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Fort Worth’s Chicana Queen devoted her life to social justice

Daughter Jacqueline Valenciano and Pauline Valenciano pose with the the late Speaker of the U.S. House Jim Wright. Valenciano befriended many powerful politicians as she worked for social justice.
Daughter Jacqueline Valenciano and Pauline Valenciano pose with the the late Speaker of the U.S. House Jim Wright. Valenciano befriended many powerful politicians as she worked for social justice. From the Delsa Garcia Collection.

Pauline Gasca Valenciano, activist queen of Fort Worth Chicano barrios, left a legacy of civic involvement few in North Texas can match. She died June 5. Through personal observations, TCU’s "Civil Rights Black and Brown Oral History Project" interviews and family member reminiscences, I captured Ms. Valenciano’s drive for social justice during her 81 years with us.

Deftly shifting between English and Spanish in the interview, she recounted a life filled with challenges and brave acts.

A member of various Chicano activist groups, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), GI Forum, IMAGE, PASSO, Viva Kennedy and others, she launched her activism in Marlin, her husband’s Texas hometown. When his daughters were not permitted entry to the city public swimming pool — no Mexicans allowed — he and his Marlin family formed a LULAC chapter.

He wrongly thought his U.S. military veteran status would earn his family respectful treatment. Marlin norms hadn’t changed during his armored tank days in Vietnam. After his death, his 32-year-old widow returned to Fort Worth to embrace Chicano political activism.

In the 1960s, Valenciano pushed into the male-dominated civil rights struggle. She recalled, as a single parent of four daughters, the opposition she received from Chicanos.

Through the 1970s, she found few female allies on the picket lines, in protest marches and at political conventions. Forthright in contributing her thoughts in a roomful of men, she was told by one, “With that mouth, you don’t need a pistol.” She told insecure men “I have the balls you lack.”

She plowed forward and earned director positions with the local Community Action Agency and Neighborhood Advisory Councils.

When United Farm Worker Union co-founder Cesar Chavez came to Fort Worth in 1969, she prayed and fasted at his side in St. Patrick Catholic Church’s basement. A photo shows her standing next to him as Vicente Llamosa holds up a physically weak Chavez.

After she was arrested, along with two daughters who attended St. Mary Catholic elementary school, for picketing a Safeway store, the school nuns scolded her. She explained the store sold nonunion produce that growers sprayed with pesticides. These toxins caused farm worker women to lose their fetuses or give birth to deformed children. The sisters soon joined her on the line.

Her outspokenness also led to job woes. As a U.S. Census worker, she recalled the director state that field workers weren’t required to be counted in rural areas because the people were a bunch of Mexicans, “wetbacks.” Valenciano complained. She pointed out that local English-speaking Census workers struggled to talk with Spanish-dominant residents. The local director fired her, the only bilingual, bi-cultural worker. She claimed such racist retaliation only toughened her resolve.

Activism impacted family relationships. Jodi Perry, one of Ms. Valenciano’s daughters, spoke about how the movie "Dolores," a documentary about Dolores Huerta, reflected her ambivalence toward her mother’s absences. In the film, Huerta’s children spoke about their difficult emotional adjustment to their mother’s farm worker union activity.

Perry was sympathetic toward her mother’s passion to fight injustice, but she and her sisters were torn by their need for her attention. Activists and their families often make personal sacrifices for many who lack voice, nerve and money.

Then, some Chicanos and Chicanas took the easy way and sold out. In oral interviews, Valenciano expressed resentment toward "vendido Chicanos," lacking skills and nerves, who decided the route to prominent positions, money and status was to allow Anglos to manipulate them as tokens. She refused to name individuals but alluded to their local presence. Sometimes, your own people harm you as much as others. Values matter.

Ms. Valenciano mingled with mayors, congressional representatives, senators and prominent officials locally and in Washington to convince them to fund Fort Worth inner-city revitalization and fight poverty. She secured money to clean up Echo Lake on Fort Worth’s south side and to fund a dental clinic.

The city hauled 35 cars from the water, installed playground equipment and picnic tables, and landscaped the park. Thanks to Valenciano’s civic clamor, south-side Chicano residents enjoyed family picnics and received dental care.

She attributed her vociferous style to loving parents, high self-esteem and a solid, religious foundation. Despite two breast cancer episodes and two strokes, she confronted gender bias, racist attitudes, single parent status and financial woes to raise four daughters, all college graduates, holding professional jobs. She encouraged the young to get involved in civic change by learning about Chicano contributions to this country’s development. They must open their eyes through education, goal setting and hard work, she insisted.

In the 2015 oral history interview, she said, “It’s ugly when they treat you different, when you’re a young widow . . . I’m proud of what I do. I’m not finished . . . I want a movie and a book.”

The Chicana queen of Fort Worth activism lives on in courageous hearts who find value in fighting for social justice. Descansa en paz, good servant. Bien hecho.

Richard J. Gonzales is a Fort Worth writer.