Vicente Treviño Ximenes, civil rights leader and a major figure in Mexican American politics during the 1950s and 1960s, was born on December 5, 1919, in Floresville, Texas, to José and Erlinda Ximenes. He grew up in a family of seven children, and his father was politically active and served as district clerk. He attended Floresville High School and graduated in 1939. Following his graduation, Ximenes worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal federal employment program, and saved enough money to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin in 1940. When the United Stated entered World War II, he volunteered in the U. S. Army Air Corps and spent several months in training to be a member of a B-17 crew. Ximenes served as a lead bombardier on approximately fifty missions over North Africa. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters. In 1943 he returned to Texas and served as a cadet flying instructor at San Angelo Air Base (see GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE). That same year he married María Castillo of San Antonio. They later had four children. Ximenes retired with the rank of major from military service in 1947.
He and his family subsequently moved from Texas to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he studied economics at the University of New Mexico. He received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in economics from that institution. During the course of his studies, when Ximenes took a vacation to Corpus Christi in 1948, he attended the meeting that resulted in the establishment of the American G.I. Forum. He went to the gathering at the invitation of founder Hector Garcia, who he had befriended when he was at the University of Texas. Ximenes went on to establish some twenty-three American G.I. Forum chapters in New Mexico and also was active in Arizona, California, and Kansas. Because of his work for the organization, he became national chairman of the American G.I. Forum in 1952.
After graduation, Ximenes continued an affiliation with the University of New Mexico for the rest of his life. From 1951 to 1961 he served as a research associate at the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business Research. He also taught economics to undergraduate students. He worked as a local activist during the 1950s and helped organize a municipal employees union on behalf of sanitation workers in Albuquerque.
Ximenes participated in the Viva Kennedy Clubs that delivered the margin of victory with Mexican American votes to President John F. Kennedy in 1960. From 1961 to 1964 he worked as program officer in Quito, Ecuador, for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Kennedy Administration. After the assassination of President Kennedy, he became the director of the Viva Johnson Clubs for the 1964 presidential election. As a result of Mexican American support, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed more Mexican Americans to government positions. Ximenes served in various positions in the Johnson Administration, including assistant inspector general for the president’s War on Poverty and deputy mission director for USAID in Panama. In 1967 President Johnson named him chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Mexican American Affairs, the first government body with the responsibility of lobbying for Mexican Americans in Washington, D.C. In this capacity he put together the first National Conference on Mexican American Affairs, held in El Paso, Texas, in October 1967. Ximenes also served as commissioner for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 1967 and 1972 and vice president for field operations for the National Urban Coalition (1972–73) and Commissioner of White House Fellows (1977–81) under President Jimmy Carter.
Ximenes continued his work as a public servant in his later years and served as a consultant from 1975 to 1985. He was honored with the State of New Mexico Distinguished Service Award in 1981 and the Common Cause Public Service Achievement Award in 1982. In 1992 he spearheaded an initiative to cofound the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps Commission, which he chaired. Ximenes was also the driving force behind the University of New Mexico Writing Across Communities initiative, and he established the Vicente Ximenes Scholarship in Public Rhetoric and Community Literacy at the University of New Mexico. He received an honorary doctorate from that university in 2008.
Ximenes is best remembered for advancing the civil rights of Mexican Americans through the American G.I. Forum and other organizations as well as with his lobbying work in the Cabinet Committee on Mexican American Affairs. The public hearings that the Cabinet Committee held are credited with significant changes in the attention that the federal government and other American institutions placed on Mexican Americans beginning in the 1960s. Vicente Treviño Ximenes passed away in Albuquerque on February 27, 2014. He was buried in that city at Mount Calvary Cemetery.