Article first published in Vol. 28 (2010-2011)
By Jessica M. Oracio and Katherine Smith
Her senior class at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas, selected her “Most Likely to Succeed.” It was a title that Belen Robles took to heart in the 1950s and is still making come true.
Image caption: The first woman national president of LULAC, Belen Robles is a leader in the El Paso community. (Photo courtesy of Belen Robles)
Robles was the fifth child of a family of 10 children born to immigrants who had come to the United States from Mexico in the early 20th century, her father from the state of Chihuahua, her mother from Zacatecas. Attending parochial school at St. Mary’s, she began high school at St. Joseph’s but graduated from Bowie High School.
Like most young women in the 1950s, Belen was expected to find a good man, get married and raise a family. Three months after high school graduation, she married Ramiro Robles, and the couple began raising a family. She soon discovered that her family needed two incomes. In an interview with National Public Radio’s Michel Martin in 2008, Robles said it took about six months to convince her husband that his manhood would not suffer if she began working outside the home.
In an interview with Jose Estrada in 1976, Robles described applying in 1955 for a job at a well-known company in El Paso. She was told by a receptionist in the lobby of the building that the company did not hire Mexicans except as elevator girls or cooks. Although Robles kept her appointment to speak with the personnel manager, she knew she would not be hired. Despite being born and raised in the United States, she was seen as “Mexican.”
She did land a job as a secretary-receptionist with a real estate company, but the earlier experience opened the eyes of this young woman to the reality of the inequality that existed in her hometown. Not only did she realize that women were second-class citizens, but so were Latinos. If you were both, then you had two strikes against you. Robles told EPCC student Jessica Oracio that she realized the challenges Mexican Americans faced in health care and education as well as employment, and it gave her the ganas (“the will” or “determination”) to motivate her in her job search.
At 20, Robles took a job as a clerk with the U. S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service. Because she was fluent in English and Spanish, she often was called in to interpret for exclusion and deportation hearings. In this role she worked with a division that investigated persons who could be excluded from remaining in the United States on grounds of moral, criminal or subversive backgrounds.
Shortly after her first disappointing interview as an adult, Robles joined the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC, the oldest and largest Latino civil rights organization in the United States. Organized in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, LULAC was led for years only by men. LULAC allowed women’s auxiliaries, but in 1933 women began to form their own councils. Ladies LULAC Council No. 9 was founded in El Paso in February 1934. (See articles on the history of LULAC and the role of women in LULAC in Volume 25 of Borderlands.)
At first, LULAC members banded together to protect their families and businesses as well as to help members find employment and keep children in school. Then LULAC began the fight to desegregate schools and other public facilities in Texas. After World War II, victories in California and Texas in desegregating schools would set the scene for Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which desegregated public schools.
LULAC fought for the right of Mexican Americans to serve on juries and began voter registration drives, raising money to help pay poll taxes, which Texas maintained until 1966. Women’s councils often worked independently of the state and national organizations and concentrated on working with women and children, the elderly, the poor and for education, realizing that it was the key to success in America.
Joining Ladies Council No. 9 in 1957, Robles quickly became active in the local projects of LULAC, eventually serving in nearly every office: president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and trustee. She and the council focused on the needs of children, teaching pre-schoolers at age five the basic 400 words in the English language so that they could handle the first grade adequately. Known as the “Little School of the 400,” the statewide program was the basis of what would become the national program called Project Head Start in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
She also worked within her council and with Council No. 132 to develop a lunch program in El Paso grade schools before the federal lunch program began. She and the councils provided children with eye glasses, clothing and shoes, programs which have been absorbed by federal agencies. Robles also became a big part of a program providing weekly English and citizenship classes to immigrants studying to become citizens that showed her the dedication these adults had to become naturalized Americans.
After 15 years with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, Robles went to work with the U. S. Customs Service as a customs inspector, one of five women who were available to inspect females. She became a senior officer and the first woman chief inspector in El Paso. As an administrative supervisor, Robles found herself in another male-dominated position. “They [male inspectors] had a hard time accepting being led by a female,” she told Oracio.
While working and raising three children, Robles remained involved with LULAC at the local and national level, being appointed national secretary in 1964 and serving in this capacity for six years under five presidents. She was the first woman to be appointed to the board of directors of SER-Jobs for Progress, the job-training program that LULAC initiated. By the 1970s, most LULAC councils were integrated and women members were also able to run for national office.
Robles told Martin that she had several mentors in LULAC, and it was Jorge Alfred Hernandez, a civil rights leader from East Texas and president of LULAC in 1969, who encouraged her to run for national president. Belen Robles became the first woman to do so in 1970 at the national convention in Laredo, Texas, in a “very macho environment,” as she explained to Oracio. She ran against four men, “so I didn’t have fun,” she told Martin. The organization was not ready for a woman president, but Robles kept running for office. In 1974, she was elected the first woman to serve as National Vice President for the Southwest.
Robles ran for the presidency again at the convention in Los Angeles and again lost to a man. The third time was the charm. In 1994 at the national convention in El Paso, Robles ran against another woman, Rosa Rosales. In a close race, Robles was the first woman to be elected national president. She was so popular that she was elected to three more terms, serving a total of four years as national president. She credits women in both the public and private sector for joining to help make Latinos more visible and successful in the United States. These women showed her how to “travel through the maze of D. C.” LULAC raised money and established an office in Washington in 1996. “This was achieved through the network of women. It was a challenge,” Robles told Oracio.
One thing, Robles said, that does bother her is that “highly successful Latinas in influential positions don’t do enough to help other Latinas. They feel they did it [succeeded] on their own, but hardly anyone does this alone. We need to have more successful Latinas help others.” When Oracio asked what priorities Latinas of this generation should have, Robles responded by saying, “You must be well-rounded and take advantage of all educational opportunities and develop people skills. The only barriers and obstacles you have you put there yourself. You must have passion, dedication, perseverance. You must set goals – short-term, long-term – and be flexible.”
Although Robles says she has been passionate about all areas that concern Latinos, education appears to be her primary issue. From the beginning, LULAC has provided scholarships and other financial aid for deserving students, money at the local council level coming from enchilada dinners in the early years. In 1973 during Robles’ tenure as chairperson of the board of LULAC, the organization implemented a national scholarship program focused on Latinos. Over the years, millions of dollars have been matched at the national level from corporations for students through LULAC’S National Educational Service Centers (LNESC).
Education and employment go hand in hand, said Robles. “If parents don’t have good jobs, it will impact education. If health care for the child or parents is not good, it will affect education. Everything is interwoven,” she told Oracio. Robles has never been content to let others make the decisions on these issues. “You must be at the table where these decisions are made,” she continued. “Be part of the boards of financial institutions that finance these businesses.” Robles said she believes that women in leadership positions bring more to the table than leadership skills. “We pay attention to details,” she told Oracio.
Although retired from her federal job, Robles is anything but retired. Still active in LULAC at the national and local levels, she is the marketing director for the El Paso Fiesta de las Flores held at the El Paso County Coliseum during Labor Day weekend, a money maker for LULAC scholarships. And true to her belief that one must be at the table where decisions are made, Robles is the Trustee for District 3 of El Paso Community College.
When Jessica Oracio asked Robles, “What do you foresee for the Latina community?” she responded quickly, “There is no limit nowadays. It’s wide open when you have Justice Sotomayor in the Supreme Court, when you see Latina women in aerospace, the military, boards of major corporations. I am a strong proponent of educating the women because you educate the family.”
The senior class of Bowie High School knew what they were doing when they selected Belen Robles “Most Likely to Succeed” all those many years ago!