It seems like just yesterday. But it was fifty years ago that the La Raza Unida political party held its first national convention in El Paso, Texas. (Chicano activists are celebrating the event this week, September 15-17, at the downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio.)
I still recall the excitement, the fervor in the air, the frenzy of people coming and going in the lobby of the Paso del Norte Hotel in El Paso, Texas. We were all embarking on an adventure, the first national convention of the La Raza Unida political party. A political party made up of Mexican Americans and other Latinos. This was a first for our community and we were rightfully euphoric.
As the media coordinator for the convention it was my job to secure as much mainstream press and media for the convention as possible. This was to be our convention and we wanted to make sure the media covered our issues, our concerns and not those of partisan Republican and Democratic candidates.
Early on I proposed to José Angel Gutiérrez and to Corky Gonzalez, leaders of the two largest state delegations, that we leak to the press that the convention would likely endorse either Richard Nixon or George McGovern for the Presidency of the United States.
Of course the idea was rejected out of hand by both José Angel and Corky. They were adamant that ours was to be a party independent of the Democrats and the Republicans. “I know that and you know that, “ I reasoned with them, “but the mass media doesn’t know that. If you want national coverage for our convention, let’s let them think we’re going to support one of the candidates they’re familiar with. What we do at the convention will be a different matter. Once they’re at the convention, they’ll have to cover or story, not theirs.”
And so I sent out a carefully worded press release to more than 500 news outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times as well as many other national papers. And, of course, it worked. On the first day of the convention we had full national print and television coverage for our convention.
Fifty years a later, we know of the early successes of La Raza Unida in Crystal City, Texas, and later the demise of the La Raza Unida party.
We also know that, seen from a historical perspective, La Raza Unida was unsustainable as a third political party. But it did give rise to voter registration campaigns throughout the country led by Southwest Voter Registration Drive. It also empowered a generation of political activists, working with groups like the Mexican American Legal and Education Fund, to take on gerrymandering and other obstacles to the Latino vote. Within a decade this resulted in hundreds of Latino elected officials throughout the country.
And so here we are. Fifty years a later. Many of us celebrating the fifty years since we put that crucial idea into action. The idea that Chicanos could control their own destiny, that we could be masters of our own lives.
Today there is a new generation of activists, many calling themselves Latinx. While many may point to all the work that remains to be done, I think it’s okay to take a moment now and reflect on what we did right.
Our generation changed our world for the better.
Let’s hope future generations carry on the struggle.
Jesús Salvador Treviño