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Borderlands: LULAC Fought Hard to Guarantee Rights 25 (2006-2007)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

LULAC Fought Hard to Guarantee Rights

Article first published in Vol. 25 (2006-2007)

By Ernestina Muñoz, Alma Fajardo, Mayra J. Garcia and Alisandra Mancera 

After the Civil War, Texas passed “Jim Crow” laws. Although they were meant for blacks, the laws were often enforced against Mexicans, who were looked upon as “inferior” by many whites. Thus Mexicans were subjected to segregated facilities.

In addition, justice was also discriminatory. The Texas Handbook Online stated that “The Ku Klux Klan, the White Caps, law officials and the Texas Rangers, all acting as agents of white authority, regularly terrorized both Mexican Americans and black Texans.” Although most Americans associate the term “lynching” with African Americans, Mexicans also were subject to the rope in the case of “insult, injury, or death of a white man,” according to the Texas Handbook.

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Image caption: On September 9, 1966, officials of the Department of Labor, LULAC and the American GI Forum signed the agreement establishing SER-Jobs for Progress, Inc. in Denver, Colorado.    Photo courtesy of Belen Robles

A related article by William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb entitled “ The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928 ” in volume 37 of the Journal of Social History asserted that “next to African Americans, no minority group suffered lynching in greater numbers than did Mexicans.” Many of these hangings were in Texas.

Groups of middle class Hispanic businessmen who provided service and products for their communities formed organizations such as the Order of the Sons of America, the Knights of America and the Latin American Citizens League in order to protest the persecution of Hispanics throughout Texas. In 1929 at a convention in Corpus Christi, Texas, these organizations joined as one and called themselves the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC .

The overall goal for LULAC was the national assimilation of those it protected. In his 1993 book on LULAC , Benjamin Marquez wrote that in the early 1930s, members would go to small communities in Texas to gain support from “local interested parties” and officials in order to set up a council within the community. Those members were called the “LULAC Flying Squadrons.”

LULAC was a moderate organization. According to an article on the effectiveness of LULAC by Marquez, between 1929 and 1940 the organization emphasized patriotism, improvement of race relations and achieving equal civil rights. LULAC'S official song was “America the Beautiful,” its official prayer was the “George Washington Prayer” and its official flag was the Stars and Stripes. During World War II, its members served in the military in large numbers. LULAC united different Hispanic communities throughout Texas and spread to New Mexico, California, Colorado, Arizona and then most of the continental United States.

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In a 1975 University of Texas at El Paso Institute of Oral History interview, El Pasoan Frank J. Galvan, Jr., 8th national president of LULAC, stated that the Texas poll tax was one of the reasons LULAC was founded. He recalled that the $1.75 tax was “an economic burden on those people [of Mexican descent] at that time.” According to the official LULAC website, the Mexican vote was usually bought by influential Anglo employers, who told their Hispanic workers how to vote. LULAC and other groups fought the poll tax for a long time: it did not totally disappear in Texas until 1966.

LULAC believed that the basis of everything was education. If Hispanics were educated, they could better themselves socially, economically and politically. But conditions within the segregated “Mexican schools” left much to be desired. The teachers were poorly trained, and the schoolrooms were not conducive to learning. Children of migrant worker families were segregated because of their sporadic attendance and because they “disrupted classes for regularly attending children,” stated Craig Kaplowitz in his book LULAC, Mexican Americans, and National Policy.

Local LULAC Council 8 in El Paso considered the same issues as the rest of the state. National President Frank J. Galvan, Jr. addressed the council and published the results of a study of El Paso schools by Rabbi Martin Zielonka of Temple Mount Sinai in the December 1936 LULAC News. Zielonka noted that Southside El Paso children in both elementary and high schools faced overcrowding and attended school on a part time basis. Classrooms throughout the city were filled beyond the capacity of the facilities. In most of the schools in the Hispanic areas of the city, the average classroom had 50 or 60 students in it.

In plain language, Zielonka stated that the local school board had overlooked the needs of these children. He said, “When we consider that the average school life of  children in the Mexican section [of El Paso] is only four or five years and when we further consider that during these few years most of them are on half time, then we realize how little we are doing to impress the message of America upon them.” Zielonka continued, “I blame our citizenship for this condition.” He proposed that schools be erected throughout the city, especially in areas where overcrowding was a concern.

In 1946, a lawsuit by LULAC ended 100 years of segregation in California schools. In 1948, the “Delgado versus Bastrop ISD” lawsuit, brought by LULAC attorneys, ended segregation of Mexican American children in Texas.  In “Hernandez vs. The State of Texas,” LULAC attorneys argued their case in the Supreme Court, winning the right to service on juries for Mexican Americans in 1954. In 1964, LULAC received funds from the Ford Foundation to establish the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which aids in the legal expenses of future and pending cases involving discrimination against Hispanics.

Felix Tijerina, national LULAC president during the 1950s, believed that poor education among Mexicans explained the reluctance of Anglos to accept his people. He also believed that the reason for poor school performance of Mexican children was the inability of the children to master the English language. He came to these conclusions through personal experience, having dropped out of school at the age of nine to work in the cotton fields to help his family.

Tijerina was denied work as a waiter because of his inability to speak English. He had to read catsup bottles and menus in order to develop a basic understanding of English vocabulary. By 1956, he owned a successful restaurant chain in Houston. Tijerina helped finance the Little School of 400, a project that focused on teaching roughly 400 English words to Mexican American pre-school children who did not speak English, thus providing them a head start.

In 1959, LULAC helped House Bill 51 pass the Texas legislature. This bill set up a state-financed preschool program replicating the Little School of 400. LULAC believed that the school district would save money because fewer students would need to repeat the first and second grade. According to Marquez, “the success of the program was an important factor in the United States Department of Health Education and Welfare's decision in 1969 to institute the nationwide Project Headstart to assist non-English speaking preschool children.”

A major accomplishment of LULAC is SER-Jobs for Progress. Led by LULAC members Roberto Ornelas and George Roybal, both government employees working in the Navy's Equal Employment Opportunity program, LULAC and the American G. I. Forum established SER, which stands for Service, Employment, Redevelopment. It became a referral agency through which businesses with government contracts could find skilled Mexican American workers and contractors. In 1965, it opened its first center in Houston, followed shortly by centers in Corpus Christi and Beaumont. Today, SER annually serves more than 1,000,000 Hispanics and other “underrepresented groups” across the country and in Puerto Rico in 40 centers. It has numerous partners in business and government agencies, helping it to educate, train and provide qualified applicants for job openings.

El Pasoans are familiar with LULAC's Fiesta de las Flores held annually during Labor Day weekend. El Paso Chapter 132 developed this event in 1953 to maintain Hispanic traditions and to raise money for scholarships. Between 50,000 and 70,000 people enjoy the parade and other events, highlighted by the crowning of the Fiesta de las Flores queen.

The LULAC National Scholarship Fund (LNSF) was established in 1975, assisting Hispanic students to attend college. The local chapters presented 104 scholarships worth $500 each at the organization's 2005 scholarship banquet.

For years in the 20th century, Mexicans were portrayed as “lazy, poorly dressed, dirty, ill educated and thieves,” according to LULAC's website. LULAC has been a major player in the attempt to change the views of society and to pave the way for Hispanics to be recognized as equal and useful members of American life.

LULAC remains the oldest Mexican-American civil rights organization to this day. In 1949, LULAC opened membership to non-Hispanics and in 1986 to anyone living in the United States. Integrated councils of men and women were established in the 1950s. Several councils function in El Paso, and El Pasoans are active in the national level as they have been since the 1930s. National officers during 2005-2006 from El Paso included Carolina Muñoz, Fiscal Officer; Ray Velarde, Legal Adviser; and Ray Mancera, Parliamentarian. The 77th national LULAC convention was held in Milwaukee, Wis., June 26 through July 1.

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LULAC sources

Former El Paso City Council member Elvia Hernandez and Xavier Bañales talk about LULAC with EPCC Professor Leon Blevins in Perspectives El Paso #77

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