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Remembering Florida farm worker leader Valentin Barajas

It was with regret that the farm worker movement learned of the passing of Valentin Barajas on Aug. 12. Inspired by the United Farm Workers, Valentin was part of the initial team of Florida citrus pickers active in the union’s first historic contract covering Coca Cola Co.’s Minute Maid citrus groves.

“The UFW contract leveled the playing field for all workers at the company,” recalls then-union staff representative Kenny Snodgrass, who worked closely with Valentin. “It set up a seniority system that eliminated favoritism and stopped preferential treatment in hiring.” Coca Cola workers were dispatched to jobs through the union hiring halls that Valentin helped run.

Kenny Snodgrass recalls, “My first assignment in Florida was working with Valentin in the Apopka, Florida UFW office near Orlando. “Valentin was a ‘straight arrow’; workers trusted him and he built the union by explaining the responsibilities of membership, including attending meetings, leading ranch committees and the role of union stewards in the fields.” Coca Cola Ranch Committee President Tirso Moreno recalls, “I became really involved in the union because of Valentin.”

During the first a year after Valentin began working at Coca Cola in 1971, he, his sister Carmen and his brother Hilario helped convince other workers they needed UFW representation. Cesar Chavez negotiated the first breakthrough contract with Coca Cola in 1972, after UFW organizer Manuel Chavez led a campaign that collected union authorization cards among the company’s Florida workers.

Valentin joined the UFW staff in 1974, in time for a tough battle to renew the union agreement, and played a key part in that fight.

As part of the first contract, the company contributed money for each hour worked into the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan. During the push for the second contract in 1975, the UFW fought for an improved the pact that included employer contributions to the Juan De La Cruz Pension Plan. There are still 320 retired union members from Coca Cola in Florida receiving union pensions, according to the pension plan.

Valentin’s experiences in farm labor began at age 14, when he and his brother Hilario started working the fields of Texas. The family of Hilario’s future wife, Maria, admired the work ethic and integrity of the two young brothers. With permission from Valentin’s parents, the brothers traveled to Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. Valentin eventually came to work in Florida.

Valentin worked four years as an active union member and six years as a UFW staff representative. Whenever Cesar Chavez travelled to Florida, Valentin was put in charge of organizing Cesar’s volunteer security detail.

“It was largely through the hard work and sacrifices of farm worker leaders and union staff such as Valentin that the United Farm Workers’ historic union contract with Coca Cola Company protected citrus pickers for 21 years,” UFW President Emeritus Arturo S. Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul F. Chavez said in a joint statement upon Valentin’s passing. “All of those who love justice will cherish Valintin’s memory.”

Valentin made a complete change of career in 1980, enrolling in and completing two years of automobile mechanic training at the Texas State Technical School in Harlingen. After graduation he worked 15 years for Murray Brothers based in Brownsville Texas.

He returned to Auburndale, Florida where Valentine volunteered with various Polk County organizations. He was an active Knights of Columbus member and participated in fundraising for wheelchairs. He drove people to doctors’ appointments. For seven years he donated the paycheck he received as a deputy voter registrar to the Young American Dreamers immigrant organization, for which he was an advisor. He drove his Ford van to Washington, D.C. for the second Obama Inauguration in 2013, as a part of an effort to keep immigration reform on the political agenda.

Valentine was born on Feb. 14, 1949 in Rio Honda, Texas and was later baptized at St. Benedict Catholic Church in San Benito, Texas.

Valentin is survived by his wife Margarita; five children—Hilario Valentin, Marcelino, Beatriz Margarita, Elizabeth and Margarita Christina; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial event is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 18, at Centro Guadalupano Catholic Church at 2150 Bomber Rd., Winter Haven, Florida 33880.