Believe it or not, at one point in our state’s young history, there was a political revolution of sorts in South Texas. Yes, Mexican Americans were voting…a lot. They had a good reason to vote: Candidates with which they could identify; a liberal political platform which served regular working people; and a collective hope to effect meaningful social change after years of what could only be described as an apartheid in our own country and state. And a lot of this happened in my hometown during the days of La Raza Unida Party, a political party fed up with the racist and elitist ways of the Democratic Party of the day.
In 1972, my Uncle Jose Serna was elected the first Chicano Sheriff of Zavala County. Prior to that, he, along with his wife, Olivia, had organized farm and seasonal workers to stand up to employers for fair wages and better working conditions. They organized fellow Crystal Citians to demand their rights to vote, to get educated, and to have a prosperous life. Their daughter Diana, played a central role in the Crystal City school walkouts as one of the banned Chicana cheerleaders and student organizers. Later on, Olivia would be elected to the Crystal City City Council, then chosen by her peers to serve as Mayor, becoming the first woman in that role. All of this under the banner of La Raza Unida. After Tio Joe ended his terms as Sheriff and took a well-deserved break, he became interested again in 1988, and won again after a contentious Democratic Primary. His calling was about more than protecting and serving, but about making sure his community’s needs were met.
Tio Joe passed away on November 17, 2015, after a short illness, having lived just short of 86 years. He was my mom, Flora’s, brother. He leaves to celebrate his life his daughters Diana and Olivia, as well as sons Joe, Jr., Roberto, Jose, Jr., Mario Alberto, and Eduardo–all successful kids in their own right. Roberto and Eduardo continued the political legacy, Roberto as the District Attorney of the 293rd District and Eduardo as Zavala County Attorney; however, all have served their communities well in the fields of law, education, and business.
Of course, my memories began quite early as a five-year old kid who experienced his first political rallies at La Placita in the Mexico Chico neighborhood of Crystal City. My towering Uncle Joe was a commanding presence with his trademark mustache, western bow ties, and that shiny badge. He always gave me “deputy” badges to wear, which meant I had to be the Sheriff when I played cops and robbers with my friends. As a grown-up, I made several trips back to Cristal and I made sure to visit him. Our talks were about politics, especially in 2007, when we were both rooting for Hillary, although that young guy Obama probably had a good shot. We agreed that if Obama won, we’d support him and I’d send him stickers I’d procure from the local Party office.
If I sound like a little kid going through some hero worship it’s because I am. I grew up in a politically charged town that impacted Texas History so much, even Dolph Briscoe called us Little Havana. My parents instilled in me a love and drive for political involvement in a town where we had local heroes that went beyond the high school football field. It was a time of Chicano governance; it was something to continue striving for beyond Crystal City, too.
Lately, I’ve felt a bit disillusioned with politics. The ugly head of hate and fear seems to be growing–even among so-called Democrats–and now is the time for a new crop of heroes that will fight for what is right. Perhaps I’ll increase my involvement in things political, but one thing is for sure, my Uncle’s passing has been a reminder that the work is not done and that the struggle continues.
Jose Angel Gutierrez wrote in The Making of a Chicano Militant: After Judge Gutierrez swore in all of the newly elected Raza Unida officeholders who had swept out the bigoted incumbents, “I was presented with the keys to the office suite and with a can of Lysol by Sheriff Jose Serna, who stated in Spanish, ‘Go spray the county judge’s office, the commissioner’s courtroom, and the district judge’s courtroom to disinfect any redneck germs that may remain.'”