A Short History of Latina/o Political Engagement in Fort Worth

In 1940, twenty-two-year-old Gilbert Garcia left his home in Brownsville, Texas in search of job opportunities. According to Garcia, Mexican Fort Worth prior to WWII consisted of “a few tree shade barbers…a few tamaleros selling from carts…lots of cantinas and few tree shade mechanics…there were a few beauty operators working out of their homes, no infrastructure or professionals as teachers or attorneys, no industry,” and a couple of social clubs “with the only purpose to have dances.”[ii] Essentially, a small entrepreneurial class of Mexicans, an informal economy catering to their own, not welcomed outside the barrios.[iii] They lived in the same neighborhoods with unpaved roads, monthly jamaicas (neighborhood festivals), and boys baseball leagues, separate from the white majority. Because of the poll tax, only fifty Mexican Americans appeared as registered voters and the city’s white oligarchical leadership did not hear any needs of their community.[iv] Garcia came to Fort Worth to find work and to attend college. Turned away from TCU, he claimed that “no one told me Mexicans could not enroll,” and facing difficulty getting hired to do anything other than work as a “ditch digger,” Garcia enlisted in the U.S. Army.[v] He returned to Fort Worth in 1945 and married Herlinda (Linda) Balderas, whom he meet at a dance prior to the war. In 1949, only a year after Dr. Hector P. Garcia established the American G.I. Forum in Corpus Christi, Gilbert Garcia began a chapter in Fort Worth. In addition to helping Mexican American veterans gain access to all their entitled benefits, Garcia and his contemporaries used this platform to organize their community. Increasing the political engagement of Mexicanos in the city through voter registration and the distribution of newsletters was one of Garcia’s many successes in Fort Worth.

Between 1940 and 1956 the rate of Mexican Americans who paid their poll taxes increased two thousand percent, from fifty to more than one thousand.[vi] Garcia attributed this increase in part to poll drives conducted by the G.I. Forum. Just like chapters in other major cities, the local chapter of the G.I. Forum believed increased political participation among the Latino community as paramount to ensuring their needs were addressed by the city. Gilbert Garcia’s experiences in poll tax and voting drives influenced his leadership in the Viva Kennedy Clubs. The national organization named him chairman of the Fort Worth section of the state.[vii] The efforts of the Viva Kennedy Clubs and the increase in Latino voters contributed greatly to the success of the Kennedy/Johnson ticket in Texas in the 1960 election.[viii]

At a 1969 Fort Worth Mexican American leadership conference, participants discussed the issues regarding the lack of political representation in the city. According to Victor Vasquez, who compiled the conference summary, this discussion was not as lively as other topics covered at the conference because the idea of gaining any real means to have their voice heard within the white oligarchy, who dominated the political arena, was a foreign concept to many of the attendees whose landlords often pressured them to support whomever their landlord chose. Although the Second World War became a watershed moment when the urbanization of Mexican Americans opened new paths, the city of Fort Worth had still not elected any person of Mexican descent to any position of power, nor did it seem like a possibility on the horizon. To ensure the election of people who accurately represented the Latino community and who had “an interest in it [the Latino community] rather than those who seek its support for personal gain,” participants decided that they needed to encourage voting and awareness, taking the time to understand the issues at play, rather than the charisma of the candidates. The conference also believed that a “Mexican-American candidate elected to office is the highest achievement in political power.”[ix] Although the efforts of the G.I. Forum and the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), a more politically forward group formed from G.I. Forum members, had increased voter turnout and political participation, respectively, their endeavors had yet to achieve an elected representative from the Mexican American community in Fort Worth. Almost a decade after the conference, Louis J. Zapata became the first Mexican American elected to the city council in 1977.

The legacy of that conference continued with the determination of Gilbert Garcia and his contemporaries to increase political awareness and participation among the Latino community. Jesse Sandoval, Fort Worth native and WWII veteran who began his activism as leader of his Lynwood neighborhood to ensure the availability of city resources and to hold city leadership accountable, served as the first president of PASSO in Tarrant County. Consisting initially of G.I. Forum members who recognized a need to get more involved in politics, PASSO worked alongside established organizations to increase Latino voters and to help fight against the poll tax. PASSO gained more political clout and recognition after their successful efforts in Crystal City, Texas, where it swept all five city council seats and several other major roles in city government in the 1963 elections.[x] Although Fort Worth at that point did not have a large enough Mexican American population to match the success of Crystal City, PASSO played a role in local elections beginning in the mid-1960s and into the 1970s. Jesse Sandoval’s daughter Eva Bonilla remembers working the PASSO meetings as a high school student. PASSO invited candidates to speak to the organization’s members and explain their intentions regarding the Mexican American community. PASSO leaders and members held forums to decide on which candidates, amendments, and propositions to endorse and support, then Bonilla made “cheat sheets” for voters using a mimeograph machine with their decisions. The PASSO members and the candidates invited to speak at the PASSO screenings came from both sides of the aisle. Sandoval and PASSO distributed these messages throughout the community who trusted the decisions made by Sandoval and PASSO.[xi]

Throughout the 1980s, Gilbert Garcia, and Sam Garcia, another WWII veteran and active member of the G.I. Forum and PASSO utilized the Community News and Events newsletter (edited and distributed by Sam Garcia) to ensure their readership stayed informed and encouraged their engagement in politics of the city, state, and nation. The newsletter also kept their community aware of educational issues, activities of Latino organizations, and actions by city government and other major employers. The publication ran for more than a decade and had a circulation of more than 10,000 homes and businesses. The January 1984 edition listed the monthly meeting times of more than a dozen Hispanic organizations, including the Chicano Luncheon, Mexican American Democrats, La Hispana Business & Professional Women’s Club, LULAC Council 601, American G.I. Forum, I.M.A.G.E., demonstrating an active and informed group of Hispanic men and women in Fort Worth. The March 1984 issue announced an upcoming meeting to organize a “Council” made of “Hispanic leaders (both men and women) of different groups and organizations.” Sam Garcia also used the platform to voice which candidates he believed would better serve their community. In the October 1984 issue, the newsletter states:

                -VOTE-

YOU’VE GOT IT – USE IT!!

VOTES MEAN FREEDOM

VOTES MEAN EQUALITY

VOTES MEAN FIRST-CLASS CITIZENSHIP

VOTES MEAN BETTER SCHOOLS, JOBS, HOUSING

VOTE TO WIN YOUR RIGHTS

SU VOTE ES SU VOS Y SU PODER [sic]! ![xii]

Acting as a political power broker, Sam Garcia went on to give detailed information about the process of voting and made the following recommendation: “To all the registered voters that this newsletter reaches, as your friend, I Sam Garcia, would like to ask for your support in voting for the following…all of these candidates are highly qualified and would voice and plan policies that would govern us with the interest and general welfare of all people.”[xiii] Sam Garcia continued to keep his readership informed once candidates took office regarding both positive and negative actions.

Although statistics are not available for Latino voting in Fort Worth over the last few decades, the most recent state data from the 2016 and 2018 elections demonstrates a consistently low turnout of Latino voters. In the last presidential election in 2016, 39.2 percent of the Latino population registered to vote and 32.5 percent voted.[xiv] During the 2018 mid-term elections the numbers decreased to 37.9 registered and only 28.5 percent voted.[xv] Instead of us explaining why it is important to vote, here are clips of Latinos from Fort Worth talking about their reasons for voting (check back for more videos). If you are not already registered to vote be sure to do so before the October 5th deadline. Click here for details on voting in Texas.

Dr. Peter Martínez

Nicholas Gonzales


[i] Carlos E. Cuellar, Stories from the Barrio: A History of Mexican Fort Worth, (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2003), 144.

[ii] Samuel Garcia Papers, “Fort Worth 1940,” Series I: Personal Papers, Box 2, Folder 10, Fort Worth Central Library Archives.

[iii] Cuellar, Stories from the Barrio, 42-43.

[iv] For more on the white oligarchy of Fort Worth see, Kate Sherrod, “Who Runs Fort Worth,” D Magazine, November 1995, https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/1995/november/power-who-runs-fort-worth/.

[v] Samuel Garcia Papers, “Fort Worth 1940,” Series I: Personal Papers, Box 2, Folder 10, Fort Worth Central Library Archives.

[vi] Marshall Lynam, “GI Forum—It’s Hitting Heavy Blows at the Enemy—Prejudice,” Fort Worth Press, August 19, 1957.

[vii] Samuel Garica Papers, “JFK-LBJ Ticket Gets ‘Vivas” Here, Series III: Subject Files-Politics, Box 3, Folder 4.

[viii] Brian D. Behnken, Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 85.

[ix] Samuel Garcia Papers, “Report on Mexican American Leadership Conference,” Series II: Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Box 6, Folder 11, Fort Worth Central Library Archives.

[x] For more on the creation of PASSO and their success in Crystal City see, Carlos Blanton, George I. Sanchez, 218-221, or Jose Angel Gutierrez, Making Chicano Militant: Lessons from Cristal (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

[xi] Eva Bonilla, Personal Interview, June 9, 2016

[xii] Samuel Garcia Papers, Community News and Events, October 1984, Series VI: Newspapers, Box 2.

[xiii] Samuel Garcia Papers, Community News and Events, October 1984, Series VI: Newspapers, Box 2.

[xiv] United States Census Bureau, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016.” Accessed on September 17, 2020. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-580.html

[xv] United States Census Bureau, “Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2016.” Accessed on September 17, 2020. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-583.html

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