In Honor and Memory of Antonio Orendain

Founding convention of the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in Fresno, California, showing (from right) César Chávez, Tony Orendain, and Dolores Huerta 1962.  Unknown artist / digital print. Courtesy of The Phillip & Sala Burton Center for Human Rights, image provided by Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. 


Yesterday we lost another great hero of ours -- Antonio "Tony" Orendain who was a co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union.

From The Monitor:

Antonio “Tony” Orendain, cofounder of the United Farm Workers Union with labor and civil rights leader César Chávez in 1962, died Tuesday at McAllen Heart Hospital. He was 85 years old.

Orendain’s work was remembered Wednesday by activists in the Rio Grande Valley who continue to fight for immigrant and farm worker rights.  “Mr. Orendain leaves a legacy of struggle on behalf of the farm workers in South Texas and California. His work on behalf of those who toiled in the fields under disgraceful conditions and for unspeakably low wages lives on in the memories of thousands. May he rest in peace and power,” reads a statement released by La Unión del Pueblo Entero.


In honor of Antonio Orendain's life, I want to a share a paper  written by Nyssa Cruz,  a fellow Tejana.  She wrote the paper during undergraduate studies, and gives further credit to Orendain where credit is due -- particularly with regard to Texas history.  She writes:

Most people in the Mexican-American community have a great respect and gratitude to Cesar Chavez and the labor rights of farmer’s stretching from the hills of California to the tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley; much of the credit is given to César Chavez as he is the face of the labor movement as well as the leader of the Union Farm Workers. There is however discrepancy as far as the workers movement in the State of Texas as well as in the Rio Grande Valley. There was a principle factor for the labor movement here in the Rio Grande that still has its hold in the valley today it is greatly due to the hard work dedication of Antonio Orendian.                

          The brief history of Antonio Orendain was born in Etstatlán, Mexico.[1] He was raised by his grandparents and unlawfully entered the border to pursue a better life as a young adult. He eventually became disenchanted with the dilemma of harsh working conditions that the farmers were facing in California. Orendain motivated factions of people with rallying speeches along the labor camps although in California he joined in the labor organization held by César Chavez and as well as others such as Dolores Huerta but as always it was overshadowed by the presence of Chavez. Just like as all farm workers they were all harassed with deportation by the growers if they did not work for free and that is harassment still going on today by unscrupulous farm growers as well as the state and federal government. He eventually joined up with César Chavez to be a part of the Community Service Organization (CSO).[2]  

          As a result of early organizations the government implemented a program to further enhance illegal labor practices to the next generation of workers under this ‘Bracero’ agreement between the nations of United States and Mexico. The Bracero program which started in 1942 and ended in 1964, staged the uprising of the laborers in opposition to the exploitation of the farm growers on the knowledge that these Braceros who were temporary workers from Mexico would take lower wages, forgo health care and other benefits as well as their counterparts the illegal workers on the field.  They were willing to take the unwanted work by the Americans. The program was no longer renewed as it resulted to more harsh conditions for the temporary workers and this was a sign of relief for Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) who did not want illegal immigration to begin with. If the illegal immigration continued it would reduce the pay for the workers of those legally working.   

          With the establishment of the United Farm Workers in the sixties and in the seventies were in the crossroads of division for the power and leadership of the union. It is not surprising that Chavez took it upon himself to maintain a strong hold of the organization that eventually started the rift to Antonio Orendain. Orendain one of the principle leaders under the UFW knew of the harsh conditions for the disillusioned workers in Texas. In an article from the Free-Lance Star from Jack Anderson stated in his editorial ‘wanted to consolidate his own power’ rather than focus on the needs of the people of the UFW. At the same time Manuel Chavez, a cousin of Chavez was not practicing the same principles in Mexico as he was exploiting low paid workers in Mexico. In direct quote to the article brought further light of the difficulty of working with Chavez:

“As far back in 1967, Chavez promised that Texas would be the next state organized by the agricultural union. He then made the same promise to Florida, New Jersey, and Arizona. “Finally we decided the workers couldn’t wait until César Chavez was ready,” said Antonio Orendain of the Texas Farm Workers. “The workers don’t even who César is. They want just healthy working conditions.” [3]

Antonio Orendain mentioned in an interview[4] that Chavez was way too busy for the needs of the workers in the State of Texas. As it was Orendain spent twenty five years to help Chavez in California until 1975 to establish the Texas Farm Workers Union (TFWU), he wanted to accomplish similar results as far as winning workers right as it was in California and yet it could not be accomplished without some form of organization for the State of Texas. There were various ‘hit and run’ strikes around the valley from Raymondville to Roma, which brought forth the attention of the abuses of labor practices to the workers that eventually had rights for the farm workers served and restored. Most of the time these strikes were not thought-out and some of the time nothing would be done on behalf of the workers. He was working on getting the basic necessities that were not given to the workers before as in basic care, and labor breaks.

In many speeches he showed that the farm workers and their children whether they may or may not be in the farm movement in generations to come the harsh conditions with all the hard labor was not the right path to take in life. Instead they should focus to better themselves to get a better education in order to improve their way of life. He showed not only the people in the state of Texas and California that life on the farm is unattractive, full of mistreatment and hardships, with peoples stories voicing their complaints and how every person no matter of their profession or background, one should have their basic necessities and as well as fair wages for their grueling work.

Although there was lack of funds in the organization, it was  sporadic throughout its existence they carried out non-violent strikes as opposed to Chavez statements about Orendain was not a stable leader and hostile in a message to the White House under the Carter Administration. Orendain with a group of forty followers went on a journey of 1,600 miles to Washington, D.C., on behalf of the  175,000 campesinos who worked on the labor fields[5] and  to garner more support for the workers but as well as to address President Jimmy Carter.[6] Various religious leaders and union officials from other organizations endorsed its movement. However, not to add insult to injury President Carter did not meet up with the marchers at the request of César Chavez of the UFW. Yet he may have not met up with President Carter he returned as a formidable leader than Chavez for the workers in Texas.

Although it failed as an organization it did however have accomplishments in the labor laws in the State of Texas; such as eliminating anti-union laws as well as for Texas being one of the twenty-two states to prohibit union fees and forcing employees to enter a union when employed.[7] However to this day, still there are harsh working conditions for the farm workers. Even though the TFWU is dissolved, he thinks that his efforts were not wasted. To this Mexican immigrant, it's something that had to be done. But for Orendain the future for the workers and labor movement is not clear. "I'm like Socrates: the only thing I know is that I don't know anything," he said.[8] He is one of the last main leaders left from the UFW and now defunct organization for the TFWU. They all pushed for the advanced workers rights from the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s it was not all about Chavez. It was about a movement of many leaders with various backgrounds that helped the workers advance some form of rights and humanity on the backs of the people that provide us with our provisions on our dinner table. With Chavez death in 1993, as well as other leaders the question that rises from this is the farm workers movement dead?  As it is seen in the eyes of Antonio Orendain when he was given a long overdue honor for his contribution for the farmers in the Rio Grande, he also stated:

“What does this mean?” The resolution that honored him and he asked with a smile. “What are we going to do with this?” The question remains can the organization survive the globalization that has come to the twenty-first century. As more and more people are bound to pursue an education that Orendain greatly emphasized and stricter immigration regulations, who will do the unwanted farm work? Will it throw all the work of the labor movement that was done by Chavez, Huerta and Orendain in the back of the pick-up?

 As it was in San Juan, Texas the present city where he resides, the city commissioner Bob Garza on the importance to recognize Orendain and others for their contributions to the Hispanic history, Garza never heard of Orendain before the proclamation declared October 23 as the “Day of the Migrants.” He stated that “This should be more publicized, especially for our school kids.” Today the union follows thru an organization called La Union del Pueblo Enterero (LUPE) that focuses on community organizing and civic engagement. While UFW left Orendain his record and accomplishments in the movement in Texas his work and legacy will not be forgotten. [9]


Anderson, Jack; Has César Chavez let power go to his head? The Free-Lance Star March 8, 1980

Bowman, Timothy P. “What about Texas? The Forgotten Cause of Antonio Orendain and the Río Grande Valley Farm Workers, 1966-1982.” Manuscript in the Farmworker Documentation Project, May 2006. pp 119-121

Contreras, Gloria. "Onda Latina ~ The Mexican American Experience Program Collection of the KUT Longhorn Radio Network." Instructional Technology Services. (accessed March 8, 2010).

Gaffney, Sean . "Standing Up: Decades-ago crusade for farm workers by Chavez contemporary echoes in Valley” | The Monitor. September 01, 2008

Gómez-Quiñones, Juan;  Mexican-American Labor, 1790-1990 (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1994)

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "," Texas State Historical Association (accessed March 7, 2010).

Leon, Arnoldo De. Mexican Americans in Texas: A Brief History. 2nd ed. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 1999

María Flores Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin. Texas Farm Workers Union Collection, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

Pipitone, Nick. "The SIXTIES: South Texas labor leader honored, at last." The SIXTIES (accessed March 7, 2010).

[1]  Antonio Orendain to Allen McCreight, November 14, 1978, Folder 1, Texas Farm Workers Union Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin

[2] Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Mexican-American Labor, 1790-1990 (Alburquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1994)

[3] Anderson, Jack; The Free-Lance Star March 8, 1980

[4] Contreras, Gloria, Interview with Antonio Orendain,  The Plight Of The Migrant Farm Worker #

  1977-48; Onda Latina Collection October 12, 1977. (University of Texas at Austin)

[5] Texas Observer, April 17, 1981.  p. 5

[6] Leon, Arnoldo De. Mexican Americans in Texas: A Brief History. 2nd ed. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 1999. Pg 147

[7] Pipitone, Nick. "The SIXTIES: South Texas labor leader honored, at last." The SIXTIES. (accessed March 7, 2010).

[8] Gaffney, Sean . "Standing Up: Decades-ago crusade for farm workers by Chavez contemporary echoes in Valley” | The Monitor. September 01, 2008

[9] Bowman, Timothy P. “What about Texas? The Forgotten Cause of Antonio Orendain and the Río Grande Valley Farm Workers, 1966-1982.” Manuscript in the Farmworker Documentation Project, May 2006.pp 119-121


Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment

An Independent American Voter Group merging Tip O'Neill Democrats and Ronald Reagan Republicans.