photo: Snake Hawk Press
This is Women’s History Month and I recently had a really profound “aha” moment. While I was on the campaign trail with Congressional Candidate, Judy Canales. We were heading to a speaking engagement at the Young Women’s Academy.
Judy has a really awesome story, she is a borderland girl, born and raised in Uvalde and building her life in Eagle Pass which shares an international border with Piedras Negras, Mexico – just as El Paso shares an international border. She graduated from school in the small town of Uvalde, and then continued her education all the way, eventually graduating from Harvard.
Judy would then go on to be chosen as a White House Appointee by first President Bill Clinton and then later, most recently, President Barack Obama. She has broken barriers becoming the first female and first Latina to head the Texas Farm Service Agency under USDA. She is bilingual and bi-cultural, this is why she was invited to speak to our next generation of young female leaders… However I was surprised to find out one of her personal heroes, is one our very own barrier breakers herself: El Paso’s Alicia R. Chacón
THE FIRST WAVE
I like to consider myself a feminist, taking tons of Women’s Studies courses during my undergrad, and I like to think I’m a pretty woke individual, which is why my next sentence is so disappointing. I had very little knowledge on Alicia Chacón. I knew the name and that we have an international school named after her but I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know much else.
I analyzed this for days afterwards and I felt compelled to write this story for the purpose of refreshing our local herstory.
One of the things I remember from my studies is that our movements come in waves and I feel like maybe I was wrapped up in my own wave back then focusing only on studying great icons like Dolores Huerta, Ellen Ochoa, Frida, etc… that I failed to honor those great icons from Texas that also paved the way… and since I am a storyteller I wanted to make it right and write.
Along our campaign trips (which are usually hours long since we are traveling long stretches of road across Texas) Judy has shared a lot of amazing information with me from a range of topics, when she mentions a name of someone who inspired her and I don’t recognize the name, I make a note and then research it later.
This was the case when she mentioned the name Maria Berriozábal, the first Mexican American woman to be elected to San Antonio City Council, who also became a Presidential Appointee as the U.S. Representative to the Inter-American Commission on Women of the Organization of American States (OAS). She is now 71 and still an activist.
On a different road trip I heard the name Lena Guerrero, Judy educated me on Lena’s impact. Lena was the youngest woman ever elected to the Texas House of Representatives, was also the first woman, and first Mexican-American female to serve as Texas Railroad Commissioner and the first Latina to hold a statewide office in Texas.
Although her political career would later end up going through some hard times, she was a fighter, even taking on Texas, fighting for the Tiguas to retain their gaming rights here in El Paso. Regardless of what would later happen with her political career, she did break barriers, she was a ‘First Latina.’ Sadly Lena Guerrero passed away from Brain Cancer at the young age of 50. May she rest in peace.
On this last trip was when I heard Judy talking with a friend about trying to see Alicia Chacón while she (Judy) was in town. She spoke about how greatly she admired Alicia what Alicia has meant to her.
As an El Pasoan I had always heard the name, I knew there was a school named in her honor but it is only now as I have become engaged in this 2018 midterm election, that I am starting to really appreciate the huge influence her life has had on our city, our herstory and how far ahead of her time she really was.
Born in Canutillo and then moving across town where she would eventually graduate from Ysleta High School. One could say politics was in her blood, her grandfather on her mother’s side was General Carlos Almeida, who fought along Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution. Her father, was very politically active and became Constable of Canutillo.
After returning from the war, her father would be offered a job in Ysleta and so the family relocated. Alicia fell in love with her new area and here, the doors would open for her through the 4-H club. This is a woman who lived through segregation and in her interviews recalls how when traveling with 4-H often they had to switch hotels, she realized later it was because they didn’t allow Mexicans.
In a time when women and Mexicanos (Mexican-Americans) didn’t continue higher learning past middle school, Alicia graduated from high school. Reading through the transcripts of her past interviews, wow it is really divine intervention and makes you think, destiny does exist.
It would be her first job, which was for her father’s friend Woodrow Bean, where she would meet her future husband and other influential mentors like Sam Cohen and Ralph Yarborough, who saw something special in her and she stepped into her path of politics.
Her father would made sure the family always paid their poll tax, so they could vote. For my generation it is unheard of that there was ever a poll tax simply because you weren’t born white. – Alicia worked alongside her father on all the Democratic campaigns, also to increase awareness and voter turnout in El Paso County (the rural portions that were left out of the city.) Campaigning was a family tradition, including the Viva Kennedy Clubs. Her life would take her to the national arena where she attended the ’68 State Democratic Convention and was elected the first Mexicana to serve on the state executive committee.
In a crazy turn, her next job would take her to the inaugural Democratic Party of El Paso as an administrative assistant – but in her personal life, Ysleta continued to get the short end of the stick being pushed further and further out by the city and the school was suffering. She and other parents decided to take action against the all white school board, they decided they needed to have a Mexican voice on the school board for representation.
After much thought the community decided that no one else would know politics better than Alicia, so they asked her to run. She agreed and began her campaign for school board, not only was she campaigning for herself but also registering each person to vote, at the same time. That is the best story on multitasking!
It seems at every turn in her life there was a need to be met, an action to be taken and so she stepped up. In 1974 Chacón was elected as the first woman to serve as county clerk in El Paso.
Then, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter called on her to serve, Alicia became the first Mexican-American woman to serve as the regional director for the Small Business Administration and was one of 100 Americans appointed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to serve on the United States Commission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She would make history again in 1983 becoming the first Mexican-American woman to be elected to the El Paso City Council.
As we entered the 1990’s, Alicia would shatter the Texas glass ceiling, becoming the first Mexican-American woman elected judge of a major urban Texas county.
As we preparing to go to the polls today; I understand now Judy’s shock when I knew nothing about these trailblazing women that carved the road where there was none.
THE NEXT WAVE
The political landscape looks different today, thanks to the pioneering efforts of these women that came before us, but the road is long and we have miles to go before we sleep. However we have had some FIERCE LATINAS from El Paso breaking down the doors of the “good ‘ol boys club” mentality.
Norma Chavez – First Latina from El Paso elected to the Texas Legislature, currently running for Congress
Mary Gonzalez – First Pansexual Latina elected to the Texas Legislature, currently running for re-election
Georgina Cecilia Pérez – First Latina from El Paso (and one of only 3 Latinas) elected to serve on the Texas State Board of Education
HERSTORY IN THE MAKING
El Paso voters have a very special place on the national landscape right now. We have TWO Congressional districts within our city and BOTH of them have Latinas in them, if elected they would become the FIRST LATINAS to represent Texas in the United States Congress. These are the women that may be written into the next pages of history.
Congressional District 16 – El Paso
Candidate Veronica Escobar – Judge Escobar served two terms as El Paso County Judge, and previously served one term as County Commissioner for Precinct 2.
Candidate Norma Chavez – First Latina from El Paso elected to the Texas Legislature and has served on multiple State Committees
Congressional District 23 – El Paso County
Candidate Judy Canales (of Eagle Pass) – Two time Presidential Appointee, President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. First Latina and First woman to head the Texas Farm Service Agency under USDA
Angie Villescaz (of Austin, Uvalde) – homemaker and activist
In addition to these Latinas, El Paso County also has another historic first, the first Native American person in Texas, to run for the State Legislature
Regardless of who wins tonight, these women have broken ground for future El Paso Latinas.
THE FUTURE IS LATINA
The whole reason for this trip was to visit these young women at the Ysleta Academy. I walked around the campus and they had so many images of historic women on the walls. Their everyday is filled KNOWING that they can achieve greatness. I can only imagine how that will positively impact their future.
As Judy spoke to the auditorium they listened attentively and even during the Q & A portion of Judy’s visit they surprised me by asking her about Net Neutrality. There are plenty of adults that have no idea what is going on with the laws and repealing of Net Neutrality, which is actually going to negatively impact the majority of people.
These young women were WOKE. I was so proud looking around the room, just listening to them speak among each other; they have so much more available to them than we did.
At the very end Judy said “and one of you may be the next president!” and the girls all let out loud cheers. They don’t fully know it, but I can see it. They will change the world.