Over the years Mexican Americans have expressed their concerns through a number of organizations. In the 1870s Tejanos began establishing sociedades mutualistas (mutual-aid societies), which increased in number as immigration from Mexico rose after 1890. Mexicans brought homeland models, as in the case of the Gran Círculo de Obreros Mexicanos, which had twenty-eight branches in Mexico by 1874 and established a branch in San Antonio in the 1890s. Both immigrants and native residents joined. Mutualistas resembled similar groups established by African, Asian, and European Americans as a means of surviving as outsiders in Anglo-American society. Applicants were attracted mainly by the security of sickness and burial insurance, but many mutualistas also provided loans, legal aid, social and cultural activities, libraries, and adult education. Labor organizations often were mutualist in format, such as the Sociedad Mutua de Panaderos (bakers) of San Antonio. By the 1920s individual mutualistas operated in nearly every barrio in the United States; about a dozen were in Corpus Christi, ten in El Paso, and over twenty in San Antonio, where nine formed an alliance in 1926. Most mutualista groups were male, although many of the larger organizations established female auxiliaries. Like the cooperative organizations of other ethnic groups, mutualistas were influenced by the family and the church, the dominant social organizations. One of the few women to head a mutualista of both sexes was Luisa M. González, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Arizona-based Alianza Hispano-Americana. The few all-female mutualistas were outnumbered by the female auxiliaries. At the same time, women often constituted the backbone of the informal mutual-aid network that predated and undergirded the mutualista groups; they cooperated in child care, childbirth, and taking up collections for the sick.
In addition to mutualistas, a number of groups organized against discrimination, despite their limited resources and precarious position in Texas society. In 1911 mutualist members, journalists, labor organizers, and women's leaders met at the Congreso Mexicanista (Mexican Congress), convened by publisher Nicasio Idar of Laredo to organize against the discrimination faced by Texas-Mexicans. Participants established La Gran Liga Mexicanista (the Great Mexican League) and the Liga Femenil Mexicanista (Female Mexican League) to implement the recommendations. The leagues were short-lived, however. More successful were protective leagues, which advised farmworkers throughout South Texas of their rights and lobbied for stronger laws to safeguard sharecroppers' rights. La Agrupación Protectiva Mexicana (Mexican Protective Group, 1911–15) of San Antonio organized protests of lynching and unjust sentencing, as in the case of the famous renegade Gregorio Cortez Lira, a scourge to the Texas Rangers, a folk hero to Texas Mexicans. Agrupación official Emilio Flores testified in 1915 to a federal commission on numerous cases of physical punishment, including murder, by agricultural employers in Central and South Texas. His organization was succeeded by La Liga Protectora Mexicana (the Mexican Protective League) founded by attorney Manuel C. Gonzáles. The Arizona-based Liga Protectora Latina was also active in Texas and throughout the Southwest. League activists and, especially, veterans of the Great War initiated organizations focusing on civil rights. Soldiers who returned from World War I during the high point of immigration from Mexico were automatically treated as foreign by many Americans, who regarded Mexican-heritage people as a temporary labor force to use or as competition. Nonetheless, many of the veterans found that the war enhanced their own consciousness of their United States citizenship. Having risked their lives for their nation and for the Lone Star State, they resolved to exercise their rights as citizens. In 1921 the Orden Hijos de America (Order of Sons of America) pledged to use "influence in all fields of social, economic, and political action in order to realize the greatest enjoyment possible of all the rights and privileges...extended by the American Constitution." Kindred groups included the Order of Sons of Texas, the Order of Knights of America, and the League of Latin American Citizens. These organizations emphasized the rights and duties of citizenship; only United States citizens could join. The members, overwhelmingly middle-class males, fought segregation and exclusion from juries and sponsored educational citizenship programs. In 1929 the groups formed the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.
With the advent of the Great Depression in 1930, mutualista activity decreased precipitously. Within a year only a handful of organizations still existed, mere shadows of their former selves. Mexican Americans were among the first fired as even menial jobs became scarce and attractive to Anglos. In desperation, many colonia residents turned to the relief rolls. Local public officials tried to restrict the dole to Anglo-Americans and led the cry for deportation of the Mexican unemployed. Repatriation decimated mutualista ranks and unemployment sapped their treasuries (see MEXICAN AMERICANS AND REPATRIATION). Lulackers, as United States citizens, could weather the storm. Furthermore, with the halt of Mexican immigration came an increased orientation toward United States issues, with LULAC leading the way. The Lulac News encouraged members to exercise their rights as citizens by educating themselves on the issues, voting, and campaigning. Though officially nonpartisan, the league supported President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.
During this period segregation of Mexican Americans in schools and public facilities reached its peak, as documented and publicized by LULAC professionals such as Professor George I. Sánchez and attorney-civil leader Alonso Perales. LULAC filed desegregation suits that bore fruit after the Second World War. At the same time, the organization insisted that its members were Caucasian so as to combat the discriminatory label "non-White," which several federal agencies applied to Mexican Americans. LULAC was instrumental in defining the "Mexican American generation" by stressing loyalty to both the United States and the members' Mexican heritage. Members continued such mutualista traditions as celebrating Mexican holidays and organizing around the family unit. LULAC established female auxiliaries and junior branches on the traditional family model. Women used their neighborhood connections to raise scholarship funds, register voters, and recruit volunteers for local clinics. Esther N. Machuca organized Ladies LULAC chapters throughout the state and recruited independent-minded women such as Alice Dickerson Montemayor, who served as a LULAC officer in the late 1930s. Auxiliaries gave women a socially acceptable venue for leadership and furthered the female integration of organizations, even as the female composition of the sub-group offered women an opportunity to gather and address their concerns. LULAC reached its peak on the late 1930s. "Flying Squadrons" of Lulackers fanned out from South Texas, establishing councils throughout the state and beyond. The military mobilization for World War II, however, decimated the LULAC ranks. Alonso Perales pointedly questioned the War Department as to why 50 to 75 percent of all South Texas casualties were Mexican Texans, although they constituted only 500,000 of the state's 6,000,000 population. In that war Mexican Americans garnered the most Medals of Honor (seventeen), and Mexican-American overrepresentation in combat has continued to this day.
Fully integrated into the armed forces, risking their lives for their nation, they would come home on leave, in uniform, only to be discriminated against as "Mexicans." Hope as well as anger energized the "GI" sector of the Mexican American Generation. A hundred years after the United States conquered the region, for the first time a majority of Mexican-American men, at least, could prove their citizenship. Having just fought the Nazis in the name of "liberty and justice for all," the returning servicemen were particularly well qualified to challenge what LULAC called "Wounds for which there is No Purple Heart." They faced the challenge and seized the opportunity, taking up where the veterans of the First World War left off. Many GIs joined LULAC, including three Medal of Honor winners from San Antonio. LULAC chapters undertook extensive drives to get barrio residents to pay their poll taxes, and in 1947 LULAC member and former official John J. Herrera became the first Hispanic to run for the state legislature from Houston. The veterans drew upon the organizing efforts and Mexican ethnic identity of previous generations, combining these with a strong new sense of rights and duties as United States citizens. They practiced a politics that combined mobilization of their ethnic group members with alliances with Blacks and with a new generation of Anglos that was beginning to ask some of the same questions. Mexican Americans, like Americans in general, were becoming a more urban people. Almost 500,000 Mexican Texans had migrated to the cities during the war, when manufacturing jobs nearly tripled. Veterans wanted Texas to become more integrated into the national society.
On March 26, 1948, Héctor García, M.D., chaired a meeting of 700 people, mostly Mexican-American veterans, at Corpus Christi. They drew up a set of grievances, including the lack of Mexican Americans on draft boards and the need for benefits that were due to them, and founded the American G.I. Forum of Texas. The organization proved to be an effective combination of Mexican community roots and United States identity. By the end of 1948 the forum had chapters throughout South Texas; within a decade, throughout the Southwest and Midwest. The Forum stressed the involvement of the whole family and community. Indeed, the issue that put the forum on the map was introduced in 1949 by Sara Moreno, the president of a forum-sponsored club for young women. Officials in Three Rivers, Texas, refused to bury her relative, war casualty Felix Longoria, in the "White" cemetery (see FELIX LONGORIA AFFAIR). The Forum organized protest rallies and telegraphed the press and public officials. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson arranged for the veteran to be interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, with members of Congress, top White House aides, and the Mexican ambassador in attendance. The new senator and the new G.I. Forum leaders made national headlines and forged a lifelong alliance.
In 1948 longtime barrio activists, mainly from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, met in El Paso and established the Asociación Nacional México-Americana. ANMA espoused reformist goals, such as "first-class citizenship" for Americans of all racial backgrounds, but members viewed integration into the national economy with skepticism, wary of the labor and Cold War policies of the Truman administration, particularly in Latin America. The Federal Bureau of Investigation declared that ANMA was controlled by the Communist party. Though some ANMA organizers were in fact Communists, no ANMA members were ever indicted of illegal or subversive acts. Some Mexican and African Americans had joined the Communist party in the 1930s when it espoused racial and economic equality and adopted a reformist popular-front strategy. Many of the charter ANMA members were women, including the vice president, Isabel González. Women in the movement suffered more than blacklisting. Many lost their jobs to returning servicemen; the G.I. Bill overwhelmingly benefited men. Also, veterans had the support and assistance of their wives, who often ran the household while the men organized on the road. Few female leaders had such support, and the wartime ethos had reinforced traditional sex roles. At the same time, women in Ladies LULAC and the American G.I. Forum Women's Auxiliary expanded their activities, often spearheading the establishment of new chapters. While ANMA, like other left-wing organizations, disappeared in the 1950s, Hispanic and Black civil-rights groups made headway in court cases. LULAC and the American G.I. Forum brought suits that resulted in 1948 and 1957 rulings outlawing segregation of Mexican-American schoolchildren, although the school districts were slow to comply. In 1954 attorney Gustavo C. García, supported by LULAC and forum funds and legal assistance, persuaded the United States Supreme Court to rule unanimously that Mexican-Texans had been discriminated against as a "class apart." The American Council of Spanish Speaking People, founded by Dr. George I. Sánchez in 1951, also aided these legal efforts. It attempted to form an overarching southwestern alliance. Though lack of funds and regional divisions led to its demise in 1959, it presaged the Southwest Council of La Raza of the late 1960s and the National Council of La Raza, which actively lobbies on Mexican-American issues today.
The 1960s ushered in a new wave of activism. The Viva Kennedy Viva Johnson Clubs were instrumental in delivering Texas, and thus the election, to John Kennedy in 1960. Dr. Héctor P. García and other Viva Kennedy leaders sought to capitalize on this political influence to press for social and political reforms by establishing the Political Association of Spanish-speaking Organizations. (The California counterpart was called the Mexican American Political Association, or MAPA.) PASSO, unlike LULAC and the G.I. Forum, openly endorsed and campaigned for candidates, in hopes of making them accountable to the barrios. Although short-lived, PASSO prefigured the political activism of the Chicano movement. In the mid-1960s President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was delivering federal programs and appointments to an extent previously unimaginable. The poll tax was abolished; bilingual education became a reality. Many Mexican Texans who had volunteered for the Great Society- principally Lulackers and members of the G.I. Forum-became frustrated, however, by a lack of influence on government policies and the siphoning of domestic spending to finance the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, hundreds of people accompanied farmworkers on their march to Austin to demand a minimum wage. Governor John B. Connally's resistance only increased their militancy. In October 1967 radicals and disenchanted moderates convened a Raza Unida conference in El Paso, the site also of a White House-sponsored conference. Both meetings demanded more responsiveness on the part of the government, with La Raza Unida also pledging to promote pride in a bilingual, bicultural heritage. Young Mexican-heritage activists throughout the Southwest and Midwest began calling themselves Chicanos. They stressed pride in a culture dating from Aztec times and criticized assimilation into the dominant culture. At the same time, they were influenced by such radical groups as Students for a Democratic Society and Stokely Carmichael's Black power movement, with their confrontational tactics.
The Mexican American Youth Organization, formed by San Antonio college students, helped inspire high school boycotts throughout the state to demand inclusion of Mexican-American history in the curriculum, hiring of Hispanic teachers, and an end to discrimination. MAYO members, notably José Ángel Gutiérrez, also helped form the Raza Unida Party, which was bent on ending the political hegemony of the Anglo minority in South Texas and beyond and championing cooperative alternatives to capitalist enterprise. Like the previous generation, however, Chicanos initially ignored women's issues and did not encourage female leadership. In this respect the movement resembled such movements as Black power, anti-war, and labor, none of which gave women equal stature and all of which influenced Chicanos. Confronted with this anomaly and influenced by White women criticizing sexism within the anti-war movement, such Mexican Americans as journalist Sylvia González of San Antonio began to support feminist concerns. In 1971 they organized the Conferencia de Mujeres por la Raza in Houston, attended by more than 600 women from twenty-three states. The participants split, however, over the relative importance of feminist issues in the movement. Some concentrated on issues of concern to the Hispanic community at large. Attorney Vilma Martínez, for example, became general counsel (later president) of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and won a case guaranteeing bilingual education for non-English-speaking children. Others maintained that they could not work effectively in the movement as long as it was tainted by sexism. They founded their own organizations, such as the National Chicana Political Caucus, and their lobbying bore fruit in 1984 when "Voces de la Mujer" ("Women's Voices") was the theme of the National Association for Chicano Studies. There the Chicana caucus declared, "At this moment we do not come to work for Chicano studies and the community, but to demand that Chicano studies and the community work for our liberation, too." The Chicano movement was on the wane, however, by the late 1970s. Like other leftist organizations, the Raza Unida Party fell victim to internal dissention, lack of funds, portrayal as extremist by the press, and harassment by law-enforcement agencies. Furthermore, the emerging generation was more career-oriented and tired of activism and war. A contracting economy reinforced their careerism. In the 1980s members of Mexican American Republicans of Texas such as Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos gained prominence, as did LULAC.
Nonetheless many former Raza Unida leaders remained active. A number joined the Mexican American Democrats, which was instrumental in the election of liberal Democrats of Mexican extraction. Others supported the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, founded in 1974 by William C. Velásquez, a charter member of MAYO. At the same time former farmworker organizer Ernie Cortés, Jr. used the community-organizing tactics of Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation to establish a number of parish-based neighborhood organizations, including Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, Valley Interfaith, and El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, which lobby public officials for educational, health, labor, and other reforms. These organizations, begun in the barrios, now comprised members from all races and have become an important political force in Texas politics as well as a model for community organizing across the nation. See also CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT.