Rebecca Olivarez Flores, a lifetime of service

by: Chuy Ramirez
Posted: May17, 2021

Rebecca Olivares Flores was born in 1943 to a family whose patriarchal and matriarchal documented lines date back to the early 1700s, a family that has continued to reside in  South Texas.

Her life’s work was formed by her experience harvesting vegetables on the small farm that her father’s family owned, their family’s annual migrations to pick cotton and their one-time only venture  joining the Midwest farm worker migrant stream.  That passion was also formed by her educational experiences at Poteet Independent School District in Atascosa County, and continued in the San Antonio public schools, where during her 9th grade she and many other students were tracked into vocational training rather than academics.  At Fox Tech High School, the majority of students who attended were of Mexican descent (see Interview of “Edgar Lozano and the 1968 Lanier High School Student Action”).

After graduation in 1960, she became a civil servant, working as a secretary at Fort Sam Houston Fourth Army HQ, then at Randolph AFB. She was one of a handful of Chicanas working at the military sites, and because of the glass ceiling, there was little chance for advancing out of this skill area.

In 1967, she withdrew her civil service pension, and enrolled at St Mary’s University, graduating cum laude in 1970.

Due in large part to a student strike led by the Black Action Movement, Rebecca was recruited to attend the University of Michigan Graduate School of Social Work where she was inspired by the different groups that were organizing on campus.  There, she joined the farm worker Grape Boycott, the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the Women’s movement and the Chicano movement.

After graduating from UMich, Rebecca moved to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, heeding the call by Cesar Chavez to give back to our communities.  In 1975, after a the United Farm Worker Union (UFW) local leader resigned, Cesar Chavez asked her to direct the UFW in Texas.  In 1978, Fred Ross, the renowned organizer/trainer for the UFW, went to Texas to train a small group of farm workers and to begin the job of forming a union structure based in the South Texas colonias along the U.S.-Mexican border.  Rebecca would be one of those seven original organizers.  These seven organizers lead a house meeting organizing campaign each year from 1978 to 1983 that resulted in establishing farm worker colonia committees across the Rio Grande Valley and in Mexico.  Because of the organization, and the continuing campaigns, the UFW won historic legislative gains for farm workers in Texas, which included workers compensation, unemployment compensation, minimum wage increases, field sanitation and pesticide protection.  Farmworkers continued to lead strikes in the agricultural fields to raise piece rates.  And members continued to push for a voice in public service agencies.

After Cesar Chavez’ death in 1993, Flores became a UFW board member.  She helped organize campaigns in Washington State, Florida, and in California.  From 1998 to 2001, she was Texas Director for the National AFL CIO.

Since 2014, after being fully retired, she has focused on U.S. Department of Homeland Security policies that were detaining mothers and children who were seeking asylum.

Chuy Ramirez is an attorney practicing law in the Rio Grande Valley since 1983, and dabbles in writing.

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