By Alexa Ura
Just off the historic West Side, where many of this city’s Mexican American civil rights fights were waged, the old Texans walked past unknowing college students and filed into the Durango Building.
They were once deemed radicals on the front lines of the fight for Chicano rights in Texas. On this cloudy Thursday so many decades later, the visitors of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus were mostly septuagenarians. They arrived from South and Central Texas or made the trek from other parts of the country to revisit a brief but significant chapter of Texas history when legions of Latinos and Latinas banded together in pursuit of political empowerment.
Out of the fight against institutionalized racism and injustices came La Raza Unida Party, a regional political apparatus that for a few years grew large enough to offer Texans a third political party. The party won local elections, made political organizers out of marginalized Texans and brought scores of new voters into the electoral fold.
Now, reconvening decades later for the party’s 50-year reunion — and possibly for the last time — organization veterans were in search of inheritors.
Assembled at round white tables in the sort of conference center typical on college campuses, more than 100 attendees listened intently as party veterans weaved their life experiences into lore, trying to pass on a story that’s been easily forgotten. From the past, they hope, springs the future for the next generations of community organizers and activists aspiring for a better and more equal Texas.
At the reunion’s opening, Mario Compean, one of the party’s founders, told attendees he hoped younger generations would listen to their stories to better “understand how we did it, and why we did it.” Perhaps they would even feel compelled to “pick up the torch,” he said.
“In our view, for as much work as we did — and we have half a century doing that work — we see it as an unfinished product,” Compean said. “An unfinished product that others have to complete.”
In the 1960s, Black and Latino people walked a tightrope between oppression and possibility.
Some were coming of age after a lifetime in segregated schools. The social mobility education could offer was mired in everyday inequities. In Texas, racist teachers regularly insulted Mexican American students relegated to rundown schools that often lacked air conditioning. Students were shunned, or even abused, for speaking Spanish. Too many did not graduate high school. Too few made it to college, and the cycles repeated year after year.
Politically, Latino Texans battled for even a sliver of power. It hadn’t been that long since Mexican Americans attempting to vote faced violence and brutality often carried out by the Texas Rangers or were shut out by “white primaries.” Hispanic veterans returning from the Vietnam War found the state’s white power structure marginalizing them by instituting poll taxes and banning interpreters who could help Spanish-speaking or illiterate voters cast ballots.
Some Mexican Americans were from families that had been in Texas longer than it had been a state; others were the children of migrant farmworkers eager to form part of their communities. All were consigned to second-class citizenship.
“You get to the point where you get fed up and say ‘no más,’” said José Angel Gutiérrez, who recalled being relegated to the back of the bus on his way to community college in Uvalde.
As the civil rights movement swept the country, what was born in Texas — out of the Chicano movement — was La Raza Unida. Its mobilization began in 1967 through the Mexican American Youth Organization, founded by a group of five young Chicanos that included Compean, Gutiérrez and Willie C. Velásquez, who were students at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio’s West Side. Tired of feeling helpless, its founders, and eventually its supporters, rallied around the call of liberation from the social and political systems that for decades had kept them down.
The group’s early efforts focused on organizing school walkouts throughout South Texas. In May 1968, an estimated 400 students marched out of class at Edgewood High School in protest of the discrimination in the classroom and the decrepit environment in which they were expected to learn.
The movement reached down to the Rio Grande Valley, where nearly 200 students walked out of Edcouch-Elsa High School — many later facing suspension or even expulsion — and as far as Kingsville. In Crystal City, an initial walkout by high school students grew day by day, expanding into the middle and elementary schools so that the number of boycotting students reached 2,000. Estimates for the number of MAYO-backed walkouts range from as few as 17 to as many as 39.
Some walkouts were more successful than others in eliciting concessions from school officials wary of losing state funding when students weren’t in classrooms. But the victories were tenuous. When students returned to classrooms, organizers lost their leverage; the elected school boards remained.
So La Raza Unida turned its attention to elections, zeroing in on the rural stretch of South Texas counties that make up the winter garden region where they hoped to rally migrant workers and other Mexican Americans behind Latino candidates.
“It was an experiment to see if we could drum up support and political change,” said Luz Bazán Gutiérrez, who as a teacher had seen the unequal tracks on which poor Mexican American students and white students were often placed. She moved with her then-husband José Angel to his hometown of Crystal City.
By 1969, the Gutiérrezes and other party founders were working on local contests, recruiting school board and city council candidates. They tapped into the energy surrounding recent school walkouts, including the one in Crystal City, and established an informal party platform. They made registered voters of the frustrated parents who wanted better futures for their children. And they began filing applications to form county parties, dropping the “La” in their name to meet the Texas election code’s three-word limit — Raza Unida Party became official.
“It was women and families that brought the agenda into the party,” said Martha Cotera, a librarian by trade who moved to Crystal City with her husband so they could moonlight as organizers. “The issues of the platform and the values are all reflective of the needs of a multigenerational group of people because if you bring the whole family in, you’re going to bring in several generations.”
Though they were nonpartisan contests, party-backed candidates quickly found support in local elections across the winter garden area, picking up seats on school boards, city councils and even a mayorship.
In some communities, the wins ushered in not just long-sought reforms but transformative ones. In Crystal City, where a José Angel Gutiérrez-led ticket helped Mexican Americans reach a majority on the school board, a bilingual and bicultural curriculum was implemented, cafeteria food was updated and Mexican American school staff were hired, many replacing white educators who had quit in protest.
By the start of the 1970 school year, nearly 40% of Crystal City teachers were Mexican Americans — an increase of almost 100%, according to the book “United We Win: The Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida Party,” which chronicles the party’s history. Faced with alarmingly high dropout rates, they tapped into federal funding the previous board had been less willing to accept or seek.
“The changes we could make in the school — from the menu to music to curriculum to personnel — showed what people could do,” José Angel Gutiérrez said.
At the city level, where the party had also won enough seats to form a majority with an incumbent, they hired party supporters who began seeking renewal and development funds to help pave streets, lay down sidewalks and fortify emergency services in long-neglected neighborhoods.
Now that they could demonstrate to voters the power of their voices, they set their sights on the November 1970 county elections, targeting Dimmit, La Salle, Zavala and Hidalgo counties.
Democratic county officials maneuvered to try to keep Raza Unida candidates off the ballots, and issues arose with the ballot petitions the nascent party submitted. Left off the ballot in three of the four targeted counties, organizers decided to run write-in campaigns for some candidates.
“If you don’t know your history, you don’t know what’s rightfully your place. La lucha sigue.”
Angie Villescaz, Fierce Madres
Doing so forced them to confront the far reach of the state’s discrimination. Illiteracy rates were high among the area’s Mexican Americans who had not been afforded an education, and some local officials vowed to continue barring interpreters at the polls even though federal courts said they must be allowed.
In Crystal City, organizers gathered with voters in parks to walk them through the process of casting ballots. In English and Spanish, they helped voters inspect sample ballots so they could learn to measure the spaces between entries and know where candidates’ names should be written. Then, they helped them memorize how to write out the names.
When voters arrived at the polls, they faced intimidation, illegal literacy tests and ballots intentionally printed with races in a different order. Some ballots were tossed based on misspellings even though state law allowed election workers to use their best judgment to accept a voter’s intentions.
Just one of the party’s 16 candidates won. Still, they amassed on average nearly 40% of the vote, according to the retelling in “United We Win.”
“The people that were involved started seeing the changes that could take place,” said Luz Bazán Gutiérrez. “It’s all about economics, and people could see the difference we were making as a political party. Of course they’re going to jump on board. Who doesn’t want sewer service or water in their neighborhood? Who doesn’t want opportunities for their children?”
Seeking to avoid county-by-county certification issues — and thinking ahead to the 1972 presidential elections when increased turnout would raise the threshold of signatures needed to get on the ballot — party organizers decided to go statewide.
In search of democracy
Despite the progress enumerated in landmark legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the turn of the decade and the one-party rule of a southern Democratic party had left Mexican Americans like Rosie Castro feeling dejected by mainstream politics.
A native of San Antonio’s West Side, Castro had seen up close the bruises unmitigated poverty, police brutality and racism left on her community, wounds aggravated by the unwillingness of elected officials to help.
Castro unsuccessfully ran for San Antonio City Council in 1971 as part of a slate of Chicano candidates but could not overcome the city’s at-large election system that required them to pick up support from white voters who tended to vote in a bloc against the candidates favored by Mexican Americans.
Even in a city where Latinos dominated in numbers, they were unable to translate size into power. The Democratic agenda, Castro said, offered little hope of countering the discrimination she and other Mexican Americans faced.
“All of those things convinced us that there was no way anybody was going to do it for us,” said Castro, who went on to serve as Bexar County chair for the Raza Unida Party ahead of the 1972 election. “You really had to be about self-determination, about creating structures that would help our people.”
The prospect of a third party began to catch on as Raza Unida collected the more than 20,000 signatures required to be certified for the 1972 ballot.
The party fielded candidates for governor and other statewide offices as well as for the statehouse and various county offices. It adopted a liberal platform emphasizing bilingual education, workers’ rights and women’s rights.
Though they had toned down their rhetoric from the early days, Raza Unida activists had been dubbed radicals by political leaders and media outlets. Party veterans acknowledge they were testing the status quo but not because they considered the democratic system illegitimate. They were challenging institutions because they were not allowed a piece of them.
“It was radical only because we were demanding it suddenly very openly and very vocally,” said Henry Flores, a retired law professor at St. Mary’s University who worked behind the scenes as a data cruncher for the party. “It was a term used by society in general to try to denigrate us, to make us look so extreme that people would turn their backs on us or be afraid of us.”
As votes were tallied in November 1972, it seemed the party’s expectations had been fueled more by hope than electoral reality. It failed to win over mainstream Mexican Americans and liberal factions of the Democratic Party.
Raza Unida’s candidate for governor, Ramsey Muñiz won just 6% of the vote. Rancher and businessman Dolph Briscoe, a Democrat who hailed from Uvalde, went on to become the 41st governor of the state.
Despite the rout, some party activists did not walk away from the election feeling entirely defeated.
Texas politics had been recently rocked by a stock fraud scheme, known as the Sharpstown scandal, that reached the highest level of state government. Still, Raza Unida’s share of the vote — more than 200,000 votes — ensured Briscoe’s election marked the first time in the 20th century that a Texas governor was elected with less than a majority.
“The people … have experienced true democracy for the first time, a democracy they never experienced under the Republican or Democratic party,” Muñiz was quoted as saying at the time, according to the “United We Win” book.
The party had also managed to consolidate some of its gains in the winter garden region, putting at least two counties under its control.
Though Raza Unida tried again in the next election, the party’s paltry performance in 1972 — along with Muñiz’s later conviction on a federal drug charge — dimmed its prospects in future statewide elections. Raza Unida’s success in local nonpartisan races continued for several more years though. Party-backed candidates helped secure broader political dominance in various South Texas communities, and they made gains beyond the winter garden region, with victories in the Rio Grande Valley, Lockhart and as far north as Kyle.
Though its electoral run was short-lived, the party served as a bridge to opportunity for many Mexican Americans.
While in control of local governments, its members helped bring affordable child care and health clinics to rural communities, some of which remain open to this day. In a 1972 meeting with Mexican President Luis Echeverría Álvarez, they secured scholarships for Mexican Americans to study in Mexican universities.
Most of the scholarships were designated for medical students at a time when Mexican American communities were severely underserved. When these students returned as doctors, some spent their careers serving patients in places with large populations of Latinos like San Antonio. The program, which extended into the early 1980s, funded hundreds of scholarships, amounting to an estimated investment of more than $20 million.
In congressional testimony in 1970, a former federal official responsible for ensuring Texas school districts were complying with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 said the Crystal City walkout led to reviews of six school districts for alleged discrimination against Mexican Americans. In at least two cases, the reviews resulted in successful negotiations to desegregate schools.
The spirit of the party also extends into education and the arts. Party activists went on to have long careers as teachers, professors and writers. Often shortchanged by their own educations, they helped bring Mexican American history courses to college campuses so their stories would not be lost.
Some party veterans measure its accomplishments by the untold number of new voters who joined the electoral process and continued participating in elections. The reunion attendees included once-student organizers who, 50 years later, were still coordinating local get-out-the-vote campaigns. Others cite the room they made for future leaders, especially Latinas who made up a significant portion of party candidates.
Back in those days when even a city council seat was out of reach, Castro said she “could’ve never envisioned” her sons would reach the positions they’ve held. Joaquin Castro is serving his 5th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, running again this year for reelection. His twin brother Julián Castro was elected mayor of San Antonio three times before serving as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration.
Some took the grassroots organizing skills they learned in Raza Unida into new communities, helping run campaigns for more progressive candidates in local and state elections.
Mostly, some of the party veterans say, they showed Texas Latinos what was possible when traditional power structures were reinterpreted to serve them.
“It was the awakening of the pueblo, of the community,” said Rosie Castro. “That if you did vote, if you did that, you might get a different outcome. [It was] a belief in people being able to make a difference.”
The struggle continues
Sitting in graduate classes at the University of Texas at Austin in 2010, Brenda Sendejo did not initially realize that Raza Unida’s legacy was stretching across four decades to tap her on the shoulder.
Sendejo had begun to recognize a shared element in this generation of women who questioned structures of power. But it didn’t come into sharp focus until she met the women of La Raza Unida through a course on Mexican Americans in Texas politics.
As it turned out, Cotera, the founding member of La Raza Unida, had helped develop it.
Sendejo swapped the topic of her dissertation in anthropology to study the women of Raza Unida’s activism and the spiritual changes it evoked in them, even though their contributions were often erased from contemporary accounts. After she joined the faculty of Southwestern University after graduation in 2010, Sendejo pulled La Raza Unida’s legacy that much farther into the lives of her students, launching a Chicana oral history project through which students interviewed the women themselves.
Sendejo saw in her students what she had received from the women of La Raza Unida — a sense of belonging in a larger history that many students did not know existed.
“I think what they’re doing in so many different realms is to help us see ourselves,” Sendejo said. They are helping to show “students of this lineage that you’re part of something larger than you’ve been told. You have a longer legacy.”
The party’s 50-year reunion came at a precarious time for Texas Latinos.
The state is home to an ever-growing population of Latinos that may have already surpassed white Texans to make up the largest share of the state’s residents. Their numbers are steadily swelling, including in parts of Texas like suburban communities where they were once barely present.
But many Latinos still haven’t experienced the economic and political progress commensurate with their growing presence.
In Texas, Latinos are disproportionately poor. They are more than twice as likely as white Texans to live below the poverty level and nearly three times as likely to lack health insurance. In the first year of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, they were the most likely to lose loved ones — many of whom did not have the option to work from home.
Occupying a majority of desks in Texas public schools, Latino children remain more likely to read below their grade level. Most are considered at risk of dropping out. They fill classrooms in which predominantly white lawmakers continue to regulate how racism and history can be taught. Despite the generations that separate them from Raza Unida activists, Latino students today graduate from high school on time at lower rates than their white peers. They are also less likely to graduate college-ready compared to white students.
As they look to enter a workforce that increasingly requires some form of education after high school, fewer than 1 in 5 adult Latinos have a bachelor’s degree.
Latinos also continue to be underrepresented in the state’s halls of power, which are predominantly filled by white men. Their decadeslong struggle for a larger say in their government has repeatedly run into political gerrymandering through which state lawmakers have discriminated against them, manipulating district lines in ways that diminish their electoral power.
Those disparities are the result of a constant “restructuring” by those in power when marginalized people, including Latinos, make headway against institutional barriers, said Flores, the St. Mary’s law professor who spent decades studying racial discrimination against Latinos. (He is also serving as an expert witness against the state in the ongoing voting rights litigation over Texas’ latest round of redistricting.)
Their persistence is also why Raza Unida veterans are searching for new activists to hand over the causes they attempted to champion. They’re hoping their reunion inspires younger Latinos to act, to be emboldened.
That might include working on new issues facing Latinos, Flores said, but the most obvious — sustaining and growing Latinos’ political power — must be continually tended.
“Nobody wants us to vote because to allow us to vote means some people have to give up power and they don’t want to give up power,” Flores said. “But for us, there’s a great deal to gain.”
Among the attendees at Raza Unida’s 50-year reunion were roughly 20 members of the Uvalde community. Many had turned to activism in tragedy following the May school shooting that shattered the small South Texas city as it buried the 19 children and two teachers killed in the rampage. But some were also steeped in the ideas party veterans were looking to hand over.
For Angie Villescaz, the legacy came from her parents who had fought alongside Raza Unida. Her father had worked as a teacher in Crystal City in the 1970s when the movement was first taking hold.
“It’s in my blood,” she said. “I was raised that way. I’ve always been a natural-born activist because of this movement. The conversations at our dinner table were all about the beginning of the movement.”
Like many Latinos who grew up in Uvalde, Villescaz attended Robb Elementary as a child, but she was living in the Austin area where she worked with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking. As grief turned to rage in the weeks following the school shooting, she rearranged her life to advocate for her hometown, forming one of the various new advocacy groups, Fierce Madres.
Driven by Latina mothers in Uvalde, the group has spent the summer showing up to City Council and school board meetings to demand accountability for the slow police response to the shooting, but they plan to stay in the fight for gun control reform.
At the reunion, Villescaz said she was hoping to learn as much as possible from the organizing successes of Raza Unida, placing her work as a continuation of theirs. So the mantle passes.
“If you don’t know your history, you don’t know what’s rightfully your place,” Villescaz said.
“La lucha sigue.”
Alexa Ura is a reporter at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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