Did you hear that the Texas School Board is considering dropping Cesar Chavez and Irma Rangel from Texas history books? Chavez and Rangel are the only two “Hispanics” mentioned in Texas history books after the 1600′s (see http://action.ufw.org/page/speakout/cectxjan10). After our visit to Crystal City and Marfa, we were not very surprised.
For Winter Break, Margaret and Miguel planned a trip to West Texas to visit the border wall in various places as well as interview local residents about their opinion of the border wall/fence. Along the way, which is a long one, we also wanted to stop by a few places that are historically significant and where we have never been, including Crystal City. These stops were also part of our larger mission of starting a Chicano/a Movement Trail based out of South Texas. Many scholars know Crystal City as point of charge (pas du charge) for the Chicano/a Movement as well as the birthplace of The Raza Unida Party in 1970. Crystal City is where Chicano/a activists took over the town council–all White since 1910–and Raza Unida held power for approximately a decade. (Below we will include a description of the Chicano Revolts written by Teresa Acosta for the Handbook of Texas Online.)
Miguel and Margaret were excited to visit this historic place, particularly because we are two enthusiasts of social movements. Our enthusiasm quickly waned as we drove into Crystal City and saw little indication of Raza Unida and many signs of the city’s militarized history. As we drove around town, we spotted the local library. We went inside and asked the librarian about historical markers relating to political activity and change in the region, particularly in the 1960′s and 1970′s. The librarian said that there was nothing that she knew of but said that we could visit the site of the World War II era internment camps as well as purchase a book about them for $10. We bought the book, and she gave us directions. We passed the former site about four times before seeing the historical marker in a field.
From the historical marker, we learned that Crystal City housed one of the largest German and Japanese American Internment Camps in the United States, from 1941-48. The book we purchased in the library Vanished: German-American Internment, 1941-48 (Luick-Thrams 2005) describes in harrowing detail the experiences of German-American “enemy aliens” during this time. Did you know that the United States imprisoned in these centers not only U.S. citizens but also Germans and Austrians from all over North and South America? One of the most harrowing stories tells of a German-American family “exchanged” toward the end of the war for U.S. soldiers. Three members of the family were U.S. citizens. Essentially, the U.S. government exchanged U.S. citizens for U.S. citizens. Ensila Eiserloh Bennett tells the story of the Eiserloh family’s forced repatriation in Vanished. In this story, the Eiserloh mother gives birth while in passage to Germany.
At the site of the internment camps, now the site of Crystal City’s public schools, one can see little trace of this vast family imprisonment compound, except for a few concrete slab foundations remaining. For us, Crystal City marks another site in Texas where a successful effort has been made to erase our history thus deleting people’s rights as well as the histories of powerful movements. To return to our opening comment regarding Texas history textbooks, why are Texas’ children not reading and visiting the sites in Texas of our internment (and Texas’ citizens complicity in this process) of U.S. citizens? Literally, today, we see the schoolboard proactively trying to erase, once again, signs of political action that don’t fit into the traditional Alamo and Davy Crocket story. Why are there no historical markers commemorating the Chicano/a movement in Crystal City and the breakdown of segregation?
Acosta’s write-up about the “Crystal City Revolts:”
CRYSTAL CITY REVOLTS. In 1963 and again in 1969, Mexican Americans in Crystal City organized against Caucasian domination of city hall and the public school system. The result was an electoral victory for Hispanic Texans for the first time since the city’s incorporation in 1910.
The 1963 movement was led by Juan Cornejo, a local representative of the Teamsters Union at the Del Monte cannery in Crystal City, and thePolitical Association of Spanish-speaking Organizations. PASSO succeeded in getting more Mexican Americans to pay the poll tax and vote. In addition, the Mexican Texans organized the large migrant farm-labor pool affiliated with the Teamsters at Del Monte. The Hispanics selected a slate of five candidates, who became known as los cinco, from among the poor and undereducated Mexican Texans, to run for the city council. The group faced intimidation by the political establishment. Several workers at the Del Monte plant were fired for wearing campaign buttons, for instance; but Teamsters officials intervened, and their jobs were reinstated. Texas Rangersqv were called in, reportedly to provide protection for the Mexican Americans. Agricultural leaders doubled hourly pay for their workers, and Del Monte went into overtime production to keep workers from voting. Los cinco, however, gained widespread support, and all five candidates defeated the five incumbents in a close election.
The newly elected all-Mexican-American city council and the succeeding administration had trouble governing the city because of political factions among the new officials. Cornejo was selected mayor from among the five new council members, but eventually his apparent quest for total control of city government led to his loss of support. A new group made up of both Caucasians and middle-class Mexican Americans, the Citizens Association Serving All Americans, announced its plans to run candidates for countywide offices in 1964, with the goal of ousting politicians that it considered dominated by “outside interests,” an allusion to the roles of PASSO and the Teamsters in the elections of 1963. CASAA won the constable and commissioner seats and ran three Mexican-American and two Caucasian candidates in the city council election in 1965. The Hispanic activists did not repeat their poll-tax drive to bolster their voting bloc, and CASAA won.
In 1967 the Mexican American Youth Organization was founded by three Chicanos, including José Ángel Gutiérrez at Crystal City High School. In 1969, after a conflict about the ethnicity of cheerleaders, the school compromised to establish a cheerleading squad of three Caucasian and three Mexican-American girls. But in June the school board invalidated the compromise. The following November 100 Mexican-American students and their parents took a long list of grievances to the school board. In December 1969, when the board denied the charges of discrimination and refused to act on them, 200 Mexican-American students went out on strike, with their parents’ support. The boycott soon extended to both the middle and elementary schools. The United States Department of Justice sent a team to intervene in the crisis, probably in response to the visit by three striking students to its Washington headquarters. The federal officials negotiated a settlement that obliged the board to meet most of the students’ demands, including bilingual, bicultural education, better testing programs, and more cultural celebrations. The following January the Raza Unida Party, which was founded almost immediately after the successful student boycott, received enough votes to win seats on the school board and the city council.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: John Staples Shockley, Chicano Revolt in a Texas Town (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).
Teresa Palomo Acosta