Map to Empowerment Was Drawn in 1957

Mario T. Garcia is a professor of history and Chicano studies at UC Santa Barbara and the author of the just-published "The Making of a Mexican American Mayor: Raymond L. Telles of El Paso" (Texas Western Press)

The ascendancy of Mexican Americans and other Latinos as a significant electoral force has garnered increasing attention among journalists, community activists and particularly politicians, as well it should.

The growing emphasis on voting and political accountability in Latino communities is to be applauded. It not only will better serve Latinos, but also will better serve the electorate as a whole by compelling politicians to be more responsive to all their constituents and thereby helping to close the gap between local representation as practice and as ideal.

But too many people, in their euphoria over recent political gains, are turning a blind eye to past achievements and failures and risk delaying progress that could be made on that foundation.

The broader Latino community may be doing itself a disservice if it portrays its growing political influence as an entirely new phenomenon. If nothing else, giddy proclamations that we are just now coming into our own as a powerful voting bloc contradict our proud political heritage and history.

For instance, more than four decades ago, a sizable and determined Latino community in El Paso, Texas, convincingly flexed its political muscle and, overcoming great odds, elected one of its own as mayor--the first Mexican American to serve as mayor of a major metropolitan area in the country.

Raymond L. Telles' improbable victory in 1957 was a study in aggressive campaigning and shrewd political maneuvering. Facing fierce opposition from the city's white establishment, Telles and his supporters launched a pioneering effort to register Chicano voters and get them to the polls with stunning success. It truly was a grass-roots effort.

Telles' triumph was one of the most dramatic political upsets of the century, and he proved a very competent administrator before going on to serve as ambassador to Costa Rica under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson--another first for a Mexican American.

But the larger significance of this seemingly pivotal chapter in American politics is its continued obscurity. Unfortunately, historians and other cultural observers--including some within the Latino community--refuse to acknowledge this as the genesis of Chicano empowerment or to learn from it.

Why this lack of political perspective? The answers are probably as varied as they are subtle. However, one of the main reasons must certainly be the political utility of novelty in this age of information overkill. Simply put, today's activists and their operatives are under mounting pressure to have their message heard above the din of an ever-crowded political landscape. Hence the increasing reliance on novelty and uniqueness.

Moreover, each new political generation wants to believe that it is the first to accomplish breakthroughs. Many leaders in the broader Latino community have come to realize that there are advantages to portraying the growing political clout of Mexican Americans as a direct--and noteworthy--response to more recent developments such as Propositions 187 and 227. And indeed, the conveyance of this message seems to have provided the Latino community with an invigorating political momentum. We are now being collectively courted by Republican as well as Democratic politicians.

So what's the problem? By characterizing the growing political consciousness within our community as a contemporary phenomenon, we are being true neither to ourselves nor to the cause for greater Chicano empowerment. In overlooking our political past, we risk repeating its mistakes and miscalculations. The truth is that after a historic breakthrough in 1957, it has taken us decades to begin again to fulfill our political potential.

We would do well to remember that, after an initial and unparalleled triumph more than 40 years ago, the Chicano political movement bogged down due to fragmentation and competing visions. Now that we have begun to overcome these obstacles, a complete accounting of the past would seem essential to our success in the future. The 1957 election in El Paso, with its emphasis on both Latino empowerment and coalition politics, in many ways is a road map to continued Latino political influence.

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