The Pharr-Police Riot of 1971

by: Chuy Ramirez
Posted: January 31, 2021

Fading Memories and Photographs

In February, 1971, violations of a person’s civil rights could have been redressed through a federal cause of action now popularly referred to as a “section 1983 cause of action”.[1]  But Manuel Mata was not aware of his rights when a City of Pharr, Texas police officer gave him a beating and broke two of his ribs.  Twenty-four year old Guadalupe Salinas suffered a similar fate, receiving severe bruises about his face.  Both had been victims, allegedly, of an police officer within the department.  So far as we can tell, neither ever obtained legal counsel to file a personal injury lawsuit on their behalf.

February 6, 1971, after months of an aggressive grass-roots anti-police brutality campaign against Mayor R. S. Bowe by Efrain Fernandez, Maria Magallan, Raymundo Lopez, and others, the Mayor had had enough. He was tired of the protestors parading in front of the city hall or police department.  Through the use of so-called “interlocal cooperative police agreements,” the City of Pharr would call in for assistance several neighboring police departments and the Sheriff’s Department[2] to respond to the protestors. Alfonso Loredo Flores, a bystander observing policemen chasing after protestors and shooting their guns in the air, was shot and killed by a Sheriff’s deputy.  Flores had his hand in his pockets as he stood under the porch lights of Stanley’s Barber Shop on Main Street.  Some twenty-five young men would be arrested.  Hidalgo County District Attorney Oscar McGinnis would indict ten young people, among them Efrain Fernandez and Alonzo Lopez.  The grand jury also indicted Sheriff’s deputy Robert Johnson who was identified as responsible for shooting Loredo Flores.  Johnson and Fernandez would be acquitted.  Lopez would be found guilty of interfering with a police officer.[3]

February 6, 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the event.  Most of the memories of the event have faded.  In this January 2021 edition of IberoAztlan, we commemorate the brave men and women who stood up to Mayor R. S. Bowe. We share a pictorial history of the event, an article by Thomas Garcia,  a resident of Pharr and PhD candidate, an interview with Robert Loredo, the victim’s first cousin, and an interview with David Hall, who, as a young attorney,  would represent Fernandez in three cases, the last of which would be Fernandez’s criminal indictment which could have sent Fernandez to prison.  Thomas Ray Garcia reports on current efforts to commemorate Alonzo Loredo Flores, who was shot and killed by a Sheriff’s deputy during the melee. Flores’ first cousin, Roberto Loredo[4] tells us in an interview how he learned about the incident while a student in Oregon.  A pictorial history helps to visually portray the events of that fateful day.

The Rio Grande Valley was an entirely different space in 1971.  Now, some fifty years later, the misconceptions of what happened and why it happened abound. Some facts remain unclear.  We hope these new voices help us understand the context within which the events transpired.

Efrain Fernandez had come to South Texas courtesy of the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a creation of the Great Society.  With his wife and pre-adolescent child in tow, he settled in Pharr in the late 1960s to commence his term as a volunteer. VISTA was one of those traditional liberal approaches to addressing the problems of the poor. VISTA had been cast as a domestic version of the Peace Corp, through which good-minded college kids could clear their conscience through a brief period of volunteerism.  Richard Nixon, for unexplained reasons, never fully axed all of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.  Quite the contrary, many of the earlier programs survived and did extremely well under Nixon.  The Republican President’s strategy appeared, in part, to be that he could replace the old guard bureaucrats with his own bureaucrats.  In any event, VISTA was one of those programs which survived the axe.

Gonzalo Barrientos[5] had begun his career as a federal bureaucrat with the Office of Economic Opportunity’s (OEO) regional office in Austin.  Among Barrientos’ charge was funding of OEO programs throughout Texas.   Ever on the lookout for creative ideas, Barrientos learned that in the spirit of self-determination for minorities, upper echelon federal bureaucrats had been toying with the idea of allowing the design of more innovative programs.   Through consultation with the network of activists with whom Barrientos had been in contact over the years, he coordinated development of the VISTA Minority Mobilization (VISTA MM) program.    The MM ideal, as it came to be known, would be innovative indeed.  Just as the regular VISTA program, MM would recruit students from Colleges and Universities. But their focus would be on recruiting Mexican American students.  Unlike regular VISTA, MM would place the VISTA volunteers in local communities to engage in organizing communities for self-determination.  In addition, VISTA MM would recruit older, community members to round out the local organizing team.   Thus, a team might consist of a twenty-year old student from the University of Texas working in tandem with a sixty-year old woman from Pharr.  Their job, as would become vogue in the ‘60s, was “to raise the level of consciousness” of the community.  In more simple terms: empowering communities to create solutions for their problems.

Pharr was no different from any other city in South Texas.  Its segregated enclave was on the North Side just as it was for its immediate neighbors, the cities of San Juan and Alamo.  In those days, in spite of Mexican American electoral majorities in most communities, only a handful of Mexican Americans were ever elected to public office.  It had always been that way.  In South Texas it was rare for the “race issue” to get out of hand.

Traditionally, leaders of the entrenched agribusiness sector were cautious in their political dealings.   Crucial to the success of their political methodology was backroom dealing, concessions of power where necessary, and always a Mexican in the house who could sound a conciliatory note with his community.   Sounds Machiavellian?  It was.  But Pharr was unique in its political methodology; and that was because of Mayor R. S. Bowe.

In October of the year prior to February, 1971, Hidalgo County adopted a budget of a mere  $6 million.  The City of Pharr building permits for September totaled $66,000.  A few months earlier, the iconic shrine of the Virgin de San Juan had burned to the ground.  February 6, 1971 would be the beginning of a new era in the City of Pharr, and in South Texas.

With literally a handful of mothers and their children, Efrain Fernandez took on the fight against police brutality in Pharr. Invariably, the complaints pointed to one, perhaps two police officers.  But Bowe and his police chief would do nothing to address their “bad apples”.  Fernandez would be joined by one or two other activists in what often seemed a rather symbolic quixotic assault on Bowe’s citadel.  One version of what happened is that Mayor Bowe wanted a fight, a political win and to lay out a model for how to deal with those who would challenge the vestiges of a patron political system.  He failed miserably.

[1] 42 USC §1983  creates a cause of action for “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws by any person acting under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory .”

[2] No one has done the yeoman’s work of searching through archives or interviewing police officers to determine when the various law enforcement departments agreed to “assist” the City of Pharr to quell the “riot”.  Our impression is that  the police effort was coordinated in advance of the protest, but we have no proof of that.

[3] Many details of the events and the aftermath abound in the internet.

[4] Loredo would serve in a various public offices in South Texas, including Mayor and school superintendent.

[5] Barrientos would subsequently be elected to the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate to represent the City of Austin.

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

Viva Chihuahua! Sustainability in a Desert Landscape

4:00 p.m., MST June 19, Broadcast from the Art and Ecology Laboratory, La Union

The Chihuahuan Desert straddles the border to cover more than 200,000 square miles of terrain across 8 states and is considered to be the most biologically diverse desert in the world as measured by the variety of species and endemic plants. Its relevance and impact to the culture and traditions of its human inhabitants is intertwined with their survival in this distinct landscape. Our program guests include sustainability activist, Kevin Bixby of the Southwest Environmental Center; landscape architect, David Christiani; historian, Anthony Mora, Ph.D. and artists Antonio Castro and Romy Hawkins.

Art Quiz - April 2021

Query: This mixed-media artist is originally from El Paso. Here, the artist  arranges sardine cans in a child-like creation. Is the artist male or female

Hint: This artist’s work has been featured in Icons and Symbols of the Borderlands. The artist lives in Arlington, Texas, but grew up in El Paso

Hover To Find The Answer

ANSWER: Celia Alvarez Munoz, originally from El Paso, Texas. The piece is El Limite 1991. See Robert Tejeda's book, Celia. Alvarez Munoz (A Ver) available at Amazon

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