By Markus Williams
In Pharr Texas, a light came into this world. With equal parts humility, compassion and justice, Baldemar Velasquez would go on to become one of the greatest vessels of change this world has produced. From squalid conditions and chicken coops to the MacArthur Genius he has become “A light of Change”.
Baldemar is one of nine children born into the Mexican family business of migrant workers. He was four years old when he started working with his family in the fields, taking his place in the story of destiny that life had chosen for him. Because of its proximity to Mexico, Pharr Texas was the recruitment center for northern companies enticing migrant workers to come and pick the products that continue to grace our tables. The recruiting was attractive and it came with big promises that were far removed from the truth. Instead, they lived in housing that was designed for farm animals and made little money if they were paid at all. Traveling from state to state picking peaches, tomatoes, blueberries and cucumbers they saw a bounty that was not available to them. One winter, unable to afford the trip back to Texas they got stuck in Ohio in an old country house with an old stove as their only source of heat. For the next seven years they were in a cycle of borrowing money to live through one season and working the next season to pay it off.
Stuck with no heat and no work, Baldemar was sent to school because it was warm in the school house. Even though he could not speak English at least there, he could be warm for part of the day. As his family was stuck in one cycle, the fateful decision to send him to school would end another cycle. His early work ethic and physical labor allowed him to enjoy sports and it was soon discovered that he was very good at all of them; in fact he was above average. One day after a successful performance on the football field a white classmate said to him “you’re a good football player but look at your grades, you’re still a dumb Mexican”. That night he went home, with a dictionary borrowed from the library and he looked up every word that he did not understand. By the end of that school year he was on the honor roll.
During his senior year of high school Baldemar was asked by a teacher “where are you going to college?” Up until that very moment he had not thought of attending college. He thought the privilege of college was for white kids. One teacher encouraged him to go to trade school but his English teacher convinced him that the privilege of college was also available to him and so he was enrolled in Pan American College in Edinburg, Texas.
Back in the south Baldemar found the racism blatant and extremely oppressive. In an area where 80% of the population was Mexican American he found it odd that all the elected officials were white. Having his eyes opened to the social issues of the day he decided to transfer to Bluffton College where he changed his major to Sociology. While at Bluffton he was mentored by Dr. Lawrence Templin. Dr. Templin was an English Professor who grew up in India and knew Gandhi. He also knew the American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. Baldemar was deeply influenced by Templin’s approach to social justice and the influence did not stop there, later Baldemar would marry Templin’s daughter. He joined student organizations including CORE and SNCC, this allowed him to receive a first rate education on the struggle for civil rights. He spent one summer registering blacks to vote and living with a tenement family. One day the host family asked him why had he not complained about the rats. Baldemar shared with the family how he grew up with rats as playmates. Under the covers he and his brother would often see how far they could flick the rats across the floor from the couch that served as their bed.
In the summer of 1967, after Baldemar’s sophomore year he decided to do something on behalf of the migrant workers. With his father’s assistance he organized Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Initially he thought that it would serve the simple purpose of reporting to the elected officials the laws that were being broken, the working conditions and the acts of injustice. He thought once they were made aware they would simply fix the problem. He soon realized the elected officials were a part of, if not the source of, the problem themselves.
In 1968 Baldemar received a letter of invitation from Martin Luther King. Along with other student leaders from across the country he was invited to Atlanta to meet with King and discuss and strategize about the poor in America. In an act of unity, leaders of color from around the country talked of their shared experience and how they could better help their communities. The question was asked of King “how can we with no power, get the attention of the white man to negotiate? ” King responded; “When you impede the ability of a man to make money, anything is negotiable.” This was called the “Supply Chain Strategy” and it was a profound truth that would change the course of FLOC allowing them to emerge as one of the most effective voices for migrant workers.
Inspired, he began to build public support by publicizing discrimination, low wages and appalling working conditions. He then turned his attention to major corporations that were complicit in the chain of exploitation. Wanting fair pay for fair work they began forced negotiations using the methods of nonviolence that he learned from the teachings of Gandhi, King and his experience with the civil rights movement. His first target was the Campbell Soup Company who at first would not meet with him. On February 26, 1986, after two years of boycotting and impeding their ability to make money the soup company finally agreed to what would become known as the nation’s first three way collective bargaining agreement. Soon agreements were signed with many other companies including Heinz, Dean Foods and Vlasic Pickles.
In 1989 this man who was called a “Dumb Mexican” and lived in chicken coops in the shadow of the American Dream, received a MacArthur Genius Grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In 1994 he received Mexico’s highest award to a non-citizen the Aguila Azteca Award.
Baldemar believes that the Human Symphony exists when together we fight the diseases of this world. Our deep faith compels us not to preach at people or wear our religion on our sleeve. It instead demands that we walk with a cloak of humility and be agents of change.
We celebrate you Baldemar Velasquez. Living the idea that no one’s life should ever have to be negotiated, you are a light of change.