Fort Worth

Pauline Gasca Valenciano, a legacy of activism and public service in Fort Worth

Pauline Valenciano, a Fort Worth native and trailblazing activist, passed away on June 5 at 81 years old after leading a life in public service.
Pauline Valenciano, a Fort Worth native and trailblazing activist, passed away on June 5 at 81 years old after leading a life in public service. Courtesy Jodi Valenciano Perry

Pauline Gasca Valenciano was a cool mom.

Her eldest daughter Jodi Valenciano Perry remembers that when she was 9 years old in 1963, Pauline took all four of her daughters — Jodi, Suzanne, Diane and Jacqueline — to see President John F. Kennedy in Fort Worth the day before he was assassinated in Dallas.

In 1964, Jodi recalled, one day her mother came home and announced that they were going to a concert. Pauline had tickets for Jodi and her two cousins to see The Beatles in Dallas.

The Valenciano girls lived on the frontlines of history with their mother. But what Jodi will never forget about her mother was her fierce pride in her children.

Jodi was in high school in the 1970s, and at the time, female students weren't allowed to wear pants or blue jeans to school. She was sent home three times because her skirt was deemed too short. The third time, however, Pauline took matters into her own hands.

"She came up there in a mini skirt like I wore and she told the principal 'do not send my daughter home anymore. She hasn't done anything wrong. You're denying her an education,'" Jodi said. "And I was never sent home again. It was hilarious."

As a mother, an activist and a community and public servant, it was her sense of self and how she kept everyone around her accountable that earned the respect of anyone in her path. Pauline's death on June 5 has moved many across communities in Fort Worth to reflect on the impact she had.

"She had a sense of humor and a sarcastic wit that was real quick," Jodi said. "People used to say she didn't need a gun, just let her mouth do the talking, she'd shoot bullets."

Growing up in Fort Worth

Pauline Gasca was born on December 19, 1936, in the Fort Worth barrio, La Fundición in the South Side near a Texas Steel mill. Her father came to the United States during the Mexican Revolution in 1916 and settled in the neighborhood that used to be home to Katy Lake. Today that land is known as La Gran Plaza.

Switching back and forth between English and Spanish, she had said in a 2015 interview for an oral history project with TCU students and faculty that her father used to take them on trips to Mexico to learn the history and culture. She was the youngest of nine siblings and said herself that she was spoiled, but close to her siblings and with her father. He was the one who gave them a Christian upbringing and filled them with Mexican pride.

She was a passionate advocate for education, which both Jodi and TCU history professor Max Krochmal attribute to the limited one she and her parents had. Pauline didn't study past the fifth grade because of segregation. Leading up to her death, Jodi said her mother's greatest pride was that all of her children and grandchildren had a college education.

"I remember my first grade teacher wore stainless steel plates in her nose so she wouldn't breathe our germs," Pauline said. "That was ugly."

In 1948, her fifth grade teacher Ms. Barney took the class to see President Harry S. Truman. Jodi said that experience inspired her mother's activism. Pauline said she had seen every president on their visits to Fort Worth since then.

Pauline married Joe Franco Valenciano on December 8, 1953. Jodi said her dad was the love of Pauline's life.

Joe was in the military, and they moved around a lot to different bases while he trained troops, Jodi said. Pauline would take the girls on weekend trips to different states and cities. By Jodi's count, Pauline had made it to 48 and Canada, but never Alaska.

In 1969, Joe was shot in Vietnam and returned to the States. A year later, he died from the injuries he sustained, leaving Pauline a widow at 34 with four daughters.

Pauline's activism

It's difficult to pinpoint when and where Pauline's civic engagement first started. Listing all of her activities is nearly impossible. It just seems to be part of who she always was.

When she was a child, her father would take her to downtown and she would see the separate water fountains for people of color.

"I wanted to see if they both tasted the same," she said. "I was the contrarian."

Pauline always stood up for herself. In the face of discrimination or hardship, she always made sure her voice was heard.

"I got fired from City, I got fired from Census Bureau, I got fired from the [Community Action Agencies]," she said in 2015, still with determination. "But each time I had three good jobs to pick from, with more money."

"She was almost proud of getting fired," Krochmal said with a laugh when he recalled the interview.

She was involved in the Viva Kennedy campaign. While Pauline was progressive, Jodi, Krochmal and United Fort Worth member Norma Garcia Lopez all agreed that she was most passionate about getting people to vote, no matter how they voted.

Pauline was passionate about civic engagement and always encouraged young people to vote. Courtesy Jodi Valenciano Perry

Jodi said Pauline had met Ted Kennedy when he was running for president and he already knew who she was. In San Antonio during his campaign, Jodi recalled, when Mexican residents went to the polls to vote, they were targeted by immigration officers who thought they were undocumented. Pauline called up Kennedy to put a stop to it.

He had previously given her his personal phone number.

From participating in the grape and lettuce boycotts to working within the Democratic Party, Pauline was a champion of equality. She was a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the American GI Forum. She advocated for farm workers rights alongside Cesar Chavez. She was honored by the National Association of Human Rights for her work in civil rights.

In Tarrant County, she was involved in the 16 de septiembre Mexican Independence Day Parade, co-founded the Cesar Chavez March, served on the Fort Worth Neighborhood Advisory Council and as the commissioner of the Human Relations Commission. Pauline was also named an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and honored by the Tarrant County Democratic Woman's Club as a pioneer.

Congressman Marc Veasey said he was saddened to hear of Pauline's passing. He paid tribute to her on the floor of the House on June 8, saying that "when Pauline got told to dial it down, that meant to Pauline that she needed to dial it up."

Active until the end

Pauline was a devout Catholic. Jodi said that was one of her mother's sources of strength.

"She had breast cancer twice, two strokes and a heart attack, and she still had more energy than anybody else," Jodi said. "Her faith is what kept her going."

Pauline died from the pneumonia she caught after having a stroke at the end of May. Jodi said that just before the stroke, she was still phone canvassing to get people registered to vote.

But there were always battles left to be fought.

Joe's death 48 years ago was caused by the injuries he sustained at war, yet she had never received any benefits as a widow from Veteran Affairs. It was only last year that Pauline was summoned for hearing for the first time and the judge told her there was no record of Joe ever being treated at the veteran's hospital in Dallas. It turns out that they were likely lost in a fire in 1973. Jodi said that she's going to continue that fight, as her mother would have wanted.

Pauline supported the #MeToo movement as well. Jodi said her mother was a feminist long before there was ever such a word.

From left: Pauline, Jodi, Suzanne, Diane and Jacqueline pose for a photo. Courtesy Jodi Valenciano Perry

"I told Mom that I posted about #MeToo on Facebook," Jodi said laughing. "She said, 'I'm #MeToo also, but all those men are dead now.'"

Garcia Lopez recalled Pauline's glowing presence even at 2 a.m. at City Hall after the City Council voted against joining a lawsuit against Senate Bill 4, known as "sanctuary cities" law. Pauline was sitting in the city council chambers wearing red in support of United Fort Worth and other activists who pleaded with the city to join the lawsuit and support the city's immigrant population.

"She was so energized by the young people and telling them to register to vote, to not give up," Garcia Lopez said. "When she passed away, it was really hard to grasp that she was gone. Did our youth really know that they were next to an icon? Did they know that she was a trailblazer?"

Jodi said that no one had asked her what Pauline was like as a mom since she died. She touched the lives of so many that Jodi said she found herself consoling other people after her death.

"We were lucky to be her daughters," Jodi said. "And she always said she was lucky to be our mother."