By JOSE DE LA ISLA
It was August of 1966. Summer and my teen years were ending. From the Trailways bus station in Houston I telephoned my college-bound friend Steve with a request. Could he meet me at the Austin bus station and drop me off at a spot on the highway about 60 miles south of there? When he picked me up, I explained my intention was to join La Marcha.
In my backpack, I had a change of clothes, two steno pads, ballpoints and a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. La Marcha had grown out of the Rio Grande Valley melon pickers’ strike. Fed up with laboring under a scorching sun for 85 cents an hour, they were striking for a dollar an hour. Father Antonio Gonzales, of my home parish, was one of the leaders. Another was the Rev. James Novarro, a Baptist minister, who used to deliver a prayer service every afternoon on KLVL, Houston’s only Spanish-language radio station.
Money and clothing drives in the barrios and beyond supported the strikers as their route meandered through Texas’ farmlands, timed to arrive in Austin on Labor Day.
One story circulated that the Rex the Taylor stores even sent a truckload of tuxedos. Stanley Marcus, of Neimann fame, was said to have donated a hundred pairs of beautiful women’s high-heel shoes.
Texas Gov. John Connally, a Democrat who later became a Republican, had enflamed the matter by declaring that employees hired in War on Poverty programs deserved no more than $1.25 an hour. That’s when the farmworkers decided to turn their strike into a movement for a $1.25 minimum wage. They, too, were anti-poverty.
Nothing captured the imagination of the media and the public as much as "Two Bits," the donkey that led the 490-mile march. Whitewashed in large lettering on its flanks was the symbolic "$1.25."
When I joined in, there were about 50 marchers. Friendly Teamsters in 18-wheelers loaded with produce would give long, frequent blasts of their horns as they whooshed by. "They’re keeping an eye on us," a lanky farm boy told me. The Texas Rangers and the highway patrol were known to be uncongenial.
Outside the town of New Braunfels, Connally showed up in his shiny limousine to try to persuade Gonzales and Novarro to turn back. But the awaking had already begun. In an oasis hamlet, church ladies in sunbonnets offered lemonade and sandwiches. In another, we were welcomed by the mayor. At one nightly gathering, a telegram of encouragement from Sen. Robert Kennedy was read. U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach sent news that he was sending observers.
I recorded "La Marcha," written by one of the farmworkers. The ballad defined the march as not just about money, but about dignity. It captured a sentiment I couldn’t fit into my steno pad. The workers, the lyrics said, were tired of following like donkeys. Now the donkeys were going to lead.
On the final night of the crusade, we donned red bandanna neckerchiefs to identify ourselves for the last leg. By then we numbered about 150. With dawn came some 300 more supporters, many dressed in their Sunday best. They brought up the rear, behind Two Bits and the rest of us.
Soon we were moving proudly down the middle of an Austin street, escorted by motorcycle police, who occasionally ran their sirens synchronized with the yells: "Viva la Huelga! Long live the strike! My country ’tis of thee!" The farmworkers’ flag flew alongside the Stars and Stripes and the Texas Lone Star banner. Some veterans with Eisenhower caps saluted from the sidewalk. Maybe a thousand marchers were on that last hilly street. When my section of the column reached the summit, an ocean of people, maybe 25,000, appeared. They were occupying all the common space in front of the Capitol.
Four decades later, it’s clear to me that the 25,000 bystanders became participants when La Marcha came their way.
During a recent reunion, Steve reminded me that today’s national temperament is a lot like it was back then in Texas. My question is: Will they offer lemonade, blow a horn and join in when the march arrives?
(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)