A portrait of Community and Violence in South Texas, 1930-1975

Forging the Way: Political Movements and Civil Rights

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Forging the Way: Political Movements and Civil Rights

In 1929, the League of United Latin American Citizens was formed in the South Texas town of Corpus Christi. The formation of this civil rights organization prompted the formation of other civil rights organizations. The American GI Forum was founded in 1948, the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations in 1961, the Mexican American Political Association in 1960, the United Farm Workers Union founded in 1962 and highlighted by Cesar Chavez with the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 that also helped the South Texas Melon Strike and 1979 Onion Strike, the Mexican American Legal Defense Association in 1967, La Raza Unida in 1970 and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1974.46 These organizations focused in creating political unity in order to effect political change. According to LULAC ex-officer Lico Reyes, civil rights organizations served to open doors of justice for Hispanics:

There was a time when the Texas Rangers would go out in the country and they would find Mexicans that look like me and Rudy. And they would scalp them and take their scalp for bounty to their supervisors; now these are the Texas Rangers that we talk about and respect all the time. So I’m beginning to learn that it’s better to be with us (LULAC) than against us because we are a force to be reckoned with politically. But People like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King and Jose Angel Gutierrez; these people opened the doors for justice and interbreeding into the political system.47
In search for justice, Mexican Americans from WWI to the mid 1950’s came to understand that American legal procedures governed the system in which they lived and struggled to survive. The LULAC and G.I. Forum organizations turned to the courts and legislatures as their battleground to obtain equality and individual liberty for all Hispanics. A common tactic used was encouraging Hispanics towards Americaness instead of Mexicaness.48 Great numbers of Hispanics still cling to their cultural roots while adhering to the rules of American citizenship.
When Hispanic Veterans returned from WWII and continued to be classified as racially inferior and denied their constitutional rights, they were propelled into action. South Texas WWII veteran physician and military Captain Hector Garcia founded the G.I. Forum. The Forum was created to address Hispanic veteran grievances and later expanded to other civil rights issues. At the time of the Forum’s founding, Hispanics organizing civil rights groups such as LULAC were being targeted as communists, with un-American behavior, and dissention.49 The Forum was exempt due to an impeccable record of the highest honorable and patriotic service by its veteran membership.50 The Forum also advocated for citizenship rights and opposed migrant labor on the grounds that it was unfair competition for Mexican American citizens. They helped integrate public schools against segregation practices. The GI Forum also addressed civil rights issues and events on education, equal treatment under the law, voter registration drives, publicity, and test cases in court and also functioned as a political pressure group.51 Ramos delineates the Forums aims and objectives that began with Hispanic veteran advocacy to advocating for Hispanics within the community at large on diverse issues:

The Forum’s basic aims and objectives were to aid needy and disabled veterans; develop leadership by creating interest in the Spanish-speaking population to participate intelligently and wholeheartedly in community, civic, and political affairs; advance understanding between citizens of various national origins and religious beliefs to develop a more enlightened citizenry and a greater America; preserve and advance the basic principles of democracy, the religious and political freedoms of the individual, and equal social and economic for all citizens; secure and protect for all veterans and their families, regardless of race, color, or creed, the privileges vested in them by the Constitution and laws of our country; combat juvenile delinquency through a Junior GI Forum program which teaches respect for law and order, discipline, good sportsmanship, and the value of team work; uphold and maintain loyalty to the Constitution and flag of the United States; award scholarships to deserving students; preserve and defend the United States of America from all enemies. 52

Many Hispanic WWII veterans returning home from service were among the most decorated soldiers of that war. Their medals for bravery included an exceptional number of Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest award than can be given for valor.53 Among the Hispanic WWII veterans who have recieved the Medal of Honor were Lucian Adams, Pedro Cano, Rudolph Davila, Joe Gandara, Marcario Garcia, Harold Gonsalves, David Gonzales, Silvestre Herrera, Salvador Lara, Jose M. Lopez, Joe P. Martinez, Manuel Perez Jr., Manuel Mendoza, Cleto Rodriguez, Alejandro Ruiz, Jose Valdez, Miguel A. Vera, Felix Conde Falcon, Jesus Duran, Eduardo Gomez, Joe, Baldonado, Mike Pena, Jose Rodela, Candelario Garcia, Leonard Alvarado, Juan Negron, Victor Espinoza, Santiago Erevia, Ardie Copas, Demensio Rivera, and Ysmael Villegas. In the frozen Aleutian Islands of Alaska, Colorado citizen, Private Joseph P. Martinez became the first Hispanic-American to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II. His posthumous award was the first act for combat heroism on American soil (other than the 15 at Pearl Harbor) since the Indian Campaigns.

In their capacity in court cases, the G.I. Forum represented the South Texas family of WWII Veteran Felix Longoria. When the family of fallen Hispanic soldier Felix Longoria was denied service in a South Texas funeral home, Dr. Hector Garcia and G.I. Forum leaders sprang into action. Garcia sent letters to several high political figures that included Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. The Hispanic community was enraged that Hispanics incorporated for war efforts, fought on the front lines of combat to the death, but were refused the dignity of a proper funeral in their own country. Such was the fierce racial sentiment in South Texas communities that Anglos feared the repercussions of their neighbors more than the desire for justice on behalf of U.S. servicemen.54

Having seen firsthand what role racial prejudice played in South Texas and speaking on behalf of fallen U.S. combat veteran Felix Longoria, President Lyndon B. Johnson stated, “I deeply regret to learn that the prejudice of some individuals extends beyond this life. This injustice and prejudice is deplorable. I am happy to have a part in seeing that this Texas hero is laid to rest with the honor and dignity his service deserves.” Longoria was laid to rest at Arlington National cemetery in Washington D.C. with LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson present on February 16, 1949. Even when Hispanics gave their life for the country they loved, prejudiced individuals did not fail to discriminate and marginalize these honored U.S. heroes.55 As the G.I. Forum in conjunction with LULAC ventured into the legal system, more cases were fought in U.S. courts. Sadly, many deserving veterans would have to wait decades before recognition for their service was given.

An article published by Scott Wilson on a February 2014 Washington Post issue headlined: “Obama to award Medal of Honor to 19 soldiers who were overlooked because of their ethnicity.”56 The awards were handed out on March 18, 2014 by President Barak Obama.

Twenty four Medal of Honor awards were presented; all except five to Hispanic veterans.57 From the White House, President Barak Obama had this to say:

This ceremony reminds us of one of the enduring qualities that make America great -- that make us exceptional. No nation is perfect, but here in America we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past -- including the truth that some of these soldiers fought, and died, for a country that did not always see them as equal. So with each generation we keep on striving to live up to our ideals of freedom and equality, and to recognize the dignity and patriotism of every person, no matter who they are, what they look like, or how they pray. And that’s why, more than a decade ago, Congress mandated a review to make sure that the heroism of our veterans wasn’t overlooked because of prejudice or discrimination. It was painstaking work, made even harder because sometimes our service members felt they needed to change their last names to fit in. That tells a story about our past. But, ultimately, after years of review, these two dozen soldiers -- among them Hispanic, African American and Jewish veterans -- were identified as having earned the Medal of Honor.58

In a legal landmark civil rights case on an issue that had never been challenged before, the G.I. Forum attorneys defended South Texan Pete Hernandez who was convicted of murder. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court under Hernandez vs The State of Texas.59 The Forum successfully argued that Hernandez suffered discrimination when he was convicted by an all-White jury in a South Texas courthouse, who had been served at every level by White men only, for the past twenty five years. Hernandez was not allowed a jury of his peers. The Forum argued that Hernandez did not have a fair trial under the fourteenth amendment of the constitution.60 The Forum won the case and helped forge change for civil rights.

The Forum in conjunction with LULAC came to the political front under the “Viva Kennedy-Viva Johnson” campaign of 1960.This campaign paved the way for influential appointments of Hispanics to government positions and agencies awarded by President Lyndon Johnson. The Mexican American Political Action group (MAPA), the first explicitly political statewide organization was born directly after President Kennedy’s election. In 1961 the name was changed to the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASSO). Its purpose was to unite Hispanic political sub-groups and organizations to emphasize Hispanic candidates for office and lobby for Hispanic government appointees.61 This became an effective tool during elections as more and more Hispanics in South Texas entered into and were elected to politics. This success was evident during my site visit trip to South Texas. As I drove from town to town, all the 2014 election candidate posters I visualized displayed Hispanic surnames. In towns such as Edinburg, Raymondville, McAllen, Harlingen, Rio Grande City, Weslaco, Mercedes, Pharr, San Juan, Alamo, Mission and other South Texas cities, the work and influence of early civil rights organizations was evident. While the courts were instrumental in civil rights victories, the legislatures also proved to be a battleground for justice on behalf of Hispanics suffering exploitation, discrimination, and abuse.

In 1966, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, a union of the National Farm Workers Association and the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee was formed in Texas. It initially intended to organize farmworkers during the violent and highly discriminatory 1967 Rio Grande Valley Starr County Melon Strike and later, the 1979 Raymondville, Texas onion strike. The UFW goal was to raise the hourly wage to $1.25 by boycotting businesses. The UFWU organization drew attention to the appalling living and working conditions of farm-laborers. The UFWU pressured legislators into providing benefits for agricultural workers they had never had before. As a consequence, agricultural workers were awarded workers' compensation, minimum-wage increases, toilets and drinking water in the fields. Furthermore, they obtained child-care programs, housing reconstruction programs, and began their own organic farm cooperative.62 Small successes encouraged other civil rights organizations to seek recourse in their own geographical areas.

In the 1930’s, violence was the common response to ambitious Hispanics in the political realm, but in 1970, South Texas Hispanics Jose Angel Gutierrez and Mario Campean forged ahead and formed La Raza Unida in Crystal City, Texas. Their goal was defending Hispanic interests and protecting Hispanic civil rights. La Raza’s focus was to strengthen Hispanic visibility in local, state, and national positions in order to bring economic, social and political self determination to Hispanics in South Texas where little Hispanic representation was available. By emphasizing bilingual education, women and worker rights, improved public education funding, medical care, and solutions to urban problems, the organization served to bring about political change during its era of activism.63 While some worked on discrimination, health, housing, education, and politics, others committed to the political arena by way of the voting system.64

William C. Velasquez, Jr. founded The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) in 1974 “to ensure the voting rights of the people in the Southwest and thereby provide them "meaningful political participation," a prerogative that they had largely been denied before the mid-1960s.”65 It is the largest and oldest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization in the U.S. SVREP has registered 2.6 Latino voters and trained 150,000 leaders. It encouraged community volunteerism.66 This is particularly important in South Texas where volunteers commonly register participants and campaign for candidates door to door. Volunteers also make themselves available on Election Day to drive voters to the polls. SVREP founder William C. Velasquez, Jr. stated: "If Latinos have something to vote for, they will vote.” Each of the civil rights organizations founded from 1929 to 1975 contributed to the Mexican American plight of segregation, discrimination, and marginalization in different ways. The most visible, longest lasting, and most progressive of them all was LULAC.

All For One and One For All: LULAC

LULAC was founded in 1929 from the combined organizations of “La Orden de los hijos de America” and “The Order of the Knights of America” in Corpus Christi, Texas by middle class professionals. They advocated for adult education to qualify for citizenship, integrated public schools, civic participation, voting, and civic awareness of candidates sympathetic to LULAC programs. At a time when the KKK was receiving wide support, Congress was regulating immigration, and Nativism was rampant, it behooved LULAC to seek the most successful membership, highlight patriotism, and good citizenship. Nativism is the concern of enemy threat to the U.S. The three primary causes of Anglo concern were Catholics due to Papal loyalty, political radicals undermining the government, and “inferior” races who might contaminate the Anglo bloodlines. Hispanics were on suspicion on all three counts.67

At the time of LULACS founding in 1929, survival for Hispanics was a big question. From 1865-1920, more lynching’s occurred among South Texas Hispanic communities than in the Black communities. Assault, murder and lynching were widespread, yet no Anglo jury convictions ever occurred. In one instance, a Hispanic fourteen year old died choking on a tortilla because her peers were denied water from a “White Only” water faucet. “No Mexicans Allowed” signs were commonplace. In Mexican American schools, there was not even a pretense of equality. Hispanics were routinely turned away from voting polls and were continually denied property in White neighborhoods. There were no Hispanics in managerial or office positions or laws protecting Hispanic farm workers. Despite the widespread prejudice, intimidation, repression and murder, the desire for change compelled some to organize in favor of justice.68

Because Hispanics were on continual suspicion, LULAC demanded full commitment to the United States Nation by its members. Though other organizations before were modeled on Spanish as the primary language, LULAC was modeled after U.S. civic organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in 1910. LULAC believed in mixing with American society in every respect.69 Although the League’s 1929 constitution cited the English language as the official organization language, LULAC promoted bilingual speech. Its emblem symbolizes defense and protection from racism.70 Though the organization believed in defending and protecting against injustices, they did not believe in active street protests.

By the 60’s and 70’s, some LULAC members were still reluctant to protest for their rights as other Hispanic organizations were actively engaging in. They felt they were too educated and dignified to participate in public street protests and resorted instead, to the rules of law.71 From 1929 when LULAC was founded to 1965 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, organizations had to work within the political and legal working system of the time. LULAC was forced to advance with care in their efforts to aid Mexican American civil rights. Historian Joe Willoughby gives his perspective:

From my 60’s friends’ perspective, they saw LULAC as not active enough; as cooperating too much with the power structure. Now a lot of that had to do with the reality of – if you don’t work with the power structure, the power structure will destroy you. And I don’t mean just politically, I mean, they will kill you; and they did. In South Texas, the Texas Rangers turned their head the other way and let (violent events or deaths) it happen; which is one of the terrible parts of our state’s history. But that 60’s group that sort of saw LULAC as not strong enough and aggressive enough; they gave rise to the Chicano Movement which gave rise to La Raza Unida of which I was a champion of. I was a member of The Raza in the early 70’s. We were saying the same thing to the Democratic Party. “You’re too conservative; you’re too much a part of the system- change!”72

LULAC knew of communist suspicions against Hispanics and were careful in conducting their community organization and meetings. LULAC members were accused of subversive-ness, communism, agitators, and rabble rousers. Anglos did not approve of Hispanics seeking a better education or American rights. Consequently, LULAC officers were harassed, threatened, and ostracized. A “Flying Squad” was formed to recruit members and form new councils across Texas. Funding their own expenses, members spent every weekend away from their families under burdensome conditions without food. They slept in cars, bathed in puddles, made sandwiches to eat, and borrowed gas money. When a LULAC member was denied entry into the town of Rosenberg, Texas, he dressed as a woman in order to enter the city and form a LULAC council there. In another incident, “Flying Squad” members were denied hamburgers because they were Hispanics and not Blacks. In Houston, a LULAC member was threatened with job loss if he did not resign his LULAC membership. The member sued the supervisor, the company, and the U.S. President and won his case.73

LULAC has served the Hispanic community for over one hundred years with an all-volunteer member force. LULAC serves Latinos in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Guam. Membership is extended to all Latino citizens. In addition, LULAC helped found many successful Hispanic civil rights organizations and programs including the American G.I. Forum, The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), SER-Jobs for Progress, Inc. which is the largest Latino employment agency in the U.S., and helped build thousands of low income housing units in the Southwest. The Little School of 400 became the Head Start model. LULAC National Scholarship Fund (LNSF) has provided millions of dollars in scholarship funds and provided educational counseling, tutoring and mentoring to the Hispanic community.74 LULAC filed fifteen desegregation cases in Texas in conjunction with the American G.I. Forum in the 1950’s.75 In addition, LULAC supported the first public housing in the U.S.; fought for the reclassification in the 1940 Census from Mexican to Mexican American, promoted bilingual education in Texas schools, worked with the Federal Employment Practices Commission to employ Hispanics, opposed the 1950 Immigration Act, helped disintegrate the Huntsville prison system, were involved in legal cases to allow Hispanics the right to jury duty, supported the 1966 Texas Farmworkers march, endorsed the 1974 Equal Rights Amendment, and represented the Jose Campos Torres police brutality case. LULAC women have additionally expanded their energies to provide protective services to the poor, children and elderly. They have also established the Junior LULAC youth chapter, and eyeglass services for children. Many of the programs incorporated by LULAC and other Hispanic organizations came from the generous coffers of The Ford Foundation.76


LULAC and other Hispanic organizations helped Hispanics cope with, overcome, and bring about positive social change for the Mexican American community of South Texas after decades of segregation, discrimination and marginalization through advocacy, community involvement, with great risk and duress. LULAC and other Hispanic organizations helped bring about legal changes in favor of education, employment, societal norms, and better housing for many Hispanics. The American dream became attainable to persons of Mexican descent as the promises of freedom, democracy, justice, equality, opportunity, morality, and destiny became more of a reality than ever before by 1975. Through the combined efforts of LULAC and other civil rights organizations who utilized the tools of education, the U.S. court system, and the political process, history shows that, as Cesar Chavez, UFW founder said: Si Se Puede! – Yes, We Can!77

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Perales, Monica and Ramos, Raul A. Recovering the Hispanic History of Texas. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2010.
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