Rafael Galvan, Sr., police officer, Mexican-American civil rights activist, businessman, civic leader, and musician, was born on August 13, 1887, in Port Isabel, Texas. He was the son of Eduardo Galvan and Paula (Longoria) Galvan.
In 1896 Galvan moved to Corpus Christi with his family, and he remained in the city for the rest of his life. Early in adulthood, he found work as a fisherman. He had two daughters by his first marriage. After the death of his wife, Galvan married Virginia Reyes on October 26, 1919, at the Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Corpus Christi. They had seven children of their own and raised all nine in the household. Galvan became a prominent and influential citizen of Corpus Christi. He was the first Mexican-American police officer in the city, and his position represented a significant social gain for the Mexican-American community. At some point, he also ran a strong campaign for county constable. Though he lost his bid, he was one of the first Mexican Americans to run for public office in Corpus Christi.
Society in South Texas reflected many of the same tendencies towards segregation that existed in other parts of the American South. In South Texas, this discrimination focused on Hispanics, particularly of Mexican descent. By becoming a police officer on a traditionally all-White force, Galvan represented a societal breakthrough for Mexican American citizens in the area. The local gains he made by becoming Corpus Christi’s first Mexican-American police officer motivated him to pursue greater social change. Galvan was one of the founding members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1929. The first LULAC convention took place in Corpus Christi in May 1929. Galvan, as a founding member of this organization, increased his influence in Corpus Christi and the Mexican-American community at large. His connection to the Mexican community can be seen through his interactions with several significant figures of the period, including Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas.
Beyond his role as a civil rights activist, he was also a civic-minded businessman. He owned a small dry goods store in the early 1900s. After the hurricane of 1919, he provided clothing and bedding for those left homeless. He was active in real estate and by the 1940s had numerous property holdings, including the city’s first theater open for minorities, a restaurant, Laguna Fish and Oyster Co., and other businesses. In 1942 he purchased a house that belonged to Asa Milton French, and the Galvan home hosted such political figures as Lyndon Baines Johnson, Brig. Gen. Alberto Cardenas, and Richard Kleberg.
Galvan, a musician, emphasized the importance of musical instruction to his children, who all took lessons and became accomplished players. In his effort to foster the family orchestra while providing a local venue that would keep them near home, he built the Galvan Ballroom, which at the time was the largest facility for social gatherings in the Coastal Bend. His ballroom brought in big names such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Duke Ellington, and the Trio Los Panchos, in addition to the Galvan Orchestra. The ballroom provided a place where people could gather and join in a culture larger than simply the local experience. Galvan’s establishment allowed for the integration of Hispanic and Anglo-American patrons and provided countless social functions for veterans, school children, and charitable organizations. Though public functions were not available for African American patrons, the ballroom hosted many well-known Black musicians and was available for rental by African American groups for private gatherings. In 1960 Galvan established the Galvan Music Company on the first floor of the building.
Rafael Galvan, Sr., died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-nine on October 11, 1966, at Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi. He was survived by his wife Virginia, five daughters and four sons, twenty-four grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren. Galvan, a Catholic, was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Corpus Christi. Galvan Street was named in his honor. The family home, known as the Galvan House, was purchased by the city in 1982 and became the Multicultural Center at Heritage Park in Corpus Christi. The home received a Texas Historical Marker in 1986. In 1990 Rafael Galvan Elementary School in Corpus Christi was named in his honor.