Carlos Rene Guerra, the son of school teachers Ernesto S. Guerra and Matilde (Ramón) Guerra, was born in Robstown, Nueces County, located in South Texas, on May 27, 1947. He was a prominent student activist, civil rights leader, and journalist. Guerra was also known for helping initiate various organizations and community programs that provided important services and leadership to Mexican American communities throughout Texas.
Although Guerra was a gifted student, he, like other Mexican American children, experienced considerable discrimination in the Robstown public schools he attended which inspired his activism in adulthood. He recalled later, in a 1974 Texas Observer article, that racial suppression and second-class status began in school and wore down Mexican Americans into accepting racial barriers as fate. His first year in school was spent in a segregated classroom where he and his classmates were not allowed to speak Spanish. The next year he and five other Mexican American students moved to an all-Anglo class, in what Guerra later called “token integration,” but by fourth grade, only Guerra and one other Mexican American boy remained. He remembered one of his Anglo teachers stated that all Mexicans were alike; the statement emboldened his Anglo classmates to engage in more bullying behavior. Guerra found constant reminders of racial inequality in junior high and high school and endured social ridicule. He also recalled that voting in student elections required a poll tax, but many Latino classmates were too poor to afford lunch or a change of clothes.
Guerra graduated from high school in 1964 and won a scholarship that paid for one year of college from the local League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter. He attended Texas Arts and Industry University (also known as Texas A&I, now Texas A&M University-Kingsville), his mother’s alma mater, in Kingsville, Texas. There he faced continued discrimination but found his political voice and other like-minded activists. A history and political science major, he was elected to student government and excelled on the debate team. He also wrote a column in the student newspaper, and in 1967 he penned an article for the Texas Observer to respond to a recent U.S. Department of Education policy directive that officially classified the race of Mexican Americans as “other.” Guerra became known for his skilled speaking ability and impassioned critique of discrimination on behalf of Mexican Americans. For his critique, however, he faced a backlash of threatening phone calls and was hanged in effigy during his first college year.
During his last three years at Texas A&I, he emerged as a leader in the budding Chicano movement in Texas by mobilizing Mexican American students into political action. In 1966 he organized a group of students and faculty to show public support for the farm workers in the Starr County Strike as they marched through Kingsville. He also was instrumental in establishing a Texas A&I chapter of the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organization (PASSO), a national group seeking to build national coalitions to challenge discrimination and inequality, and served as the group’s political action chairman. Guerra honed his leadership skills at Texas A&I and quickly connected with numerous causes including the anti-war movement in Los Angeles, the farm workers’ union from South Texas (see UNITED FARM WORKERS UNION), and Mexican American community electoral campaigns in Crystal City (see CRYSTAL CITY REVOLTS) and San Antonio. He also used his weekly column, titled “Guerra’s War,” in the university’s student newspaper, to inform students about the injustices faced by Mexican Americans; one column condemned violence by the Texas Rangers. Perhaps due to the controversial nature of his column, he stayed with the paper for only one summer then began publishing his own underground newspaper. In 1968 he and PASSO protested discriminatory hiring practices of Humble Oil, now Exxon Company, U.S.A., by picketing their Kingsville headquarters.
By 1969 Guerra had joined the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), an organization that gave coherence to the Mexican American student movement in public schools, colleges, and universities throughout the state. MAYO’s main strategy was based on direct actions to address discrimination against Mexican Americans. This involved various forms of direct protest, both verbal and written, and nonviolent confrontations.
Guerra, along with other MAYO student leaders like José Angel Gutiérrez, played a pivotal role and further gained prominence during the 1969 Kingsville student walkout. Initially he and other members of MAYO and PASSO conducted a two-day seminar in Kingsville for high school and college students on problems faced by Mexican Americans and efforts for community solutions. Then on April 14, 1969, students at Kingsville’s Gillett Junior High School boycotted school and protested across the street from the school with high school and A&I students to demand fairer representation of Mexican American culture in the curriculum and library, no punishment for speaking Spanish, and more Mexican American teachers, administrators, and counselors. Students had marched and picketed for four days when local police arrested more than 100 of them for unlawful assembly. Guerra got the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) involved to help those arrested. When city and school officials refused to negotiate with student demands, the boycott resumed. Guerra quickly organized a march and rallies for April 26 and 27 that brought MAYO and PASSO members from other parts of the state to Kingsville. The group faced bomb threats, and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission sent a field agent to investigate, but little came from the two-week effort.
Upon graduation from Texas A&I in the spring of 1969, Guerra was the head of the Kingsville MAYO. In May 1970, at the age of twenty-two, he became MAYO’s first elected national chairman. The organization had more than 1,500 members and chapters in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and Texas. By then, however, Guerra and MAYO founders José Ángel Gutiérrez and Mario Compean had already begun organizing the Raza Unida Party. Under MAYO and Raza Unida, Guerra continued to lead marches and mobilize audiences to protest inequality including a march in Pharr, Texas. Law enforcement and some government officials considered both groups radical and regularly harassed and surveilled its leadership.
When Raza Unida’s leadership split over focusing on statewide campaigns or county-level organizing and campaigns, Guerra saw the practicality of both. In his hometown, he joined a local barrio-level group called Familias Unidas, and in March 1970, he ran for city council in Robstown but was barred because he was not old enough. He waited two years and unsuccessfully ran again for city council and then for school board in 1977. He managed the gubernatorial campaign for human rights activist Francis “Sissy” Farenthold in 1972 and the 1974 gubernatorial campaign of the Raza Unida Party candidate Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz. In the 1970s, he also did community work as the executive director and fundraiser for the Texas Institute for Educational Development (TIDE), a research-based Mexican American advocacy program closely tied to the Chicano movement. He also did behind-the-scenes organizing with research and writing proposals to raise money outside the state. On August 6, 1977, Guerra married Diana Reyna. They had a son who died in infancy and later divorced in 1982.
Guerra became a well-known and highly-regarded journalist in his later years. He began writing regularly for the San Antonio Light in 1991 with his column appearing on the front page. Two years later, when the newspaper shut down, Guerra became a syndicated columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and built a reputation as a public intellectual and an excellent writer on political and cultural issues in Texas and the nation. Newspapers across the state, including the Austin American-Statesman and the El Paso Times, carried his column regularly. His work also frequently appeared in community periodicals like Magazín and the Texas Observer. He kept in touch with fellow activists from the Chicano movement and even served as a pall bearer at the funeral of César Chávez in 1993.
A self-taught journalist, Guerra continued to speak and write on numerous issues including poverty, higher education, environmentalism, police brutality, immigration reform, Mexican American civil rights, U.S.-Mexico policy, racial inequity, and, his favorite—the common Mexican American person doing extraordinary things. He wrote his last column for the Express-News in 2009 then turned his attention to developing the online Latino news site Newtaco.com. His last social media post was about University of Texas at San Antonio students on a hunger strike to get the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, passed.
Guerra died of unknown causes while on a fishing trip in Port Aransas, Texas. His body was found on December 6, 2010. He was sixty-three years old. He had one daughter. Upon learning of his death, his fellow journalists and Chicano activists wrote memorials to him in various publications from across the state. His family held a private service for him at the Ramon Funeral Home and a funeral Mass was held at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Robstown on December 11. That evening a public memorial was held at the Palo Alto College where numerous friends spoke, including Mario Compean. Before his death Guerra endowed a scholarship for journalism majors at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.