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Valley of Tears Reviews

This sobering documentary by Barbara Koppel's cameraman Hart Perry begins as a fairly straightforward look at a farm-workers strike that once divided a small South Texas town, but ends as a profound investigation of how racism and a long legacy of unfair labor practices turned a thriving farm community into a virtual ghost town. Since its founding, Raymondville, Texas, was always dependent on two things: onions and the predominantly Mexican-American migrant laborer force required to harvest them by hand. But in April, 1979, a crisis shattered the ordinarily stable relations between onion growers and their hired pickers: Laborers for Charles Wetegrove & Co. realized their bosses were breaking the law by refusing to pay them minimum wage. The onions were smaller than usual that year, and it took each worker longer to fill his or her onion sacks, but when pressed, Wetegrove refused to increase the 25-cent-per-sack salary workers had received since the 1960s, and the result was a spontaneous work stoppage. Outside support for the strikers came quickly as representatives of the Texas Farm Workers Union raced to Raymondville, helping to organize the workers and angering growers who deeply resented interference from "outside agitators." When the town tried to bring in scabs, the strikers, joined by many of the strikebreakers themselves, marched through town in a startling show of strength. The strike was eventually broken in a desperate move by Wetegrove, but it was really only the beginning. Having finally tested their political strength, Raymondville's newly empowered Mexican-American community attempted to reform first the overwhelmingly white school board, then the town's municipal government itself, only to find that bitter rift that had been exposed during the strike ran deeper than anyone thought. Supplementing the memories of town residents (many of whose families had lived and worked in the area for generations) with extraordinary historical photographs, Perry explores Raymondville's brutal past before returning to chart the years of decline that followed the strike, years that saw the slow death of both the onion industry and the town itself. It's a story filled with small triumphs, major setbacks and devastating personal tragedies, remarkably well told. Perry, who once worked for the Texas Farm Workers Union, was in Raymondville that fateful spring in 1979, so in addition to archival material, his own excellent footage shows the strike itself. Perry's careful juxtaposition of images showing the town's sad present with footage of what it's long ceased to be is positively haunting.