Like many San Antonio natives, Joseph de Hoyos, 27, is Mexican American. But aside from hearing his extended family speak Spanish, growing up on Tex-Mex and Mexican cuisine, and taking part in certain Mexican holiday traditions, he has struggled to fully embrace that part of his identity.
One reason for this, he said, is because he doesn’t know much about Mexican American history.
“I feel like maybe if I knew more, I would feel more prideful of it and not ever try to dissociate from it rather than embracing it,” said de Hoyos, a high school calculus teacher in Austin. “… To be honest, I continue to struggle with that.”
De Hoyos’ experience is not an anomaly, even in a majority Mexican American city such as San Antonio. Despite the city’s long history of Mexican Americans fighting for increased pay, better education opportunities, and voting rights, those stories haven’t been formally collected and documented.
Retired educator Paul Ruíz spent the last several years gathering support for the new National Institute of Mexican American History of Civil Rights, which will document the historic social justice efforts of Mexican Americans in San Antonio and South Texas and educate people about their contributions through interactive panels, traveling exhibitions, and other means.
City Council in September allocated $500,000 in startup funding to the institute, with an initial $250,000 included in the 2020 City budget. The institute is eligible for another $250,000 in 2021, pending another City Council vote.
Because of the institute’s focus on Mexican American civil rights history, Ruiz believes it will be the first of its kind in the country.
“It speaks loudly that we can go to school in a place like Bexar County and not know anything about Mexican American contributions, Mexican American heroes, Mexican American struggles,” said Ruíz, who serves as the institute’s board chairman.
Although Texas last year set state standards for a Mexican American Studies course and more local schools are offering it, his hope is that the institute will educate people of all racial and cultural backgrounds about those topics while also highlighting the major role San Antonio has played in Mexican American civil rights history.
“It’s almost like we’ve kept [our history] in the closet,” Ruíz said. “I hope the institute opens the closet so that all of us can embrace this beautiful, untold history.”
The institute will have an office at Our Lady of the Lake University but will host its programming across the city in places such as public libraries and schools. Ruíz anticipates that the institute will host its first event sometime next spring.
The institute will share stories of some of the most notable local Mexican American activists such as Emma Tenayuca, who led the 1938 pecan shellers strike, and Willie Velásquez Jr., who started the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project that works to get more Latinos engaged in the voting process, along with other lesser-known figures.
“San Antonio is what it is today,” said Gloria Rodríguez, vice chairwoman of the institute’s board, “because many of us said, ‘We could do better for our people.’”
Rodríguez, a San Antonio native and former educator,
founded AVANCE – an internationally recognized nonprofit that provides education and resources for at-risk families – here in 1973 when she was 25. Other organizations such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also have San Antonio roots, including the first Spanish-language TV station in the continental United States, now KWEX, which led to Univision’s creation.
Ruíz said he hopes the institute can produce research examining the lives of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the period of 1850-1900 and then again from 1900-1920, which encompasses time during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) when a lot of Mexicans immigrated to the U.S., especially Texas. Within those periods, some of the topics they want to explore are the marginalization of Mexican Americans; fights for voting rights, gender rights, and fair wages; and how LULAC was born.
“We’re looking at this work not only in terms of topics, but also in terms of periods in the life of the city and parts of South Texas,” Ruíz said.
Creating an institution dedicated to chronicling and sharing the social justice fights and accomplishments of Mexican Americans comes at a key moment in U.S. politics, when immigrants and the broader Latino community have been targeted with hate speech and violence, such as the recent mass shooting in El Paso. The U.S. Latino population continues to grow, but Latinos still suffer from lower college graduation rates and receive lower wages on average than non-Latino groups.
Rodríguez and Ruíz both remembered being punished for speaking Spanish in school or shamed for bringing tacos – then considered a “low-class” cuisine – to school lunch.
“You cannot be a leader if you’re ashamed of who you are,” Rodríguez said. “Not only is knowledge power, but knowing about these histories can help [with] your self identity, your self esteem, and taking pride in your roots.”