic Church, and insisted that they stop. She was quite upset; even now she is: “I went along with him. What could I do? He threatened to stay away from me. He was stronger than I was. Usually it is the man who is weak; but he told me he wasn’t going to bring one child after another into this world, while we are so poor here, in the Valley. I thought for a while that he had someone else. But he didn’t. He got some pills for me, and I agreed to take them. The priest told me to stay away from the church; he said I was living in sin. Finally he decided to overlook what I’ve been doing. He met me on the road once, and told me to come back to church. He said he would burn in Hell, probably— but that my husband and I are suffering enough right now, so no one is getting away with anything! My husband says that one day all our people out there in the fields of the Valley, all of our migrants in North Texas and beyond, all of San Antonio’s janitors and short-order cooks and garbage collectors and scrubbing women the Chicanos of Texas and other states will be members of unions, and will have clinics to go to, in case of illness, and schools where their children aren’t looked down upon as ‘dumb and dirty.’ ”

Her husband goes into a rage at home when he hears those last three words. His children come home from school and repeat the judgments handed down by their Anglo teachers; the dumb and dirty Mexicans. He knows as a matter of fact that many of his people’s children don’t even enter elementary school, let alone graduate from high school. As of 1970, 13.9 percent of Spanish-surnamed Texans had received no forma! education at all, and less than 10 percent (9.2 percent) had gone to college. On the other hand, less than one percent of all Anglos had received no formal education, and over one fourth (26.8 percent) had been educated past high school. One out of every two (51.6 percent) Anglo individuals had received secondary school training beyond the eighth grade level, but only a little over one in four (28.1 percent) Spanish-surnamed youths had received the equivalent of high school training.

And even when Spanish-speaking boys and girls do go to school, they all too commonly go through a number of humiliating experiences. The husband just mentioned has this to say: “My oldest child, she was ready to leave school when she was in the fifth grade. The teacher shouted at her, told her she was wasting her time coming there to that old building they give us. Have you seen the beautiful school the Anglo children have? Have you seen those teachers bowing and kissing the ground when the Anglo parents come there? I know; I worked as a truck driver for a while the best job in the county for a Chicano, I was told. I’d deliver cases of milk to the school. While I was putting the cases away, and carrying out the empty bottles, and waiting for the principal to sign his name, I’d hear the teachers talking. They said they’d hate to teach us Mexicans, because we are inferior and it is a waste of time. I wanted to go punch them all in the face. I thought to myself, Well, at least you know what they think, because you’ve heard with your own ears. I dream of revenge, but that will never happen. All we want is our fair amount work and the right to bargain with the bosses. If the government in Washington had its way, we’d probably be in a better position; but up there in Austin—well, the people in the state government sell themselves to the highest bidder, and in this state, let me tell you, that means they don’t do too bad.”

He is, most of the time, not as bitter and cynical as this. Usually he exhorts his fellow Chicanos to band together, to think of their common interests, to try to find in solidarity and a new kind of selfrespect the means of gaining the greater political and economic strength so obviously needed. But sometimes he kicks the ground and stares out at the signs that announce one or another grower’s property, and he shakes his fist at the whole state of Texas: “We’ve been on the bottom since they beat us and stole our land, over a hundred years ago. They were greedy then, and they haven’t changed. If we keep standing up to them, we’ll get a little more, a little more. But I’ll tell you, the rich Anglos of Texas aren’t going to give anything away, nothing, unless they’re forced to. They have their tax deals with the federal government; they don’t give all they should to Washington. They run Austin. And they sure run this Valley—with their Rangers and sheriffs and private ‘protection’ services. So, we’ll keep trying; we’ll appeal to everyone’s conscience, and we’ll pray, like the priests say we should, and we’ll be glad when people come down here and see the score and go back to write their articles. But I’ll tell you: we won’t expect to see real justice here, not in my lifetime, and not in my children’s, and not in their children’s. And beyond that length of time, I can’t even imagine. That’s the way it is for us.”

I leave him and go to San Antonio where thousands of Chicano people live; many of them left the Rio Grande Valley in search of a better life— but in vain. I meet with physicians at a conference, or old college friends for a meal. We talk; we discuss their work, my work, the various “problems” that Texas, like other states, is, or ought to be, struggling with. Usually we speak with concern; we want to be of help to those less fortunate, and we try to figure out how to do so. But there is, at the present time, little we can come up with that will make much difference to that man, to his wife and his children. His despair is matched by our sense of frustration and futility. His precarious and vulnerable life, however, has to be contrasted with the comfortable life I live, with the comfortable life my good Anglo friends in Texas’ various cities live. There is no escaping class and race and their sad consequences. As he puts it, “that’s the way it is” for him and for the rest of us—the continuing presence among Americans, in Texas and elsewhere, of a handful of the very rich, a larger number of the rather well off, but a much larger number of the hard-working yet barely managing, and alas, a far from insignificant number of the hard-working though miserably underpaid, not to mention those many thousands who can find no work at all. □