Monday, March 10, 2014

“A Giant in Mexican American History” by Henry Cisneros

UNM Civil Rights Symposium: Tribute to Dr. Vicente Ximenes
September 27, 2007
        As much as we would like to believe that history demonstrates a constant progression of humankind, many people continue to suffer as very serious challenges have yet to be overcome. The Latino community is far down the road from where it was in the 1950s, 60s, and even 70s thanks to Dr. Vicente Ximenes and many others; but it also true that the Latino high-school dropout rate is too high, that we work for the lowest wages of any group in the United States, and that our homeownership rate is 20 points under the national average. The Latino level of savings and investment wealth is the lowest of any ethnic group in the United States. The inequities continue and they must be addressed.
       If we Latinos are going to make our full contribution to American society we cannot do it without health insurance, without adequate jobs, without completed educations, and without sufficient skills. The task that lies before us is a major one that our civic activists and our political leaders must commit to with the same courage, the same vision, the same uncompromising spirit, the same relentlessness, and the same sense of belief in America and an unwillingness to be ground down as Dr. Ximenes and his contemporaries showed. That is the task of our national leaders today.
       Whatever progress our leaders make along the traditional ladder of progress, I hope they will always remember, as Dr. Ximenes and others have, their roots and the people who were are still behind. Our narrative must be more than a story of a few people making it to the top; rather it must be a story of those few opening doors so that many others could come behind them. That is the spirit of Dr. Ximenes and the spirit future leaders should have, including many who are still in the universities, high schools, and grade schools. This is a long-term proposition—the building of a great nation and the sustenance of a great people–and Dr. Ximenes certainly set the standard. It is up to us to understand it and follow.
       Dr. Ximenes’ life was forged in the scrub brush of Floresville in South Texas at a time when there was virulent discrimination against Mexicanos despite the fact that Mexicanos had lived in that area of Texas for hundreds of years. He worked hard within the system to acquire the best education and skills, and, early in life, came to the attention of very important figures like Lyndon Johnson who recognized his political skills, his interpersonal skills, his oratorical and communication skills and, very importantly in due course, his managerial and national leadership potential. He held a series of posts including positions at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and at the State Department, and a political position in the Viva Johnson effort in 1964. He eventually ended up in a very key slot during the early formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of the major 1960s civil rights era organizations, and then made important contributions as the coordinator, secretary, and chair of the effort to create the first cabinet-level position to bring Hispanic affairs to the attention of the national government.
       In the 1960s and 70s organizations such as the American GI Forum and LULAC defined a new level of Latino engagement with the larger society. They engaged on a broad front: education, senior issues, children’s concerns, disability programs, economic progress, corporate board representation, discrimination—in short, the gamut of life for Latinos in America. Much of the energy for establishing these organizations came out of that period and Dr. Ximenes not only encouraged but facilitated the conditions in which these organizations could prosper. At this point Latinos had capable leaders backed by foundations, churches, and labor organizations and sustained by their own sweat equity and recognition of the need to advocate on behalf of our community. So what started in the earlier era with individuals like Dr. Hector Garcia and like Dr. Ximenes ended up later being an army of activists who could change things dramatically—and have. Today we have some 45 national Latino organizations under the roof of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda. They meet together to focus on what is important to the 44-plus million Latinos across the United States who are of diverse origins: Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Central American, and South American.
       It is difficult today to comprehend the levels of discrimination and the intensity of challenges which Dr. Ximenes had overcome: patronizing attitudes and the subordination of Mexican Americans in Texas. In some communities in South Texas, Latino veterans could not be buried in the same cemeteries as other veterans who died fighting for our country. Across Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado Latinos were often denied the most basic of rights: the rights to go into public facilities, the rights to vote without a poll tax, the rights to have access to jobs that matched their skills and capabilities. That is the world through which Dr. Ximenes fought his way. When finally the tide began to turn, he was recognized as a figure who could bridge the gap between disenfranchised Mexican Americans and the political and power institutions of our society.
One of the decisive turning points in the struggle was the 1967 El Paso hearings which Dr. Ximenes organized and chaired and which was the first time the government of the United States explicitly created a forum in which Latino grievances and longstanding concerns could be addressed. One of the most significant things about it was the fact that it had the support and endorsement of the President of the United States. We were fortunate to have a President who not only understood civil rights and basic fairness and who fought for the disadvantaged people with whom he grew up—depression-era poor people from Central Texas—but who broadened his understanding to include African Americans and Latinos. President Lyndon B. Johnson never forgot his experiences as a teacher of young Latino children in Cotulla in South Texas! The civil rights movement touched his conscience. Latinos had never been included in the narrative of what was unfair about America and what needed to be changed about America until President Johnson and those 1967 hearings. They were seminally important and the beginning of a massive turnaround in thinking.
       Another critical piece of context is the African American civil rights movement. Dr. King’s leadership of the Montgomery bus boycotts and organization of a national movement, the new commitments which followed in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1962, President Johnson’s pushing of civil rights and breaking the legislative logjams created by those who were opposed through the use of the filibuster and other legislative techniques available to them—all played a part in the lead-up to the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Also enacted were new commitments student financial aid, fair labor practices, fair housing, and other measures that touched the lives of all Americans, reaching far beyond one group. The Civil Rights Movement created parallel paths within the Latino community, the women’s movement, the environmental agenda, and the quest to aid persons with disabilities. Basically, as Dr. King said, when we open the doors of opportunity, they are opened for everyone. That is exactly one of the most powerful changes which has occurred in our country over the last 50 years. America has been transformed from a society which was unjust, exclusive, overtly discriminatory and segregationist to an inclusive society which though not perfect is clearly more fair and open. Dr. Ximenes was a contributor to that breakthrough period, faithful to those principles, recognized for his skills, and one of our civil rights pioneers.
       In the wake of that period, national organizations were founded which have changed life for Latinos, such as the National Council of La Raza, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project—each of which have touched countless lives. Who could have imagined then that those institutions would so effectively alter the trajectory of Latino integration into American society?
       Young leaders modeled their activism on those who came before, including men such as Dr. Hector Garcia of Corpus Christi, Congressman Henry B. Gonzales of San Antonio, Senators Joe Montoya and Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, and Edward Roybal, the first Latino City Council member in Los Angeles and later Congressman. These were giants and Dr. Ximenes was one of them. He is a key figure in the tremendously important evolution of Latino progress in the United States. I have faith that subsequent generations will continue the momentum; perhaps not in the same ways, perhaps not fighting overt discrimination or manifesting the physical courage that Dr. Ximenes and his contemporaries needed to show, but acting upon a vision appropriate to the times. Hopefully the next generation will complete the job of taking Latinos into the mainstream of American life.
       The Latino progression is one of the most important dynamic forces in the United States. There are major trends which we can see will shape our country—globalization, the continuing evolution of technology, the aging of the population, the migration of populations across America. Certainly one which will be among the most decisive is the Hispanicization of the United States. That is not to suggest the US is going to be a majority Hispanic country, but it is clear that one of the most important demographic realities in the American future will be the energy, the youthfulness, the capacity for hard work, and the ambition that the American Latino community brings to the United States. This is massively important to the American future. A drive by a schoolyard today in almost any major American city reveals a population of children playing in the schoolyard that reflects the shape of the American future captured in the many faces of minority children. Many of those children are Latino, not just in New Mexico, Texas or California; not just in Arizona, Colorado or Florida, but in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Nebraska, Illinois, New York, and Washington State. All across America as this process unfolds Latinos will take our place among the shapers of America’s destiny. Because we love this country, we want to work for it and make it greater. As we do, let us remember the pioneers, the visionaries, the courageous few, those who were unwilling to settle for lives of discrimination and segregation, and who used their skills for the benefit of a people and a nation. Dr. Ximenes is foremost among those who have worked to create the better life that we enjoy today. 

c/o Professor Michelle Kells, Associate Professor, Rhetoric & Writing,  University of New Mexico  

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