Poder del Pueblo
Women and Politics in the Westside
Many women in the Westside became advocates for their community through engaging in politics. Women circulated petitions and testified at San Antonio city council hearings. Some became members and leaders within the Democratic Party or the Raza Unida party. Others joined new civil rights organizations and parish-based coalitions to advocate for more resources for their neighborhoods.
For most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Mexican Americans were shut out of formal politics. During the Jim Crow era, Texas was effectively a one party state, and the Democratic party was devoted to upholding white supremacy. However, as the Mexican American population grew throughout the U.S. Southwest, Mexican Americans organized to form their own political organizations to advocate for civil rights. In 1921 John C. Solis and other Mexican American middle class leaders met in Helotes, Texas, to discuss continued discrimination against la raza. They formed the Order of Sons of America. Similar groups formed in other towns and cities in the next several years, and ultimately consolidated into a new organization. In 1929 the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was formed, and became the first nationwide Mexican American civil rights organization, founded in Corpus Christi, Texas. LULAC advocated against political disenfranchisement, racial segregation and racial discrimination in schools, housing and public accommodations. It responded to bossism, the lack of political representation, jury exclusion, white primaries, and poverty. Most members were skilled laborers or small business owners.
Initially women were not encouraged to join, but they became active members anyway, and played a vital role in LULAC’s development. They attended the first convention in 1929 and by 1991 constituted half of the membership. In 1932 they began to form separate Ladies Auxiliaries, and the following year LULAC created formal Ladies LULAC councils. The number of these councils grew through the 1940s. Members were predominantly middle class, and focused on issues related to children, the elderly, women and the poor. These Ladies Councils declined in the 1950s, as integrated chapters developed. Most organization leaders have been men, but Dolores Guerrero (1969) and Rosa Rosales (1991) became Texas statewide presidents. Many women have served as local district leaders and council presidents as well.
In the 1950s, the Texas Democratic Party remained a formidable barrier to racial progress. The party was still dominated by white conservatives, and labor, ethnic minorities and white liberals had few representatives. The party strongly supported state’s rights and opposed racial integration, like Democratic parties throughout the U.S. South. However, a few Mexican American leaders achieved important milestones. San Antonian Henry B. González became the first first Mexican American elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1953, and then the first Mexican American elected to the Texas senate in 1956. He then led a historic filibuster to obstruct attempts to resegregate Texas’ public schools. In 1961, González became the first Latino to represent Texas in the U.S. Congress.
The 1960 presidential election was a turning point in Democratic party politics overall. Mexican Americans in Texas played a big role in John F. Kennedy’s victory, and were galvanized by his apparent willingness to address civil rights issues during his presidency. Although the Democratic Party was becoming more inclusive, many Mexican Americans, including San Antonio Westsider Albert Peña, were frustrated at the slow pace of change. Peña attended St. Mary's University and in 1956 became the first Mexican-American to be elected to the Bexar County Commission. He created a new organization, the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASO), with the goal of uniting Mexican Americans with the goal of achieving full citizenship rights, economic progress and preserving culture. PASO bypassed the Democratic party organization and mobilized Mexican Americans directly. Their first convention was in 1962, and focused not only on the issue of representation, but on the root problems of institutionalized racism and economic domination. At the height of its influence, PASO had chapters in over seventy Texas counties and a membership of 20,000.
Other organizations also advocated for political change outside of Democratic party politics. In 1970, the Raza Unida Party was established and began to field candidates for city council and school board races in Crystal City, Cotulla and Carrizo Springs. They won two city council majorities, two school board majorities and two mayoralities. In October of 1971 they began to organize at the state level, and in 1972 Ramsey Muñiz ran as the party candidate for the gubernatorial race. Alma Canales, a farmworker and journalism student at Pan American University, ran for lieutenant governor. Her presence signaled that women would play an important role in the party. The RUP ran candidates for other state offices and local posts as well. Westside activist Rosie Castro served as the Bexar County party chair. The RUP spread to other states, and had its first national conference in El Paso in September 1972. About half of the 1500 participants were women. Virginia Múzquiz headed the RUP nationally from 1972-1974, and María Elena Martinez served as head of the party from 1976-1978. Evey Chapa, Ino Alvárez and Martha Cotera organized Mujeres Por La Raza, the women’s caucus within the RUP. This organization advanced the political interests of Chicanas. Evey Chapa helped write the party platform, which asserted the significance of equality for women. Mujeres organized conferences in San Antonio in 1973, and in several other cities as well. The conferences included sessions on organizing at the state and local level, and how to organize rural and urban areas.
The RUP effectively ended as a party in 1978, partly due to the rise of another organization, the Mexican American Democrats (MAD). This organization was formed in 1975, and shifted away from the nationalist politics of the RUP. They had already caucused at the state Democratic convention, and had helped Joe Bernal get elected as the first Mexican American to the Democratic national Committee. They began holding state meetings in 1976, and worked for representation of Mexican Americans at all levels of the Democratic party. At its height MAD had forty-seven chapters and 6,000 members.
One of most effective political organizations developed directly out of San Antonio’s West and South sides. The Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) is an organization of 26 parishes founded in 1974. It is the oldest Interfaith Area Foundation organization in Texas. COPS and the Metro Alliance work to create and maintain after school programs, fund scholarships, job training programs and advocate for a living wage. COPS was founded by Ernie Cortés, who looked for natural community leaders. Many of these leaders were women – the women who organized church socials, ran PTAs, or were union stewards. Cortes asked these leaders what concerned them – flooding streets, potholes, the lack of sidewalks and high utility bills, and he organized around these issues. COPS has been particularly effective at pressuring the San Antonio city council to address these issues in the Westside, and they have achieved results. COPS also cultivated a high number of women leaders in the process. Today they collaborate with another San Antonio organization, the Metro Alliance, to continue to advocate for Westside neighborhoods and other inner city San Antonio communities.
San Antonio’s municipal government has been an important space for Mexican American organizing, launching the career of Mexican Americans who would eventually get national attention. Henry B. González began his political career as a city council member; Henry Cisneros would become the first mayor of Mexican descent in San Antonio since Juan Seguín (during the Republic of Texas era), and would later serve as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Bill Clinton’s administration. Julián Castro would follow a similar path, as San Antonio’s mayor and then HUD Secretary in the administration of President Barack Obama. Castro’s mother, Rosie Castro, ran for city council in 1971, finishing second. In 1981, María Berriozábal became the first Latina to serve in San Antonio’s city council. Ten years later she would launch an historic mayoral race, when she was narrowly defeated in a close run-off election. All of these leaders grew up on San Antonio’s Westside, and many would continue to advocate for the betterment of their community long after their political terms ended.