Article first published in Vol. 27 (2009-2010)
By Carlos Cantu, Polo Eduardo Frescas, Michael Diaz and Heather Coons
Many people in El Paso who have helped pave the way for others to follow: some in medicine, others in business, even more in education. But one woman stands alone for leading the way for Chicanos and women in politics − Alicia R. Chacón.
Chacón was born on Nov. 11, 1938, to William and Jesusita Rosencrans, the third of seven children. She learned early that her father loved politics. When she was just a toddler, he was elected constable in their little town of Canutillo. But the family would be separated from their father when he was drafted to fight in World War II.
Image caption: Former El Paso County Judge Alicia Chacón opened doors for women and Chicanos in politics. Photo courtesy of Alicia Chacón.
Chacón remembers the three years her father was away as a developing period for the family. She told Dr. José Gutiérrez in an interview for Tejano Voices that those were happy years, even though her mom was a strict disciplinarian. “I always remember … how strong my mother was.”
After her father’s return, the family moved from Chacón’s hometown of Canutillo to Ysleta, and it was there that she attended high school. Chacón’s favorite subjects were history, government and geography, and she was very active in the Catholic Youth Organization. She participated in public speaking for the 4-H Club, and through it she met an Extension Agent who would become a good friend and help set the course of Chacón’s life in politics: Elkie Mentor.
After gaining permission from Chacón’s mom for the young girl to travel with the 4-H Club, Mentor set out to show her the state. Chacón went to Austin to see the capital and San Antonio where they visited Breckenridge Zoo and the Sunken Gardens. They traveled to Corpus Christi and Port Arthur because Mentor wanted to Alicia to learn about places outside of El Paso. Chacón told Gutiérrez, “Mentor always thought I had leadership qualities.”
That was in the early 1950s, and discrimination and segregation were alive and well, but, according to Chacón, Mentor attempted to shield her from that as best she could. “She would go into the hotels … and sometimes we wouldn’t stay there. I know now … that it was because they had policies that they didn’t allow Mexicanos. She [Mentor] never let on.”
During high school, Chacón took several jobs to help provide for her family. She babysat and tutored neighborhood children and worked as a sales clerk downtown. Only about half of Chacón’s grade school friends went to high school, and few who graduated from high school had any expectation of going to college. After graduation, Chacón took a clerical position with the Humane Society in 1957. There she met her husband, Joe, and two years later they were married.
Ten months after their marriage, Chacón’s first child, Carlos, was born. Woodrow Bean, a friend of her father’s, had been elected county judge and hired Alicia as an administrative assistant to the manager at the El Paso County Coliseum. In quick succession, Chacón’s daughter, Coreen, was born, and then her son, Sammy, who was named after Chacón’s boss and management mentor, Sam Cohen.
Chacon and her father had worked for Ralph Yarborough’s bid for governor in 1957 while she was still in high school. In 1960, she campaigned for John F. Kennedy as part of a Viva Kennedy Club. In 1968, a local group of Democrats approached Chacón and asked her to run for the state executive committee. As the committeewoman from El Paso, she would help organize and run the party. In Austin of that year, Chacón was the first Mexican-American to be elected to that position.
At this time, George McAlmon, the elected county chair of the Democratic Party in El Paso, approached Chacón to mange the first office designed to run and manage the daily work for the party. Chacón agreed, and during the four years that she maintained that position, she learned the election code inside out and became more knowledgeable about politics.
Although Chacón was busy in the political arena, she was an active mother with her children’s school and local PTA. The Ysleta school buildings were very old and had deteriorated terribly by the late 1960’s, and overhead pipes that used steam to heat the buildings would break, endangering the safety of the students. Children suffered burns from the hot water, floors would become slick and dangerous and school supplies were ruined. Written requests made to the school board in an effort to improve the conditions and education opportunities went ignored. So, in 1970, a group of teachers and parents decided to run their own candidate for the school board, and because of her knowledge in politics and election codes, Chacón was nominated.
According to The Handbook of Texas Online, only four percent of the state’s school board members were minorities during the early 1970’s. As a reform candidate running for election to sit on an all-Anglo school board, Chacón knew the chances for success were slim. While other Mexican-Americans had run for the Ysleta school board, they had never won. With a list of registered voters in hand, she began a quiet campaign going door to door, and when the tallies were in, Chacón proved victorious.
During Chacón’s first term on the board, opposition was heavy. In fact, the board didn’t even want to announce her as the winner of the election. But by her second term in 1973, a second Mexican-American had been elected, and changes were made in the district’s hiring policies, demanding more qualified personnel, buildings began renovation and strict rules against racism were enforced.
In 1974, while still serving on the school board, Chacón was elected as the first woman to serve as county clerk in El Paso. Then, in 1978, she chose not to run for reelection when she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to become the first Mexican-American woman to serve as the regional director for the Small Business Administration. That same year, she was one of 100 Americans appointed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to serve on the United States Commission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in an effort to promote world unity and eliminate racism. In 1983, Chacón was the first Mexican-American woman to be elected to the El Paso City Council, where she served for two terms.
Chacón took a brief retirement from politics to tour the country with her ailing father in 1988. After returning home, she went on to become the first Mexican-American woman to be elected judge in a major urban Texas county. After one term as County Judge, her political career ended abruptly in 1994 when she lost her bid for reelection.
In a 1996 interview with El Paso Inc., Chacon attributed her defeat to the lack of supporter turnout. “I think a lot of my friends and supporters took it for granted that I would win,” Chacon explained. “The loss was very narrow.”
After a brief period “on hold,” Chacón was named director of the United Way in 1996, where she hoped to develop a strategic three-year plan in setting financial goals for the future. Chacón believed that her past work with charity volunteer organizations like Family Services of El Paso, the Trinity Coalition, Community Chest and Another Way, would help open doors for her new occupation. Some United Way Board members opposed her appointment, supposedly because she lacked a college degree, and effective changes were difficult to put in place.
However, the lack of a college degree did not prevent Chacón from being inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986, or from having a school in El Paso named in her honor. At Alicia Chacón Elementary, students are educated in both English and Spanish and have the opportunity to learn other languages, like German and Japanese.
As the owner of La Tapatia, Inc., a local Mexican food factory, Chacón has retired from politics, giving only the occasional advice to friends. And when asked by the Borderlands student editor how she felt about the progress of women in politics, Chacóns voice filled with admiration. “It is everything we had worked so hard for. I am so proud. Locally, we don’t recognize our people, but there are good leaders out there, like family court judge Patricia Macias.”
In her retirement, it is the volunteers who supported her that she reflects on most. “Whole families supported me: mothers, fathers, the children. I never would have been elected without them. They gave me their trust as a public servant, and I am so grateful to have served El Paso.”
With this attitude and her knowledge of how bureaucracy and politics work, Alicia Chacón could very well teach younger generations a thing or two about how to get elected to office. Today there may be less overt attention to gender and ethnicity in elections, but these aspects are always there, underlying a candidate’s qualifications. More women and many more Mexican-Americans can be found in El Paso and national politics, from school boards to executive levels. Rick Bela, former HACER president, called Alicia Chacón, “the mother of modern Chicano politics.” A fitting title.