Visionary Activists & Civic Leaders

HerStory: Women's History Month 2023
Adela Sloss-Vento

Photograph of young Adela Sloss Vento. Learn more: Orozco, Cynthia E., "Adela Sloss-Vento: Civil Rights Activist, Public Intellectual & Feminist (PowerPoint)"Fall Workshop November 2020.

Adela Sloss-Vento

Adela Sloss-Vento (1901–1998) was a writer and activist. She graduated from PSJA High School in 1927 and worked as a clerk for the mayor of San Juan. Her work to fight corruption in city government led to her research of civic discrimination cases and early membership in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). She wrote letters and articles advocating for bilingual access and equal rights for Mexican-Americans.

Sloss-Vento and her husband raised a family in Edinburg, where the couple worked at the Hidalgo County jail--her husband a guard and she a prison matron. She retired in Yet, she remained committed to the Chicano movement throughout her career and lifetime. In 1968, she was honored with LULAC Founder’s Pioneer Award. In 1977, she published a biography, Alonso S. Perales: His Struggle for the Rights of Mexican Americans (1977)

Aurora Orozco speaking at a Diez y Seis celebration in Cuero, TX, c. 1978.

Photograph of Aurora Orozco speaking at a Diez y Seis celebration in Cuero, TX, c. 1978. Learn more: Orozco, Cynthia E., "Aurora E. Orozco: Mexican Immigrant in Mercedes, Texas/Community Leader and Educator in Cuero, Texas (PowerPoint)". Fall Workshop November 2020.

Aurora Estrada Orozco

Aurora Estrada Orozco (1918–2011) was born in Cerralvo, NL, México. In 1924, her family relocated to Mercedes, and she graduated from Mercedes High School in 1937. From a young age, Ms. Estrada was discouraged from speaking Spanish and labored with her family picking cotton. As a young woman, she worked in packing sheds and retail stores while taking extension courses from UT-Austin (1947–1949).

After her marriage in 1951, she and her husband eventually settled in Cuero, Texas to raise their family. She continued working in shops and store, where she routinely experienced discrimination as an Afro-Latina, for speaking Spanish and assisting people of color.

Motivated by the Chicano movement of the 1970s, she became active in Texans for the Educational Advancement of Mexican Americans (TEAM), LULAC, Raza Unida, and Familias Unidas. Orozco served on local political campaigns, including her own run for the local school board (1973), She advocated for bilingualism, voting rights, education, and raised funds for her parish and community.

Her legacy lives on in the accomplishments of her children and her published and unpublished literary works, including "Mexican Blood Runs Through My Veins," in Speaking Chicana, Voice, Power, and Identity (1999).

Portrait of Blanca Vela

Photograph of Blanca Vela.

Blanca Vela

The first woman mayor of Brownsville, Blanca (Sanchez) Vela (1936–2014) was born and raised in Harlingen, TX. She attended Texas Southmost College and holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Pan American University. Throughout her life, Vela championed education and literacy, advanced opportunities for women, and advocated for children and the underserved.

She married Filemon Vela, Sr. in 1962 and campaigned for his election as state representative the following year. While Filemon, later became a U.S. federal judge. Blanca became an activist for Mexican-Americans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and co-founded the Democratic Women's Club.

She served as the first woman on the Brownsville National Bank Board of Directors and the first woman and Chairwoman to serve on the Brownsville Public Utilities Board. Her service also included membership in the Texas Public Power Association, the American Public Power Association, and the Brownsville Public Library Foundation, which she co-founded with Betty Dodd and resulted in the opening of two public libraries.

Betty Murray

Betty (Nosler) Murray (1917–2015) was born Indiana, but she was raised in San Benito. She graduated at 16 from San Benito High School (1933) and attended Brownsville Junior College. Murray earned her bachelors degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin in 1937. The following year, she married Harlingen attorney Menton Murray, Sr., who went on to serve as a judge and legislator.

After raising her family, Murray resumed her career at the San Benito Junior High School in 1956, teaching Texas history until 1968. She also co-founded Lower Rio Grande Valley Historical Association to ensure public education and preservation of local history and was instrumental in the organization's work to establish the Harlingen Arts & Heritage Museum. She was appointed to the Cameron County Historical Commission and Texas Historical Commission.

She led a life of service beyond her work as a teacher and historian, volunteering and fundraising for Harlingen Junior Service League, Valley Baptist Medical Center and Rio Grande State Center.

Undated photograph of Daria Vera

Photograph of Daria Vera. Image found on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Daria Vera

Daria Vera (1946–2020) participated in the iconic Melon Strike of 1966, which led to the "La Marcha" from Rio Grande City to Austin (July–September 1966). She and others organized and joined forces with the United Farmworkers of America to draw attention to the deplorable working conditions and meager pay of farm workers from California to Texas.

Vera began working in the fields at age 8 where she did not have access to drinking water or restrooms. At age 20, Vera and over 400 farm workers in Rio Grande City went on strike at La Casita Farms to protest inhumane working conditions and unfair wages.

Vera was arrested in October 1966 after she and 14 others laid down on the international bridge in Roma to block Mexican migrant workers from crossing and breaking a strike.

Gladys Porter and chimpanzee.

Gladys Porter and friend. Image found on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Gladys Porter

Gladys (Sams) Porter (1910–1980) was daughter of Earl C. Sams, the first president of the J.C. Penney retail stores. She and her sister Camille Lightner administered Earl C. Sams Foundation which provided funding to the City of Brownsville for the Gladys Porter Zoo to open in 1971.

During her travels in Africa, Porter became interested in the conservation of world wildlife. Her love for animals manifested itself in the creation, building, and daily operation of the zoo. Porter also served as the first president for the Valley Zoological Society for 11 years.

Gladys Porter was also a founding member of the Brownsville Junior Service League (1939), which remains active today.

Portrait of Camille (Sams) Lightner.

Portrait of Camille Lightner. Image courtesy of Camille Playhouse and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Camille Lightner

Camille (Sams) Lightner (1913-1962), daughter of Earl C. Sams and sister of Gladys Porterboth, was active in charitable work.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, she grew up in New Rochelle, New York and graduated from Connecticut College for Women (1934). Camille came to the Rio Grande Valley for a family visit in 1933, where she met her future husband Larry Lightner.

Theatre was among Camille's many great loves. She was a regular performer with the annual Junior Service League  Follies, and had a great voice for the stage. The Camille Playhouse in Brownsville, Texas is named for her.

Welcome to HerStory: Women's History 2023
Visionary Activists & Civic Leaders