LUPE’s Valdez-Cox overwhelmed by support in bittersweet retirement sendoff

MISSION — Juanita Valdez-Cox entered the Mission Event Center and was escorted to a corner area inside the Grand Orchard where media awaited her arrival.

Wearing a black dress with floral stitching, and draped in a red shawl and a red, white and green ribbon in her hair, Juanita made her way past elaborately decorating tables full of eager family and friends to the area where media and representatives for La Unión del Pueblo Entero stood.

As she approached, she was greeted with hugs and bittersweet expressions of joy.

One of those hugs was delivered by Actress, Comedian and San Juan native Cristela Alonzo. “Mira!” they both exclaimed in unison as they embraced in a long hug.

“I knew as much as, ‘This is for you,’ but I didn’t expect this,” Juanita said, expressing shock at the grand scale of her celebration and everyone who showed up for her. “Not like this.”

“You’re having your community quinceañera,” Alonzo quipped.

The event Friday evening was a celebration of Juanita’s legacy and her over 45 years of service and commitment to fighting for the disenfranchised and giving a voice to the voiceless.

“Any reason to come home is a good reason,” Alonzo said. “We’re celebrating Juanita’s career of 45 years. She’s the head of LUPE, and LUPE’s an organization that helps so much — especially the colonias and the unrepresented. Anytime that I can come home and just amplify what they do, I just love to come back. I can never describe the Valley to people, but it just clicks when I’m here. You can leave, but when you come back it just always feels like it never changed — in a good way. It’s comfortable to me.”

Alonzo braved inclement weather and an unpredictable plane ride to make it to Juanita’s celebration. She said that she’s known her since she became a member of LUPE, for which she has also served as a member of the National Executive Board of Directors.

“When they told me that she was retiring and that they were going to do an event for her, I cleared my schedule,” Alonzo said. “I was going to come as a guest, and then they asked me to emcee, and I was like, ‘Of course.’ I just feel like what LUPE does, or just the Rio Grande Valley in general, I would like it to be more prominently known on a national level because I think that this area is so special.”

Cristela Alonzo, right, listens to Juanita Valdez-Cox, left, during her celebration of 45 years of leadership in the social justice movement at Mission Events Center Friday, March 3, 2023, in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Juanita had served as LUPE’s executive director before her retirement on Dec. 30, 2022. Throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly fighting for the rights of farm workers and immigrants, walking alongside Cesar Chaves and Dolores Huerta.

“Tonight we are celebrating the legacy of Juanita Valdez-Cox, who is one of my mentors but more importantly a civil rights leader here in South Texas,” Dani Marrero Hi, LUPE’s director of communications, said. “She served in the farm worker movement for more than 45 years. She was part of the original group of people with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who started that revolution in the fields. She retired, I think, almost against her will in December, but we’re here and we had no trouble filling the seats. There are so many people in the community wanting to come celebrate her.”

Despite her long list of accomplishments and victories for the unrepresented, Juanita is quick to share credit to all she has worked with. The night is all about her, but she can’t help but continue to talk about the fight that needs to continue now that she’s taking a step back.

“When I see who works now at LUPE, the older ones of us are moving aside because they say the young people are ready,” Juanita said. “They say, ‘They’re knocking at your door to get in.’ I said, ‘They’re not knocking at the door. They’re already inside.’ They deserve it. They deserve the opportunity to learn from people who have gone through the struggle for so many years.”

Rebecca Flores speaks to friends that gathered for a celebration of Juanita Valdez-Cox at the Mission Events Center Friday, March 3, 2023, in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

One of those who learned directly from Juanita is Tania Chavez Camacho, who has taken over Juanita’s former position as president and executive director of LUPE.

“Juanita has been my mentor for the past 10 years of my tenure with LUPE, so it’s bittersweet in the sense that I’m seeing my teacher, my mentor, move on to retirement,” she said. “Everytime that we had an issue in the community, Juanita would be the first one to say, ‘Vamos a hacerlo. We can do it together.’ So now passing the baton to me and being in that place can be kind of daunting, but we need to make sure that the work of the community continues.”

Since stepping into her new role, Tania said that she hopes to continue Juanita’s legacy.

“LUPE, and the entire executive team, we’re all millennials,” she said. “At some point in time they used to call us the pain in the butt millennials, and now we are the ones that get to carry on the legacy of the farmworker movement and the immigrant rights in the community. We are ready to do it. We want to honor those who came before us, and we want to ensure that the traditions of and that sense of community continues no matter who’s leading the organization.”

While there were many new faces on hand, representing the changing of the guard as the next generation of fighters look towards the future, there were also plenty of old friends who came to see Juanita and celebrate her legacy.

Among those old friends was Jim Harrington, the founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project. He worked with Juanita back in the very beginning of her career.

“We all got to take a step back. We all have to do that, but the best thing that any of us can do as we take that step back is to make sure there are two or three other people to take the step forward,” Harrington said. “That’s really important because that’s our work. Our work is organizing, and we don’t succeed as an organizer if we don’t have other people to walk in our shoes. We walk in the shoes of all the other people that went before us, and our job to them and to the people that come after us is to keep moving.”

To see more, view Monitor photojournalist Delcia Lopez’s full photo gallery here: 

Photo Gallery: LUPE’s Valdez-Cox overwhelmed by support in bittersweet retirement sendoff