By O. Ricardo Pimentel
San Antonio Express-News
Sunday, April 22, 2012
If you believe civil rights for Latinos have improved dramatically since the 1950s, thank a Tejano.
Thank the Tejano diaspora.
“The Tejano Diaspora” is also the title of a new book by Notre Dame scholar Marc Simon Rodriguez, an associate professor of history and law.
Rodriguez focuses on “Mexican Americanism & Ethnic Politics in Texas and Wisconsin,” the book's subtitle. So I somewhat overstate his case. I think, however, the extrapolation is warranted.
Rodriguez's analysis takes us to the hotbed of Chicano activism in Crystal City, Texas, and makes the strong case that such activism was exported to Wisconsin. But, from my reading, the template was at work just about any place Tejanos migrated during that critical civil rights period from the 1950s to the 1970s.
They went wherever strong backs and willing — low paid — hands were needed to harvest crops for a hungry nation. And they brought with them a drive to engage the institutions that governed their work and their lives.
It's not that there weren't homegrown activists. But, because Tejanos were in deeper holes than others, they were more practiced in digging out.
To read “The Tejano Diaspora” is to be taken back to an unsettling time and place in Texas when Mexican-Americans were the majority in many small communities, but you couldn't tell that from those who worked the levers of power.
If you want to make the case that your small Texas town was different, the literature — untaught, I suspect, in Texas schools — would suggest that yours was the exception to a hard Texas rule.
“The situation in Texas was more severe,” Rodriguez told me. “The demarcation lines were understood by all.”
So it was in Crystal City.
Take an ill-fated election bid in 1951.
“For Mexican Americans, this election demonstrated that the airing of complaints about problems such as corruption, cronyism, unpaved roads, and a lack of water, sewer and electric service in their neighborhoods resulted in massive resistance,” Rodriguez writes.
“Los Cinco” changed that in 1963. The five and their supporters launched a poll-tax drive to register as many Mexican-Americans as possible.
Did you get that? A poll-tax drive. Please don't tell me that all was hunky-dory in Texas.
Mexican-Americans, the majority, took control of the city.
After the election, the five splintered. Governance was bad. It spawned La Raza Unida Party, which also imploded. Still, even in failure, lessons were learned and these were passed along the migrant trail to Wisconsin, where farm workers organized and poverty programs were created to help migrants and Latinos.
I know and respect two of the principals in this book: Jesus Salas, who became a member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, and Ernesto Chacon, who served in a Democratic governor's administration.
This Mexican-American “radicalism” created schisms in the Latino community, a topic Rodriguez said is deserving of its own research.
Yup. I still remember the sneer my immigrant father gave me when I first uttered the word “Chicano” in his presence.
Rodriguez, whose family was also from Crystal City, makes clear in his book that the engagement that started there was replicated elsewhere.
From a former Wisconsinite and Californian: Thank you, Tejanos.