Hispanic Interests and Political Representation After World War II (1945–1970)

Edward Roybal of California/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_18_roybal_edward_button_.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
A rocket-shaped campaign button touted Edward Roybal of California in the 1960s. Roybal, like other Hispanic politicians of the era, got his start in local politics after World War II and emerged on the national scene in the 1960s.
The end of the war was a watershed moment in the development of Hispanic-American political activism. Hispanic troops had fought in theaters across the globe, and returning veterans began taking advantage of education and job training programs. Better credentials led to better jobs, “with more workers than ever before entering skilled and semiskilled positions,” writes historian Juan Gómez-Quiñones. As a direct offshoot of this development, veterans flooded civic groups like LULAC, Texas’ GI Forum (created in 1948), and Los Angeles’ Community Service Organization (CSO; cofounded by veteran and future Representative Edward Roybal in 1947), whose cumulative effect was to galvanize political awareness, register voters, and generate leadership throughout the Southwest. Conditions varied, however, and Hispanic-American politicians had different experiences in each state. In New Mexico, numerous Hispanic Americans served in positions at the state and local level, where well-organized networks of Hispanic voters could swing results in close elections. During this period, New Mexico sent three Representatives to Congress who served multiple terms (Fernández, 13 years; Montoya, 19 years, including a dozen years in the Senate; and Luján, 20 years) and attained prominent positions.97 California and Texas had stricter segregation practices, whose effects on Hispanic Americans varied greatly. The number of Hispanic Americans in Texas who were actively involved in politics was second only to the number in New Mexico. Despite Jim Crow segregation, Hispanics actively participated in counties and municipal wards throughout Texas.98

The Civil Rights Movement and Its Influence on Mexican Americans

Edward Roybal of California and Henry González of Texas/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_19_viva_kennedy_button.xml Private Collection Edward Roybal of California and Henry González of Texas organized “Viva Kennedy” clubs in their states in support of John Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Within two years, both men would win election to the U.S. House.
By 1960, grass-roots organizations like LULAC, the GI Forum in Texas, and the CSO in Los Angeles had successfully challenged legal segregation in the courts.99 As historian Gómez-Quiñones states, years of organized protest by African Americans in the South provided Hispanic Americans west of the Mississippi with a model for their civil rights campaigns. Before long, a national movement emerged. Since the country’s major political parties seemed unwilling to adopt the concerns of their Hispanic constituencies, community leaders began organizing groups with broad agendas. The Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) was formed in 1959 out of frustration with the Democratic Party’s general indifference to Hispanic-American concerns. The Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO) was founded in 1960 to nurture political talent and encourage Hispanic candidates to run for office. Though electoral results were mixed, such efforts provided valuable political experience for future candidates.100

1960 Presidential Election and Mexican-American Politics

Puerto Rican Governor with President Kennedy/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_20_marins_kennedys_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Puerto Rican Governor Luis Muñoz Marín and his wife, Inés, host President John Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the president’s tour of Latin American nations in 1962.
Despite Hispanic Americans’ political successes at the local, state, and regional levels, victories at the national level were fewer and farther between in the first half of the 20th century. Mexican Americans had participated in Democratic National Conventions since the 1940s, but according to Gómez-Quiñones they “were not widely recognized electorally as a significant factor in the national presidential elections.”101 However, in 1959, the John F. Kennedy campaign encouraged the formation of “Viva Kennedy” clubs to mobilize Hispanic-American voters for the 1960 presidential election. Mexican-American politicos such as future Congressman Henry González organized club activities in Texas (and served as state co-chair), and Edward Roybal, as MAPA’s chair, used political networks to rally Hispanic-American voters around the Kennedy candidacy. Kennedy himself devoted considerable resources toward addressing the concerns of Hispanic voters, visiting and campaigning in areas with large concentrations of Mexican Americans. He “shared with most of them a Roman Catholic religious heritage, and had a wife who spoke to them in Spanish,” Gómez-Quiñones observes. That year 85 percent of Mexican Americans nationally voted for Kennedy.102

The political mobilization of Mexican-American voters during the election had far-reaching consequences. The “Viva Kennedy” clubs enabled activists to muster large numbers of potential voters through registration drives and grass-roots initiatives. Both González (in 1961) and Roybal (in 1962) used this energized political base to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives after Kennedy’s victory.

Rise of the Chicano Movement

César Chávez/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_21_chavez_cesar_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress César Chávez, a farm worker, civil rights advocate, and labor leader, cofounded the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers).
Lingering dissatisfaction with Democratic inattention to Mexican-American concerns fueled another challenge to the status quo.103 Many civil rights organizations had developed from a small but politically active middle class in urban areas, and many Mexican-American activists “faced … a juncture between integration and self-determination” that emerged from the inconsistent results of lobbying for civil rights since the late 1940s. By the early 1960s, a number of grass-roots movements that consisted mainly of urban working-class and agricultural workers in the Southwest used more confrontational tactics to protest segregationist practices. Although established civil rights organizations refused to support these groups, college students provided a receptive audience. Calling themselves Chicanos, these activists demanded immediate social reforms through the acquisition of political power. According to Gómez-Quiñones, instead of working within a system that benefited Hispanic Americans only marginally, Chicanos augmented conventional civil rights protest strategies by aggressively promoting radical social change for working-class groups in Mexico and the United States.104

The Chicano movement challenged “the assumptions, politics, and principles of the established political leaders, organizations, and activity within and outside the [Mexican-American] community.” Newer organizations like the United Farm Workers (led by César Chávez) and the Crusade for Justice worked alongside established organizations like LULAC and MAPA to represent the interests of middle- and working-class Mexican Americans in the 1960s.105

For much of the decade, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had maintained working relationships with the country’s Hispanic population, but by 1966 these partnerships had begun to fray. During an EEOC meeting in March 1966, representatives from LULAC and the GI Forum criticized the commission for its inattention to Hispanic concerns and its lack of a Hispanic representative or staff member. Fifty representatives walked out in protest. In response, the administration added a Hispanic member and sponsored the creation of the Inter-Agency Cabinet Committee on Mexican-American Affairs, an initiative Senator Montoya endorsed wholeheartedly.106 Montoya, who also guided the Bilingual Education Act toward final passage in 1968, often used his influence to support the Chicano movement while shepherding legislation that benefited Hispanic Americans nationwide.

Joseph Montoya of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_22_montoya_joseph_sho.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office Senator Joseph Montoya of New Mexico was a leading supporter of the Bilingual Education Act.

Hispanic-American Members of Congress reacted to social movements outside the institution in various ways. In a 1967 Senate Floor speech, Montoya spoke about Hispanic Americans’ living conditions and about their desire to attain equality without sacrificing their ethnic identity. “Most Spanish-Americans are near or at the bottom of the economic heap … [and] usually lag even behind Negroes in years of schooling attained, with some 30 percent of the Spanish-surnamed male adults being categorized as functional illiterates,” he said. Citing contributing factors such as a “lack of job skills, inadequate schooling, and language problems,” Montoya described the effects of social discrimination on Mexican Americans in the Southwest and cited their attempts to bridge the cultural gap by learning English and following some Anglo-American customs. Hispanic Americans “clearly want equal opportunity and full acceptance now, not in the distant and hypothetical future, and they do not believe that their difference—either presumed or real—from Anglo-Americans offers any justification for denial of opportunity and acceptance” within U.S. society.107

Henry González of Texas/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_23_gonzalez_henry_hp.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Henry González of Texas was an early proponent of Hispanic civil rights in the years after World War II. González, however, became concerned that tactics adopted by activists in the 1960s and 1970s threatened to marginalize Hispanic Americans.
Henry González, on the other hand, showed little patience for the efforts of separatists and radicals in the Chicano movement. “No matter how worthy their ideals may be, [they] have fallen into the spell and trap of reverse racism,” he declared.108 In April 1969, González denounced several key leaders of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO)—which used inflammatory rhetoric to mobilize young political activists in the Southwest and was key to the establishment of the party La Raza Unida—as “purveyors of hate.”109 He also attacked quasi-government entities such as the Ford Foundation, which provided grants to promote Hispanic engagement in politics but which, González insisted, did little to monitor the funding or prevent its distribution to radical groups.110 González distinguished efforts to develop pride in one’s ethnicity and organize communities from cultural chauvinism, racial hatred, and self-aggrandizement. “The tragic thing is that in situations where people have honest grievances, dishonest tactics can prevent their obtaining redress,” González noted, “and where genuine problems exist, careless or unthinking or consciously mean behavior can unloose new forces that will create new problems that might require generations to solve. I want to go forward, not backward; I want the creation of trust, not fear; and I want to see Americans together, not apart,” he said.111

Much of the problem was generational.112 In the same way González recoiled at La Raza Unida’s youthful idealism, Chicano activists scorned him as a patron from an earlier era who was more concerned with his status in the Mexican- American community than with advancing Chicano issues. Harsher critics believed he cared more about Anglo interests than about those of his Latino constituency. “Gonzalez is criticized by many Mexican-American militants for being a Tío Thomas, or Uncle Tom,” noted the Dallas Morning News in 1969.113

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97Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 45–48.

98Ibid., 75–77. Hispanic Texans’ participation varied according to the election procedures in their locality.

99Gonzales, Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States: 181–190; Marquez, LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization: 53–55. Gonzales identifies two cases: Mendez et al. v. Westminster School District of Orange County (1947) and Delgado v. Bastrop Independent School District (1948), which dismantled de jure school segregation in California and Texas, respectively. LULAC was involved in both class action lawsuits.

100Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 66–67; Gonzales, Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States: 189–190.

101Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 88–89.

102Ibid., 88–92; Louis F. Weschler and John F. Gallagher, “Viva Kennedy,” in Rocco J. Tresolini and Richard T. Frost, eds., Cases in American National Government and Politics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966): 53–59; Eugene C. Lee and William Buchanan, “The 1960 Election in California,” Western Political Quarterly 14, no. 1, part 2 (March 1961): 309–326.

103Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 92.

104Gonzales, Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States, 194–195; Gomez-Quinones, Chicano Politics, Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 104–105. For a summary of the Chicano movement, see Jorge Mariscal, “Chicano/a Movement,” in Oboler and González, eds., Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 1: 320–321.

105Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics, Reality and Promise, 1940–1990: 101–105. See also pp. 92–97.

106Ibid., 93–96, 108.

107Congressional Record, Senate, 90th Cong., 1st sess. (18 May 1967): 13242–13243.

108Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (3 April 1969): 8590–8591.

109For more on MAYO, see Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics: Reality and Promise, 1940– 1990: 110–112, 128–131; Armando Navarro, “Mexican American Youth Organization,” in Oboler and González, eds., Oxford Encyclopedia, vol. 3: 122–123; Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (29 April 1969): 10779. For a longer discussion, see Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (28 April 1969): 10522–10527.

110See, for example, Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (16 April 1969): 9308–9309.

111Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (22 April 1969): 9952.

112Ralph Nader Congress Project, Citizens Look at Congress: Henry B. Gonzalez: Democratic Representative from Texas (Washington, D.C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972): 17.

113“Rep. Gonzalez Strikes Back at ‘Uncle Tom’ Criticism,” 29 May 1969, Dallas Morning News.