La Raza Unida Party Convention in El Paso, Texas, 1972

By Miguel Juárez

Introduction

One of the most highly recognized images of 1972 La Raza Unida Party Convention in El Paso in 1972 is a black and white photograph taken by Los Angeles Photographer Oscar Castillo, at the El Paso County Coliseum on September 4th.  The photograph features three of the leaders of the party behind a podium: José Angel Gutiérrez on the left; Reies Lopéz in the middle; and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales on the right.  In the photograph, the three men hold their arms up in victory, while their bodyguards stand behind them.  A painting titled “La Raza Unida,” featuring various profiles of men against a mountain sits at the base of the podium.  Yet, unbeknownst to most convention attendees, this photograph was a publicity stunt staged by media director Jesus Trevino to promote the image of solidarity at the convention and to bring a sense of closure to an otherwise contentious four-day event.  In reality, there was very little solidarity between the three men and the convention that was organized to develop national priorities for an emerging political party instead transpired an event marred by a series of unfortunate developments that produced great sadness and dissonance among attendees, that led to the polarization of its leaders.  

José Angel Gutiérrez, Reies Lopez Tijerina and Rodolfo “Corky” González
at 1972 Raza Unida Convention, El Paso County Coliseum.
Photograph Copyright 1972 by Oscar Castillo.  Used by permission of the photographer

Over 4,000 Chicano/a delegates, half of them women from the Southwest, the Mid-West, and from the Northeast, gathered in El Paso and sought to become a national third political party in the United States.  Although Texas and California had largest contingents, delegates came from 25 states. There was a sizeable Texas contingent as many of the delegates had originated in Texas but lived elsewhere, leading a Colorado woman to state that the convention had been as “stacked deck and a sham.”  Yet, in many ways, the convention was a bright, shining moment for Mexicans and Chicanos/as in the United States, but it was also the first and last time a national LRUP convention was held.   

The events that took place at the four-day conference, organized by community and student volunteers, help us to understand the evolution of the Chicano Movement and Chicano mobilization as a whole.   El Paso residents at the LRUP convention were cast against the larger story of rise and decline of the party itself tied to the personalities that were forging it.  In the context of convention, events that took place in those four days that influenced the national story of the party.  The convention was a people-driven and woman-organized event.

Delegates caucused at Sacred Heart Church Gym in Segundo Barrio.
Photograph Copyright 1972 by Oscar Castillo.  Used by permission of the photographer.

The LRUP convention was an event organized by student and community activists who were stretched beyond their limits in their herculean attempt to present a national historic convention which had not been done before.  Attendees met in four separate spaces in El Paso: the convention hotel, the Paso del Norte Hotel, where many meetings were held; at Liberty Hall in downtown El Paso they met for the opening ceremonies; at the Sacred Heart gymnasium where they caucused; and at the El Paso County Coliseum, where the general assembly met, to recognize various delegations and present the party platform.  

A key component of the convention was the cultural-social urban landscape of El Paso and Cd. Juárez that served as a backdrop to the meeting and served as one of the characters in the story.  In this borderlands context, both El Paso and Cd. Juárez provided both formal and informal spaces for delegates, many who came to the convention, as Armando Navarro has stated: “as if on a national Chicano political pilgrimage.”   And as if part of an exodus, many also came not knowing where they were going to stay.  As Ignacio M. García, who wrote one of the first books on the topic in his book United We Win: the Rise and Fall of La Raza Unida states:

They came in every conceivable way, hitching rides, carpooling, in buses, in caravans.  Some came along; others brought the entire family.  Some had money to stay in hotels, others had relatives or friends in El Paso, and still others hoped for a corner in which to place their sleeping bags.

Why Organize a National Conference?

The LRUP convention in El Paso was a meeting of Raza Unida Party chapters that had been in existence only two years for the purpose of strengthening and growing a national party, which included two other Chicano self-determination groups.   Marc Simon Rodríguez has written: “As Mexican American and U.S. Latino activism became national in scope in the late 1960s, a variety of movements emerged from within the Mexican-American ancestry community.”   The groups that would meet in El Paso at the first national convention of Chicanos included La Raza Unida (LRUP) Party, that was initially organized as a state-wide organization in Crystal City in 1970 by José Angel Gutiérrez; the Crusade for Justice (Crusade) organized by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales in Denver, Colorado and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Alianza) begun by Reies Lopéz Tijerina, who called for the restoration of land grants to Spanish and Mexican heirs in New Mexico.  The conference was also attended by numerous Chicano/a organizations such as Casa de Aztlán in Chicago.  Ruth Mojica Hammer, a leader in Chicana/o rights from Chicago, partnered with the Chicanas of the Partido de la Raza Unida, who underwrote a hotel suite for the women.   Groups that were not sanctioned by LRUP had to pay $500 to attend the conference.

The decision to hold the convention was integral to the party’s growth.  Ernesto Vigil states: “Though LRUP was projected as a national party, the leadership of its state chapters had never met in a nationally sanctioned gathering.”  Most of LRUP’s power was situated in South Texas towns that included chapters in the Southwest and Midwest.  According to Vigil “because 1972 was a presidential election year, pressure mounted to hold a national gathering, and a party convention was convened by the Texas LRUP that summer.”

The El Paso County Coliseum was the site of 1972 Raza Unida Convention General Assembly. 
Photograph Copyright 1972 by Oscar Castillo.  Used by permission of the photographer.

Another important reason to have a national convention was to answer concerns over the direction of the party, amid fights about ideology and structure.  After the end of the First National Chicano Political Caucus in San Jose, CA, the Crusade for Justice and the Colorado LRUP heard a proposal by Gutiérrez, founder of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and the Texas LRUP to have the party consider concessions from the two major political parties.  The Colorado LRUP were not in agreement with Gutiérrez citing that LRUP was a party for making change and not one of making deals. 

Armando Navarro, states that Gutiérrez acted as the engineer and the mechanic for the convention and orchestrated the convention by gaining support from the various stakeholders and laying the foundation of the convention.   Gutiérrez had made several trips to Albuquerque after the Denver Youth Conference, to speak with Tijerina and he also several trips to Denver to visit with Gonzales about organizing a national political party.   To Tijerina, Gutiérrez stressed the need for Tijerina to connect to Chicanos nationally and make a case for his land-grant issues.  With Gonzales, he stressed the need to create a national party for La Raza.   Gutiérrez noticed that Tijerina and Gonzales did not speak well of each other—later their differences would later create havoc on the LRUP convention in El Paso.   Tijerina and Gonzales had been battling it out for control of the LRUP since its inception in 1970.   Feelings between the two were exasperated when Martin Luther King Jr. selected Reies over Gonzales as the spokesman for La Raza (for the Poor People’s Campaign on May 12, 1968 in Washington, D.C.) and tensions between the two Chicano leaders grew into impossible proportions.

Gutiérrez made efforts to recruit Cesar Chávez for the party and for the convention, but Chávez told him that he “was a labor leader and not a Chicano leader,” and explained that he was a [Robert] Kennedy Democrat, who would not change party affiliation.  Nonetheless, Chávez agreed to support Gutiérrez and assist him with non-partisan election campaigns, promised not to criticize his efforts in public and agreed to be a speaker at the national convention and “speak on the need for political unity, and support for his own efforts.”

Gutiérrez states that by the summer of 1972 both Gonzales and Tijerina wanted to form La Raza Unida Party, but each of them had different motives—and goals.  According to Gutiérrez, “Reies wanted an electoral instrument to take power in New Mexico.”  After suffering an earlier defeat in electoral politics with the People’s Constitutional Party where he had lost every position he challenged against the Democrats.  Tijerina was willing to engage with the Raza Unida Party, although he was unsure about the organization.  Gonzales, on the other hand, wanted a political party that was at the same time revolutionary and seen as a vangard organization similar to other revolutionary groups he had experienced, like the Black Panthers Party.  Gutiérrez stated that Gonzales wanted a “revolutionary nationalist agenda leading toward a Chicano nation.”  All three men had been privy to other revolutionary efforts organized by other men of color in the years leading to the creation of the Raza Unida Party.

There were differences of opinion as to who should lead the party.    Gutiérrez contends that both Gonzales and Tijerina saw him as an apprentice because he was younger and they were the elder statesmen, but that he was unsure which of them would lead the party, yet Gutiérrez agreed to act as their understudy.  The convention in El Paso was to serve as a space to create the national leadership of the party but also to identify subsequent steps—as in the creation of the governing body called “El Congreso de Aztlán,” that would continue to shape the LRUP after the convention.  Gutiérrez had discussed the creation of El Congreso with both Gonzales and Tijerina and all agreed that there would be places for each of them in the party and in the Congreso. According to Gutiérrez “Corky wanted to be the head of the political party, and understood that Reies would take the Congreso position,” but their intentions were not clearly articulated to each other, including to Gutiérrez, who took on the task of organizing the convention.

Role of the Media

Media for the event ranged from curiosity from main stream press for the first ever meeting of Mexican Americans to self-determination in the form of press releases written from the headquarters at the Paso del Norte Hotel during the conference.   Mainstream news media (newspapers and magazines) of the era saw the convention as a novel exercise in the emerging political might of LRUP.  They adopted a wait and see attitude for the meeting.  Articles ran in regional newspapers such as the El Paso Herald Post, the San Antonio Light, San Antonio Express-News, Del Rio News Herald, Pampa Daily News (Pampa, TX), the Lubbock Avalanche, Big Spring Herald, and the Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, TX).  At the same time, the LRUP needed to appear as professional as possible and educate and inform the public about the convention, both in the Chicano Press and in mainstream media.  A criticism of the press coverage at the convention was that the mainstream press would cover developing news first, over the Chicano press.

At the insistence of Gutiérrez, Jesus Salvador Treviño coordinated the media for the LRUP convention.  Treviño was born in El Paso in 1946, but his family later moved to Los Angeles, where he became involved in television and film.   In 1970, Treviño in preparation for a documentary on emerging Chicano consciousness, engaged in a two-week preliminary tour of the Southwest in preparation for the creation of his documentary “La Raza History,” that was later renamed “Yo Soy Chicano.”  As part of his research Treviño had interviewed many of the Chicano leaders, including Gutiérrez, Gonzales and Tijerina.   According to Treviño, the idea for the LRUP convention originated at the Denver Youth Conference, following with the creation of the Plan de Aztlán—that Chicanos had to build alternative institutions had to be independent of mainstream American institutions, where Chicanos needed to build an alternative parallel government within the political government as well. 

Although Gutiérrez served as the mastermind for the convention, he did not single-handedly organize it.  In the literature associated with the convention, scholars have not discussed specific details about who organized and administrated it, but a large network of volunteers worked with Gutiérrez to realize the convention.   A sizeable number of student activists from El Paso played key roles.  Only fourteen years old in 1972, Salvador “Chava” Balcorta (currently the director of El Paso’s Clinica Centro Familiar La Fé) and a product of Segundo Barrio in South El Paso, was one of the youngest participants.  

El Paso Chicana student activists such as Patricia Roybal, Carmen Rodríguez, Irma Camacho, Maria Padilla, and Armida Estrada, who was part of the Brown Berets and many other students and some of their parents, were also involved in organizing and staffing the convention.   Other UTEP students such as Jaime Aguirre and Joe Mendoza, as well as many others, were also involved.  It may have seemed like it was a lot to ask students and their parents to collaborate with Gutiérrez and work as foot soldiers and organize and run the convention, but they did it.    A charismatic orator and well-known Chicano activist, Gutiérrez was able to recruit numerous people to volunteer and work the convention.

Role of Women in the Convention

According to Garcia, “Women comprised nearly half of those attending, and there were quite a few older people.” The contributions of the women in attendance have been understudied, but they took active roles in the convention, acting both as organizers and delegates.   Preliminary conversations with women student activists have stated that large groups of volunteers were inspired and mobilized to assist with the organization and operation of the convention.  Women were engaged in numerous activities during the conference, from preparing meals, organizing meetings, lobbying, selling posters, etc. 

The General Assembly was held at the El Paso County Coliseum.
Photograph Copyright 1972 by Oscar Castillo.  Used by permission of the photographer.

Irma Camacho was a student activist member of El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) in the early 1970’s at the University of Texas at El Paso.  Camacho said MEChA had also been active in the Farah strike, the Popular Department Store strike, the Bencomo Mayoral race and the Paul Moreno race and had participated in the Southwest Voters Registration drive.  She first heard about La Raza Unida Party in 1971 when she and several people attended a conference in San Antonio, where they met Gutiérrez, Ramsey Muñiz, Mario Compean and many others.   In El Paso, she became the first chairperson of the LRUP.

There were many divisions and factions during the conference—people from the Colorado LRUP, the California LRUP and the Texas LRUP, delegates from Utah and other areas that caused a lot division, and especially when Gutiérrez decided to run and was elected for the Chairman position.  Austin activist and librarian and former El Pasoan Martha Cotera said that in additions to the factions among various state chapters and leaders, there were also several factions among the women at the convention. 

The Murder of Ricardo Falcón

An event that caused the conference to take on a somber tone was the death of Ricardo Falcón.  Falcón was Corky Gonzalez’s second in command.  He was killed in Orogrande, New Mexico on his way to the convention.  According to Vigil, “Falcón was killed on August, a few days before the event while en route to the El Paso Pre-convention meeting.”  The death of one of Gonzales’ most important generals, cast a sad tone on the conference and it also hindered Gonzales from being able to rely on Falcón to lobby for him and win support for his bid for the leader of the LRUP.

The death of Falcón caused the convention to shift to high gear.  The Colorado LRUP issued a telegraph and organized a quick press conference that was well attended.   According to Treviño, the telegraph was sent to: “President Nixon at the Whitehouse, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, George McGovern, and Lt. Gov. Robert Mondragón of New Mexico.” Only McGovern responded to the telegraph.  The next day, Treviño and his camera crew drove to Orogrande to recreate the events that took place for his documentary “La Raza Unida.”

After the high drama of the LRUP convention, El Congreso was scheduled to convene in October in Albuquerque, but by then, the relationship between Tijerina and Gonzales was completely polarized.  An El Paso Herald Post article reported that the National Chicano Congress on Land and Cultural Reform had met but it had been a complete failure.   Tijerina accused Gonzales of turning the meeting into a political forum for the Crusade for Justice when he notified members via telegram that he would not be attending and in the same note condemned the congress.  Later, after the LRUP has dissolved the congress, Gonzales reconvened it to pass resolutions on education and rename himself as the official spokesman.

Postscript on the El Paso Convention

The events that took place at the four-day conference in September 1972 help us understand the evolution of the Chicano Movement and Chicano mobilization as a whole.    Two months after the RUP convention in El Paso, Community Activist and Poet A.B. Delgado authored a three-page analysis of the meeting intended for the Chicano press titled: “Raza Unida – First National Conference, A Political Analysis….”    In his unabashed analysis, Delgado stated that the purpose of his analysis was “aimed at bringing into perspective the various actions and events,” of what he saw and heard in the spirit of Carnalismo and Cariño.   In his letter that he directed at attendees, as well as at individuals who could not attend but were interested, he shared that he deliberated whether to only share his analysis with the leaders of the RUP or with the general public.  In it, he called for the development of a separate party, as well as for the development of [Chicano/a] correspondents, reporters and analysts who were not abundant in 1972.

A half-hour documentary produced by Jesus Treviño in 1973 titled “La Raza Unida,” presents various vignettes of the four-day convention and it captures the essence of the LRUP convention.  The documentary opens with footage of a meeting at Sacred Heart Gym in Segundo Barrio then moves to the press conference where Enrique Martínez, Attorney for Priscilla Falcon reads a statement.  He followed by Priscilla Falcon stating, “He was murdered in Alamogordo over water.”   The next scene moves to the El Paso County Coliseum, where Tijerina addresses the audience in Spanish about the party’s goals.  The documentary then proceeds with a scene in a hotel room attended by Dr. Carlos Muñoz Jr. (from the California LRUP), Gutiérrez, Gonzales, Treviño, Ramsey Muñiz and Oscar Castillo.  An uncomfortable Gonzales stares into the camera.  Another segment features an outdoor speech by Muñiz before a cheering crowd, although he was not allowed to speak at the Coliseum assemblies.  

Treviño’s documentary features various caucus meetings with the central focus being on the meeting in the hotel suite and the assemblies at the Coliseum.  It features a speech by Gutiérrez at the Coliseum urging convention attendees that if they want to create a national party they cannot have divided state LRUP parties.   In the segment in the hotel suite, Gutiérrez states that there are three kinds of constituency members in attendance at the convention: those that are going to vote for somebody, those who know too much or those who don’t know enough, and those who need to develop a new strategy.  He adds that the party needs to take all groups into consideration and not limit themselves to one group. 

Back in the hotel suite, playing on the success of Colorado’s LRUP, Gonzales stated that the party needed to operate as a family, that there could be disagreements, but in the end, they could disagree and work together, a message he carried with him to the podium right before the election of the new chairman and right before the famous victory photograph by Castillo.  The film concludes with the election of the new LRUP Chairman in a vote of 256 and 1/6 votes for Gutiérrez and 170 and 5/6 votes, one abstention and 13 no votes for Gonzales.  There is little narration in the film, except for a voice-over in the closing of the film: “The future of the Partido de La Raza Unida is a future of our people and perhaps we are together learning a new lesson, nothing can withstand the force of an idea whose time has come.”

All Photographs are part of the Oscar R. Castillo Photograph Collection, Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) Digital Collections of the UCLA Digital Library Program: http://www.chicano.ucla.edu/library/csrc-digital-collections

In September 2012, a series of Raza Unida commemorations were organized in various cities. In El Paso, the community organized a 40th Year Anniversary of the 1972 Convention and produced a program of the four-day event. You can see a PDF copy of the program at: https://www.academia.edu/6191045/40th_Anniversary_Commemoration_of_La_Raza_Unida_Party_1972_National_Convention