40th anniversary of first Latino political party
Mexican Americans made political history 40 years ago when, on Jan. 17, 1970, they founded their own independent political party in Crystal City, Texas. They called it “La Raza Unida Party” — or, translated, “The United People’s Party.”
A look back at this party can give us clues about where we need to go today.
The call for an independent political party came out of a national 1969 Chicano youth conference held in Denver by the Crusade for Justice, the first Mexican American civil rights organization to emerge during the 1960s. The conference produced a plan for Chicano liberation called “El Plan de Aztlan.” The document called the two-party political system “the same animal with two heads that feed at the same trough” because they represented the nation’s political power structures that historically had oppressed and colonized Mexican Americans since the end of the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-1848.
As was the case for blacks in the South, Mexican Americans had been victimized in the Southwest — from lynchings to segregation.
The party’s strength was in Texas and California, the two states with the largest Mexican American populations. With the exception of Crystal City, where the party gained control of the city council and school board, and several other South Texas cities, there were few victories for the party, due to strong opposition from both conservative and liberal white and Mexican American sectors.
For example, Henry Gonzalez, a liberal Democratic congressman and the only Mexican American from Texas serving in the U.S. Congress at the time, publicly denounced Jose Angel Gutierrez, the leader of the party.
In California, the party was not able to get the required 66,000 voters registered to get on the state ballot. It was able to register only 22,000 people, mostly college students. It never came close to a single political victory.
The party’s last hurrah came in the 1972 Texas governor’s race when its candidate, Ramsey Muniz, received 6.43 percent of the votes.
Soon after, the party started to decline due to ideological divisions.
The party did not meet its goal of becoming an independent political institution, but it helped open doors for Mexican Americans into the two-party political system. After the party’s decline, many of the party’s activists went into the Democratic Party.
More significantly, the party contributed to the political awakening of the Mexican American people and other Latinos. It put the issue of political representation of Latinos on the agendas of local, state and national politics. Prior to the emergence of the party, there were only a relative handful of Latino elected officials. Now, though still underrepresented, there are hundreds of them throughout nation. For example, in 1970, there were five Latinos in the U.S. Congress. Now there are 25, including two U.S. senators.
The increase in elected officials, however, has not resulted in fundamental change, primarily because those officials, no matter how liberal they may be, are an integral part of the “animal with two heads.” Racial or ethnic identity does not guarantee the representation of communities of color — specifically, those who are poor and working class. The best example today is the president of the United States. The majority of black and Latinos voted for President Obama expecting he would act in the interest of their communities. He has not.
The story of the La Raza Unida Party teaches us that independent political parties based on racial or ethnic identity will not work. An independent mass political party that can represent the needs of our more complex diverse society must emerge to challenge the two-party duopoly. Such a party could lead to an authentic multiracial, multiethnic and multi-cultural democracy for the 21st century.