[Essay]La Confer en CIA de Mujeres Por La Raza | Chicano | African American Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968)

La Conferencia de Mujeres Por La Raza: Chicana Activism and Identity in Houston By Jaime Puente

The Civil Rights movement that swept the nation in the 1950s and 1960s took on many different identities. The most prominent became the African American Civil Rights movement led by people such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcom X, but looking beneath the black and white dichotomy of American racial politics there is another civil rights movement to take notice of. The Chican@ movement rose from the ashes of the Mexican American movement of the 1930s and 1940s, and during the late 1960s it became a growing force in American politics. Unfortunately not civil rights movements are made equal. Just as their African American brethren the Chican@s suffered from rampant sexism within their ranks. In public arenas and speeches, women were denigrated to maids and cooks for the movement, but in the streets and schools las mujeres occupied a much larger role. As the decade of the 1970s began, and the Chican@ movement looked forward to dreams of national recognition in the upcoming presidential election, Chicanas took it upon themselves to educate each other about their roles in the movement, and in society. La Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza in the spring of 1971 suffered from factional differences, but the meeting of over six hundred Chicana women from across the nation served as a foundational moment in the future of Mexican American politics because it asserted the importance of issues such as women’s reproductive health, political involvement, and education to the core ideologies of the emerging Chican@ movement. To understand the origins of 1

Chicana/o political thought and activism it is helpful to understand some of the conditions both men and women in the movement grew up around. Houston serves, as a prime example of the racist, sexist, and economic oppression the emerging Chicana/o movement would try to address. Mexican American political action in Houston, and around the United States, began as a response to the discrimination and disenfranchisement caused by the dictums of racism. In Houston the influence of the Jim Crow ordinances and laws is as significant as any other major city in the Deep South. Historian and scholar Arnoldo De Leon describes the bigotry Mexican Americans faced at the time because “Jim Crow codes applicable to black people extended to Mexicans.”1 Barred from services and establishments specified for Anglos, the Mexican American community suffered deplorable conditions in their neighborhoods. Terrible violence marked the first three decades of the 1900s in Houston for both citizens and non-citizens because as an insignificant sector of the city to local Anglo leaders; the barrios were not eligible for police protection. In fact the police perpetrated many of the most devastating acts of savagery, such as the murder of Elepidio Cortez in 1936.2 By that time the leadership of the Houston colonia, along with others in the state, began to move to different methods of resistance against the mounting oppression from the Anglo community, one that focused on assimilation and ultimately on citizenship. The Mexican American Generation, as they labeled themselves, rose out of these conditions that plagued the community over the course of American history, and in the 1930s leaders began to emerge from the colonias and barrios to resist further subjugation.3 In February of 1929 the organizing members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) met 2

in Corpus Christi, Texas, to formalize the first chapter of the group and produce a constitution that would promote the goals of Mexican American people. Those who represented their respective communities were some of the first major contributors to the efforts of mobilizing eligible Mexican American people to vote. In fact LULAC’s founding constitution outlined the importance of using their “vote and influence… to place in public office men who show by their deeds, respect and consideration for our people.”4 The efforts of the group to urge every United States citizen of Mexican descent to exercise their political power as a collective voting bloc was one of the most important resolutions of the meeting. The successes of LULAC began to mount as the decade of the 1930s progressed because through the efforts of leaders such as Houston’s Felix Tijerina, John J. Herrera, and the great Texas educator George I. Sanchez who asserted the whiteness of Mexican Americans, more access to equal rights had been secured.5 The leaders of the Mexican American community in the 1930s, especially in Texas and California, stressed their proximity to whiteness as opposed to blackness. The supremacy of Jim Crow and racial oppression determined the path of least resistance for acquiring more equal civil rights for the people of the Mexican American Generation. However, by assuming a racialized basis for their argument, LULAC leadership disenfranchised many of their own would be supporters. The most troubling clauses written into the first constitution included highly nationalistic wording that eventually created a divide between the first wave of Mexican American civil rights efforts and the rising tide of Chican@ activism. The efforts to claim whiteness precipitated clauses that accepted “the acquisition of the English language,” rejected “radical and violent demonstration which may tend to create conflicts and disturb the peace and 3

tranquility of our country,” and most of all to “develop within the members of our race the best, purest, and most perfect type of a true and loyal citizen of the United States of America.”6 One of the key attributes of LULAC and the Mexican American Generation’s success was their willingness to submit their people to the racial dichotomy of white versus black that ruled the country. This first wave of political activism needed to project its Americanism through whiteness. These tactics worked for the already established Mexican American middle-class who were trying to find their way into a conversation that completely disregarded their presence. As the decades progressed the initial gains made by those working with LULAC gave way into a larger Civil Rights movement that spearheaded the equality of African Americans and changed the way people across the country would pursue equal rights. The post World War II baby boom combined with the increased access to education for many returning soldiers spurred a large influx of politically aware and educated people into the American population. Mexican American soldiers returning from the war made themselves more aware of the racial inequalities that permeated their lives, and organized their own groups to address issues of continuing discrimination. The American GI forum became one of the more influential Mexican American political machines during the 1950s because the war seasoned veterans who made up the organization supported active participation in the electoral process by endorsing candidates and organizing get out the vote campaigns.7 By the mid-1950s the Mexican American population in the United States had shed most of its nationalistic ties to Mexico, and began planting their roots here by deepening their commitment to their future as Americans. One of the most successful and well known Mexican American political activists that 4

came from this tradition is Cesar Chavez who used his philosophy of non-violent protest and collective action to secure the rights of thousands of farm workers across the United States.8 Boycotts, hunger strikes, and grape picker strikes, that Chavez organized, energized young Mexican American kids from around the United States to acquire a new consciousness of their participation in the discrimination of their own people. By the late 1960s bilingual underground newspapers such as Papel Chican@ and Compass in Houston began to express more radical support for those fighting in the California farm worker’s union.9 The organization of a national labor union for farm workers and the solidarity expressed in the urban centers by teenage Mexican Americans led to a surge in group consciousness that reached across the United States. The East L.A Walkouts in the spring of 1968 marked a momentous change in the political activism of Mexican Americans because it was no longer something that only the established middle class businessmen and educated elite could participate in. Across the country students were awakening to the reality of their position in American society. The walkouts that happened in East Los Angeles occurred in nearly every city that had a large population of Mexican American students. Citing issues that affected both male and female students the walkouts ignited a fury of adolescent rage that had been brewing over the last decade. In Houston, Crystal City, San Antonio and other cities in Texas, the anger of being brutally discriminated against found an ideological basis in the emerging radicalism of the Chican@ movement. The disenfranchisement experienced by many young Mexican Americans led them to form several organizations that laid the foundation for more substantial political gains in the following decades. The most influential of these was La Raza Unida Party that began 5

to form in the early 1970s. Working from the momentum gained from the national attention of César Chávez’s UFW movement and the walkouts of the late 1960s, local Chican@ political efforts took their chance at national recognition. Unfortunately, the nascent Chican@ Movement would be plagued by much of the same problems that affected the Black Nationalist Movement because amidst the fight against racism there was an equally taxing battle just starting to rage against sexism. The Chican@ Movement that rose out of the walkouts became a promising force that tried to spread social consciousness throughout their respective communities. Chican@ leaders tried to raise awareness of their people to the racial inequalities that exist and actively work to resist oppression through political newspapers such as Houston’s Papel Chicano and Los Angeles’s La Raza. Across the country students began to write manifestos that rang the bell of Marxist and post-colonial thought in the sincere effort to educate what they perceived to be a complacent Mexican American community.10 In Houston the efforts to educate each other on the problems of Mexican American people in relation to their historical, sociological, and economic context became the focus of many young people, especially Chicana women. As the local movements grew into more interconnected national partnerships, the need to delineate a solid identity for the movement became a top priority and the leaders from each locale began vying for their spot as the figurehead of a national La Raza Unida Party. The radicalism of the 1960s witnessed the rise of several prominent leaders in the Chican@ movement, all of them men who represented varying levels of political dogmatism. Reis Lopez Tijerina gained his fame and allure as the leader of La Alianza Federal de los 6

Mercedes in New Mexico in the early 1960s when he and a group of others began occupying national parks and attempted to arrest and try a county district attorney. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez made his name as the leader of the Denver student walkouts. One of the most outspoken people in the Chican@ movement, Gonzalez felt his position in a national movement could only be the leadership. From Texas the most prominent and successful Chican@ activist at the time was José Ángel Gutiérrez who led the Mexican American activists to their first electoral victories in Crystal City, Texas, in 1969.11 These men all worked from their own political agendas and dogmas. Some had more formal education than the others and that was expressed usually in terms of more flowery use of various philosophical references, especially that of Karl Marx. In the reality of the day-to-day movement work, the ideological rhetoric didn’t register with many people in the communities. Chicanas were by far the most disenfranchised members of the Mexican American civil rights movement because they suffered not only the racial discrimination that plagued the entire community, but the internal domination of men. Marta Cotera, a founding member and key organizer of La Raza Unida Party reflects on the status women had among their male counterparts saying, “what happens is that very often the women are very willing to do the work and they don’t mind having a secondary role; they don’t mind not having the elected and appointed positions.”12 Cotera is describing a subjugated position of women in the Chican@ movement that reflects a deeper submission to the patriarchal domination of men on women in the Mexican American community. Scholar Maylei Blackwell discusses the relationship of Chicanas to their identities as women amidst the growing feminist movement and she says that 7

the “contested and contestatory nature of Chican@ feminism” in the movement represented the struggle to articulate “a new kind of Chicana political subject within the confines of masculinist nationalism.”13 The women of the Chican@ movement understood the need to fight for the equal rights of Mexican American people, and that fight included advancing their rights as women within the movement. Still, some Chican@ activists refused to accept the terms of the larger, Anglo led, Feminist movement. The awareness of Mexican American women to their status as subjugated people came to a hilt at La Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza that met in Houston in May of 1971. Organized by Houstonians Elma Barrera and other Chicana staff members of the Magnolia YWCA, the conference sought to promote the social consciousness of Mexican American women and began the discussion of their influence on the Chican@ movement from a national perspective.14 Representatives of women from twenty-three states scraped together their meager earnings, allowances, and savings to attend the weekend meeting.15 Delegates to the conference included Mexican American women who already established their organizing credentials such as Marta Cotera from Crystal City, Grace Gil Olivarez from Pheonix, and professor Gracia Molina de Peck from the University of California, who could share their knowledge and experience with the other delegates. Cotera discusses her involvement in the La Conferencia as being driven by a desire to communicate the lessons she learned to younger generations and inspire more direct political action by Mexican American women. Despite their importance as organizers, the women in the movement were not seeking political office and not allowed to hold active leadership roles. Cotera says more women were needed “because very often they had jobs that 8

weren’t threatened or they had no jobs…They weren’t [economically] vulnerable.”16 Chicana women had proven their importance to the day-to-day operations of el Movemiento, and yet they remained in a subordinate position to their male counterparts. The women who organized La Conferencia made a strategic move to meet and discuss the issues that were important to them and their constituencies at the first national meeting of Chicana women. Many of the discussion panels held during the three day meeting were run by the veterans of the movement who represented Houston, Crystal City, Los Angeles, Denver, and Santa Fe, because they had several years of organizing experience and college educations. Like the broader Chican@ movement las Mujeres depended upon those who could teach others the political craft as well as raise their consciousness to the institutional ills facing their community.17 Panels and lectures included “The Mexican American Women Public and Self-Image” by Julie Ruiz and “Women in Politics-Is Anyone There?” which was moderated by Mary Lou de La Cerda.18 The question of Chicana identity in the Mexican American community and so too the larger American community became an overwhelming issue because as more and more women became politically active they questioned the roles dictated by prominent Chican@ leaders such as “Corky” Gonzalez. The firebrand leader of the Denver and California Chicanismo movement had famously demanded, “a woman [should] influence her old man only under the covers or when they are talking over the table.”19 The resistance to Chicana influence in the direction of local movements made it clear to some women participating that their ability to communicate and share ideas hinged on raising the awareness of inequality within the movement at the conference. 9

The May 1971 meeting of Mujeres por la Raza precipitated the first meeting of the National La Raza Unida Party that was scheduled to meet the next summer during the 1972 election season. The efforts of women to organize ahead of time and prepare to do the hard work of debating issues that influenced all Chican@ people gave La Conferencia the gravitas it needed to be a hotbed of social, political, and economic thought for Mexican American women. In fact the events of the conference can even be said to foreshadow the events of the national party meeting because they both became separated along ideological boundaries.20 More than six hundred women met at the Magnolia YWCA from all across the United States, and some, more organized than others, brought newspapers to show what they had been working on in their cities. The women from Los Angeles, for example, brought La Hijas de Cuauhtéhmoc, a selfpublished account of the California meeting that detailed the problems Chicana’s had to contend with in the movimiento, and as Sandra Ugarte writes, “We must start with the oppression of the Chicana woman and develop it to see how it ties into the Chican@ movement. We must, also, realize how the Chicano movement ties into the struggle of all oppressed people.”21 The women who attended the meeting were ready to work on the issues, and problems they and their families faced, but not all of the attendees were as aware of their position as Chicanas in American society as some would have hoped. In an article published in El Papel Chicano after the conference, one Chicana relayed the experiences of women who felt left out of the proceedings. At a meeting that focused largely on raising social, political, and economic awareness, there were some who did not want to be associated with the larger feminist movement. Two factions began to arise during the convention 10

that split on the issue of “women’s lib” because many Chicana’s either did not know much about the movement other than what they saw happening nationally, or they did not identify with the feminist ethos, as they knew it. Carmen Hernandez writes in El Papel Chican@ that “one of the most common complaints was that the conference was turning into a ‘women’s liberation’ movement, and many of us felt that ‘women’s lib’ is irrelevant to the Chican@ movement.”22 Logistical issues combined with the struggle to assert a new distinct Chican@ identity drove a wedge between the conference attendees. Shortly after the Sunday morning panels started on May 30, 1971, a group of anti-women’s lib Chicanas, led by Marta Cotero, staged a walkout in protest of the meeting’s purpose and organization.23 La Conferencia proved that the efforts to nationalize the local, regionalized movements were much more difficult because the different levels of social consciousness that Chican@ people experienced became a barrier to the larger movement’s efforts. The meeting of women from across the country may have ended in controversy, but the work they accomplished set in motion political, social, and economic, changes that left an indelible mark on American society. After the meeting of Chicanas, the national party convention could not escape the needs of women because there were many who attended the Houston meeting and were prepared to fight for their right to have an opinion in the proceedings. Not every Chicana felt the need to adopt more radical feminist ideologies. Despite that, the efforts to educate each other provided more leadership opportunities in the future for Mexican American women. Women who attended the Houston meeting in 1971 went on to teach, run for office, and 11

even gain national recognition as one of the nation’s first Chicana television anchors. The importance of La Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza reached every member of the community because the women saw the need to be active not just for themselves but for their families. Vicki Ruiz remarks that one motive of Chicana women in the struggle for equal rights was that they did not want “a piece of the “American pie”, they wanted the freedom to bake their own pan dulce.”24 Chicana’s saw their efforts reflected in each other and became more determined to assert their own will and objectives for their people. In Houston, the efforts resulted in having several Chicana’s elected as State Representatives, City Council members, school board officials, and other positions of power. The legacy built by the conference continues to influence local Mexican American politics, long after las Mujeres went home. The first national meeting of Chicana women, La Conferencia de Mujeres por La Raza in May of 1971, brought together many different women with drastically different ideas about the problems facing Chicanas. The women who organized, spoke at, and attended the meeting sought to define more clearly the role they played in the larger Chican@ rights movement and so too their role in the future of American society. Stressing issues such as women’s reproductive rights, feminist consciousness, and political organizing, the work done at the YWCA opened the floodgates for women’s political involvement in the movimiento as well as mainstream politics. The lack of respect given to female activists by male leaders in the Chican@ movement were addressed through raising feminist consciousness, but not all women were interested in what they saw as an Anglo influenced philosophy. In retrospect the conference did extremely important work of giving Chicana’s a venue to express their beliefs and laid a foundation for others to 12

follow because as the Chican@ movement began to coalesce it was the women who provided the strongest ideological support for a new Chican@ political identity, and not the overly zealous male leaders.

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1

Arnoldo De León, Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: Mexican Americans in Houston (College Station:

Texas A&M University Press, 2001), 26.
2

F. Arturo Rosales, “Shifting Self Perceptions and Ethnic Consciousness Among Mexicans in

Houston, 1908- 1946,” Atzlan 16, nos. 1-2 (1987): 87.
3

Historian Mario T. Garcia defines the “Mexican American Generation” in Mexican

Americans: Leadership, Ideology, & Identity, 1930- 1960 as the era between 1930 and 1950.
4

“Article II: LULAC Constitution,” Mexican Americans in the Southwest (Claremont, CA:

Ocelot Press, 1970), 116.
5

Hernandez v. Texas, 347 U.S. 475 (1954); Neil Foley, “Mexican Americans and the Color

Line,” American Dreaming, Global Realities: Rethinking U.S. Immigration History. Donna R. Gabaccia and Vicki L. Ruiz, eds. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 361-378.
6

“Article II: LULAC Constitution,” Mexican Americans in the Southwest (Claremont, CA:

Ocelot Press, 1970), 116
7

Richard Griswald del Castillo, World War II and Mexican American Civil Rights (Austin:

University of Texas Press, 2008), 20; Rosales 158.
8

César Chávez, “The Organizer’s Tale,” reprinted in Renato rosaldo, Robert A. Calvert, and

Gustav L. Seligmann, eds. Chican@: The Evolution of a People (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1973), 197-302.
9

For more examples of local awareness of the California struggles see issues of El Papel

Chican@ and Compass as well as various clippings organized by Leonel J. Castillo at Houston Metropolitan Resource Center.
10

El Papel Chican@ and Compass, HRMC; F. Arturo Rosales, Chican@. (Houston: Arté

Público Press, 1996), 97; José Ángel Gutiérrez, interviewed by Jesús Treviño, January 27, 1992, NLCC, pp 10-11;
11

Rosales, Chican@, 238-241.

12

Marta Cotera, Profile on the Mexican American Woman (Austin: national Laboratory

Publishers, 1976), 232-236.
13

Maylei Blackwell, “Contested Histories: La Hijas de Cuauhtémoc, Chicana Feminisms, and

Print Culture in the Chican@ Movement, 1968- 1973,” Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader, Gabriela F. Arredondo, Aida Hurtado, Norma Klahn, Olga Nájera-Ramírez, and Patricia Zavella, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 74.
14

La Conferencia de Mujeres Por La Raza Program, The Leonel J. Castillo Papers, Houston

Metropolitan Resource Center;
15

Carmen Hernandez, “Carmen Speaks Out,” El Papel Chican@, June 1971, Leonel J. Castillo

Papers, Houston Metropolitan Resource Center.
16

Cotera, 232. DeLeon, 197. Official Program: La Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza, HRMC. Antonio Carmejo, ed. “Why a Chican@ Party? Why Chican@ Studies?” (pamphlet) (New

17

18

19

York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 10; Vicki Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 108-109.
20

Rosales discusses in detail the divisions at the NLRU that fell largely along the fault lines

created by “Corky” Gonzalez of Denver and José Ángel Gutíerrez of Crystal City in his work Chican@! (1996).
21

Sandra Ugarte, “Chicana Regional Conference: Philosophy Workshop,” La Hijas de

Cuauhtéhmoc, in Leonel J. Castillo Papers, Houston Metropolitan Resource Center.
22

Hernandez, El Papel Chican@, HRMC. De Leon, 197; Cotero, 235; Blackwell, 76. Ruiz 105.

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