Daria Arredondo Vera, farm workers’ rights activist in Texas, was born to Miguel Arredondo and Daria (Garcia) Arredondo in Rio Grande City, Texas, on November 18, 1946. One of ten children, Vera was only eight years old when she began to harvest onions, bell peppers, lettuce, watermelon, and cantaloupe in the Rio Grande Valley. Day-long field labor allowed little time for a formal education. Consequently, she attended school only through the third grade. With her formal education ended, she joined her large family to eke out an existence that provided the lowest of wages and no safety measures against exploitation. The 1960 U. S. census reported that nearly one-third of Starr County families earned less than $1,000 annually, with 70 percent earning less than $3,000 per year. Agricultural work was considered, along with mining and construction, one of the most dangerous occupations. Even so, eight-year-old Daria was permitted to do farm labor.
She continued to work in the fields of the Rio Grande Valley after her marriage, when she was still in her teens, to Mario Vera. Their family eventually included three sons and six daughters. At the age of nineteen, Vera joined the nascent farm workers union in the Rio Grande Valley and became its secretary-treasurer. At the time, Vera and her fellow agricultural workers earned between forty and eighty-five cents an hour. Buoyed by the national farm workers’ movement led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, she became involved in the workers’ struggle to raise their minimum pay to $1.25 an hour and the right to collective bargaining. In addition, they sought the addition of toilets and potable water in the fields.
At the time, most Rio Grande Valley farm workers were employed by La Casita Farms, an enterprise said to take in more than $1,000,000 annually for its melon harvest; Sun-Tex Farms; Elmore & Stahl; and others. Soon she became involved in the Starr County Strike, which was also known as the Melon Strike. Vera joined with her fellow laborers to press their case for better working conditions. On June 1, 1966, more than 400 local farm workers voted to go on strike. The growers immediately brought in strike breakers from Mexico and attempted to lure workers with increases in hourly wages ranging from seventy cents to one dollar an hour. In response to this action, more than 80 percent of the local farm workers quit, which forced the closure of every packing shed on the first day of the strike. The “New Party,” a Starr County political party, and local officials sought to break the strike that was later likened as “heading into war.”
The ensuing farmworker protests in which Vera participated led to La Marcha, a two-month-long journey that commenced on July 4, 1966. Protestors walked from Rio Grande City to Austin through the brutally hot and humid Texas summer. They were met at various cities by local and religious leaders who supported their cause. On Labor Day, September 5, 1966, La Marcha ended with a rally of 15,000 participants in Austin. Years later, in an interview with the Texas Standard, Vera asserted, “Workers should be proud of what we did.”
Growers continued their push to bring Mexican workers across the border to replace the strikers. On October 24, 1966, Vera joined other strikers to block vehicles transporting strike breakers across the U.S.-Mexico border at Roma. During the confrontation, she and fellow striker Irene Chandler lay down on the bridge. Vera recalled telling Chandler, “‘Let’s block the bridge, you and I. It doesn’t end here.’ So we layed down and blocked the bridge.” For taking this action, Vera was arrested by the Texas Rangers. In 1967 she and Chandler were again arrested by the Texas Rangers and charged with “unlawful assembly,” while carrying out strike activities.
Rebecca Flores, the longtime state director of the United Farm Workers Union in Texas, met Vera in 2015 when they planned the fiftieth anniversary of the Melon Strike. She recalled Vera as a labor activist whose “spirit was always very strong,” who was confident that “joining the strike and the union was the best thing she ever did.” Flores also noted that farm workers were rarely respected for harvesting many of the basic foods upon which Americans relied, but strike activities in 1966 “caught people’s attention. It was an awakening. Farm workers everywhere began to realize they could organize, too.”
The strike in which Vera was involved did not bring the rights that farm workers sought. Although in the following decades, port-a-potties and potable water were installed in the fields, agricultural workers still struggled to earn the federal minimum wage. For years following the 1966 strike, Vera continued to work in the fields and earned a meager living. The pastor and members of a church in Kenedy, a South Texas town through which Vera marched in the summer of 1966 on her way to Austin, built a home for her and replaced her dilapidated abode.
Vera’s commitment to challenge poor agricultural working conditions and her fight for fair pay was recognized late in her life. Historian Maritza de la Trinidad, who conducted an oral history with her, recalled, “Daria saw herself as the mother of the community, and through her activism she also became one of the people who would launch the civil rights movement in South Texas.” Fittingly, in a 2019 interview with the Texas Standard, Vera asserted that women are leaders in transforming society for the better.
Daria Arredondo Vera died at the age of seventy-three in San Antonio on August 6, 2020, after contracting COVID-19, the highly infectious virus that struck the Rio Grande Valley populace especially hard in the days leading to her death. She was buried in Los Vela’s Ranch Cemetery in Rio Grande City.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Rudy Arispe, “Daria Vera, Who Lay Across a Bridge in 1966 to Support South Texas Farm Workers Strike, Dies at 73,” NOWCastSA (https://nowcastsa.com/obituary/daria-vera-lay-across-bridge-support-texas-farm-workers-strike), accessed July 27, 2021. Brownsville Herald, October 25, 1966. Joy Diaz, “Texas Farmworker: 1966 Strike ‘Was Like Heading Into War,’” August 12, 2016, NPR (https://www.npr.org/2016/08/12/489491157/texas-farmworker-1966-strike-was-like-heading-into-war), accessed July 27, 2021. David M. Fishlow, ed., Sons of Zapata: A Brief Photographic History of the Farm Workers Strike in Texas (Rio Grande City, Texas: United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, 1967).
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