Remembering Carlos Guerra and La Raza Unida

Ideas and Issues Immigration Reform

Ncarlos+guerraew Orleans         I was sitting in a staff meeting two weeks ago and casually mentioned that my friend Carlos Guerra had said to me on the phone that he got more response from notes that he would post on Facebook than the silence he would sometimes get from columns he wrote for many years for the San Antonio Express-News.  Our lawyer from Austin, Doug Young, was in the room, and stated simply that I must have heard that Carlos had died suddenly.  I had not, and didn’t believe it until I was able to get on the internet latter and confirm it to my disbelief.

Carlos had been pushed into a too early retirement and silencing of his voice and in that interval last year we had had a number of conversations about pieces I wanted him to write for Social Policy.  I urged him to write an overview of the prospects for immigration reform early in 2010, but he continually demurred that he wasn’t up to speed and promised to try with both of us knowing he wasn’t going to do it.  My bigger regret was that he had not delivered on his promise to write the larger piece I had asked for which would give his perspective on his time as an organizer and activist with La Raza Unida Partry, the political organizing and takeover of Crystal City, Texas, and all of the events in which he was so prominent when I knew him in Robstown, San Antonio, and Washington in the 1970’s.  We emailed, phoned, and Facebooked on the project for months through one missed deadline after another as I tried to wheedle him back down memory lane.  He would always counter with an invitation for me to come down to the Corpus area and share his passion for fishing on the Gulf and cooking whatever came up on the line.  That was a promise I often made, which I regret not having kept.

When I Googled for the story of what could have happened, it seems to have mostly been noted by young Hispanic writers he had influenced or who had seen his career as a pioneering breakthrough.  I gathered he had passed suddenly of a heart attack or stroke by himself at a rented condo at Port Aransas, which I remember mostly as a working class small town on the  before you take the ferry to Corpus.

Without a doubt Carlos was a standup progressive voice at the paper.  He gave my work some props in the 1990’s when Local 100 was organizing city and county workers in San Antonio and Bexar, and bought me a couple of lunches thanks to the paper and his friendship.  Nonetheless I was surprised not to see more voices from the days when he was the chief fundraiser and facilitator at the sharp edge of the Chicano movement in Texas as director of the TIED, the Texas Institute for Educational Development, which was essentially the 501c3 arm of the movement.

It is hard for me to believe that any organizer doesn’t know the name Jose Angel Guiterrez, who last I knew was a lawyer in Dallas after a stint in Oregon, but as Mayor of Crystal City was the face and voice organizing the “brown power” political takeover of the city and schools.  Those of us organizing low and moderate income people and people of color followed every detail and made pilgrimages to the city and county deep in the Texas valley to see what power meant in practice.  I can remember driving down there on vacation in either the fall of 1975 or maybe 1976 and camping along the way with my dog at the time, a cocker spaniel named JP (for Justice of the Peace after our own Pulaski County version of a political takeover, but that’s another story) to visit folks and see it all for myself and take away what I could learn from the experience.   Guiterrez was quoted in one Carlos’ obituary where he was only identified as a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

I think I met Carlos that trip in Robstown, his old hometown, where he showed me around.  I can remember another time visiting in San Antonio for something, where he picked me up in a Mustang and later I stayed at his place on the couch.  I can also remember a cute girlfriend of his and us waking up and almost missing my flight as hotroded me out to the airport.

In those days Carlos was the behind the scenes organizer maintaining the research, communication, and paper trails that provided the financial support work for Crystal City and the movement.  His skilled writing moved the proposals, his silver tongue knocked on the doors in DC and NYC to raise the money, and his time as an activist allowed him to beat it back to lead the David Hunters of the Stern Fund, the Dick Boones of the Field Foundation, and anyone else he could down to the Valley to deepen their commitment and support.

La Raza Unida Party was big stuff.  In 1972 the party fielded a third party effort in Texas behind a 29-year old Ramsey Muniz and while losing garnering over 215,000 votes or 6% of the total establishing its ballot line for years and its position as a force not only in Texas but throughout the Southwest and wherever Hispanics where looking seriously at politics.  Carlos was active in the campaign, though I never can recall whether he was campaign manager on the first run in ’72 or the second in ’76..  I think likely the second shot, since the overt nature of the party effort and his role would have made it harder to protect the tax exemption of TIED.

There is no bigger backer of multi-party endorsement or fusion tactics than I have been, but even the great Working Families Party of New York is only now pushing past 200,000 votes while the La Raza Unida Party had lightening in a bottle almost from the beginning if only the pieces could have been welded together as tightly.  They were the civil rights movement in the Texas Rio Grande Valley and built the inspiration and bridge for majority Latino political constituencies to win empowerment.  Their local base was always contentious given the history of Democratic machine voting and the padrone system in the Valley made so famous in Lyndon Johnson’s elections all the way to the White House.  The push back on their radical empowerment and educational programs from more conservative Latino voices and entrenched business and agricultural interests was intense and still casts a long shadow.

All of these are stories that Carlos should have told and could have told better than anyone.  Almost two decades as a San Antonio journalist and columnist no doubt gave him the skills to weave the pieces together.  Missing his work and writing creates a vacuum.

But this is my disappointment, not necessarily Carlos’ regret.  We got together a few years ago in San Francisco at a dinner where I cadged him an invite to see me and other old friends on the Coast.  He was visiting his daughter who was taking a program at Stanford that summer.  We all laughed about the old times.  We worried about the new times and the usual struggles of jobs and L.I.F.E.  He was happy and resiliently rode good spirits through the struggles and setbacks of the day right to the end.

There are many stories that must continue to be told and learned.  We lost many with Carlos.  Enough said.  Deeply missed.