The Onion Strike of 1979

The Texas Story Project.

I was born and raised in Raymondville, Texas, population less than ten thousand. And when you live in a small town, you think you know a lot if not all of its history, whether it is good or bad. The bad would not be well known because it might tarnish the reputation of a small town which would then be less competitive with surrounding towns. But recently, I learned that the generation I was born into in Raymondville was directly affected by the onion strike of 1979. It is possible that many of the protesters were the grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins of some of my friends and the folks that I grew up with. Sources are scarce, but thanks to a documentary and a some news articles, I've managed to recover some of this story. 

Raymondville, Texas in Willacy County was once known as the "breath of the nation". But there was a fouler situation than most folks realized. Behind the scenes, there were racial, social, and economic divides too wide for any non-Anglo to cross.The Anglo landowners and city officials took advantage of the poor and undereducated Hispanics who had virtually no representation in the city government. 

The injustice to the Hispanic community over unfair wages in the onion fields that had been taking place for decades sprouted resistance in the Hispanic community. This unity of the Hispanic community inspired them to challenge the farm owners for fair wages. This resulted in the onion strike of 1979. The onion strike ended in disaster and made a rift in the entire community that may have lasted for decades. 

Raymondville, Texas was once the onion capital of the world. Anglo farm owners relied heavily on poor Hispanic migrant workers.This largest onion producing regions in the world had one of the most improvised labor communities in the country. Examples of farm owners in Raymondville taking advantage of the poor happened prior to the onion strike of 1979. In fact, Raymondville was the first city in Texas history to have peonage cases brought against it. The poor were the primary target of this practice when there was a "worker shortage". Mexican/Hispanic, African Americans, and poor Anglos were charged with vagrancy and the "friendly farmer" Anglo landowners would pay their fine to force them into working off their debt under watch by an armed guard. The federal government investigated and found over 400 vagrancy cases filed in the Raymondville court.

On April 4th, 1979, farm workers walked off the job on one of the largest agricultural farms in south Texas. The farm was owned by Charles Wetegrove, the son of Edward Raymond the founder of the city of Raymondville. Wetegrove was the second largest employer in the area. He reduced pay by fifty percent. His 1,500 employees walked off the job in protest. The strike created an awareness in the Hispanic community that it was time for their voices to be heard and for them to have representation in politics. If the Hispanic community could gain a political voice, then they could improve their economic lives which would improve the social status of the Hispanics. So they took to the streets and organized marches. Hispanic organizers encouraged the local Hispanics to go vote, something that the majority of them did not do. The strike ended in tragedy for the Hispanic workers. Prior to almost reaching a deal for higher wages, a large land owner from McAllen, Texas named Othal Brand ended the strike by buying all the produce in the fields and brought in his own laborers to pick the crops. Not only did the people of Raymondville lose the strike, but they lost their only source of income. Othal Brand was vilified and was named the "harsh enemy of agricultural workers".

Part of the film "Valley of Tears" documents the seven day strike of the Spanish-speaking Mexican Americans in Raymondville. The film shows the Anglo landowners carrying pistols in the fields while the Mexican Americans are working. The documentary shows a near victory for the local protesters but Wetegrove sold his onions to Othal Brand rather than settle with the Mexican American labor workers. This was a devastating loss to the local people of Raymondville. They lost both the strike and their jobs to workers who were sourced from outside the town. But losing the battle for better wages in the fields didn't mean that the Mexican Americans lost the war of seeking a better economic status and social justice. Losing the strike, though harsh, was probably the best thing to happen because it allowed activism to evolve. It allowed the Mexican Americans in the community to realize that they have to take their activism to the next level which was to enter the political arena to achieve equality for themselves. 

I grew up in the working class part of Raymondville. My family was poorer than a lot of my friends and other people I knew. I did see the tension and resentment between the poor and the rich. You could tell in a social setting who you could and could not associate yourself with. After the onion strike of 1979, the city of Raymondville suffered for years due to the racial, economic, and social inequality. If there's a metaphor to describe the events that took place in Raymondville it would be that it was once the "breath of a nation"; but Raymondville's chest seized with oppression and discrimination like asthma.

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