|McALLEN, October 18 - A leader in the National Council of La Raza says many people in South Texas do not realize what a rich history the region has in the development of the Latino civil rights movement.
Charles Kamasaki, who grew up in Weslaco, spoke about that legacy at a reception for NCLR members and their Texas affiliates at the Embassy Suites in McAllen on Monday evening.
“When you grow up here you do not appreciate the history,” said Kamasaki, at the reception. “When you grow up here all you know is that the movies come late, the latest fashions take a year to get here. The slang is always two or three years behind.”
Kamasaki is executive vice president of NCLR. He spends much of his time these days working in Washington, D.C. However, he has great memories working first as an intern and then as a staff member for NCLR in the Rio Grande Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some of his colleagues from those days were at the reception. “I was hired by Reyes Cortez to do community development. Back then, very few cities had Mexican American council members. Very few civic organizations were engaged in community development or anti-poverty activities. It was just a few years after the ruling that the Voting Rights Act covered Hispanics,” Kamasaki told the Guardian.
The NCLR is holding a two-day conference in McAllen to educate its Texas affiliates on issues such as the Affordable Care Act and public school finance. Among the affiliates from the Valley are South Texas Adult Resource and Training Center (START), Su Clinica Familiar, Valley Initiative for Development Advancement (VIDA), and TMC (Teaching & Mentoring Communities).
In his remarks at the NCLR reception, Kamasaki detailed the deep roots the Latino civil rights movement has in South Texas.
“When you are here in South Texas you are surrounded by the history of the community and the movement. A couple of hours north east, in Corpus Christi, in 1929, is where LULAC was founded. If you just take that same arc and, really less than two hours north, in Three Rivers, is where the American GI Forum was founded, after Felix Longoria, a war hero, was denied burial in the segregated, white, cemetery of that town,” Kamasaki said.
LULAC stands for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“If you go an hour north of Three Rivers you hit San Antonio where a number of things happened. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund was founded there. There was a group called MAYO, Mexican American Youth Organization that was founded there. The Mexican American Unity Council, an NCLR affiliate, was founded there, at around the same time. And, the same people that founded those organizations founded a number of other efforts including the Raza Unida Political Party,” Kamasaki said.
MALDEF stands for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
To see the greatest impact Raza Unida had, one has to travel west of San Antonio, Kamasaki said. “You have to go to the Winter Garden area where they won their first local victory and then put a hell of a scare into the Democratic Party in a couple of statewide elections. That was very controversial at the time but I think you would find that most people on all parts of the political spectrum now recognize how necessary it was for Latinos to assert their voice to make the institutions, their institutions, more responsive to them.”
Like San Antonio, Three Rivers, Corpus Christi, and Crystal City, the Valley, too, has a rich history in the development of the Latino civil rights movement.
“There was a lot of that (community activism) taking place here (in the Valley) too. One of the first things MAYO did in Crystal, which then came to the Valley, were what were then called Blowouts. These were school walkouts. San Juan very famously had a series of school walkouts, as did Edcouch-Elsa, which is 30 minutes or so away from here,” Kamasaki noted.
“At one level you think, these were just angry kids venting their frustration and being upset that if they said a word in Spanish they were taken to the principal’s office and their mouth was washed out with soap and water, even if they only spoke Spanish on the playground. You might think they were just venting at the fact that there were virtually no Latina teachers or administrators, that there was an 80 percent Mexican American dropout rate.
“But, actually, these guys were being quite strategic because when you do not attend school what happens? The school’s average daily attendance drops. So, yes, these were kids and they were angry but they were also being quite strategic about understanding how to use the power they had, the only power they had, which was the power of attending or not attending school to try to make changes in the institutions that they were spending eight hours a day in.”
Kamasaki is now doing research work for a book about the NCLR. South Texas civil rights icon and former NCLR president and CEO Raul Yzaguirre, with whom Kamasaki worked for 25 years, will be part of that story. Yzaguirre was one of the students in the San Juan walkout.
“One of those students who led the walkout in San Juan was a young man named Raul Yzaguirre who was not very well known in the Valley at the time. He actually ended up leaving the Valley before completing high school but a couple of decades later he found himself in Washington leading the National Council of La Raza. I was proud to work for him for about 25 years,” Kamasaki said.
Kamasaki concluded his remarks to the NCLR audience with this: “I just want everyone to have an appreciation for when you are in South Texas, the history you are surrounded by, the shoulders of the people we stand on, and the legacy that you all are now leaving for the next generation.”
A legacy video of NCLR’s history was then played to those at the reception.