These are just some preliminary thoughts on the Mexican American Civil Rights Tour of Texas that my fellow SMU history graduate, Carla Mendiola—in partnership with the Wesley-Rankin Community Center (West Dallas), is undertaking right now along with local Dallas area high school students. (Link to the story by Stella Chavez from KERA news.)
Carla contacted me only a few weeks ago to help her find Dallas activists who could speak to the students surrounding issues relating to the Chicano movement. Due to the suddenness of the request, I found it difficult finding speakers, but with the help of Evelio Flores (long time Chicano activist and jefe de danza azteca), we were able to track down Luis Sepulveda to speak to the students. Sepulveda grew up in West Dallas, a neighborhood that he cares about deeply, and he’s been fighting against lead contamination and radiation pollution in that part of the city since the 1980s. In addition to all of his accomplishments, he served as Dallas County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, for many years. There was no doubt in our minds that he was the perfect candidate for the job. Moreover, when Carla discovered that I was part of a danza group, she asked if the group could do a brief presentation for the kids—we did and they loved it!
The director of the center, Shellie Ross, mentions in the KERA piece that some of the students going on this trip had previously gone on SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Just as this one, SMU’s pilgrimage is always undertaken during spring break. That trip was started by the late SMU political science professor, Dennis Simon—may he rest in peace. As an undergraduate student, I took Professor Simon’s civil rights class in the spring of 2009, and I went on the weeklong trek across the South. It was a truly memorable experience.
As I told Carla and Shellie, the year I went was extra special, because President Barack Obama had just been elected, and there was a real sense of “hope and change” in the air. You could sense it during the trip and at all the places we stopped. It was especially present in Selma, AL. We arrived to that historic town just in time to participate in the annual march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We had the privilege and the honor to participate in the march from the church and across the bridge with historic figures of the Civil Right Movement, including the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
The experience also stirred in me the desire to have something similar for the Chicano Movement. I wondered if anyone had done something similar to this, and if not, why? Almost a decade later, we have what amounts to the first tour dedicated to ethnic Mexican civil rights history anywhere. I half jokingly told Carla and Shellie that, had I not spent the last seven years of my life in graduate school, I might have looked into this. And I’m not kidding.
In late August of 2009—under the direction of Jose Angel Gutierrez—myself, Evelio, and a few others were part of the committee that organized the “21st Century Chicano Activist Convention: 40 years of Struggle” that was held in Dallas at the Hyatt Regency (downtown). Having just gone on that pilgrimage months earlier, I still had those memories fresh in my mind and I wondered if perhaps this gathering would help spark interest in that idea. I recall discussing it with a few people at the convention, but I didn’t get the enthusiastic feedback I had hoped for, so I put that idea on the shelf. This would have to wait until after graduation the following year. I hadn’t seriously planned on going to grad school, but when I got accepted into the program at SMU, I dedicated myself to my studies and the idea of a Chicana/o Civil Rights Pilgrimage slowly faded.
All of this is to say: Felicidades to Carla and Shellie! I hope that this initial first trip is a success and that it signals the beginning of something special. With all of the activism surrounding the issue of Mexican American Studies, perhaps their example can be used to demonstrate how teaching ethnic Mexican kids their history in this country can have a positive impact. It might even be the case that this tour can spark other similar tours around the state and throughout Aztlan. Wouldn’t it be great if MAS were implemented and that tours like this one were a part of that curriculum?
Again, congratulations to Carla, Shellie, the students, and everyone involved in this historic and momentous project. Safe travels y adelante!