Chants of "Sí se pudo, Sí se pudo" (we did it) greeted the unveiling Aug. 9 of a mural commemorating and honoring an important part of the City of San Juan and the Rio Grande Valley's history.
More than 200 residents, community leaders and students and representatives of The University of Texas-Pan American attended the dedication ceremony at San Juan's municipal pool, the site of the mural, titled "Braceros: A Legacy of Triumph," that highlights the hardships and contributions of the braceros and migrant farm workers.
Under the Bracero Program, conducted from 1942-1964, Mexican nationals were contracted to do temporary agricultural work in the United States. It was the largest guest worker program in the nation's history, bringing in millions of Mexican workers to do often backbreaking work under frequently poor living conditions. The South Texas region has one of the highest concentration of braceros and migrant farm workers nationwide and San Juan is a birthplace of the historic Texas Farm Workers Union.
Students from UTPA's Mexican American Studies (MAS)program and Cosecha Voices - a creative writing program for migrant students - initiated the idea for the public art project after seeing some of the world-famous Chicano murals on a trip some of the UTPA students made to California. They worked to gain funding for it from the City of San Juan and a grant from the Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, UTPA faculty member and MAS program director, said she was amazed how much the project engaged her students as well as the community.
"It is overwhelming to see so many people who are actually interested in it from the University, from the community, all these people coming together in a way that I have never seen happen," Alvarez said.
Close to 200 UTPA students were involved in some way, including raising money through a car show and food sales or helping to paint the mural under the direction of Austin-based artist/muralist Raul Valdez. Students also conducted approximately 150 surveys in the neighborhood near the mural's location to ask the local community what they would like to have shown in the mural.
Alvarez said it was important that people know about the history of the braceros, which often is not taught in school. Through the project, Alvarez said many students, as well as community members, learned of their own families' connection to this period of history.
"They went home and spoke about it and discovered that their abuelos, their grandparents, were braceros and they never knew it," she said. "So some of our students are having these conversations for the very first time in their own homes. Braceros contributed so much to our society and everyone should know about it, but in particular, their children, grandchildren and beyond. We hope because of this mural that will happen and more people will find out who they are as a people."
San Juan Mayor San Juanita Sanchez (BBA-finance '85), herself a former migrant farm worker, called the mural a source of great pride, especially since the community got to participate in its creation.
"It showcases a deep-rooted part of our community," she said. "It brings to life memories. It makes it historical and where the young can learn and we can leave it as a legacy for the generations to come."
She said people from all over the Valley have already visited the mural as it was going up.
"The first thing people say is 'Do you remember ... and the children, they ask 'What is that, tell me about it,'" she said.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said the mural was a marvelous acquisition for the city and entire region.
Norma Perez, a UTPA senior MAS major, said she has done migrant farm work since age 8 picking melons, strawberries, and cucumbers in a number of states. During the process of working on the mural and a bracero conference and exhibition held earlier in the year at UTPA, Perez said she learned her own grandfather was a bracero.
"It makes me feel more connected," she said. "I hope that seeing the mural encourages more people to ask about their background and family's history."
UTPA alumnus Christian Ramirez (BA '08, MS '12), who also earned a MAS certification, worked as a project manager for the mural and conducted a blog on its progress throughout the summer. He said each day he learned a little bit more about who he was and the contributions of farm workers.
"Everywhere you go in the Valley, you have farm working backgrounds. Even UTPA students, who don't have a spring break; they work. They don't have a summer vacation, they pick the fruits and vegetables we eat every day. We want to give those workers some recognition," said Ramirez, who will enter a Ph.D. program in Chicano studies at Michigan State University this fall.
At the ceremony's closing, Valdez introduced all the people who volunteered to work with him on the mural, including all the small children who were brought by each day by local families to help.
He said he was inspired by all the students and insisted that the mural is not about him but about the community.
"We dedicate this mural to you San Juan. It is your mural," Valdez said. "Take care of it."
Learn more about UTPA's MAS program here.
Go to a slideshow created by Ramirez below to see highlights of the mural's creation.