The Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans was established in 1970 by Yolanda Navarro, Luis Cano, and other Houston students, businessmen, and young teachers from the city's barrios to address educational and social problems among local Mexican-American youths and prepare them to become leaders. The AAMA, which initially had only fourteen members, was headed by a board of directors. By the end of the 1970s its membership had grown to 1,000, mostly low-income and middle-class Mexican Americans in Houston.
AAMA sought to improve the students' achievement by curbing their school dropout rate and reducing drug abuse. Working out of an old house on Sampson Street, it set out to organize various community-service programs. In 1970 the association established the Jovita I. Day Care Center, a bilingual preschool program, and offered free neighborhood-based recreational activities for Hispanic teenagers. Financial support for these programs was drawn from both local and federal sources.
In January 1973 AAMA closed temporarily due to an inadequate budget, and its state charter was revoked because of its inactivity. To reinvigorate the organization, Navarro and Cano set up a new board of directors, and by the summer of 1973 AAMA received a Model Cities grant to establish an art center for barrio youth. Cano, a self-described activist, insisted, however, that the funds be used for an alternative school for Mexican-American students. With the AAMA board's support the George I. Sánchez School began under Cano's direction in an old muffler warehouse on Polk Street. Fifteen adolescent males made up the first class.
Sánchez was accredited as a private school by the Texas Education Agency in the late 1970s. At the same time AAMA also obtained federal funds to run a talent-search project to encourage local Mexican-American students' enrollment in college. By the early 1990s the school had graduated more than 300 students, and the talent-search program reached 1,200 students a year.
AAMA established an arts center in 1974, which later produced "The Aztecas and Their Medicine, A Chicano Legacy." The film was awarded the Seventh Annual Robert Kennedy Journalism Award in 1975. In 1976 the organization set up a program to prevent drug abuse, and in 1978 it opened Casa de Esperanza (House of Hope), since renamed Casa Phoenix, to treat inhalant, drug, and alcohol abusers. AAMA eventually set up programs in mathematics and science education for families, foster care, cultural awareness, AIDS education, and adult basic education. All these activities have served such Mexican-American neighborhoods as East End, Magnolia Park, Second Ward, Northside, and Denver Harbor.
By 1990 AAMA had purchased the former Houston Office Center on the Gulf Freeway and renamed it AAMA Park Plaza. It houses the organization's administrative offices, the Sánchez School, and other programs. In 1990 AAMA established a statewide magazine, Texas Hispanic. The publication, which covers a broad array of issues on Hispanics, became independent from AAMA in 1992. More recently, AAMA set up a housing revitalization program in Magnolia Central Park.