As statewide advocates fought in the last several years for a Mexican American Studies course to gain State Board of Education approval, retired educator Paul Ruiz worked on his own project focused on educating the community about Mexican American history and its role in the civil rights movement.

It took three years for Ruiz to prepare the National Institute of Mexican American History of Civil Rights, and on Tuesday morning, city, county, and education leaders gathered at Our Lady of the Lake University, the institute’s home, to announce the facility was ready to open its doors.

“The [Mexican American] community doesn’t see the world as theirs, it belongs to somebody else,” Ruiz said. “It is rooted in this history of you don’t matter. I hope the new generations and present generations, by knowing who they are and what their grandparents struggled through, that they will develop a sense of pride rather than a sense of apology.”

Paul Ruíz is the National Institute of Mexican American History of Civil Rights’ founder and board chairman

The institute will partner with universities, schools, and communities to teach about Mexican Americans’ role in advancing the civil rights movement. The center will be the home of documents and historic artifacts, the majority of which will be online – Ruiz wants the institute to be heavy on information, but light on paper.

Erika Prosper, who will help lead the institute’s national advisory council, announced the gift of one such artifact to the new institute — a video recording of Cesar Chavez attending Mass in the Rio Grande Valley from the 1980s. Prosper received the video recording from her parents as a wedding gift when she married Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

“We want to gift it to the institute to have it continue to be part of the artifacts,” Prosper said. “We always knew this was special and I held on to this thing for dear life, but I think this is the right place.”

Last fall, City Council approved $500,000 in funding for the institute over the next two years. Bexar County also contributed roughly $20,000, but Commissioner Justin Rodriguez told the audience Tuesday that he was interested in doing more going forward.

At Tuesday’s announcement, Our Lady of the Lake University President Diane Melby said she was thrilled the institute would be housed at the West Side university. The core of OLLU’s mission is to lift marginalized peoples and communities, Melby said, adding that the institute will help carry out this goal.

The new institute is a nonprofit with nine board members led by Ruiz. Ezequiel Peña will serve as the interim executive director. Peña is an OLLU associate professor and director of the school’s Center for Mexican American Studies and Research.

With the startup funds from City Council, the institute plans to hire scholars to study certain “buckets of history,” Ruiz said. It also will hire a marketing and communications firm to develop a website that will host many of the historic artifacts and documents for everyone to view. Fundraising will be ongoing and Ruiz projected it will take several million dollars to fully stand up the institute.

The institute eventually will be mobile and travel to schools throughout the city for lessons on notable Mexican Americans such as Emma Tenayuca, who led a 1938 strike of pecan shellers, or Willie Velásquez Jr., the founder of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

“We don’t want the center to be the only place to make our presentations and hold our series,” Ruiz said. “We want to use the high school auditoriums, we want to use the elementary school cafeterias, we want to use the campus [meeting rooms] to take the message to real community where people live. Most of all, we don’t want to just talk to ourselves. We want to talk to mom and dad and kids growing up.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.