By Elmer Romero,Popular Educator at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network -NDLON
Translated by Hilary Stern
It was 2006 and The National Day Laborer Organizing Network had called its membership for its biannual Assembly in Silver Spring, Maryland. Day laborers, domestic workers, community leaders and organizers working in worker centers and streetside hiring corners were coming from all over the country. I had been asked to facilitate a workshop on popular education to introduce a book that we had recently developed for the organization CASA de Maryland (Now known as: We are CASA https://wearecasa.org/). One of the participants in my workshop was a woman of medium stature, with a soft even voice, the fortitude of a participatory activist and unwavering courage. This was María Jiménez, an unforgettable Texan.
A few minutes after starting the workshop, I realized that I was in the presence of not a student, but a teacher from whom I had much to learn from her on-the-ground experience of liberatory education with migrant workers in Texas. María shared organizing examples from her work when she was a member of a committe organizing the boycott in Texas during the times of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. This is where she developed her pedigree as a proud Chicana, immersing herself in Mexican American movements against racism and in defense of immigrant causes.
After meeting at this workshop we fell into an easy friendship. For me, I found a mentor in a courageous and determined women in whose path I wanted to follow. Maria was very interested in our work in popular education with the day laborer community in CASA de Maryland. She visited us in our trailer, our popular education “headquarters,” so that she could get to know our experience and see what she could apply upon returning to Houston, Texas. At that time we had various curricula and popular education materials related to learning English for day laborers, principles of popular education, materials for our drivers’ license campaign for the undocumented community and grassroots organizing of food truck operators. She was especially interested in this work since she said that in Houston, food trucks were everywhere but weren’t organized in any way.
For Maria, the way to live on forever was by teaching others. She would repeat this during day-long educational workshops and in the spaces for reflection and dialogue in which she participated. In meetings of day laborers, her voice as a woman was always felt. She was never one to hold back when she felt that constructive criticism was in order to defend the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. Part of the legacy she left in Texas was not just her work on the grape and lettuce boycott, it was also her pioneering work in organizing the first gay rights conference in this conservative and xenophobic Southern state.
In the 70’s and 80’s when María Jiménez was reaching her thirties, Houston was a refuge for the Central American exodus, a product of the violence, wars and postwar conflicts that broke out in Nicaragua (1978-1990), El Salvador (1980-1992) and Guatemala (1960-1996). White Texans showed their solidarity in embracing the diversity and cultural exchange of this new Central American diaspora, in an outpouring of support for the new waves of migrants needing help. This awakened a new curiosity in people like María, who was a young university student and activist with a social justice vision based in the Mexican communities. Her taste for tacos and topo chico (Mexican mineral water) expanded to include new tastes such as Salvadoran pupusas, Honduran baleadas, and Central American horchatas. And her appetite also grew to get to know the new organizations that were forming in Houston, and to understand what was happening on the border of the Rio Bravo, since along with new refugees, new practices of community organizing based on Latin American popular education had migrated .
At the dawn of the 90’s, María became involved in many organizations to which she dedicated the best years of her professional life and her heart: Borders Network for Human Rights, ARCA (Association for Residency and Citizenship of America), American Friends Service Committee, La Coordinadora 96, Houston Unido y CRECEN (Central American Resource Center) among others. Without a doubt, it was her time with these organizations that sowed the seed, the consciousness and inheritance of the active grassroots leadership that exists today in Houston. Now, after her parting, many women in leadership positions remember her as a heroine, a woman of steely resolve that offered sisterhood and the opportunity to share a common yearning to defend the rights and dignity of the immigrant community.
The Salvadoran leader, Teodoro Aguiluz, founder of the organization CRECEN in the Latino neighborhood in southeast Houston, referring to Jiménez told me: I had a very close working relationship with María. She was the founder of our organization, an organization that for almost 40 years has served thousands of migrants in adjusting their immigration status and in defending their human dignity. Today, when we found out that she had left us, I went searching for and scrutinizing photos, momentos, testimonies and facts and figures in the memory chest that I developed with her and many others who have dedicated their best years to community work. Teodoro remembers a story about the time when the US and Mexico were negotiating the free trade agreement (NAFTA). Both activists had called for a protest in Houston opposing the signing of the agreement. But they were the only two that showed up. So to raise each others’ spirits they joked that each one of them represented 10 thousand people, so really, 20 thousand people were there, between the Salvadorans and the Mexicans. They both laughed at the lie they were telling themselves, enjoying the good humor of street level grassroots organizing.
When referring to someone as a popular educator, in María’s case it was because she understood and applied three important and necessary principles when we facilitated participatory educational processes and experiences: the construction of power, organizing the base, and the integration of the people’s popular culture. In her, these three elements were very clear: she empowered many young people and women, she developed organizing processes tailored to specific campaigns and she knew how to understand and integrate the wisdom and traditions of the people’s culture.
In 2007 I moved to live and work in Houston and Harris County. When I arrived in the city, María greeted me joyfully and quickly offered me windows and spaces where I could get involved in community work. I helped her facilitate educational workshops with groups that she was working with in the development of leadership and advocacy tools for lobbying on the state level. Once again, in these day-long popular education workshops, María showed me how to work within and understand community organizing and activism in Texas. With a smile, I remember how she used to tell me, “Welcome to Texas compañero!” and then offer me a bit of Texas wisdom, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
In the course of life and community work, I found out that María was sick and that there was no cure for what she had. One day we bumped into each other in the Rothko Chapel (www.rothkochapel.org) during a ceremony presenting the Oscar Romero award, which in 2013 was going to Blanca Velázquez of the Centro de Apoyo en Méjico (CAM), for her fight in defense of labor rights of the women working in the garment and autoparts factories of the Mexican state of Puebla. There were many famous personalities present at this ceremony, including the legendary civil rights activist, Dolores Huerta, Francisco “Pancho” Argüelles (disciple and friend of María), Frances “Sissy” T Farenthold and María Jiménez. She came dressed in a Mexican purple cotton blouse with fine elegant white embroidery, with her gray streaked hair, overjoyed and hopeful to be in that sacred place, the cradle and conclave of solidarity and recognition of grassroots organizing work, one of the pillars of popular education. On that day and in that meeting I took her photo, one that today I keep as one of my most precious memories and in my archive of the visual collective memory of the common people.
The last time I saw her, perhaps the time we said goodbye, was in the building of the UT Health Science Center at Houston. We bumped in to each other on the elevator. I almost didn’t recognize her because of the changes and havoc that cancer had wreaked on her face, but she recognized me and gave me a warm hug. We both were going to the same place, a meeting of the Comité Asesor Comunitario (CAC) to discuss and follow up on a project called Vales+Tú, a study and intervention to prevent workplace accidents among the day laborer commnity at 15 of the 37 informal outdoor labor hiring sites that exist in Houston. María, my popular educator, gifted me one more life lesson: the popular educator never gives up and persists until the last of her days. That’s how popular educators go to heaven, with their tools of the collective and the friendships that they have built throughout their lives.
I would like to give a huge personal THANK YOU to María, echoing that of our community and of the staff in the office that you founded and served. The streets of Houston will always carry your ardent cry, your dripping sweat as a symbol of peace, your courage and firm testimony and your joyful hope in continuing the struggle for a better country and so that one day our immigrant community will be able to live in hope. That your ashes scattered on the Rio Bravo and the border between Texas and Mexico be forever the feed that we see bloom every spring in the bluebonnet flowers in the Texan fields to remind us that you continue to live and fight alongside us.
That our tears and sadness be converted into organized struggle.
Biographical note: María Jiménez was born on August 2, 1950 in Coahuila, México. The oldest of five siblings, she arrived in Houston with her mother when she was 7 years old, joining her father who was already working as a mechanic in the States. She died of cancer at age 70.