Activism & Public Service

Written by Moisés Acuña Gurrola

Texas began with the colonization and conquest of northern Mexico for the purposes of strengthening the institution of slavery. After Mexico outlawed slavery in 1830 and further centralized its government, Anglo Texans—and some Tejanos, some of whom later regretted their allegiance—responded with secession. In 1845, Texas was admitted to the United States as a slave state. As a population that was generally viewed as the antagonists in Texas’s war of independence and then the U.S.-Mexican War that ended in 1848, the state’s ethnic Mexican population faced intensifying hostility into the twentieth century, especially in South Texas. In short, Mexicans had lost the war and were thus not entitled to its spoils. Even the patrones, Mexico’s once powerful landlords, were ultimately swindled or coerced into giving up their property. For African Americans who had unwillingly entered northern Mexico as slaves, the rise of the Jim Crow system disenfranchised Texas’s black population, reversing the work of the Reconstruction Era immediately following the Civil War. By the early 1900s, ethnic Mexicans and African Americans were systematically denied entry into the channels of upward mobility reserved for Anglo Americans.    

Whereas violence against them in South Texas was common, ethnic Mexicans in North Texas had a different experience largely due to the marginal size of their population. This does not mean, however, that Latinos lived without the tensions and prejudices from Anglos. To cope with this alienation and marginalization, Mexicans in Texas and across the nation formed mutual aid societies, or mutualistas, which in the words of historian Julie Pycior, “emphasized economic protection, education, and community service. They provided sickness and burial insurance, loans, legal aid, social and cultural activities, libraries, classes, leadership opportunities, and safe quarters for barrio events.”[1] These groups were strong in towns along the border but did not grow in Fort Worth until the years following World War I when the city rapidly expanded, much of it as a result of Mexican laborers and other immigrants making their way into the city.

With the seemingly endless supply of Mexican nationals arriving to Fort Worth in the early twentieth century, growers and industrial bosses saw an opportunity to undercut organized labor and employed Mexican laborers as strikebreakers before having transported them to northern cities. However, many of the ethnic Mexicans who stayed in Fort Worth organized on their own. In 1919, Mexican laborers staged a walkout and demanded increased wages and a shorter workday from the Hedrick Construction Company.[2]

In the early 1920s, Mexicans in Fort Worth took center stage among the city’s racial and economic mixture. During the short 1920 to 1921 depression, Mexicans were viewed as the cause of unemployment and low wages. In 1920, the Wesley House, whose sole purpose was to provide aid and education to immigrant families, halted their services to Mexicans. The next year, an angry mob of poor Anglos and African Americans congregated in downtown Fort Worth and demanded that “cheap” Mexican labor leave the city, adding threats to burn Mexican barrios to the ground. The authorities did not make any arrests except for the Mexican nationals they illegally detained, shackled, and forced to work hard labor.[3] This was not an instance of serious Anglo-black unity, however. In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan made a resurgence in Texas, especially in northern counties where they were responsible for numerous lynchings. By 1923, the Klan had approximately 150,000 members in the state, including several elected officials who held firm control of many local governments, including some offices in Fort Worth. In nearby Stephens County, the White Owl Society, a white supremacist terrorist group, congregated and demanded the eviction of black citizens and threatened to burn down their homes if they chose not to comply.[4]

The Great Depression renewed anti-Mexican nativism, and migration rates slowed.  But with the onset of World War II—or better yet, the ending of it—people of color nationwide began to organize to fight discrimination. Inspired by the camaraderie they experienced in the war, the children of Mexican Revolution-era refugees challenged injustice in the workplace and in the city. Unions saw a growth of Latino membership in the Dallas and Fort Worth area, and with it, the cities saw a more politically engaged population. Unions were the stepping stone for several local politicians like the Medranos in Dallas and Louis Zapata in Fort Worth. In the following clips, Patricia Zapata Benton, daughter of Louis Zapata, connects her father’s experience as a union leader to his career in the local political arena. Additionally, John Mendoza and Josie Rivera describe the modern challenges of belonging to a union and emphasize the overwhelming need for a better organized labor movement in Fort Worth.

Labor leaders alone were unable to eliminate discrimination in the span of a few years. Jim Crow, the systemic segregation of African Americans, paralleled Juan Crow, the set of practices that targeted Latinos. Though both were established to maintain white supremacy, there were differences in how Jim Crow and Juan Crow—the “Crow Cousins”—operated. Unlike Jim Crow, Juan Crow was inconsistent and more difficult to enforce. Ethnic Mexicans were often confused by signs that read “Whites Only” and “Colored,” which meant black and rarely meant “Mexican.” But unlike the African Americans who challenged the system of segregation and were met with physical altercations and severe police brutality, Latinos in North Texas were met with passive-aggressive remarks, threats, and intimidation, not physical violence (in most cases). In other words, Anglos in Fort Worth demanded that African Americans “stay in their place” and expected ethnic Mexicans to repeat that behavior. In the following video clips, narrators describe the confusion of having lived in a town segregated according to a “black-white” binary and how they pushed the limitations of Juan Crow. 

Political and civil rights organizations have played a vital role in the formation of modern Texas. Latino organizations that formed in South Texas and eventually spread to Fort Worth changed the way that local and Texas politics operated. Beginning with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), other groups like the American GI Forum, Viva Kennedy Clubs, and the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASSO), these groups made their way to Fort Worth to register voters, campaign for candidates in local and national presidential races, and challenge discrimination throughout the city.

By the late 1960s, a new generation of ethnic Mexican activists entered the arena of Texas politics: the Chicano generation. Inspired by the direct action of nationwide leaders and tactics, the new cohort of Latino activists challenged the establishment more aggressively than their World War-II era counterparts did. Following the establishment of student groups and militant wings of the movement, Chicanos organized La Raza Unida Party, which eventually selected Corpus Christi’s Ramsey Muniz as a third party candidate for governor of Texas. This level of direct action, inspired by Cesar Chavez’s activism in California, often meant that activists were open to police harassment and arrests. Although the movement is often dismissed as a failure, the Chicano movement resulted in the formation of grassroots political organizations, the creation of single-member voting districts, the modification of public school curricula, and greater political representation for the Latino community.

In addition to fighting for the rights of ethnic Mexicans, Latinos have joined the fight for the rights of African Americans. Although the literature on cross-racial collaboration remains thin, several community studies have found that leaders in the Latino community have collaborated with leaders in the African American community in order to eradicate the problem of racism that affected all minorities. In the previous slideshow, Eva Bonilla mentions Brown Beret collaborations with the Black Panthers. In the following videos, we hear more about the cross-racial fight for justice in the form of coalitions among other organizations in Fort Worth’s history. In addition, Brian Renteria recognizes African Americans’ role in building the foundation in the struggle for civil rights and how Latinos could do more to build upon it.

Volunteerism and public service have also had a direct effect on Latino Fort Worth’s development. Educators have fought for a more inclusive schooling system to yield a higher success rate for the benefit of the entire region. Healthcare providers have offered their services around the community and across the hemisphere without having expected compensation. Mentors and support groups have reached out to younger people to help pave the way for success in their communities. In neighborhoods, community organizations have extended a helping hand to those in need of advice or support.

Barriers still lie in the way of the city’s progression toward equal representation for all of its inhabitants. One of the most pressing issues in the Latino community is voter registration and voter turnout, which lies at the foundation of a larger problem: the lack of Latina women in elected leadership roles. Since the first Latina ran for an at-large position on the Fort Worth City Council in 1971 (Juanita Zepeda), few Hispanic women have campaigned for public office. This is problematic because the marginalization of Latinas reduces the community’s political power down to half of its full potential. Another issue at hand is the large immigrant population’s alienation from the political and social sphere, a problem that Victor Espino details in Schools & Churches. If the 2006 Megamarches across the country and in Fort Worth tell us anything, it is that direct action works. Additionally, the struggle for LGBTQ rights and representation has been one at the center of communities across the country, Latino or otherwise.

[1] Handbook of Texas Online, Julie Leininger Pycior, “Sociedades Mutualistas,” 

[2] Cuellar, Stories from the Barrio, 41.

[3] García y Griego and Roberto R. Calderón, Mas Alla, 44.

[4] Neil Foley, The White Scourge, 87; Handbook of Texas Online, Christopher Long, “Ku Klux Klan,”; Garcia y Griego and Calderon, Mas Alla, 44.  

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