If you were a Mexican American in Texas in the 50’s and 60’s your economic situation was desperate. You did not have to go to California to see how bad things were, all you had to do was look around you. The agricultural workers in the Rio Grande Valley were paid less than the workers in California. The plight of the poor Mexican American of Texas was clearly visible. Exhibit A for a decrepit barrio was the historical West Side of San Antonio.
For the poor there were no advocates. They had no voice. They had bad working conditions, low pay and lack of education. This was the backdrop of Mexican American society in Texas. It was into this backdrop that five young Mexican Americans stood up and began a crusade to improve the education, social and political standing of all Mexican Americans. The Young Lions were: Willie Velasquez, Jose Angel Gutierrez, Ignacio Perez, Mario Campean, and Juan Patlan. They were young, they were brash, they were bold, risk takers, idealistic, radicals and above all they were courageous. They were Tejano rabble rousers.
At a time when Mexican Americans were in a deep slumber politically, they set out to awaken the giant from its deep slumber. For them there was no manana, there was only today.
Together the Young Lions founded the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). The mission of the Mexican American Youth Organization was to improve the education, social and political standing of all Mexican Americans. The political system was unresponsive and insensitive to the needs of the Mexican Americans. They were fighting for equality and racial justice.
On Jul 1, 1966 a small group of agricultural workers took off walking from Rio Grande City to Austin to ask for a minimum wage increase to $1.25 an hour. They were getting paid considerably less (.50 to.85 per hour) than California workers who were being paid $1.40.
Democrat Governor, John Connally, met them along the way and informed them that he would not lend the prestige of his office to the strikers. Undeterred and now highly motivated the marchers continued to Austin.
From the very beginning they were activists. Knowing that the growers relied on trains to move their product to market they arranged a strike to block the trains in Rio Grande City. The Texas Rangers were called to teach the young lions a lesson on Texas justice. As luck would have it on the day of the strike the media showed up in big numbers and the Texas Rangers had to control themselves. The train was more powerful than the strikers and the train, strikers, and Texas Rangers all took. A point had been proven that workers had power.
Next Week, Birth of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project.
I give credit to Juan A. Sepulveda, Jr. and his book The Life and Times of Willie Velasquez.