Crystal City is a hot and dusty town of 10,000 people in south Texas’s Zavala County, less than 50 miles from the Rio Bravo, more commonly known as the Rio Grande. In the 1950s, Crystal City’s leaders designated the town “Spinach Capital of the World,” in honor of local agribusiness and the Del Monte packing plant which were, and remain, the town’s major employers. They erected a statue of Popeye, the spinach-gobbling cartoon sailor, in front of City Hall. In December, 1969, Popeye acquired a shiny coat of brown paint, courtesy of Chicano high school students — and a revolution began in South Texas.
Crystal City was 90 percent Chicano, but Anglos owned 100 percent of the farmland and 95 percent of the small businesses. There were a few Chicanos in local government, but they were known as vendidos, sellouts, who had given their loyalty to the Anglo establishment.
The most odious manifestation of economic and political inequality was the Anglo-controlled school system. The system worked to eradicate in Chicano children any pride in themselves or their own culture, any belief that they could succeed in life without conforming to Anglo expectations. Instruction was entirely in English. Students who could not understand English or do well on culturally biased standardized tests were classified as retarded. History was taught from an Anglo perspective: the history of Texas began with Anglo settlement and the subsequent war that led to independence from Mexico; the defenders of the Alamo were heroes, the Mexican army was an invasion force; the U.S. conquest of the Southwest was seen as the inevitable triumph of a more progressive culture. Teachers were often racist.
A painful symbol of Anglo control of the schools was the quota for cheerleaders. Of four cheerleaders in the mostly Chicano town, three each year were white and one brown. It is not surprising that few Chicanos finished school.
In December of 1969, 700 students walked out of Crystal City high school demanding bilingual, bicultural education, removal of racist teachers, better physical conditions in the schools and other reforms. A boycott in the spring of that year had been short-lived and unsuccessful, but this time the students, and the Chicano community, were much better organized. The boycott quickly spread to the lower grades, with the active support of the parents. Thanks in part to some national attention the boycott received, the Board of Education caved in on most of the demands. The student revolt marked a dramatic change in social relationships in Cristal, as the town is called by Chicanos, but it was not a spontaneous occurrence.
Earlier that year, a Cristal native named Jose Angel Gutierrez had returned to Zavala County after completing his master’s degree in political science with a thesis on the objective conditions for revolution in South Texas. He had come home to put his conclusions into practice, with the help of his compadres in MAYO, the Mexican-American Youth Organization. MAYO organized the student rebellion to build pride and hope in the Chicano community, preparatory to organizing an independent mass political party which could seize power in Zavala and surrounding counties.
Gutierrez has been a model for other Chicanos to stand up to the gringo. As he told one interviewer, “It’s either me or him. That’s the kind of life it is down here, and I’m just tired of being pushed around. Psychologically, if you give in to one of those bastards, you’ve had it. That’s been the life of our parents. That’s why they go around with their hats in their hands. This has to be stopped. We have to be just as arrogant.” Gutierrez concluded a speech in 1970 by saying, “To the gringos in the audience, I have one final message to convey: up yours, baby. You’ve had it, from now on.”
But it is not as a public speaker or as a public example of Chicano pride and anger that Gutierrez has done the most for the movement. He was responsible for the thorough, professional organizing which made the revolt in Cristal a success, and which made La Raza Unida party viable.
ROOTS OF STRUGGLE
The “Chicano Movement” which gave birth to La Raza Unida is generally thought of as dating from the mid-’60s. But Chicano historians trace their struggle all the way back to the 1840s, when northern Mexico was made part of the U.S. through conquest. Under the 1848 treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. acquired what is now New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and parts of other states. In return, Mexico received a token payment and a promise that the rights of Mexicans and their descendants within the conquered territory would be respected. (Texas had been annexed by the U.S. earlier, after Anglo settlers revolted.)
The U.S. honored its treaty obligations to the Mexicanos about as well as it honored its treaties with the Indian nations — which is to say not at all. The Mexican citizens in question were themselves either Indians or people of mixed Spanish and Native American descent with mostly Indian culture, except for the Spanish language.* Land grants from the Spanish crown, for example, were often held in common by an entire village, in an attempt to translate the native concept of land tenure into a European equivalent.
The U.S. refused to recognize any such communal holdings, and simply confiscated them. Individual holdings were stripped from the Mexicanos by discriminatory taxes, fraud and violence. The Mexicanos soon became a landless laboring class. Along with the economic base, the political machinery passed into Anglo hands.
Armed resistance included social banditry and more politically conscious organizations like Las Gorras Blancas (White Caps), who cut the barbed wire the Anglos used to enclose their stolen range land. Political parties were formed, including one called La Raza Unida in 1856. Los Caballeros del Labor, the Mexicano affiliate of the Knights of Labor, was active in the 1890s and was apparently connected with Las Gorras Blancas. Los Caballeros added a dash of Mexican nationalism to the Knights’ vision of cooperative commonwealth. A few years later, syndicalists were active in the area, including some organizations with roots in Mexico, and the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies), a movement which grew out of Anglo socialism and industrial unionism.
The Mexican revolution was an important influence on Chicano thought, and the long exile in the U.S. of Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon resulted in a growing understanding between Mexicano radicals on both sides of the border. But Mexicanos in the U.S. were unable to make any headway.
For one thing, they were increasingly employed as migrant workers, which made electoral action almost impossible. Repressive violence was also rife. Police and Texas Rangers had a virtual license to kill Mexicanos. According to some sources, lynchings of Mexicanos were more common than lynchings of blacks in the Deep South.
Chicanos cite cultural repression as one of the greatest obstacles to their progress. Mexicanos were asked to accept the paradoxical idea that anybody could “make it” in the U.S. if he or she would only accept Anglo values and the notion that struggle as a nation or class was irrelevant when the real problem was one of personal success. A few successful vendidos were always there as examples. Mexicanos were treated as immigrants in their own land. They were told it was their fault if they could not acquire Anglo culture and succeed in Anglo society. But the schools failed to prepare them to do so, even if they had wanted to.
There are many theories as to why, in the face of these obstacles and after a long period of relative quiet, the Chicano movement erupted with such force in the 1960s. Some people say the Chicanos were inspired by the black civil-rights movement or by the revolts of colonized people in Africa and Asia. Others point to simple demographics: there had been a wave of Mexican immigration to fill the labor shortage during the Second World War, and the children of these immigrants were just coming of age. Also, a larger number of these young people were in college, and much of the early impetus for the Chicano movement came out of student organizations. Many point to the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers as reawakening the Chicano sense of national identity and pride.
As important as Chavez and the union were as inspiration, they have had little connection with the Chicano movement as a whole. Most Chicano leadership is more radical than Chavez on economic issues, and more nationalistic. Their notions of Chicano nationalism encompass a spectrum of long-range goals, from the creation of a new sovereign nation to reunification with Mexico to Chicano control of Chicano communities within a more progressive, decentralized U.S.
An important forerunner to La Raza Unida was Alianza Federal de Pueblos Libres, an organization in northern New Mexico which seeks to recover the stolen Spanish land grants. The Alianza made a quantum leap in numbers and militancy in 1965, when hundreds of small farmers had their grazing rights on federal land severely restricted, apparently as part of an attempt to put them out of business and run them out of the area.
Led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, the son of a sharecropper and former itinerant preacher, 350 Alianzistas occupied part of the Kit Carson National Forest in October, 1966, and declared themselves the Republic of San Joaquin del Rio de Chama, after the name of the original land grant. As a result of a bloodless confrontation with Forest Service rangers, Tijerina was eventually sentenced to two years in prison.
As Tijerina was awaiting trial in June, 1967, one of the most dramatic events in the history of Chicano armed resistance occurred, the famous “Courthouse Raid.” The Alianza planned a mass meeting at Coyote, New Mexico, within the San Joaquin land grant. Vendido District Attorney Alfonso Sanchez tried to outlaw the meeting, claiming the movement was “Communist inspired.” Sanchez issued warrants for Tijerina and other leaders, and set up roadblocks on the highways leading into Coyote. Eleven Alianzistas who tried to slip through were arrested for “unlawful assembly.”
The leadership decided to make a citizen’s arrest of Sanchez, and 20 members went to Tierra Amarilla courthouse on the morning of June 5 to carry out their plan. Sanchez, it turned out, was not there. But state police and sheriff’s deputies were. There was a shootout in which a policeman and deputy were wounded. The Alianzistas fled into the hills, pursued by National Guard troops with tanks and artillery. Sanchez rounded up 50 innocent Chicanos, mostly elderly, and imprisoned them in a muddy sheep pen without food or water, hoping the Alianzistas would reveal themselves in an attempt to liberate the prisoners.
The governor, embarrassed by Sanchez’s extraordinary zeal, sent the U.S. army home and promised there would be no bloodshed if the fugitives surrendered. Tijerina and his followers accepted these terms.
Tijerina was finally acquitted of all charges stemming from the courthouse raid, but was later jailed on trumped-up charges of destroying federal property in connection with the burning of a U.S. Forest Service sign. Later, new charges were brought in connection with the courthouse raid, and this time he was convicted. The two years he spent in jail, and his long period of probation, were enough to take the steam out of the land grant movement.
Others, meanwhile, continued the development of the Chicano national movement. One of the most important figures was Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, a Chicano from Denver who had made money as a prizefighter and then become a successful businessman and Democratic politician. In the mid-’60s, Gonzalez repudiated the Democrats and the Anglo establishment and founded La Crusada para la Justicia, a community organization especially notable for redirecting the energies of alienated barrio youth into social service and political activism.
Gonzalez gave the movement much of its vocabulary and vision. It was he who popularized the name “Chicano” to replace cumbersome and even misleading labels such as “Mexican-American” or “Indo-Hispano.” The word comes from the Aztec name for citizens of their empire.
Gonzalez also revived the Aztec name for the Chicano homeland. Aztlan, located in what is now northern New Mexico and south Colorado, was the original country of the Aztecs before they migrated to Mexico. And it was Gonzalez who called the Chicano Youth Conference in the spring of 1969, at which 1,500 delegates adopted the Plan Espiritual de Aztlan, the seminal document of modern Chicano nationalism. The document is in part a poetic statement of race and national pride, and in part an articulation of specific ideological currents in the movement.
Chicano radicalism looks to the Indian pueblo for many of its social and economic ideals. It borrows from Marx and other Western thinkers, but it doesn’t accept any form of dogma uncritically. Chicano radicalism finds in its cultural background a profound respect for the natural environment, a successful model for communal ownership of the means of production at the village level, and egalitarianism with a spirit of unselfish cooperation - all combined with freedom from European-style bureaucratization of social authority. The interaction of feminism with the Chicano movement produced an analysis which traces the fall in the status of women to the contamination of Native American culture by European feudalism and its capitalist successors.
Women’s issues are now important to the movement, and though Chicanas had to struggle early on against the sexism of male leadership, a concerted effort to develop female leadership has apparently been fairly successful. Finally, Chicano radicalism is very conscious of the struggles of oppressed and colonized people throughout the world, and expresses its solidarity with them. Against this background Gutierrez and MAYO set out to organize La Raza Unida.
BIRTH OF THE PARTY
During the school boycott in Cristal, the students spent afternoons in special “freedom classes.” But they spent their mornings in a door-to-door registration drive and recruiting for Ciudadanos Unidos, a community group MAYO had originally organized as a parent support group. During the New Year holidays, MAYO voted to run candidates for local office under the banner of a new party, La Raza Unida. By the time the school boycott ended early in January, Ciudadanos Unidos was strong enough that its adult members could take over the organizing work with the help of a full-time paid staffperson.
Partido de la Raza Unida won control of the school board and city council in Cristal in the April, 1970, election — just a few months after the founding of Ciudadanos Unidos and the school boycott. The courts denied the Partido ballot position for countywide contests; nevertheless, write-in candidate Roel Rodriguez became the Partido’s first county commissioner. In 1974, the Partido actually took control of the county government, with the election of Gutierrez as county judge.
The Partido’s success in the Winter Garden area of Texas impressed Chicano leaders throughout the country. In October, 1971, the Partido had a Texas state convention at which it decided to go statewide and run a candidate for governor. Gutierrez was uneasy about this decision. Outside of the Winter Garden, the organizing work had not been done; there was no party at the grassroots. La Raza Unida’s candidate for governor in 1972 won six percent of the vote statewide, compared with 52 percent in Zavala County.
Gutierrez was even more uneasy about the convention of September 1-4, 1972, in El Paso, Texas, at which, mainly due to the urging of Corky Gonzalez, the national Partido de la Raza Unida was founded, with Gutierrez as chair. The Zavala County victories had probably looked too easy to outsiders; they didn’t appreciate the tedious work of building the party at the grassroots which had gone before. Gonzalez wasn’t really interested in grassroots organizing. He wanted to create a revolutionary vanguard party, grounded in Marxist-Leninist principles, with a cellular structure. His party would get involved in elections only as a way of educating the people. Gonzalez believed that the masses would rise to a declaration of Chicano nationhood dedicated to the elimination of capitalist exploitation of the Chicano people and homeland.
Gutierrez had different ideas. He wanted to build an independent electoral party at the grassroots, using the organizing techniques learned in Cristal. His strategy was to begin in rural areas and move into the cities only when the rural base was strong. He was less interested in ideology than in organization; ideology, he felt, should develop only in conjunction with the growth of an organized base. Gutierrez was afraid that declaring a national party before there was any grassroots organization would only lead to defeat and embarrassment.
The split between the Corquecistas and Gutierristas could no longer be contained by 1974, when Gonzalez led the Colorado branch out of the national party. La Raza Unida has never won an election in Colorado, but by that time the Partido was enough of a threat to the Texas establishment that it provoked a furious counterattack.
RETALIATION TAKES ITS TOLL
In Cristal, the new school board had established bilingual, bicultural education. Culturally biased IQ tests were eliminated. Textbooks were replaced. Thirty Anglo teachers and administrators resigned in protest, a move which undoubtedly pleased the new school board. The city council declared the town off-limits to Texas Rangers. The Urban Renewal Commission’s priorities were redirected away from downtown beautification to housing and neighborhood improvement. Statewide, La Raza’s 1972 gubernatorial campaign had taken enough votes away from victorious Democrat Dolph Briscoe to make him a minority governor, with only 48 percent of the vote.
In 1973, the state legislature raised the minimum vote total for a party to remain on the ballot from five percent to 20 percent. The Partido was able to have the first decision reversed in time for the 1976 elections, using the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, the episode hurt the Partido. Many people had heard that La Raza Unida had been outlawed. Raza voters were confused — would a vote for the Partido count? Many did not expect to find the Partido on the ballot and had already made up their minds to vote Democratic by the time they entered the voting booth. These problems may have prevented La Raza Unida party from increasing its totals statewide, but the Partido was nevertheless able to increase its total of elected officials at the local and county levels.
In 1978, the Democrats took more direct action - they sent in Judge Troy Williams to hear challenges by defeated Democrats to the 1978 elections in Zavala County. Williams’s mission was to destroy the party, and he didn’t fool around. The Democratic challengers claimed that the Raza Unida victories should be voided because undocumented people had voted. The judge forced the Partido members from office and ordered new elections, most of which the Democrats won. Chicanos thought if they voted they would be hauled into court to prove that they were in fact the persons who cast the ballots; they assumed that a vote for La Raza Unida wouldn’t count in the end anyway.
The Partido did manage to keep bare control in Cristal, although the situation there is very volatile and there has been no progress since 1970. A meeting of the leadership in 1979 made a decision to rebuild the Partido, starting with a constitutional convention in 1980. The 1980 constitution calls for the building of a mass party and makes some general ideological statements. It calls for the creation of an independent, socialist Chicano nation but rejects Marxist dogmatism and affirms solidarity with oppressed and colonized people throughout the world, including the poor of all races within the U.S., and women. The constitution also outlines a national party structure.
According to Juan Jose Pena, new national chair of La Raza Unida, the party now has a good base in “10 or 12 counties,” not only in South Texas but also in northern New Mexico, in south Tucson and in the Fresno, California, area. About 40,000 people are registered Raza Unida voters, but this does not include Texas, where there is not party registration and where more than 200,000 voted for La Raza’s candidate for governor, Ramsey Muniz, in 1972.
The Partido is limited by finances. Dues vary from $12 per year in Texas to a nominal sum in New Mexico. Some money comes in through grassroots fundraising and from public speaking and royalties on publications. At the moment, however, there is little money for organizing or electioneering.
La Raza Unida has therefore turned to an organizing model that does not depend on a full-time organizing staff, one based on existing institutions in the community. Says Gutierrez, “After you hook up with one or two individuals, from them you get to know their extended family, which is very important in the Chicano community. Then we use what I would call quasi-kinship relationships to get into other families. That is, everybody has a godfather and godmother, who is like another relative. We also work through community institutions such as . . . social clubs and the church.” The idea is not to build a coalition of existing groups, but to use these networks to reach individuals who will support the Partido.
The ideal structure is still that of Cristal, however, where the precinct electoral machinery is combined with a community organization, Ciudadanos Unidos, which holds officials
accountable. In Cristal, everyone — the school board, the city council, the CDCs established by the Partido — must report to regular meetings of Ciudadanos Unidos.
The Partido’s short-term priorities are to regain a position on the ballot in Texas and find alternatives in other states, such as non-partisan races. In the Fresno area, for example, there are Partido members on the school board or city council in four small towns where these elections are non-partisan. Frank Shaffer-Corona, La Raza Unida member on the school board in Washington, DC, is the only Chicano “statewide” elected official in the eastern U.S. For a third party to get on the ballot in most states is a formidable task. Even in Texas, the Partido may try to get on the ballot only as a regional party, which would mean collecting the necessary signatures only in those jurisdictions where it wants to run candidates, but which would preclude running a candidate for governor. All in all, there are about 45 Raza Unida party elected officials in the U.S.
In addition to internal divisions (now apparently behind them) and legal and illegal harassment, the Partido’s problems, according to Gutierrez, are attributable to “the traditional means by which independent parties are destroyed by the majors,” namely co-optation of issues. La Raza Unida’s early struggle for bilingual education was taken up by the Democrats. Finding new issues with local handles that will clearly separate the Partido from liberal Democrats can be difficult. This is one reason the new constitution calls for ideological development of the party and the Chicano people — as a means of sustaining the organization where there is a shortage of indigenous local issues.
Some new issues the Partido is looking at include a demand for dual citizenship; proportional representation, which would be a “step beyond single-member districts” and an important politicizing issue; and local ownership and control of natural resources. This last issue is important because the Partido sees Chicanos as a colonized people. Large corporations extract energy, timber and minerals from Aztlan, with little or no benefit accruing to the poor and working-class residents. Options for local campaigns include municipalization of oil and gas wells and various taxing schemes.
In Cristal, the city distributes natural gas to residential customers. In 1975, the city council refused to pay a 500-percent increase in gas rates and the supplier, Lo Vaca Gathering Company, shut off the gas in 1977. Winters in South Texas are short but cold enough that a few elderly people died as a result. The city’s response has been to develop locally owned renewable energy resources, including wind, solar and bio-mass energy. The community has become something of a showcase for the appropriate technology movement, despite efforts by Democrats to obstruct the programs.
La Raza Unida has also gone after economic power in Cristal. From the earliest days of the rebellion, Anglo businesses were boycotted one by one to force employment and wage concessions. Many that would not give in went under, leaving room for the expansion of Chicano-owned businesses. The Partido’s energy strategy includes employment of local youths in nonprofit enterprises to manufacture solar energy devices and utilize other local resources.
Maria Elena Martinez, current state chair in Texas, offers a rather gloomy assessment of the current situation. In Cristal, much of the original base has been lost. “People are really burned out,” she says, not only because of legal harassment and the difficulty the Partido has had carrying out its programs while sharing power with Democrats, but also because of intimidation of individual members. “The original base of the party was in the poorest part of town, and that’s where the people are the most vulnerable. The people on welfare and the old people on Social Security are threatened, and then they don’t want to participate any more.”
In other towns in South Texas, most notably Robstown and Kingsville, the Partido has made gains by functioning as a direct action community organization more than an electoral party. Martinez sees most of the Partido’s impact in the near future coming from work in coalitions. In the long run, she says, “If a third party is ever going to work in this country, it will have to be a coalition of progressive forces — black, white, Chicano, etc.” She doesn’t think that will happen until there is a major unifying issue, like the Vietnam war or massive economic problems.
After 10 years, says Gutierrez, the Partido is back where it started. “What would you most like to see in an article about La Raza Unida?” he was asked. “I would want you to talk about the pain and hurt we have suffered. Many organizers don’t understand all the obstacles. For every lever of power you move, the establishment can move seven. You shouldn’t go into any kind of organizing without appreciating the reaction you’ll get.”
“What do you hope the legacy or accomplishment of La Raza Unida will be?”
“For me, it would be a satisfactory legacy if we could get the idea of independent electoral action ingrained in the minds of the colonized,” says Gutierrez.