SAN ANTONIO – Rebecca Flores went from a little girl on her family’s small farm in Atascosa County to traveling with them as migrant farm workers wherever crops needed harvesting.
“No breaks, no drinking water, no nothing, no toilets, absolutely nothing,” Flores said.
Flores said her family of six would stay in houses with no running water except for one spigot outside.
Flores also remembers staying in yet another house in horrible condition with a hole in the roof.
“We could see the stars,” she said, but she and her family was sleeping on cotton sacks, and as children, she and her little sisters would drag sacks full of cotton they’d picked.
“Because of the poor wages, terrible working conditions, total lack of respect, they had no respect for us,” Flores said it felt as if farm workers were “really enslaved.”
Flores would grow up to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Flores said she and some other students went to Detroit to meet Cesar Chavez, the future co-founder of the United Farm Workers, who was there to talk to leaders of the United Autoworkers.
“It was then that he told us to ‘Never, never forget where you came from,’” she said.
Given her life up to then, Flores said, “It’s part of your DNA. You never forget.”
Inspired by the now iconic UFW co-founder, Flores became its state director and was a familiar figure during the strikes and marches in the Rio Grande Valley that gained national attention.
Flores also took part in the historic 1966 UFW march from there to Austin, demanding higher pay and safer working conditions.
Now, 55 years later, Flores said low wages persist given that for the most part, farm workers are paid by the piece-rate, based on how much they pick over a few hours or days.
“I am certain that their earnings are below $7.25 an hour and do not earn enough to live a decent life,” she said.
Although federal regulations now exist, Flores said too often, “Working conditions are not enforced, such as field sanitation, OSHA and pesticide regulation, and I do not expect that conditions are any better.”
Flores said the most pressing issues are raising farm worker wages, improving conditions in the colonias, which are rural communities where they live often without basic services, and addressing the legal status of immigrants.
“I can’t say that things haven’t changed. I think things have, in fact, changed,” Flores said. “But there’s a lot of things that haven’t changed.”