La Raza Unida Party Reunion
July 6th and 7th, 2012
Orale! Todos estan invitados!
La Raza Unida Party Reunion
July 6th, 2012
by James Rodriguez
They don’t teach about La Raza Unida Party in high school. At least not at my high school, a public institution which prides itself in preparing young students for the future that lies ahead of them. As young high school journalist enticed by the possibility of a freelance job, I quickly agreed to show up at Mexitas Mexican Restaurant the morning of July 6 without bothering to ask what I would be writing about, unaware of any reunion of La Raza Unida Party.
Still a stranger to the ideas behind La Raza Unida Party, a political party which paved the way for Hispanic youth such as myself, I entered the bingo hall adjoining Mexitas Mexican Restaurant and was greeted by the sight of thirty or so elderly Hispanic men and women bustling across the room, setting up chairs and sharing hugs and kisses for old friends, some of whom they had not seen in decades.
Lines of tables and plastic chairs, all neatly positioned and uniformly colored, faced a stage at the far end of the hall. Two tables for participant registration lined the walkway through the door which I had just entered. Although there was not nearly enough people in the room to fill up all the chairs, the hall already seemed full with noise, as everyone seemed to be everywhere at once, snapping pictures, setting up booths displaying books on La Raza Unida Party. Tejano music burst out of speakers posted throughout the room.
The fact that I was one of only three or four people present under the age of 50 meant that I was easily distinguishable from the rest of the crowd, and was quickly introduced to several former members of the party. They all told me that they were happy to have me there, but I remained unsure of what “there” was. It was clear to me that some research would be necessary.
I committed half an hour to skimming a few pamphlets and newspaper articles which gave me a quick glimpse into La Raza Unida Party and the reunion which was to take place the following day here at Mexitas Restuarant in Austin, Texas. I then set out to mingle amongst the former members of La Raza Unida Party while my knowledge of the party was still fresh in my mind, and quickly came to a realization. Pure facts and dates cannot convey what it meant to be a part of La Raza Unida Party.
Founded in 1970 in Crystal City, Texas with a vision of giving a stronger voice to the Mexican-American population, La Raza Unida Party eventually grew to become a nationwide movement until its demise in 1978. Forty years after Ramsey Muniz ran as the party’s first gubernatorial candidate in 1972, former members and candidates reunited to share experiences and remember their accomplishments, while maintaining conversation on the future of the Hispanic community.
I had heard stories from my grandfather of the disconnect between the Mexican-American majority in South Texas and the anglo-dominated political offices. It was situations such as these around which La Raza Unida formulated its mission of giving power to the vast number of Mexican-Americans living in South Texas.
Although the party itself hasn’t been active for over thirty years, its former members showed no signs of slowing down. Modesta Trevino, another activist who went on to have a career in education, was adamant that she is still politically active, and eagerly showed me a black and white picture of a smiling younger version of herself posing with Cesar Chavez. The same youthful energy which brought La Raza Unida Party to prominence in the seventies was still present, as volunteers worked tirelessly to make sure all those arriving were registered and checked in to their hotels, where they would spend the night before the following day’s main event.
Renewed cries of joy and laughter rang out as each new arrival walked through the door, another member of the family that made up La Raza Unida Party. The pride each one of them held for their involvement in the movement was evident in the number of tan colored shirts bearing the “Raza Unida” logo and the words “La Raza Unida Party 40th Reunion” worn throughout the crowd.
It was less than 24 hours before the main event, and I was put to work helping carry a few boxes of books for Resistencia Bookstore, a local bookstore founded by poet and activist Raul R. Salinas which specialized in books concerning Hispanic activism and human rights. Resistencia, as well as a group advocating for the freedom of political prisoner Alvaro Luna Hernandez and professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California Riverside and author Armando Navarro, occupied tables in the hall where they displayed information and books.
Preparations and registration were coming to a close and I exited the bingo hall, deep in thought about the historic event which I would be a part of. Immortal we are not, and the activists I had just met in the hall were all eager to pass on their story to a younger generation, my generation. After all, many of them were only a few years my senior when they facilitated the change they so desired.
Through their work, La Raza Unida transcended any labels as simply a third political party and came to embody the struggle for Mexican-Americans to be heard, a struggle that continues today and one which members do not shy away from. True, there is still discrimination, high school dropout rates are still high and voting rates are low. But these statistics only make a reunion of La Raza Unida Party activists even more critical. It is during times like these when the work of La Raza Unida Party should be remembered most.
La Raza Unida Party Reunion
July 6th, 2012
Nearly 300 former members and supporters of La Raza Unida Party gathered at Mexitas Mexican Restaurant in Austin, Texas the morning of July 7 in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Ramsey Muñiz’s run as the party’s first gubernatorial candidate in 1972. An event which some were calling “El último adiós”, the reunion centered around a combination of reflections on the past and discussions of the future.
“It’s important to reconnect and reenergize because we can sometimes become apathetic alone,” Maria Elena Martinez, the last head of La Raza Unida Party in Texas from 1976 until the party’s final year of activity in 1978, said. “We forget these parts of ourselves, these powerful events. It was an important piece of my evolution as a person.”
The morning began with coffee and pan dulce in Mexitas Restaurant, where old friends visited and recalled their time spent together in La Raza Unida Party during its fight for greater Mexican-American representation in politics. Chatter and laughter filled the restaurant, growing as each new arrival entered through the doors. “It’s like going to a family reunion,” Martinez said. “We were all there and we were all a part of it.” The official opening of the reunion inside the neighboring bingo hall, which featured a traditional Aztec dance set to the beating of a drum accompanied by loud maracas, reflected its theme of reconnecting to historic roots and remembering the past. Reflections by Martinez, Luz Bazan Gutierrez, former wife of La Raza Unida Party co-founder Jose Angel Gutierrez, and former RUP senate candidate, Luis Diaz de Leon, elaborated on reasons for attending the reunion and its significance. “With La Raza Unida Party, a sleeping giant woke up, then it went back to sleep again,” de Leon said in his speech. “We have to be wary of not progressing.” While La Raza Unida Party is no longer active and most of its former members are long past their days of overrunning the streets with protest signs in hand, its message has carried on to some of the next generation. Luz Bazan Gutierrez remembers how her own daughter, Avina Gutierrez, resented her mother’s involvement in the party as a child, only to later develop a sense of pride in what La Raza Unida Party accomplished. “As activists we tended to neglect our own children because we were so passionate about what we were doing,” Luz Bazan Gutierrez said. “The sad thing was that because of this our children didn’t want to follow in what we had done. It was only when my daughter took a Chicano studies class in college that she really learned who we were, and through that she found herself.”
Avina Gutierrez, who assisted in selling T-shirts at the reunion, remembers the class well, and how it changed her perception of the work her mother had done. “[The story of La Raza Unida Party] really influenced me, and taught me about standing up for myself and really questioning injustice,” Gutierrez said. “It’s relevant for our youth because we need to have a strong foundation in our roots and where we come from.”
Brothers Joaquin and Julian Castro both followed in their mother Rosie’s footsteps, pursuing political careers in a state which was indelibly changed by activists such as their own mother, who ran as a candidate for La Raza Unida Party. Joaquin is currently campaigning for election as a Texas congressman, and Julian governs as mayor of San Antonio, Texas. “I grew up in a household that was very politically active, and I was inspired by my mother and the generation who set out to make a difference,” Joaquin Castro said. “I hope younger generations remember La Raza Unida Party as a political party that fought discrimination and stood up for the underdog.”
While many of the chairs in the bingo hall were full, La Raza Unida Party’s numbers were not what they once were. A special Reading of the Names for those activists who had passed on was featured early on in the reunion, as many remembered their friends who they had marched alongside and who no longer could join in cheers of “Viva la Raza!”. “It brings tears to our eyes, but we know that they are still with us in spirit,” Maria Elena Martinez said.
One activist who could not attend the event but is still very much alive is Ramsey Muñiz, the first gubernatorial candidate of La Raza Unida Party who many believe was wrongly jailed on false accusations of drug involvement and is currently sentenced to life without parole at the Federal Penetentiary in Beaumont, Texas. His wife, Irma Muñiz, attended the reunion, giving a speech proclaiming Ramsey’s Muñiz’s innocence and outlining her fight for him to live out the rest of his life as a free man. “I have a sense of comfort knowing there are people who still care very much about Ramsey,” Irma Muñiz said. “My hope is that people remember his love for his people, and know that he has never changed his principles. He is the same man today as he was during his involvement in La Raza Unida Party, and I refuse to let him die in jail.” In an effort to preserve the history of the Mexican-American civil rights movement and La Raza Unida Party, Dr. Emilio Zamora, former party chairman in Travis County in 1976 and 1977 and professor of history at The University of Texas, along with several other UT students, conducted one hour interviews with roughly 40 people who had been involved with La Raza Unida Party. The interviews would later be added to virtual archives for future generations to access. “We decided we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview these people who had made such important contributions to our history,” Zamora said. “Our hope is that researchers will include the story of La Raza Unida Party when writing about our country’s history.” As the day progressed, reflections continued in the form of a panel of speakers which included principal La Raza Unida Party organizer Mario Compean, and breakout sessions discussing other issues concerning the Mexican-American population in greater depth such as problems in education and the future of Chicano Studies. At the end of a long day of reminiscing and discussion, hugs were once again shared as participants retreated to their hotels. As I was leaving the bingo hall where the reunion took place, contemplating the vast amount of ideas which I had heard throughout the day, former La Raza Unida Party member Modesta Trevino approached me. “I’ll be out here fighting for people like you,” Trevino said. As a 16 year old Hispanic living the American dream, I hope to return the favor.