The room is full for the Chicana Activism panel during Holding Up the Mirror: The 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearing on Mexican Americans in the Southwest held at Our Lady of the Lake University.
The room is full for the Chicana Activism panel during Holding Up the Mirror: The 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearing on Mexican Americans in the Southwest held at Our Lady of the Lake University. Credit: Courtesy / Kristel Puente

November so far has seen tumultuous midterm elections with reported instances of voter suppression, overheated or broken voter machines, and a president making unfounded claims of voter fraud caused by disguised people voting twice. This penultimate month of the year has also seen the rancor and outright persecution of asylum seekers from Central America in a country with a broken immigration system and leadership that would sooner immerse itself in calumny than in compassion.

The president’s revocation of a Hispanic reporter’s press pass and the insolent name-calling of three African American women journalists occurred not quite two weeks ago.

Most of us observe Veterans Day with a true appreciation of those who sacrifice all for our liberties. Not so the leader of our country, who stayed in his Paris hotel room rather than mark the 100 years since the World War I armistice. Lamentably, the worst the month has brought to us has been the devastating irrepressible fires in California that go largely ignored by the climate change-denying leader of the United States.

In matters of place and planet, many are weary and fearful to be on a rudderless path with hope on the wane.

But the second half of the month has brought with it a salve for the dispirited in the form of a conference on civil rights.

Held on the campus of Our Lady of the Lake University, Holding Up the Mirror: The 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearing on Mexican Americans in the Southwest reviewed the landmark 1968 hearing on civil rights issues facing Mexican Americans and the progress that has been made for the nation’s largest minority over the past 50 years.

Fifteen experts examined changes and challenges facing Mexican Americans from 1968 to 2018 on population characteristics, voting rights and voter discrimination, immigration, the administration of justice, education, housing, employment and economic security, and the continuing plight of farmworkers in a newly minted report of recommendations for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission is to include the information in the massive tome, impressive for its size and the scope of findings compiled there, in its own September report.

Rosie Castro stands with the group of women.
Rosie Castro (center) joins a group of women last month as they urge voters to oppose the three San Antonio charter amendments. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Rosie Castro, a longtime activist who first attended the 1968 hearings as a student at OLLU, introduced the conference Thursday at the Santikos Mayan Palace with a screening of the film “Willie Velasquez: Your Vote is Your Voice,” the PBS film on the life of this pioneer of the civil rights movement who in 1974 founded the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project. That bright light in the constellation of the many who have labored for equal rights and justice was extinguished too soon. He died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 44.

During his remarks at the conference, Robert Brischetto lamented the untimely death of his friend and colleague and noted that it “brings to us the reality of the fact that we’re not going to be here forever, that we will not be here leading this effort going forward,” and that we must find ways “to transfer the energy to the young generation” who are seeing the wide-ranging threats to our democracy on a daily basis.

That charge is the reason for this conference, which included Rosie Castro’s sons, Congressman Joaquín and former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julián, in its first general session.  At the last minute the congressman could not make it because of pressing matters in Washington D.C., but conference co-chair Bertha Pérez stepped in and masterfully moderated a discussion between Julián Castro and another former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros.

Conference co-chair Bertha Pérez (center) moderates a discussion between former San Antonio mayors and HUD secretaries (from left) Julián Castro and Henry Cisneros.
Conference co-chair Bertha Pérez moderates a discussion between former San Antonio mayors and HUD secretaries Julián Castro (left) and Henry Cisneros. Credit: Courtesy / Kristel Puente

It was Cisneros who reminded the audience at OLLU’s Thiry Auditorium of the facts around Latinos who “pushed back” by voting in the recent midterm elections. However, he said, all of the advances we have made can’t seem to cancel out the myriad “misconceptions” about Mexican Americans and the “limiting roles” that persist.

Citing progress in the areas of education, income, prosperity, and home ownership for Mexican Americans – important benchmarks that indicate success and advancement for this minority group – Cisneros then said that “this country doesn’t see it that way.”

Recalling the infamous announcement of then-candidate Donald Trump when he described Mexicans as “rapists” and “murderers” and later called into question the qualifications of Judge Gonzalo Curiel for his Mexican heritage, Cisneros said that partly to blame for the persistent strife of the Mexican American is that the “leader of this country attacked an ethnic group in the United States in 2015” and that has done much to besmirch a group that over its entire history has managed only a tentative hold on equality – in spite of all best efforts.

“They think we’re not from here,” interjected Castro. “But we’ve always been here. We have to celebrate progress and motivate coming generations to have the future they may wish for themselves,” he added to wild applause from the audience.

And it was a very large audience, testament to the interest in promoting civil rights. According to Ezequiel Peña, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies and Research at OLLU, “842 registered and we had more than 750” in attendance.

Six concurrent sessions brought in standing-room-only crowds of experts who lived the tumult of the late 1960s under Lyndon Baines Johnson and under threats posed to advancement when he chose not to run for re-election during the Vietnam War. Notable was the wide range of generations on each panel and in each brimming audience.

María Antonietta Berriozábal.
María Antonietta Berriozábal. Credit: Courtesy / Kristel Puente

Each room seemed an incredible “who’s who” of champions for social justice, including María Antonietta Berriozábal, Linda Chavez-Thompson, Mario C. Compean, Blandina Cardenas Flores, Irma Mireles Berry, Ignacio Pérez, María, E. Vasquez, Al Kauffman, Joe Bernal, Norma Cantú, and the list goes on and on with experts who litigated, ran for public office, protested, worked in the fields and in the classrooms.  The conference “has been an inspiring call to action and a timely reflection of the historic role OLLU has had in advancing civil and human rights for Mexican Americans and other marginalized communities in the San Antonio’s Westside, across the city and the state of Texas” added Peña.

Rounding out the Saturday morning session to another full house was Catherine E. Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  She held up the cinder-block tome – the newly submitted Recommendations to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights compiled over recent years – and promised that although her office has endured recent budget cuts that prevent much travel, she was glad to be in San Antonio and at OLLU where the initial meetings occurred.

Citing the reported increased use of force on people of color and the major tensions in minority communities that have “escalated past a breaking point,” she said she sees the multigenerational gathering as a kind of “safety net” to what has been threatened or diminished in recent history, a way “to recommit yourself to democracy.”

Not surprisingly, in 1968, the hearings drew severe criticism from various corners of leadership in San Antonio. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University and vice chairman of the commission at that time, offered this response: “All we do is hold up a mirror to the community and let them tell us if there are any problems. And that’s what we’re doing here.”

“What is new about this conference” said Peña, is the importance of civil rights across the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, and expression and sexual orientation.”  He added what was perhaps top of mind for those present who understand Cisneros’ initial assertion that Mexican Americans are still under siege, still marginalized in spite of any strides made over the past several decades: “Much has been accomplished, but much more remains to be done.”

What was done at OLLU on this November weekend was a polishing of that reflective glass Hesburgh suggested, to make sharper and more vivid, not just the past it reflects, but the present and even the future. It is a window out into the many paths forward to continue the interventions of those who have worked mightily in the interests of so many others.

J. Richard Avena, the conference’s executive committee chair, addressed the audience Saturday to provide context for the day’s upcoming events. Walking slowly to the lectern, he joked that his pace has slowed down in the intervening decades since 1968, but the strength of his convictions was on full display.

Noting the influence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Avena said that the work of 2018, like the work of 1968, “legitimizes the issues” that Mexican Americans and other minority groups still confront.  He added that the new report from the committee is a “road map for social change and that “today’s young people will take this information and nudge it forward.”

At the end of the conference, as he sat with his daughters and granddaughters, it was clear that this will be our inevitable destiny. It is a legacy and a valuable directive to keep fighting.

About “inevitability,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts” and “without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”  His assertion that we “must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right” seems in line with the work of this large, diverse, and dedicated committee.  Even 50 years hence, the time is now to, as King wrote, “make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm … to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Lhamon, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights chair, posed the question to the audience regarding the past 50 years since those hearings of 1968: “Have we lived up to the promise to promote equal dignity and respect for all?”  On this November, 50 years later, the answer is that we are keeping up the fight.

Yvette Benavides is a professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University.