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La Raza Unida Party Reunion: Latino high schooler listens and learns civil rights lessons from his elders

By James Rodriguez
La Voz de Austin

They don’t teach about La Raza Unida Party in high school. At least not at my high school, a public institution which prides itself in preparing young students for the future that lies ahead of them.

Rosie Castro, Raza Unida Party activist in the 1970s, came to the reunion and
brought family — her sons, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Texas State Representative Joaquin Castro. With them is Maria Elena Martinez, State Chair of La Raza Unida Party in 1976

As a young high school journalist enticed by the possibility of a freelance job, I quickly agreed to show up at Mexitas Mexican Restaurant the morning of July 6 without bothering to ask what I would be writing about, unaware of any reunion of La Raza Unida Party.

Still a stranger to the ideas behind La Raza Unida Party, a political party which paved the way for Hispanic youth such as myself, I entered the bingo hall adjoining Mexitas Mexican Restaurant and was greeted by the sight of thirty or so elderly Hispanic men and women bustling across the room, setting up chairs and sharing hugs and kisses for old friends, some of whom they had not seen in decades.

Lines of tables and plastic chairs, all neatly positioned and uniformly colored, faced a stage at the far end of the hall. Two tables for participant registration lined the walkway through the door which I had just entered.

Although there was not nearly enough people in the room to fill up all the chairs, the hall already seemed full with noise, as everyone seemed to be everywhere at once, snapping pictures, setting up booths displaying books on La Raza Unida Party.

Tejano music burst out of speakers posted throughout the room. The fact that I was one of only three or four people present under the age of 50 meant that I was easily distinguishable from the rest of the crowd, and was quickly introduced to several former members of the party.

They all told me that they were happy to have me there, but I remained unsure of what “there” was. It was clear to me that some research would be necessary. I committed half an hour to skimming a few pamphlets and newspaper articles which gave me a quick glimpse into La Raza Unida Party and the reunion which was to take place the following day. I then set out to mingle amongst the former members of La Raza Unida Party while my knowledge of the party was still fresh in my mind, and quickly came to a realization.

Pure facts and dates cannot convey what it meant to be a part of La Raza Unida Party. Founded in 1970 in Crystal City,Texas with a vision of giving a stronger voice to the Mexican-American population, La Raza Unida Party eventually grew to become a nationwide movement until its demise in 1978.

Forty years after Ramsey Muniz ran as the party’s first gubernatorial candidate in 1972, former members and candidates reunited to share experiences and remember their accomplishments, while maintaining conversation on the future of the Hispanic community.

I had heard stories from my grandfather of the disconnect between the Mexican-American majority in South Texas and the Anglo-dominated political offices. It was situations such as these around which La Raza Unida formulated its mission of giving power to the vast number of Mexican-Americans living in South Texas.

Although the party itself hasn’t been active for over thirty years, its former members showed no signs of slowing down. Modesta Trevino, another activist who went on to have a career in education, was adamant that she is still politically active, and eagerly showed me a black and white picture of a smiling younger version of herself posing with Cesar Chavez.

The same youthful energy which brought La Raza Unida Party to prominence in the seventies was still present, as volunteers worked tirelessly to make sure all those arriving were registered and checked in to their hotels, where they would spend the night before the following day’s main event.

Renewed cries of joy and laughter rang out as each new arrival walked through the door, another member of the family that made up La Raza Unida Party.The pride each one of them held for their involvement in the movement was evident in the number of tan-colored shirts bearing the “Raza Unida” logo and the words “La Raza Unida Party 40th Reunion” worn throughout the crowd.

It was less than 24 hours before the main event, and I was put to work helping carry a few boxes of books for Resistencia Bookstore, a local bookstore founded by poet and activist Raul R. Salinas which specialized in books concerning Hispanic activism and human rights.

Resistencia, as well as a group advocating for the freedom of political prisoner Alvaro Luna Hernandez and professor of Chicano Studies at the University of California Riverside and author Dr. Armando Navarro, occupied tables in the hall where they displayed information and books. Preparations and registration were coming to a close and I exited the bingo hall, deep in thought about the historic event which I would be a part of.

Immortal we are not, and the activists I had just met in the hall were all eager to pass on their story to a younger generation, my generation. After all, many of them were only a few years my senior when they facilitated the change they so desired.

Through their work, La Raza Unida transcended any labels as simply a third political party and came to embody the struggle for Mexican-Americans to be heard, a struggle that continues today and one which members do not shy away from.

True, there is still discrimination, high school dropout rates are still high and voting rates are low. But these statistics only make a reunion of La Raza Unida Party activists even more critical. It is during times like these when the work of La Raza Unida Party should be remembered most.

James Rodriguez is a LASA studentat LBJ High School in Austin, Texas.

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