Photo courtesy of the South Texas History Museum

Op-Ed: The Pharr Riot and the Need for Mexican-American Studies

Words by Thomas Ray Garcia

Edited by Abigail Vela

I learned what it meant to be from the Rio Grande Valley by leaving for college. On the East Coast, I felt out of place: My cultural background alienated me from my white peers, while my white skin marked me as “not Latino enough” to fellow Latinos. Over several years, I embraced my in-between identity, fronterizo, that combined my regional pride of being from the Texas-Mexico border with my cultural roots as a Mexican-American from South Texas.

 

At age 21, I realized my cultural roots were shallow. Beyond indulging in Tex-Mex music, food, and traditions, I did not know what made the Valley so different from Laredo or El Paso. Like many Valley students, I had taken Texas History, World Geography, World History, and U.S. History. Names like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were but bullet points on a long list of civil rights leaders. I wasn’t taught the formative events of the Chicano Movement, much less of our region. 

 

My Valley history consisted of memories passed down to me by my grandparents and my mother, and nostalgia often obscured their harsh realities of experiencing racial discrimination at local establishments and remaining on the “right side” of the Business 83 railroad tracks after dark.

 

I did not know Valley history until I felt the need to discover my fronterizo identity. Far from home, I strove to know my home so I could know myself.

 

The summer before my final year in college, I decided to investigate the origins of “Rest in Power ALF” painted onto a dilapidated bench outside the Ramos Hair Styling Center in Pharr. Soon, I learned that I had lived nearly my entire life several blocks away from the site of the 1971 Pharr Riot, the murder of Alfonso Loredo Flores, and the turning point in Pharr’s civil rights.

The Ramos Hair Styling Center on Cage Blvd. and Bell Ave. in Pharr, circa 2018.

From the Pharr Riot, I learned about the Edcouch-Elsa student walkouts through video interviews. I read about the 1960s farmworker strikes and the March to Austin. I researched archived newspaper articles tracking the major civil rights developments in each city, including McAllen electing its first Mexican-American mayor in 1997.

By the time I returned to Princeton University, I had become critically conscious of the racial, socioeconomic, and gender struggles that have made the Valley what it is today. Finally, I could confidently say I knew where I came from.

But my experience should not be the norm. My coming into critical consciousness is a case study of why Mexican-American Studies is much needed in our K-12 schools. I should not have become a fronterizo by leaving the border. I should not have taught myself Valley history while sitting in a Princeton dorm or filled myself with cultural knowledge from a place of lack.

The Pharr Riot Historical Marker

On February 6th, 2017, I delivered a public comment to the Pharr City Commission to erect a plaque recognizing the Pharr Riot, which happened 46 years to date. At the time a high school teacher, I wanted my students to know where they came from. Preparing for the real world meant academic enrichment and cultural awareness. I believed students should carry the borderlands with them no matter where they went to college, worked, or enlisted.

Not much happened afterward. Taking matters into my own hands, I applied for a historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission.


This decision initiated a 4-year journey plagued by bureaucratic dysfunction. Although the Texas Historical Commission approved the marker in 2018, several obstacles delayed its installation. I was told that the local historical commission would pay for the marker. Instead, I was forced to request a payment extension from the state and fundraise for it myself. At the time, I was unaware of
the “undertold” historical marker application process, which would have been free.

 

Next, the marker text initially left out the fact Alfonso Flores was shot and killed by a police officer. Months of arguing over phone calls and emails finally led to the text’s revision. But, then, the COVID-19 pandemic brought production and shipping delays.

 

When the historical marker was delivered and installed outside the Ramos Hair Styling Center in late January 2021, the 50th anniversary of the event lay only weeks away. The city hosted an impromptu unveiling ceremony, but I was not initially placed on the agenda until the Ramos family granted me speaking time.

 

With the Ramos family after the Pharr Riot historical marker unveiling ceremony. Stanley Ramos Jr., son of the original owner of the Ramos Hair Styling Center, stands on the far left.

State Board of Education and Our Schools

When I ran for the State Board of Education, a little-known entity that determines our statewide curriculum for K-12 public schools, I campaigned heavily on ethnic studies. I advocated transforming ethnic studies into a social studies credit rather than an elective. I promoted expanding Mexican-American Studies curricula into middle schools. I shared stories of how everyone, not just minority students, would benefit from learning comprehensive history.

The struggle continues. With critical race theory at the forefront of national debates on K-12 education, I have witnessed how difficult it has become to discuss racial topics in our classrooms. The Pharr Riot – the product of racial tension and discrimination spanning decades – would be likely labeled critical race theory (CRT) by opportunist politicians who seek to instill fear in our communities rather than teach harsh truths.

But not all hope is lost. Soon after my campaign ended, I was contacted by high school students from my alma mater, PSJA North, who wanted to learn more about the Pharr Riot and the historical marker.

After a series of interviews and archival research, Tatiana and Amaya Alvarez produced a short documentary on the Pharr Riot and submitted it to the UIL State Film Festival. They are motivated by a deep desire to fill in the gaps in our K-12 education system. They want their peers to know where they come from.”

The opportunity to share my experiences coming into critical consciousness with PSJA students was a full circle moment.

The system may be broken, but the kids are alright.

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