Emma Serrato Barrientos worked as a political activist, community organizer, and cultural leader with her husband Gonzalo Barrientos, the first Mexican-American state representative from Travis County. The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin, Texas, was named to honor her work in promoting and providing space for Latin-American culture and art in Central Texas.
At the time of Emma’s birth on February 18, 1942, her parents, Miguel and Maria (Vaquera) Serrato, had settled in Galveston, where Miguel worked as a longshoreman. The fifth of the six Serrato children, Emma attended segregated Galveston public schools and graduated from Ball High School, an all-white high school, in 1960. Soon after graduation, she married Gonzalo Barrientos of Bastrop, Texas, and they moved to Austin where he enrolled in the University of Texas. Emma worked a variety of full-time jobs to provide for her family and help pay for her husband’s tuition while he juggled part-time jobs and coursework. After living a short time in then-segregated East Austin, the couple moved into the University of Texas’s married student housing and had their first of five children in 1961. As their family grew, her husband took frequent breaks from school to work until they could afford his tuition.
In the mid-1960s Gonzalo left the university before completing his degree to work as a community organizer and trainer with Education and Neighborhood Action for Better Living, or Project ENABLE, under the National Urban League. Emma sometimes traveled with him to Crystal City, Cotulla, Del Rio, and other South Texas towns to meet with members of the Raza Unida Party, the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), as well as local activists and organizers. In 1969 he worked for Volunteers In Service To America, or VISTA, and its Minority Mobilization Program to organize volunteers from local barrios in South Texas. Emma, who continued to work full-time, supported Gonzalo’s career by hosting meetings and overnight guests in her home, making food for volunteers, and participating in community justice marches and rallies, often with children in tow.
Emma and Gonzalo were both vocal in their support for organized labor. She learned the importance of labor unions as a child through her father’s experience as a longshoreman and through her husband’s experience as a migrant farm worker during his youth. They participated in the marches and boycott of the 1968 Economy Furniture Company strike, which gained the support of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). She joined the UFW’s boycott of grapes and non-union-picked iceberg lettuce. In 1973, to support strike workers at the El Paso Farah manufacturing plant, Emma helped organize picket lines in front of Austin clothing stores that carried Farah clothing and spoke for their cause to local newspapers (see FARAH STRIKE).
Emma’s activism extended to matters of social justice as well. In 1971 and 1973 she protested police treatment of minorities at rallies and at Austin city council meetings. In 1973, despite concerns of possible violence, she marched down Congress Avenue with her children, alongside the People’s Committee for Justice, Raza Unida, Welfare Rights Organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Brown Berets, after the death of a twelve-year-old Tejano boy in police custody in Dallas.
In conjunction with their labor and community-justice organizational work, she supported her husband’s burgeoning political career. In 1972, after helping with successful campaigns of several local Hispanic candidates, Gonzalo, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for state representative, District 37-4, for Travis County, an office that required a county-wide race. His candidacy had the endorsement of the University of Texas student newspaper, the Daily Texan, and César Chávez of the UFW. In 1974 he ran again and won the seat. Still working full-time and raising her young children, Emma played an integral part of Gonzalo’s campaigns. She stuffed envelopes, recruited volunteers, and accompanied Gonzalo to campaign functions.He maintained the office until 1985 when he was elected to the Texas Senate. That year, Emma joined the Texas Senate Ladies Club and served that organization in various capacities including treasurer and president. In 1995 Emma and her husband were founding members of the Tejano Democrats and both remained active in the state and Travis County organizations. She also participated in several Democratic national conventions and, in 2007, a minority rights conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Although Emma felt shy about public speaking, Gonzalo once remarked that had she ever run against him, she would have beaten him. Others have credited Emma’s drive and organizational skills as key to Gonzalo’s political success.
Seeking activities for her school-age children in the mid-1980s, Emma joined with like-minded mothers to organize a folklórico dance group. They enlisted dancer and choreographer Roy Lozano, who had trained with the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, and Emma was a founding board member of his professional dance company Ballet Folklórico de Tejas in 1983. In addition to serving on the ballet’s board for many years, she helped found Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum and served as board president of the Austin Museum of Art, where she encouraged the board to support a museum dedicated to Hispanic culture. She was also active in her Catholic church. Beginning in 1973 Emma initiated efforts to organize what became Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), a venue devoted to Mexican and Latin American arts and culture, community outreach, and coalition-building. In 1986 she joined the MACC task force, created by the Austin city council to study and create design and financial viability of the project, but politics derailed the project in 1989. In 1992 she and Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, editor of La Prensa newspaper, spearheaded a new task force and organized local support for a bond election in 1992 (which failed) and in 1998 to build MACC.
In addition to raising her children, founding and supporting cultural organizations, and working in political campaigns, Emma worked full-time at various jobs and spent most of her career in administrative positions for various elected Travis County officials. She retired in 2007. She died suddenly at age sixty-seven on December 28, 2009, in Austin, Texas, of a heart attack complicated by a staph infection. She is buried in the Texas State Cemetery. The Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, which opened in 2007, was dedicated in Emma’s memory in November 2011.