By Gilbert Martinez
La Voz de Austin
In 1960, before the John F. Kennedy campaign, I along with Gus Garcia, Roy Velasquez and several other folks organized voter registration drives. We did it because there were very few Mexican Americans who were registered to vote, and during the election, very few of them even showed up to vote.
In our most successful year we registered about 5,000 people. We would register people on Saturdays, Sundays after mass at the Catholic Churches and even at the dances that were held around town.
Now you have to remember, that back then people had to pay to register to vote. It was called the poll tax and it was $1.50. So many times we had to help people out financially because they just didn’t have the money to register to vote.
They wanted to vote, but they just didn’t have the dollar and a half to spare. I remember at that time Frito, not Frito-Lay, just the Frito Company, had about 400 Mexican American workers right there on Nueces and West 3rd. We would go and catch them during the coffee breaks and register them to vote.
In 1968, there was still a group of us who were active in the community and there was a school board election coming up. One of those in our group was Paul Tovar. Somehow we had decided he was going to run for school board. We used to have the meetings over at the Matamoros Restaurant.
About two nights before the filing deadline, Paul calls me. He says, “I don’t’ think I live in the district. I live on Riverside Farms Drive. I saw a Del Valle school bus pass by my house.” I said, “Oh my God, we better check this!”
So the next day we checked and sure enough he lives on the wrong side of the road. He lives in the Del Valle School District. He’s not qualified to run. What in the hell are we going to do?
So we held a meeting that night. We looked for somebody else to run and nobody wanted to step forward. So the group put pressure on me. And I said let me call my boss.
Now at that time, I was 28 years old and I worked nights at the post office. So I called my boss and told him I was thinking of running for the school board and would there be any problem with my job? He said no, to go ahead and run but just understand that if the job at the school board comes in conflict with your job here at the post office, your job comes first.
I said, “I understand.” And that is how I ran for the school board here in Austin, Texas.
When I was running for the school board back in 1968, Dr. George Sanchez, a professor from The University of Texas invited me to his house and gave me some good ideas about education. He was the first one who told me that all of the streets in Austin that run North and South are named after the rivers of the state. He also gave me some insight into how things worked here in Austin.
I ran for school board and I came in second place. That was my first run for public office.
(This interview was conducted on November 28, 2008 in Austin, Texas as part of the Austin Hispanic Almanac.)