League of United Latin American Citizens

By: Cynthia E. Orozco

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 22, 2020

The League of United Latin American Citizens, originally called the United Latin American Citizens, is the oldest and largest continually active Latino political association in the United States and was the first nationwide Mexican American civil rights organization. LULAC was founded on February 17, 1929, at Salón Obreros y Obreras in Corpus Christi, Texas. Its founding grew out of the rise of the Texas-Mexican middle class and resistance to racial discrimination. The strength of the organization has historically been in Texas. LULAC has been a multi-issue organization. It was organized in response to political disfranchisement, racial segregation, and racial discrimination. It responded to bossism, the lack of political representation, the lack of a sizable independent Mexican American vote, jury exclusion of Mexican Americans, and White primaries in such places as Dimmit County. It also dealt with the segregation of public schools, housing, and public accommodations. It attempted to solve the problems of poverty among Mexican Americans and sought to build a substantial Mexican American middle class. It has persisted, despite occasional acts of intimidation from law authorities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, for example, for a time had LULAC under surveillance, beginning in the 1940s.

In 1921 John C. Solis, Francisco (Frank) Leyton, and six others met in Helotes, Texas, to discuss the plight of la raza. These discussions led to the formation of the Order of Sons of America, which had seven chapters in Texas by 1929; the Order of Knights of America in San Antonio was a splinter group. The first attempt to merge these groups into a statewide organization occurred at the Harlingen Convention in 1927. The result was not the unification of the various groups but the founding of yet another organization, the Latin American Citizens League. In 1929 LULAC was founded by the merging of four organizations: the Corpus Christi council of the Sons of America, the Alice council of the Sons of America, the Knights of America, and the Latin American Citizens League in the Rio Grande valley and Laredo. Twenty-five delegates attended the organizing meeting for the new group, including representatives from Brownsville, McAllen, Encino, and La Grulla. Santiago Tafolla, Sr., who had been president of the San Antonio Order of Sons of America and of the statewide network since 1921, refused to send delegates, and this chapter did not merge into the organization founded in February 1929. Members of the new organization selected as their motto, "All for one and one for all." The name United Latin American Citizens was changed to League of United Latin American Citizens at the constitutional convention held in May 1929. The first president of LULAC was Bernardo (Ben) F. Garza. Manuel C. Gonzales was vice president, Andrés de Luna was secretary, and Louis Wilmot was treasurer. The major architects of the LULAC constitution were José Tomás Canales, Eduardo Idar, and Alonso S. Perales. Though the 1929 constitution proclaimed English the official language of the league, the organization nevertheless promoted bilingualism. LULAC selected a shield as its emblem, symbolizing defense against and protection from racism. In 1931 the league obtained its charter.

In 1929 membership was open to "persons" of Mexican origin, though LULAC men did not encourage women to join. Members were typically skilled laborers and small-business owners, though a handful of lawyers played a crucial role. In South Texas, "small capitalists," merchants, and business owners participated. The 1949 constitution opened membership to Caucasians, and in 1986 any person living in the United States was permitted membership, a change intended to include Mexican immigrants. Mexicans were always honorary members, but, in the case of Felix Tijerina and Raoul Cortez, national presidents. In 1991, LULAC membership typically included government and lower-level corporate employees. Chapters have also been organized by college students. Women played an important role in LULAC as both members and nonmembers. They attended the 1929 constitutional convention as interested wives and family members, and by 1991 they constituted half of the LULAC membership. In 1932 women organized several ladies' auxiliaries in Texas. In 1933 LULAC extended membership to women in Ladies LULAC councils, which were gender-segregated chapters. Integrated chapters developed in the 1950s and by 1970 were typical. In the 1960s a "Married Couple council" in Corpus Christi existed. A feminist council existed in Houston in the 1970s, and in the 1980s El Paso women organized Las Comadres, a women's council. Women have also helped LULAC without being members, assisting as wives, family members, individual friends of LULAC, and members of women's clubs and organizations. Notable women in LULAC have included Alice Dickerson Montemayor, Esther Nieto Machuca, and Adela Sloss Vento. Amada Valdez of El Paso was active in Ladies Council 9 for decades, beginning in the 1930s.

Texas LULAC has no permanent state headquarters because of the lack of a solid financial base and the annual changes in leadership. In 1991 LULAC had a state director, district directors, and autonomous local councils. Outstanding national presidents of LULAC from Texas have included George I. Sánchez of New Mexico (who lived in Texas), John J. Herrera, Felix Tijerina, Manuel C. Gonzales, Judge Alfred Hernández, Roberto Ornelas, Ruben Bonilla, and Tony Bonilla. With the exception of Dolores Guerrero in 1969 and Rosa Rosales in 1991, all Texas statewide presidents have been men; women have commonly served as district directors and local council presidents. The most persistent and important men's LULAC councils in Texas have included Corpus Christi 1, San Antonio 2, El Paso 8, Laredo 12, and Houston 60. Among the most important Ladies LULAC councils in the state have been those in El Paso, Houston, San Antonio, and Laredo. Chapters in rural communities have generally been less enduring because of the frequent lack of a Mexican American middle class in these areas—and sometimes because of intimidation from local authorities. Until the 1960s, in fact, some Anglo authorities and members of the Texas Rangers sought to prevent LULAC from organizing in rural communities.

LULAC has played a role in the formation of several important related organizations. It gave rise to La Liga Pro-Defensa Escolar (the School Improvement League) in San Antonio, and formed a veterans' committee to address the rights of G.I.'s before LULAC member Hector P. García organized the American G.I. Forum. LULAC members instituted the Little School of the 400, the model for the federal educational program Head Start. In 1964 LULAC helped start the SER-Jobs for Progress, Incorporated, the largest employment agency for Latinos in the United States. Later, LULAC members helped secure a grant from the Ford Foundation that started the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. LULAC was heavily involved in school desegregation efforts. In 1931 its members were among those behind Del Rio ISD v. Salvatierra, and in 1948 LULAC was involved in the case of Delgado v. Bastrop ISD, which ended segregation in the public schools. LULAC and the American G.I. Forum filed fifteen desegregation cases in Texas during the 1950s. LULAC has also focused attention on education in other ways. It awarded its first scholarship in 1932, and by 1974 it had established the LULAC National Educational Service Centers and a national scholarship fund. In 1990 LULAC members were involved in a case to redistribute state funds to colleges in South Texas.

Direct political involvement by LULAC members has included the organization of poll tax drives at the local level from the 1930s until the mid-1960s, when the League advocated abolishing these taxes (see ELECTION LAWS). League members supported Mexican American candidates such as Raymond Telles, who campaigned to be mayor of El Paso in 1957, and Henry B. Gonzalez, in his campaign for election to the United States House of Representatives in the 1950s. LULAC fought for appointment of Mexican Americans to important federal and state positions, including the first Mexican American federal judge in Texas, Reynaldo Garza, and the first Mexican American United States ambassador, Raymond Telles. League members were also active in Viva Kennedy-Viva Johnson Clubs and in the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations. In 1991 a case in which LULAC members were involved, LULAC v. Mattox, determined that judges would be elected, not appointed, in a number of Texas counties. LULAC involvement in debates about immigration included 1930 testimony by LULAC members at the federal level on the issue of Mexican immigration. During the Bracero Program LULAC played a major role in the banning of braceros from Texas because of their exploitation. In 1954 LULAC supported Operation Wetback, the United States government drive to deport undocumented workers. In the 1980s LULAC members were at the forefront of supporting immigrant rights in the Immigration and Reform Act of 1987.

LULAC was involved in issues of discrimination and equal rights in a variety of other ways, as well. In the 1930s the league investigated charges of discrimination by the WPA and supported the Alazan-Apache Courts in San Antonio, the first public housing in the United States. In the late 1930s LULAC fought to change the classification of Mexican Americans as "Mexicans" in the coming (1940) United States census. In the 1940s LULAC member Edmundo E. Mireles promoted the teaching of the Spanish language in Texas schools, and LULAC worked with the Federal Employment Practices Commission to open up jobs for Mexican Americans in the defense industry. In the 1950s LULAC opposed the McCarran Immigration Act and helped desegregate the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. LULAC members were also involved in Hernández v. State of Texas, which gave Mexican Americans the right to serve on juries. LULAC supported the Texas farmworkers' march in 1966 and endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1974. Around 1978 LULAC took up the José Campos Torres police-brutality case.

The League of United Latin American Citizens has obtained the support of la raza and the Anglo community because of its civic nature. In particular, LULAC women have focused on civic concerns, paying attention to children, the poor, and the elderly and instituting programs—such as protective services for the elderly and the distribution of eyeglasses to children-to help these populations. In 1937, Ladies LULAC established the Junior LULAC, chapters for youth. LULAC ideology has historically encompassed liberalism, individualism, and support of free-market capitalism; anticommunism and United States patriotism have also been central. In 1974 the LULAC Foundation was established and LULAC began receiving corporate contributions. LULAC participated in a boycott against Coors Brewing Company in the 1970s but by the early 1990s was accepting donations from Coors. The success and longevity of LULAC can also be attributed to effective communication. From 1931 through the 1970s it published the LULAC News, and before 1940 it sponsored the publications Lulac Notes, El Defensor, Alma Latina, and El Paladin, all in Texas.

Mario T. Garcia, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). LULAC Archives, Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin. LULAC Collection, Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Benjamin Marquez, LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993). Cynthia E. Orozco, The Origins of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement in Texas with an Analysis of Women's Political Participation in a Gendered Context, 1910–1929 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1992). Moises Sandoval, Our Legacy: The First Fifty Years (Washington: LULAC, 1979). O. Douglas Weeks, "The League of United Latin-American Citizens," Southwestern Political and Social Science Quarterly 10 (December 1929).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Organizations
  • Associations
Time Periods:
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cynthia E. Orozco, “League of United Latin American Citizens,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 29, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/league-of-united-latin-american-citizens.

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November 22, 2020

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