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Interview with: Alfonso Vazquez
Date: November 15, 1984
Archive Number: OH 233.4
This is November 15, 1984 oral history interview with Mr Al Vazquez about the Minimum Wage March of 1966.
I: Mr Vazquez, where were you at the time when this all was beginning? What were you doing at that time?
AV: We were members of the PASO organization that was just beginning. Well, actually, it had begun in 1959, but this Minimum Wage March was in ‘65 or ’66—
AV: So by that time PASO had been pretty well established, and it was an outcome of the Kennedy/Johnson campaign. I was in Houston, and we had a call for food from the Rio Grande City, I believe. Rio Grande City was in dire need of food because the workers at this plant were striking. I hope I don’t get confused, because it was all—wasn’t there a hurricane about that time?
I: Was there? I wasn’t really up on the details of this?
I2: I think it was after this march, but—
AV: Well, there had been a hurricane, but I believe this was not so much for the hurricane. This was for the strikers. They called for food.
I: Where did y’all hear about the food? What agency?
AV: It wasn’t an agency, but just a fellow that came to Houston and looked around for organizations to help them through phone calls and what have you. Al Mata called me and he said, “My brothers and I are going to try to help take a station wagon full of food, and blankets, and clothes.” So, we got together at a PASO meeting and this is—we knew Father Gonzalez from our political activities. He was always on the fringes, but he attended that meeting and being a very strong individual, he immediately took over, and being a priest, everybody backed off. He said, “I’m taking over, and I’m going to go down there and see what the problem is, and then I will report to y’all.” Nobody elected him or anything, because he just took over, which was fine, because no priest had ever participated or gotten a hold of a situation like this before. They have always been church oriented. Father Gonzalez became the first true activist of the cloth, because right after that came Reverend Alauro. He jumps in on the already created situations. He went to Rio Grande City, and by that time all kinds of radicals were arriving in Rio Grande City. You have to hear it first hand from Mo Sanchez and David Ortiz, because David was right in the middle of it. In fact, David became the, sort of, troubleshooter of the march, and he lost his job because of it. He is a printer by trade.
(4:23) So they organized at Rio Grande City in a motel someplace—I’ve seen pictures of it—and the first group, that I recall, was a meat cutter union, and they were very, very strong. They went to participate because this was a strike, and they wanted to organize these people. I don’t know where the AFL-CIO—what is the NFWA—the farm worker’s union or association or something—they sent this fellow from California named Al something—I forget his name, but he’s a real tall fellow.
I2: Was that Eugene Nelson?
AV: Yes, that’s right. Eugene Nelson was the original instigator that was sent by—I can’t remember. He was a famous farm worker leader—
I: Senator Chavez?
AV: He was sent by Senator Chavez. Eugene Nelson was Senator Chavez’s original lieutenant, and Nelson became—once he saw that there was good leadership and that people were more apt to follow a priest than they would him then he just laid back. He was always in the front group. In Rio Grande City they had this—and I can’t tell you firsthand what went on in those meetings—but it was like—you see movies of great radicals getting together and pulling one way and pulling the other and out of all this emerged Father Gonzalez as a leader. Because he was a priest these radicals—don’t quote me on this, but I don’t remember who they were or if they were socialists or what—one little incident was they went into Father Gonzalez’s room and said, “What the hell, if he believes in socialism then what is good for him is good for us too,” so they took over his room. He came in there, and they thought they would mop the floor with him because he was a priest. So he went in there and went to put up his clothes, and he turned around and one of these silly characters was lying on his bed with his shoes on. Father Gonzalez can tell you better, but he told them to get the hell out of there. Before he got through everyone was out, and one of them said, “I thought you believed in equality,” as he was leaving, and he said, “Yeah, but not with thieves like you people.”
So, the whole point is that the wrong people could have gotten a hold of this strike—the socialists, because they believe in having this great big flag to promote their cause. They’re leaches. Father Gonzalez did a great service by getting a hold of this situation. You know the incident about going in the plant—the tomato factory? They were so hostile—the owner—and he was walking around with two pistolettos, because he heard all kinds of threats and screams. Father Gonzalez walked in and he didn’t say don’t do this and don’t do that. He just said, “We’re going to pray,” and this great big hostile crowd fell on their knees, and by the time they got up he was the leader. Like I said, those are things he can tell you himself, because he is around.
I: (9:22) Did you help get food here in Houston?
AV: The PASO organization, as you know, all organizations come down to just a few activist people—10, 12, 14 at the most—although our organization had a hundred and so members, it ended up with 15 or 16 real activists, and all those activists came up with ideas, and came up with action, for instance, Al Mata, David Ortiz, his son Joey who is now a lawyer—he thrives on remembering those days. This young lawyer here in this building Mo Sanchez—his son Tom also participated in that march, and with Mo in taking food to those people.
The whole idea was to help them survive because they were on strike and there was no money coming in. The meeting was held across the street from the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and it was a little building—it is still there—that Mary Lopez—I don’t know if you remember Mary Lopez. She was a real activist in PASO—she owned that little building, and she let us meet there, and we started from there sending carloads of food and clothing to these people. We established the real leader of the whole 400-mile march, which was Father Gonzalez, who was the assistant pastor at the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was right across the street. Later on, Father Gonzalez became pretty radical, but at that time he was magnificent. He was, like they say, a man for that time. He was a leader for that time. Eugene Nelson was always in it, and then Henry Gonzalez when they arrived in Austin—oh, incidentally, Al Hernandez can tell you a few stories too, because Al Hernandez was nearly impeached for being National President of LULAC for participating in this march, because LULACs by nature are very conservative. This was absolutely against the grain. This was political as far as they were concerned. They started rumors about impeaching him, but he was too fast. He didn’t quit.
Then of course Tony Alverez participated. In fact, they call him the tourist, because can you imagine in this crowd Tony in his $500 suits. Tony was manager of a Cadillac company. He was one of the four executives in that company. I told him, “Whatever you do, man, don’t let anybody take your picture,” and he avoided it, but there is one picture of him from a distance walking among the crowd.
I: (13:41) You actually went to Austin to take photographs?
AV: Yeah, I took this one.
I: Is that the only time that you actually went to the march?
AV: I’m a one-man studio, and closing for me for one day means $100 or $150 out of my pocket, and there is no way that anybody who is self-employed—unless he has employees—can do something like that, but I wanted to very much. Since I couldn’t go to those marches, what I would do is organize or help organize financing for them, like, I helped Tony with bands where he raised $1,000 for that march. At that time $1,000 is a lot of money. Then we had occasions when we raised money at the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We had raffles, and that is when Father Gonzalez told us that—because he would come during the march. He would take off for 1 or 2 days to come and raise money, because those fellows needed food and lodging. He told us that the one place—some shoe store—offered to give them shoes, and they thought they’d fallen from Heaven. The only problem is that they were all left foot shoes. I imagine there are shoe stores where people only use one shoe, I guess. Paraplegics and—
AV: Then there are people that—well that is beside the point. Father Gonzalez is full of very pertinent stories to this march, because—you know there was a donkey that carried—it was called the 125, and that is in itself a situation, because some guy didn’t know—he meant well—he painted the 125 on the donkey’s rear end, but didn’t realize that the paint is made of very penetrating liquid, and he burned the heck out of that poor animal. He had to throw himself on the ground until that pain went away. It’s silly things like that that happened.
I: What was the mood like in Austin when you got there?
AV: I’ll tell you that I took my wife and my daughter—my daughter today is a bilingual teacher, and she was 10 or 12 at the time—I wish that there were more people that participated in something like this, because I’m not an extremely emotional type, but I have a picture in one of those books were the marchers are coming up the steps of the capital, and I took those pictures by instinct because I couldn’t see, because I was crying so much. It’s an exhilaration and it’s a sadness and it’s a happiness and it’s an emotion that I think I’ve only felt once before and that was with John Kennedy’s assassination. The John Kennedy assassination was more private, but this was out in the open, and to see those people crying and screaming—remember—what is the name of the AFL-CIO leader from Dallas—Moreno—during the march, because I went the morning of the march—in fact, we spent all night at a hotel, but in the morning we went to that—what is the place where it started—well anyway—Hank Brown, who was the president of AFL-CIO, made a little speech, and there was an Episcopal minister who also made a speech, who had been with the marchers, and Hank Brown said—because he knew that the 50 marchers was over, because from now on there was going to be people joining—thousands—but the 50 marchers were going to be in front. He told everybody else what the marchers already knew, which was that they should not participate if they couldn’t take abuse. They were going to be called communists and spat on. So he made a strong speech there and also told them that there was going to be civilian clothed men who know how to handle troublemakers in the crowd, because the parade was all down Congress Avenue.
(20:17) From the church to the capital is a few miles, but it was a beautiful day. Everything was just perfect. I’ll never forget that incident because it was an impressive showing of support for a just cause with absolutely no violence of any kind, not even anybody yelling obscenities. We could tell from a distance that there were a few of those rednecks running to intimidate people, but no one got intimidated. They had already been told that they would be taken care of. So as they were going up the step—the steps graduate as you go up—Senator Yarboro was there, and Father Gonzalez, Eugene Nelson, and Reverend Alauro—Reverend Alauro with his little American flag—wait, what kind of flag did he have? It was Father Gonzalez with the American flag, and Reverend Alauro was waving something—but as they were going up the steps there was a tremendous roar from the crowd, and I was taking pictures, and I was crying. I remember my daughter and my wife was there, and my wife is not a participant in political things, and yet, she was right in there with everybody.
Then Henry Gonzalez joined them at the platform, and Hank Brown, and several of the—well, you’ve seen pictures of the crowd around the capital. There was a lot of nuns, a lot of priests, a lot of Episcopalian ministers, a lot of union workers, and that afternoon after the speeches there was a pledge made to leave some—what do they call them—the marchers that were going to stay there day and night?
AV: (23:21) Yeah, vigil. To remind the governor what they were there for. I don’t know how many days it lasted, but they changed every 8 hours. That afternoon there was a picnic at some park in Austin where all these marchers where invited, and that is where I first saw the leader of the farm workers, Senator Chavez.
I: Was he actually at the capital at the time?
AV: Yeah. Well, he may not have been at the march, but I know he was in the afternoon, because it was the first time I had ever met him. I realized how eloquent he was.
I: In the crowd there—I know it’s hard to estimate—was it predominately Hispanic-Mexican-American do you think?
AV: I would say so. No doubt about it. It was predominantly Hispanic, but the fact that there were so many ministers—Anglo ministers—and nuns and union workers—there was a certain percentage of Anglos there.
I: At the time, did you feel—we’re looking at this Minimum Wage March from a perspective of Mexican-American identity—did you feel that it was a Mexican-American expression of some sort?
AV: No, I think that the fact that these farm workers were all Mexican, naturally, you couldn’t feel any other way. You were helping brothers, and you had the brotherly love business that no matter what your station in life was that these people had been abused and there was a way to help them, and this was one way. It had never entered our mind just because they were Mexicans, but it stands to reason that 90 percent of the participants were Mexican-Americans and many, many nationals who were established residents in the United States. At that time there was hardly any mention of wetbacks. In 1966 there was not the big uproar there is today. In fact, the invasion of them hadn’t even come until later, so you’re talking about American citizens of Mexican descent. Even these farm workers, many of them were born on the farm in Texas. Second and third generation Americans with a Mexican heritage, but to look at them you would think they had just arrived from Mexico across the border. It was a beautiful experience that once in a while it occurs—I think the people who went to the Martin Luther King marches probably felt the same way. You join hands and sing in—among the blacks you sing, We Should Overcome, but in the Mexican you sing, Colores—what is that song that Catholics sing—De Colores is their theme song in any kind of civil rights or Mexican-American gathering. It becomes a rallying song. Being led by a Catholic priest—of course, Father Gonzalez suffered a lot—everybody suffered—all the leaders suffered from this participation. They probably feel that they would never had done it any other way, but David Ortiz lost his job, Father Gonzalez was raked over the fire by the other priests, and he was moved from one church to the other. It was his fault of course, because he became so enmeshed in political rights and political activity that he began to lose his mission in life, and he became more politicized. In fact, at that time, Father Flores, who is now a bishop, called me up one day and he said, “I understand Father Gonzalez has been very involved in politics,” and I said, “Well, I’ve been involved in politics, but he participated later.” He said, “Well, I need a priest, but I can’t have a priest running around in politics all the time. I need someone here. We’re a team. We go to the jail. We go to burials. We go to baptisms.” So, that changed his mind about taking him in. They couldn’t stand him anywhere else because he had become so engrossed—I don’t know what the word is—but so politicized that none of the pastors wanted him anymore. In fact, right now he is still paying for it. I don’t know where he is. Is he in Houston?
I: No, I don’t know. I have seen no reference to him at all.
AV: At one time they had sent him to a little town where he kept writing to friends to get him out of there. He was born on a farm, and it wasn’t until he became a grown man that he realized there was such a thing as a big city, and he don’t like the farm anymore, but they sent him to a little town, and he kept writing to friends to get him out of there. It wasn’t punishment, but they couldn’t take him in the large churches.
I: What was your opinion on Lyndon Johnson’s role or position in all of this?
AV: Well, the only thing at that time was that we remembered Lyndon Johnson having been responsible for the Three Rivers, Texas soldier being buried in Arlington Cemetery, and we admired him for that. As you know he was a—
(audio ends 31:25)