Half a century ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights convened at Our Lady of the Lake University to investigate the challenges facing Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.
In the 50 years since the hearings, Texas has sent its first two Latinas to Congress, San Antonio elected three Latino mayors, and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) has won cases on voting rights and education inequality.
But on Friday, as OLLU hosted more than 500 participants at a national conference marking the 50th anniversary of the hearings, it was clear that many feel Latinos still have a long way to go. During her keynote speech, Blandina “Bambi” Cardenas, president emerita of the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley and a former commissioner with the Civil Rights Commission, outlined various obstacles Latino activists face today.
“Fifty years ago, this country felt more united,” Cardenas said. “Many of us felt a national moral obligation toward civil rights, but a lot of those doors are closed to us now. We’re living in a time where the president of the United States can say things about your community that you know not to be true, and there are few voices raised in the face of that attack.”
“Holding Up the Mirror: The 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hearing on Mexican Americans in the Southwest” brought together different generations of Latinos to discuss their future. A variety of panels focused on Chicano history in the state, while others revolved around current events and topics such as immigration and women’s representation.
Throughout most of the events, one topic continued to come up: community. Whether they were fresh out of college or participated in the 1968 Edgewood Walkouts, most of the panelists agreed they needed to foster the development of strong leaders within the community in order to continue their fight for progress.
Moni Avila, a speaker during the Chicana Activism panel, spoke about her decision to take her children’s education on Mexican-American history into her own hands when she founded MAS for the Masses in 2015. Frustrated that her kids weren’t learning much about their culture and ancestry in school, despite the strong presence of Latinos in Texas history, Avila began hosting a series of summer classes for local kids in West San Antonio.
Fellow panelist María Berriozábal, the City of San Antonio’s first Latina councilwoman, spoke about how community initiatives like the one led by Avila will make a significant impact on the future of the Latino movement.
“How many people like [Avila] are out there in our community already?” Berriozábal asked the packed room. “We need to form our young people, we need to instill them with our history and our stories to share our experience with them. None of us get anywhere on our own, and the more power we get, the more we owe it to help those who have none.”
In other panels, the generational divide became apparent between those who had experienced earlier years of activism and current or recent students who hadn’t. During one panel where college students discussed an educational spring break trip that took them to a number of historic Mexican-American sites in the state, one college-aged attendee said he didn’t think the current generation faces much discrimination at all.
Following his comment, attendees such as community organizer Steve Huerta stressed the importance of young people learning about the previous generation’s struggles.
“With so many Latinos assimilating to American culture, we’re absent in a lot of civil rights conversations,” Huerta said. “Our struggles are real, and we need to delve into our history and be able to access the record of where we’ve come from and what led us here today.”
During a panel on voting rights, speakers also highlighted the drastic improvements in Latino representation on a local and national level. While problems like voter disenfranchisement and low voter turnout among Latinos persist, panel moderator and professor of law at the University of Denver José Roberto Juárez said, the community has to recognize the power it holds as the second-largest minority group in the nation.
“Thanks to things like the Voting Rights Act, we’ve had fundamental changes in our representation,”Juárez said. “We now have a voice and a say in who runs our city in a way that didn’t exist in 1968.”
Looking forward, Myrna Pérez, panelist and deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said in this rapidly changing nation, Latinos need to feel empowered to use their voices.
“Our power isn’t wielded easily,” Pérez said. “There are a lot of people with anxiety about the increasing number of black and brown Americans, but we are not a democracy for some of us, we’re a democracy for all of us.”