The synthesizing Chicano and the sympathetic Gringo! You will meet both at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), Brownsville, Texas, March 23 through 25. Join the National Association of Chicana/Chicano Studies Tejas Foco Conference. Theme: “Confronting/Resisting the Colonizer Within: A History of Violence, Discrimination/Oppression and Shame.”
Among issues to be presented: Racism/Colorism; Catholicism/Colonialism; Anti-Indigeneity; LatinX Elites; “Vendidos”; MAGA LatinX; Criminalization of BIPOC; Fresa Culture (the X’s from the official program). Come, join the synthesizing Chicanos and sympathetic Gringos. (Organizer: Dr. Rosalva Reséndiz, Department of Criminal Justice, UTRGV.)
I met a very angry Chicano, long ago at the former incarnation of UTRGV, that is, Pan American University (PAU). Dr. Nadie (pseudonym) burst into my office: “You are not Mexican American. You can’t understand Mexican Americans!” That brusque accusation from a high level administrator was met with my response—as non-intellectual as his: “uh, so, you are not Anglo; therefore, you can never understand Anglos.. . ?” Now, reflecting, I recall an earlier version of PAU.
Before the name change in the 1970s. Pan American University had a Vice-President for Latin American Affairs. That position was voided. It boasted a splendid, yearly “Pan American Days”, featuring a glorious parade of flags of nations of the Western Hemisphere, with speakers from many Latin American countries. That event was canceled. Then, the university continued to have a Latin American Faculty Association. That was canceled.
Then, the university went gunning for Mexican American Studies, threatening to eliminate that program. I and others, such as Dr. Hubert Miller, Professor of Latin American History, protested. The university community resisted. That program was saved. But all around the US, gracias a Dios, Mexican American Studies grew. However, at “Pan Am,” not much interest in Mexico, per se.
In spite of that attitude, I was able to invite a friend, the former Mayor of Mexico City, Ing. Cuahutémoc Cárdenas, son of former Mexican president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to speak at Pan Am. I had lined up the President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, to come but, oddly, the second Mexican American president of Pan Am nixed that plan. Although I served several times for Study Abroad, at the University of Salamanca, España, strangely, there was never a Study Abroad program with Mexico!
Reasons? Provincialism? One wonders. Does that trait linger? The fame of PAU/UTPA/UTRGV was and is due, in part, to the 90 percent Mexican American students enrolled. However, there still is no fully supported, actual Department of Mexican American Studies, only a “program.” But activist Mexican Americans – Chicanos–and sympathetic Gringos persist. That special group—though often ridiculed by the Dr. Nadie clan and other angry Chicanos – has been astute at merging the best of two cultures. They have gained observable measures of political power. They are also “influencers,” especially in law, academia, mass communication and entertainment. At least, here, locally. But, the “Valley” can be quite different from other parts of Texas, especially when we look at history.
Certainly that is true for the Kingsville area. Author and professor, Dr. José Angel Gutiérrez, University of Texas at Arlington, recalls being chased around the A & I campus by cowboys, threatening him, swinging belts with heavy silver buckles (interview, St. Mary’s University, 1972). But around that same time – the early 1970s,–things were changing. Perhaps this was partially the result of Chicano movement in all its aspects. The angry Chicano who pushed the limits was essential to change. He allowed the quieter group to be more persistent—and successful.
But, even more pernicious was the racism during previous decades in other parts of the state, below San Antonio, but above the Valley. In “Cristál,” or Crystal City, “Winter-garden” area of Texas, abuse was abundant. In the shadow of Popeye’s statue, his can of spinach symbolizing one of Zavala County’s main products, stood the high school, famous for the 60’s “walk-outs,”opposing Anglo authoritarian control.
Control led to abuses. Abuses included open cheating by some educational authorities. For example, one principal trashed results of student elections favoring Mexican American students for honors (“Most Popular,” “Most Handsome,” etc.), replacing them with favored Anglo students. (interview with Dr. Charles Cotrell, St. Mary’s University; also, documented cases, Dr. José Angel Gutiérrez, A Chicano Manual on How to Handle Gringos, 1968).
Protests included walk-outs, to lessen daily student numbers and, thus, state funds. Although the San Antonio press and other media labeled protest in Cristál “violent,” it neverwas more serious than an occasional angry exchange in the hallway, or on the street, or the high school band leaving the field with clenched fists raised high, or the memorable night someone covered Popeye with brown paint.
Gringos Simpatizadores helped in the best ways they could, some tutoring Mexican American students from Crystal City, who walked out, 1968, to prevent their flunking tests later. I was among them, along with Dr. Miller and St. Mary’s University president, Dr. Charles Cotrell, who later, testified before Congress about discriminatory voting restrictions. We sat, Plato-like, on the banks of the Pedernales River, tutoring History, Civics, English, and Spanish. I had just returned from doctoral research, living in and studying the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. My cultural journey continued at PAU.
From Pan American, I took some of my students on field trips—by train from Reynosa, their first—to Mexico. Snow in the mountains, near Queretaro—their first. Then, while in Mexico City, a terremoto (earthquake)–their first. Back home, politics was rocking the area—grape boycotts, strikes, protest marches—not their first. Both César Chávez and Dolores Huerta visited the campus to speak. I took students from my courses on the Politics of Mexico, and Mexican American Politics. They helped as monitors for United Farm Worker (UFW) marches, suffering the flipped middle fingers on the parade route, and prevented racist fools from ramming marchers and students with their trucks.
Chicano leaders in the Valley, such as “Billy” Leo, (one of my graduate students) flourished. He and his famous father, Leo J. Leo, mayor of La Joya, led successful efforts to bring more federal funds, to develop a safer school bus system and to establish in their high school’s new, impressive theatre, skilled ballet-folkloric dancers, and accomplished mariachis.
All the while, other Valley leaders such as Jesus “Chuy” Ramirez, persevered. He “worked with the system” (his words) very well, often cleverly using the system against itself (votes?) He helped promote a colleague, Leo Montalvo—another of my graduate students – as the first Mexican American Mayor of McAllen, Texas. He learned (in José Angel’s words) “how to handle Gringos.” Those two leaders/organizers were often allied but often at odds with one another. Chuy opined: “the chief problems of Mexican Americans are their own, not gringos.” The main task remains: “how to be more effective?” (Mr. Jesús “Chuy” Ramirez, interview, McAllen, Texas, 29 Jan 23).
Ramirez fully understands economic domination and discrimination. Most of the Valley’s franchises were scooped up in the 1930s; Anglos owned the land and packing sheds. Mexicans and Mexican Americans toiled the fields, watered by the famous canals their fathers had dug. Owners would often call in “La Migra,” to deport the workers, right after the crops were in, before payday! McAllen’s major Anglo official even fired weapons at UFW organizers and workers in the fields.
But resistance grew. Chuy noted: the “activists of ‘60s were well educated,” both about the unfair employment practices and about ways to demand changes of such blatant laws and conduct. Solutions? Ramirez’s response: “more education – if not formal, then, at least, lots of reading, more history,” plus “groups talking, sharing a deeper level of research in open, public meetings, re-counting their stories of historical and current treachery.”
Mr. Ramirez’ own training included an MA in Public Service, PAU, and Law degree, UT Law. While studying in Austin, Chuy was one of four Chicanos in a class of 145. He felt “eyes” on him,” from fellow students and professors as well, judging him, perhaps thinking: “they don’t belong here,” or “they got in because they were minority,” etc.
At one point, a Gringo professor saw him sitting, waiting for a fateful list of grades to be posted after an especially grueling semester. The list showed he had scored “third highest.” The professor only acknowledged him, “that you?” That was it. No “congratulations;” he just walked away. Later, Chuy was chosen to be on UT Law Review and became editor. He and another Chicano from Laredo excelled in mock trials. It seems his success haunted the racist professor.
Ramirez knows the individual colonizer intertwines with the historical system, creating a difficult-to-overcome symbiosis. His own coming-of-age book, Strawberry Fields (First Texas Publishers, 2009), attests to his abilities, at an early age, to identify and oppose internal machismo and misogyny. Later, his leadership continued as he established the avant-guard journal, IberoAtzlan, publishing essays about Mexico and Mexicans, the Rio Grande Valley and Mexican Americans. (Full disclosure: that journal published my essays on artist José Guadalupe Posada and author Eduardo del Rio—“rius,” the famous father of political satire, especially Los Supermachos.) Chuy’s legal work also contributes to the rule of law for his clients—Anglos and Mexican Americans alike – in South Texas.
Others continue the fight. Some of them invited me to join LULAC, League of United Latin American Citizens, Council 291. One major goal of ours—proposed by our Chaplain, Dr. Isidoro Flores of Edinburg – is to establish an artistic monument on the border with Mexico, welcoming immigrants. The Valley is now the new Ellis Island. The US needs Mexicans and other Latin Americans. Enlightened Mexican Americans welcome them, as do Sympathizing Gringos. Both will continue to join together, fighting for fairness. You can measure and savor their spirit and progress, March 23-25, 2023, on UTRGV campus, at the NACCS Conference in Brownsville. Oralé!
Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by UT-Rio Grande Valley Professor Emeritus Dr. Gary Joe Mounce. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Dr. Mounce can be reached by email via: [email protected]
Editor’s Note: Click here to read the 2023 National Association of Chicana/Chicano Studies Tejas Foco Conference schedule.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows one of the buildings at the UT-Rio Grande Valley campus in Brownsville. (Credit: UTRGV)