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El Paso Women Gained Power in LULAC
By Ernestina Muñoz, Alisandra Mancera, Alma Fajardo, Mayra Garcia and Adrianna Alatorre
"When LULAC was founded in 1929,the main focus was educate, educate, educate, but the fact was they [LULAC] also sought to champion the rights of all people, particularly Hispanics in the United States. LULAC's course was either in the courts or at the ballot box," said Belen Robles in a May 2006 interview. A U.S. Customs inspector from El Paso, Robles was the first and only female president of the national organization in the 77-year history of the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC. (See Borderlands article and video history interview with Ms. Robles.)
In 1929, membership was not open to women. Instead, the women established auxiliaries which helped them gather and talk about their concerns in the community. It was not until 1933 that the League allowed women to organize actual chapters, replacing the auxiliaries. The women fought against many odds to be recognized as independent chapters and not simply auxiliaries to the men's councils throughout the league. The first Ladies LULAC chapter in El Paso was Council 9, organized by Esther Machuca, Amada Valdez and others in May 1934.
The main concerns of Ladies LULAC were children's education, women's issues and the health and well-being of the elderly. As treasurer of Council 9 in 1936, Esther Machuca helped to raise money for scholarships, aided Hispanic voters to register and pay poll taxes and placed volunteers in local clinics, according to Cynthia E. Orozco, writing in the Texas Handbook . Machuca also published the LULAC News in May 1939, which was sponsored and organized by Ladies LULAC councils throughout the league.
The well-being of children concerned Esther Machuca, especially that of the little ones in the tuberculosis wards at Thomason Hospital. According to Robles, Machuca would sit with children of low-income families while their parents worked. She understood that parents could not afford to risk losing a day's pay to stay with their children in the hospital. Machuca provided companionship, toys and love to those children that otherwise would have remained alone until their parents could visit.
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Although women had organized into councils, the going was still rough. Ladies LULAC Council 9 in El Paso remained unacknowledged by the men's organization and in 1936 withdrew from the league because "of the failure of the general office to cooperate" according to Moises Sandoval, author of Our Legacy: The First Fifty Years. In 1937, under the direction of Esther Machuca, Council 9 reorganized and assumed its role as the lead women's council in Texas. In June 1938, Machuca served as official hostess at the LULAC national convention in El Paso. President Filemon T. Martinez appointed Machuca Ladies' Organizer General for Ladies LULAC, making it a national office.
Texas native Mrs. F. I. Montemayor of Laredo was the first woman to serve as national vice president. Sandoval quotes Montemayor as having said, "Women have come to play a vital part in the political, religious, social and cultural aspect of the modern world ...and LULAC women must realize that it is now time to get into our league and stay in it." Montemayor went on to become associate editor of LULAC News and helped organized the first Junior LULAC chapter. In her leadership positions, she helped establish the importance of Ladies LULAC throughout the organization, while advocating for women and youth.
Another prominent El Paso woman in LULAC is Lucy Acosta , who directed LULAC's Project Amistad for 25 years. Project Amistad serves elderly, at-risk and disabled adults. Through the El Paso County Indigent Guardianship Program, Project Amistad manages the housing, food and medical needs of these clients. Through another program, Project Amistad manages the financial affairs of individuals who cannot do so for themselves because of age or illness. Through its transportation program, Project Amistad sees to the transportation of disabled and elderly persons to and from their medical appointments.
Acosta is a charter member and past president of Council 335 and has held several offices at the district, state and national level. She was named National Woman of the year twice by the national LULAC organization. Acosta was also the first Hispanic woman to serve as trustee for the El Paso Community College. LULAC's Project Amistad annually honors individuals who serve their community with the Lucy G. Acosta Humanitarian Award for outstanding achievement, named for this dynamic woman. Honorees for 2006 were Enriqueta "Queta" Fierro, Richard A. Castro, Enrique Moreno and the Honorable Judge Max Higgs, a repeat recipient of the award.
The nationally known Robles joined LULAC in 1957 in El Paso. She was attracted by LULAC's efforts to better educational opportunities for Hispanics in lower-income households in El Paso and throughout the nation. Robles felt that Hispanics were not hired by El Paso companies because of the lack of education of the individuals. She felt the only solution was to education Hispanic children and give them the same opportunities children of other cultures received.
Robles has held various positions within the organization at the council level, including president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and trustee. During her LULAC career in Council 9, she and the other women of the council focused on the needs of young people and their education. LULAC awarded students scholarships based on need and merit.
Students who earned the scholarships made exemplary grades or lived in a large household with limited means. Robles stated that the council considered everything, such as the size of the family, the number of children and the annual family income.
In the 1950s when Robles joined, the women within the organization rebelled against the idea of being "relegated" solely to the national office of "second vice president for women'. Women within LULAC sought the same positions and titles that men had. In the 1960s LULAC changed their policy and women began running for any office they desired. In 1994, Robles was elected national president and served four terms as LULAC's executive officer.
Despite the fact that women were elected to national office, they still felt that the needs of women within the organization and the larger community were being overlooked. Issues such as the need for child care for working mothers, the accessibility to health care for women, educational opportunity, and domestic violence received minimal attention. Thus, Ladies LULAC councils and individual members focused on these issues.
Because of these varied concerns, the league created separate and distinctive vice presidential positions. Today there are separate vice presidents for women, young adults and senior citizens, in addition to regional vice presidents. Robles feels that LULAC has the capacity to recognize the specific needs within each district throughout the state and nation. Robles said on May 13, 2006, "What is of great importance in the El Paso community might not be of great need in Denver, or New York City or Boston or San Jose." Each council tries to identify its own priorities; thus the various councils in El Paso all serve their own purposes.
After 49 years of service in LULAC, Robles reflected on all the programs that have helped those in need to overcome daily challenge. Programs that come immediately to her mind are ones such as the program that provided shoes for children in lower-income households so they would feel good about going to school. When asked how she feels about her LULAC career, Robles replied, "I find it a blessing to work with the leadership of the organization." She adds that her favorite words to hear are "I got my start through a LULAC program." Clearly LULAC women have greatly influenced the direction of this oldest of Hispanic organizations.