EDINBURG – When Adelita Munoz joined the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in 1971, President Barack Obama was only 10 years old, Roger Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys dominated the National Football League and the infamous Watergate burglary was still a year away.
After agonizing over the idea for months, Munoz said she retired effective June 1, her 43rd anniversary with AgriLife Extension. During her long career, she served in a nutrition program for youth, then as a family and consumer sciences agent in South Texas.
“Back in October, I started thinking that maybe it was time to retire,” she said. “I wanted to spend more time with my family and help my church more.”
Munoz recalls that one of the first of hundreds of forays into low-income neighborhoods to spread practical research-based family information came days after she’d taken the job.
“Back then they were unheard of, but there had been a drive-by shooting in what was considered a very dangerous neighborhood,” she said. “It was a shocking event that was all over the news, and I decided AgriLife Extension should have a presence in that neighborhood. People told me I was crazy to go in there, but I responded that that’s exactly where we should be, that’s where we were needed most.”
Munoz invited a neighbor, a Border Patrol agent who was handling the first drug-sniffing dog in South Texas, to help her reach out to the kids of the neighborhood.
“We held a meeting in a Catholic church and the kids were fascinated that the dog was able to sniff out drugs the officer had hidden behind the altar,” she said. “We spent a lot of time in that neighborhood. We started a summer camp and steered a lot of kids away from gangs.”
Some became junior volunteers in her program and eventually went on to college.
“It’s not always easy, and sometimes you have to fight to get in, but AgriLife Extension can do so much good in an area just with our presence there.”
Munoz admits that over the years many have probably called her “metiche,” a slang word in Spanish for a busybody, someone who sticks their nose in another’s business.
But in her case, she’s called metiche for all the right reasons, she said. She’s lost count of the times she’s stepped in to help women escape abusive husbands, or children escape the annual family migrant farmworker trips so they could attend college instead.
“It’s scary facing the husbands and fathers in these situations,” Munoz said. “But sometimes it takes going beyond the job description to help people.”
After hearing her speak on family values, countless parents have asked Munoz to step in and help motivate their kids. And sometimes, those same parents report the results.
“I had one woman come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Adelita. I’m mad at you because I asked you to help motivate my son in school and now he’s going far away to attend college.’”
When Munoz asked which college, the mother didn’t quite know how to pronounce the name.
“She told me in Spanish, ‘It’s called YAH-leh, or something like that.’ It was Yale! Her son had been accepted to Yale! Another told me a similar story, only her daughter had been accepted to a college ‘named after a color,’ the mother told me. Brown. Brown University, an Ivy League school in Rhode Island!”
In the early 1970s, Munoz was teaching school in her native Alice, Texas, when she heard of an opening at AgriLife Extension in the Lower Rio Grande Valley to work on a new program, the Expanded Nutrition Program.She would offer instruction to youth on developing proper eating habits, meal planning, food preparation and safety, and health and fitness.
“It was only a six-month pilot program, but I liked the idea of helping people,” she said. “And, if it didn’t work out I figured I could always go back to teaching.”
As the pilot program drew to an end, she was encouraged to contact the area’s U.S. congressman, Kika de la Garza, to help extend it.
“That was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Congressman de la Garza, who could always be counted on to come up with the votes in Congress to continue the program,” she said. “To this day we are still dear friends.”
Her influence went far beyond da la Garza. Munoz is well known by many elected officials, community leaders and local business owners whom she frequently called on for help in sponsoring programs and defraying costs.
In an application for one of many awards she’s earned for her selfless dedication to the community, one person wrote, “Nobody can say no to Adelita.”
Munoz learned early on that the survival of worthwhile programs is impossible without community and legislative support.
“I also learned that inviting local, state and federal elected officials to program events is very important in keeping our many worthwhile programs funded and going,” Munoz added. “And the best way to explain to them the value of these programs is not to tell the elected officials myself, but to let the people who benefit from the programs tell them.”
Now known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, EFNEP, as it is commonly known, is still educating Texans statewide about proper nutrition.
For more than four decades, Munoz implemented and tailored many AgriLife Extension programs to fit the needs of mostly low-income South Texans, making lifelong friends among clients and community leaders along the way.
“The list of programs is so long,” she said. “There was Do Well, Be Well with Diabetes, a TV novella program we started to help people learn about diabetes, passenger safety, senior proms for the elderly where the women made their prom dresses and the men rented tuxedos. There were many, many health fairs where we partnered with AARP and other groups. We brought in Tejano musicians and county officials to see how we worked in nutrition information before the dance started.
“There were the Senior Summits, where we asked U.S. congressmen to come in and answer questions from senior citizens on Social Security benefits, pensions and issues important to them.”
As she recounts her long career, Munoz constantly comes back to the many low-income youth she mentored who went on to become highly educated community leaders: a young lady in a colonia who graduated from the Naval Academy, another who is now the director of mariachi music in San Antonio school districts, and the young man who went on to law school and became mayor of his hometown.
And then there are those who just turned their lives around under her guidance: former prisoners, alcoholics, drug addicts and dysfunctional parents who refocused on love, compassion and family values in her evening parenting classes.
“Sometimes, when I hear these success stories, I wonder what it was exactly that I said that turned them around,” she pondered. “I just thank the Lord that He put me in the right place and gave me the right words to help others. I thank my parents for instilling in me the value of hard work, serving the community and serving the Lord.”
Many people who are down and out, Munoz insists, just need validation.
“Some, especially ex-prisoners, tell me that they appreciate the fact that I call them by their names in our classes. They say that in prison they were just a number; but in my class, I remember their names.”
To teach others to value themselves, Munoz came up with a poignant demonstration. She holds up a $10 bill and asks what the value of that bill is. When they answer that it’s worth $10, she crumples up the bill, drops it to the floor and steps on it, inviting others to also step on it.
“After the bill is thoroughly smashed and dirty, I pick it back up, dust it off, spread it out again and ask what it’s worth now. They all say it’s still worth $10.”
That’s when she makes her point.
“I tell them that their lives are like the $10 bill. Regardless of what’s happened to them in their lives, the number of times they’ve been stepped on, or the amount of dirt that’s been thrown their way, they are still valuable, like the $10 bill.”
Munoz said she’s made millions during her 43-year career with AgriLife Extension.
“It’s not millions I can put in the bank, but in my heart,” she said.
Her last supervisor, Dr. Ruben Saldana, the AgriLife Extension director in Weslaco, said Munoz leaves a wake that will be felt for years.
“Adelita always served with passion, commitment and a genuine desire to help families and youth to improve their quality of life, whether through leadership development, nutrition education, parenting, childcare education, relationships or entrepreneurship,” he said. “She has genuinely made a difference in Hidalgo County, and the ripples of her impact will continue for many years.”
Munoz said her work was not a one-way street.
“It has been a blessing to empower so many people who open up their hearts and their homes for us to go in there and share research-based ideas with them,” she said. “I have been blessed with friends and relationships that always allowed me to do more.”
And finally, she shared advice with those who serve the public.
“Develop a love and passion for helping others because when you have the passion and love, you never tire; you can just go on and on.”
After some travel and vacation time with friends and family, Munoz plans to volunteer her time to her church and evening parenting classes.