José Angel Gutiérrez, Still Angry After All These Years

By Jaime Contreras
January 1992; pages 14-15
Tejas Crystal City

In the halls of Chicano history, José Angel Gutiérrez is a controversial figure whose name is revered by some and cursed by others. While his press clips span decades, it's clear that Dr. Gutiérrez is not a soft-spoken man. Asked to describe himself, he declares flatly: "I am an activist, a catalyst for change!" The son of Dr. Angel Gutiérrez and Concepción Fuentes, he was born on October 25, 1944, in Crystal City, Texas. Located between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers, control over his birthplace was disputed long after the war between America and Mexico ended. Known for successful winter vegetable farming, the area was called "winter garden;" originally, the name signified an artesian spring. Anglo opportunists created the city to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor, according to many analysts.

By 1963, however, the Teamsters Union and the Political Association of Spanish-speaking Organizations (PASO) fought to bring political power to working class Latinos. The coalition replaced the entire city council with five Latinos, subsequently hiring the first Latino city manager and sheriff.

After two years of heavy infighting, the Anglo minority regained control of Crystal City.

In high school, Gutiérrez witnessed and remained perpetually angry at racial injustice. Soon, he began a career in student activism, which would ultimately provide the foundation for the La Raza Unida Party.

Gutiérrez and his friends also formed a student organization that transformed itself into the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), beginning at Texas A&I University in Kingsville - where Gutiérrez graduated with a government B.A. in 1966.

One year later, while pursuing a master's at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Gutiérrez - along with Juan Patlan, Ignacio Perez, Mario Compean and Willie Velasquez - officially co-founded MAYO. In 1968, a Ford Foundation grant for community development encouraged MAYO to form the Mexican American Unity Council. After graduation, Gutiérrez returned to Crystal City.

"I learned three very important lessons from my experience in MAYO," he says. "First, it gave me a feeling of being an actor instead of a watcher - of controlling my own destiny and becoming a catalyst for change."

In his book, United We Win, Ignacio M. Garcia says that Gutiérrez also learned that political strategies require economic foundations in order to work. MAYO - knowing that school boycotts deprive schools of public funding, based on average daily student attendance - incorporated this weapon into its offense. So, when Gutiérrez and friends returned to Crystal City, their first target was the Zavala County school system.

In 1960, the average Chicano had 1.8 years of education. Ten years later, the figure was only 2.3 years, according to Gutiérrez. "At that rate, we wouldn't reach junior high by the year 2000. Something had to be done," he said.

At the time, the school system had a long-standing "no-Spanish rule," as well as a policy restricting Latino participation in extracurricular activities. Spurring parents and students into action with his infamous cries of "Kill the gringo," Gutiérrez helped stage a school boycott in December 1969.

On January 24, 1970, Gutiérrez registered La Raza Unida Party (LRUP) as a new political entity. By April, four of seven school board seats belonged to the LRUP. Victories in surrounding Zavala County cities ended Anglo political domination in the region.

Describing his long-range goal at the time, Gutiérrez says: "My plan was to graduate a bunch of militant radicals. After college, I hoped they would come back and kick some ass!"

History did not meet his expectations, but Gutiérrez remains proud of efforts to increase Chicano graduates in Crystal City. Chicano Revolt in a Texas Town reports that the first year of the new administration saw 200 Latino drop-outs voluntarily return to school. The new system also succeeded in providing some Latino graduates with college scholarships.

Overcoming institutional adversity became a concern of the LRUP, which soon won several small victories at the city and county levels.

Jose Angel Gutierrez

LRUP elected at least two Chicano mayors. By 1972, Attorney Ramsey Muñiz - LRUP candidate for Texas Governor - gained 6.28 percent of the vote. In 1974, Gutiérrez won his bid for Zavala County Judge, and Muñiz maintained a respectable percentage of votes in his second bid for Governor. Gutiérrez also won re-election to County judge in 1978.

However, by spring 1980, Gutiérrez was convinced that his party was finished, claiming that Democratic and Republican parties had "co-opted the party's people and its issues."

In February 1981, Gutiérrez resigned as County Judge. After he mailed his resignation from Oregon, where he was teaching at Colegio César Chavez, media coverage implied that alleged judicial misconduct and subsequent investigations were the causes for his sudden departure.

Political observers also charged that LRUP's demise resulted from infighting and corruption.

Chicano authors tell a different story. In Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Rodolfo Acuña notes that efforts by police and the Democratic Party facilitated the process. Acuña adds that the LRUP forced "the Democratic party to run more Chicano candidates and prepared the way in Texas for the electoral successes of the 1980s."

"In 1960, the average Chicano had 1.8 years of education. Ten years later, the figure was only 2.3 years . . .

"At that rate, we wouldn't reach junior high by the year 2000. Something had to be done."

- José Angel Gutiérrez

"I don't know what happened," says Gutiérrez, "but you should read Ignacio Garcia's United We Win for an interesting version of how it all came to end."

Garcia's version points to an organization which over-extended itself. Hard-won victories in Crystal City often depleted LRUP's human resources. Caught in a war between less militant Latinos and a dominant society, no time remained to train new leaders. The organization's biggest problem was its own success.

"(The LRUP) had become the problem and I did not want to see our folks lose anymore than they had to...," Gutiérrez says. " The majority was no longer on my side, and I saw no point in being an obstructionist." The majority consisted of Mexican American Democrats in the county commissioner's court.

"I am not a man who walks away from adversity, but, as romantic and idealistic as I may be, I am also a realist," he says. "When I saw it was the end, it was the end."

Concerning his move to Oregon, he focuses on a long-range interest in academia. In 1976, he received a doctorate in government from the University of Texas in Austin. (His salary arrangement at Colegio César Chavez was one dollar per year.) After the closing of the Colegio, he became an Associate Professor at Western Oregon State College in 1982.

"To this day," says Gutiérrez, "Texas universities will not hire me as an academician, because they are too close-minded."

Gutiérrez is the author of El Politico, 1968, and A Gringo Manual on How to Handle Mexicans, 1972. He is also co-author of A War of Words, 1984.

In 1985, his activist inclinations resurfaced. He was lead organizer of the Northwest Communities Project and the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement. He was also involved as a United Way coordinator for a conference on Hispanic educational opportunities.

In 1986, Gutiérrez returned to Texas.

Gutiérrez soon became Executive Director of the Greater Texas Legal Foundation. That name recently changed to the Greater Dallas Legal and Community Development Foundation, which handles social impact legislation. Current efforts include redistricting plans for Dallas and Houston.

Gutiérrez holds a 1988 law degree from the University of Houston. He also owns the José Angel Gutiérrez Legal Center, based in Dallas, and is an administrative law judge for the City of Dallas.

Gutiérrez still openly criticizes those who emphasize individual gain and recognition.

"We (Chicanos) are no better off, because I have a Ph.D and a J.D. law degree," he explains. "If we all had degrees, then we would all be better off."

While others criticize student activists for an alleged missing social agenda, Dr. Gutiérrez sees instead a process of development. He believes events will reach a critical mass, propelling people into positions of power.

"Now that we have the numbers, it's a matter of who gets who organized," he says. "That's why you're now hearing all this song and dance about coalitions and multiculturalism."

When asked if the Crystal City experiment failed, he replied: "If it was a failure, then it was our failure. We have as much right to fail as anyone else."