SAN JUAN — The hallways of the San Juan office for La Unión del Pueblo Entero are lined with poster boards, newspaper clippings and photographs documenting LUPE and The United Farm Workers’ decorated history of battles and triumphs.
There are photographs depicting countless protests and marches. The phrase, ‘Sí se puede’ is a common sight, as well as images of American labor leaders and civil rights activists including Dolores Huerta, Genoveva Puga, Rebecca Flores, Zulema Hernandez, Maria Gomez and Cesar Chavez, whose name was adopted for the road where the San Juan office sits.
Another common sight in all those images is Juanita Valdez-Cox, LUPE’s long standing executive director who retired on December 30.
On Tuesday afternoon, she walked down that very hallway, greeting her former employees with motherly affection. She stopped for a moment in front of a bulletin board and inspected the red border that had come undone in one corner.
She motioned toward a nearby employee and asked for the border to be fixed — a seemingly minor inconvenience to most who walk by on a daily basis, but for Juanita, it was something that called for immediate attention. The small action was but a microcosm of her work ethic, which has been a long and tireless fight for farm workers, immigrants and the underprivileged.
“Work like this doesn’t end. Work like this continues when you know the commitment you have towards the community — the commitment to make sure that we all have the opportunities for a better life for us, for our children and for our communities,” she said.
Despite her recent retirement, her presence is still felt throughout the organizations she’s been a part of. For Juanita, it is no accident. As someone who grew up in a colonia, worked the fields and has devoted her entire life to greater causes, there’s no walking away.
For Juanita, the fight is in her blood.
“This is who I am,” she said. “This is what I’ve done all my life. This has been my life. The marches, the different protests, getting involved in the elections, all of that — I will be volunteering to that. It doesn’t feel like retiring because I’m so involved with the staff and come here every day, still, to help wherever I am needed.”
Juanita was 29-years-old when she began volunteering for the United Farm Workers of America in 1976. At the time, she was working as the director of a Head Start center, devoting her time to the union when she’d get out of work at four in the afternoon.
Two years later, she decided to devote her time to the United Farm Workers as a full-time employee.
Throughout that time, Juanita was involved in several legislative victories for farm workers and immigrants, including legislation banning the forced use of short-handled hoes; legislation for clean toilets and drinking water in the fields; earning workers compensation; and unemployment for farm workers, just to name a few.
“We’re all very, very proud of the fact that we were able to make those changes,” Juanita recalled. “When you look at it, people would probably not believe it and say, ‘How can a group of farm workers that didn’t know English, that many didn’t have documents, how could they make these changes?’ We did, and it was because we established really strong political power.”
In 2003, Juanita was the United Farm Workers State Director for South Texas when she helped establish LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley. Since then, she’s worked tirelessly following the model established by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to help organize the community and continue the fight against injustices.
More than her long list of accomplishments, Juanita’s impact is felt by her former employees and how she led them, through victories and defeats.
“There are no words to express it. She’s been very dedicated to our community and our people. I believe that we have a lot to be grateful for when it comes to her teachings to help us continue this organization,” Maricela Martinez, LUPE’s social services department coordinator, said. “I personally really admire Juanita after having worked with her all these years. I learned a lot from her, especially how to involve myself with this community.”
Martinez has worked with Juanita for 35 years. During that time, she has watched their relationship evolve from coworkers to friends to family. She recalled one particular instance when she came down with COVID-19 and how Juanita remained by her side throughout her entire ordeal.
“Every day she’d ask, ‘How are you doing?’ She was worried,” Martinez said. “She would tell me, ‘If you don’t have enough for medication, let me know. I’ll pay for that.’ Those are things you can’t forget. She was my boss, my coworker, but she’s also part of my family. Because, who’s going to tell you, ‘Don’t worry. I can pay for that medicine. Maricela, how did you wake up? How are you doing? How can I help you? Let me check the insurance.’”
“I know it wasn’t just with me,” she continued. “If there was a need in the community, she’d go out and help, too. Those are lessons you don’t forget.”
Dani Marrero Hi, LUPE’s director of communications, has had similar experiences working with Juanita.
“I can really say that Juanita has been one of the biggest role models in my life,” she said.
She recalled Juanita’s support for her and other LGBTQ people in the face of adversity.
“As a queer person in the Valley, Juanita was I think one of the first people who was not from the (LGBTQ) community who I felt really stood up for us,” she said, remembering one particular occasion when an entity threatened to pull funding for LUPE over a post on the organization’s Facebook page showing support for LGBTQ people in the wake of a Supreme Court decision protecting same-sex marriage in 2015.
Juanita stood her ground and held firm in her support for the LGBTQ community.
“I think it was maybe the first moment where I was just blown away by Juanita’s leadership and her commitment to values, even to things that she didn’t really understand or hadn’t always focused on,” Marrero Hi said.
Marrero Hi said that she will miss Juanita’s leadership, but is well aware of the fact that she will continue to be a near constant presence at LUPE.
“Whenever we felt that things were too overwhelming, or like when we’d lose in our efforts in our campaigns, she’d be the first person to say, ‘It doesn’t matter that we lost this time. What matters is that we empowered all these people to speak up and fight and advocate,’” she said. “Having her perspective as someone who saw LUPE grow from nothing to what it is today, and her never letting the shiny things distract her from the roots of LUPE, I think it’s something that we’ll miss everyday. I think she’s going to stick around no matter what, so she might not give us a chance to miss her too much.”
Juanita’s office, located in a turquoise-colored building behind LUPE’s main offices, is slowly being disassembled. Many items that she’s acquired over the years sit in boxes. Some of those boxes will go to a local traveling museum beginning in Alamo, while many others will go to the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The items include a medal signed and given to her by Cesar Chavez after her participation in the 1988 grape boycott. Chavez awarded the eagle-shaped medal to Juanita after ending his 36-day fast in protest of dangerous pesticides used on California grapes.
Another historical artifact is a small button reading, “I am a little brown one,” made in response to former President George H.W. Bush referring to his three Mexican-American grandchildren as ″the little brown ones.″
The boxes will soon be cleared out, taking with them glimpses into the past. But Juanita is looking toward the future. She said that she is excited for the next generation of activists and organizers, many of whom have learned from her the same way that she learned from Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.
“I get really excited when I think about looking back and seeing this organization,” she said. “Even if it’s different and I may not recognize it, I know it’s going to be that because of very good reasons. It’s because of the effort and because of the work that it’s going to continue.
“There are great things to come by all of these young folks. It’s going to be really amazing.”
To see more, view Monitor photojournalist Delcia Lopez’s full photo gallery here: