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8 0 VI A harvest of poverty By John Davidson Hidalgo County Like the Lower Rio Grande River on whose banks their battles have been fought since the mid-’60s, the movement by Texas farmworkers for a measure of economic justice has sometimes swelled to a torrent, at other times been barely a trickle. The first major surge crested ten years ago. The leaders of the Rio Grande Valley fruit and vegetable industry aided by Texas Rangers and a state district court, broke a year-long strike that initially involved 700 workers. Farmworkers and sympathizers were arrested and charged with trespassing, unlawful assembly, secondary boycotting, illegal picketing, and use of abusive language. It was the brutality of the Rangers and local law enforcement agents, however, that finally convinced the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee to call in its pickets on June 14, 1967. Eight years later, a second strike movement began when 1,500 workers gathered at the Hidalgo International Bridge and marched on the El Texano Ranch. A ranch supervisor opened fire on the demonstrators with a shotgun. Local authorities refused to arrest the man, but a grand jury saw its way clear to indict a number of the demonstrators for trespassing. Though the shooting incident initially created support for the movement, subsequent arrests for trespassing and the refusal of the major growers in the Rio Grande Valley to negotiate ultimately killed this strike effort. Effectively denied unionization, farmworkers have instead received federal funds. It is doubtful a clear choice ever existed between unionization and federal aid; nevertheless, a decision however unconsciouswas made that farmworkers would not organize and bargain collectively for better jobs and wages but would rely on government programs to compensate for low incomes. The Observer’s purpose here is to examine this trend toward federal support rather than unionization in the light of ten years’ experience. The costs and benefitsmonetary and socialof both systems are considered. Limitations of time, money and manpower have confined the inquiry to Hidalgo County, but it is an apt choice. As home base of an estimated 77,000 farmworkers, the county has been the recipient of the full complement of federal programs available to farmworkers. In 1967, the farmworkers of Hidalgo County were one of the poorest groups of people in the United States. At issue in their strike that year was a demand for a minimum hourly wage of $1.25-40 cents above the prevailing farm wage of 85 cents an hour. The median annual income for households in Hidalgo County was $2,815, roughly half the national figure; the size of farmworking families averaged just over six people. Farmworkers routinely experienced approximately 13 weeks of unemployment each year. Per capita income in the metropolitan area of McAllen-Pharr-Edinburg, the county’s population centers, was the lowest of any urban area in Texas: $1,472. Some of the poorest people in the U.S. a decade ago, Hidalgo County farmworkers were also the least educated of any group in the country: 52 percent of their household heads hadn’t completed one year of formal education. Wives averaged 3.5 years; children over 14, 6.7 years. Nearly all farmworkers in the county had Spanish surnames, but there is no estimate of how many were functionally bilingual. Health statistics in the Valley were correspondingly bleak. Countywide infant mortality rates were twice the national average, and there was concrete evidence of hunger and malnutrition. Substandard housing and a common lack of potable water and sewage systems contributed to health problems. There were no indoor toilets in 43 percent of farmworker homes. A 1970 Field Foundation study of migrant health conditions discovered that 100 of 1,400 patients of a Hidalgo County clinic suffered from untreated ailments including tapeworm, anemia, tuberculosis and cancer. The federal response to the situation these statistics outline was to fund at least 27 aid programs in Hidalgo County; 14 assisted farmworkers directly and 13 othersLegal Aid, for example provided aid indirectly. The state of Texas and private charities began to fund various other farmworker programs, but their costs and impact have been minimal when compared to those of the federal effort. \(See page 10 for the state If there was a coherent spending poiicy behind the federal programs, ifs long-term objective was to divert farmworkers from the migrant stream into other occupations; its short-term goal was to provide minimal levels of services and support farmworker families needed simply for survival. The bulk of U.S. money has been spent on education and manpower projects. Retraining and relocation of farmworkers to urban jobs THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3