TexTrib: One Last Reunion of La Raza Unida Party

When I heard that there would be another (and maybe final) reunion of La Raza Unida Party in San Antonio, I was saddened that I would not be able to make it. Thanks to Alexa Ura at the Trib, we have a lengthy report on the confab and even some history to remind folks about a liberal third political party that made a difference during the 70s, while pissing off Democrats and making Chicanos a more serious target of GOTV.

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.

I always like to say that I was born into a Raza Unida family. Yes, my parents were stalwart Democrats who finally had enough of Dem Party shenanigans that kept Chicanos and Chicanas from elected office through racist voter suppression and supported a third party that was successful locally.

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.

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.”

In fact, my Mom’s brother, Jose Serna was among the first Chicanos elected under RUP as Zavala County Sheriff after having organized farm workers and townspeople along with his wife, Olivia. Sheriff Serna was also one of the candidates who earned a majority of votes as a write-in candidate, but was disqualified because of different spellings of his name. When Democrats took over later, he was re-elected as a Democrat.

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.

As Greg Abbott and Republicans nationally continue their bigoted attitudes and practices toward brown people, that feeling of second-class citizenship is still in effect, unfortunately. It gets worse when Democrats, even when they have a majority in Washington, DC, fail to do anything about it.

Still, ingrained in many of us who grew up in the time, is the feeling that the fight must continue, “La Lucha Sigue.” But for so many in Democratic circles, this is a history they try to avoid while pretending to be “woke” about Chicanos and trying to earn their vote. Ultimately, if a political party sells the right message to the voters, they will respond. But it better be done with the same “ganas” that brought out voters during this historic time of empowerment and agitation.

“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.”

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