A recent political forum and dedication to Henry B. Gonzalez at the convention center named for him gave us a moment to reflect on Americana during the turbulent 1960s. The forum, organized by attorney Louis Escareno and sponsored by La Prensa Texas, featured a panel discussion with Gonzalez’ son, former U.S. Congressman Charlie Gonzalez.
Professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez from UT Austin and I served as co-moderators for the session. The vast number of questions we had for Charlie Gonzalez could have taken us into the midnight hour, so we focused on several key moments in the life of Henry B. Gonzalez, a pioneer in the world of Texas politics.
When Henry B. Gonzalez ran for the U.S. Congress in 1961, he was seeking an office that no other Mexican American had ever held. In the previous decade Gonzalez had earned a reputation as a liberal political force in the state capital of Austin. Writing in Texas Monthly in 2001, Jan Jarboe commented: “He (Henry B. Gonzalez) had an ego that demanded life-or-death combat, the heart of a philosopher, and the bladder of an
elephant.” Jarboe was referring to Gonzalez’s ability to filibuster for long period of time.
Political friends and opponents alike agree that Gonzalez had grit and stamina, as exemplified by his famous 36 hours filibuster without a break in the Texas Senate in 1957 to block proposed segregation bills. The segregation bills failed and Gonzalez’s reputation was solidified.
Perhaps his ego contributed to his decision to run for governor in 1958, the first Mexican American candidate for that office in Texas. He may have been the first Mexican American in the United States to seek a governorship. He lost that race, but it was one of the few that he would lose over a fifty-year political career.
During John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run for the White House, Gonzales, then a popular Texas State senator, proved to have a valuable network and enough political clout to lift the Texas Viva Kennedy campaign to a successful outcome. There had never been a Latino get-out-vote drive of this magnitude. Gonzales campaigned with vice president designate Lyndon B. Johnson in San Antonio’s Westside. Johnson and Gonzalez were instrumental to bringing Cantinflas,
Mexico’s most famous movie personality, to a Westside rally. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in one of the narrowest presidential victories of the American presidency. Newly elected President Kennedy, grateful for Texas support, rewarded San Antonio for its support by appointing Rep. Paul Kilday to a federal post, opening up Kilday’s congressional district 20. Gonzalez, a seasoned 44 year old political warrior, ran for the seat and won a resounding victory for the democratic party.
In our panel session we asked Charlie Gonzalez a number of questions related to his dad’s major legislative achievements as well as his insights into the many political challenges Gonzalez senior faced. Professor Rivas-Rodriguez was especially interested in questions of identity and the Congressman’s very public fight with a number of Westside Chicano political activists.
The sixties was a “coming of age” for political activism across America and indeed militant rhetoric was common in Black and Latino communities. Charlie Gonzalez reminded the audience that his dad didn’t like most of the ethnic labels, and everyone from that era knows that Henry B. Gonzalez never embraced the term Chicano.
Gonzalez’s displeasure with heightened ethnic pride and ethnic terms such as Chicanismo had much to do with his upbring. Henry B. Gonzalez’s parents fled Mexico in 1911 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Gonzales, who was born in 1916, first lived off North Flores Street in a neighborhood popular with Mexican immigrants, including prominent Mexican exiles and refugees.
First generation Mexican immigrants believed that one day, when the Mexican Revolution was over, they would return to Mexico. Many Mexican immigrants of that generation did not seek or consider American citizenship.
Two future presidents of Mexico lived or frequented Gonzalez’s neighborhood during the years after the Gonzalez family’s arrival in San Antonio. Francisco Madero arrived in San Antonio in 1910 shortly after his arrest by Federalists under the orders of Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.
Madero’s wealthy family was able to get him released from jail. Madero jumped bail and fled to San Antonio. While in San Antonio, Madero met daily with other Mexican political exiles to plan for a revolution. According
to Paula Allen, when Madero fled to New Orleans in early 1911, another political exile and future Mexican president, Venustiano Carranza, moved into the same rooming house. Madero and Carranza lived in San Antonio for short periods of time, but the fact that they returned to Mexico reinforced the idea that life in America for Mexican immigrants was temporary. This seemed especially true for those who had held political office like Leonides Gonzalez, Henry B’s father who was former mayor of Mapimi, Durango.
Henry B. Gonzalez, who had been born in the United States, apparently did not share his parents’ dream of one one day returning to Mexico. As a young teen, Gonzalez felt that he was more American than Mexican, thus his difficulty with accepting ethnic terms, including Mexican American.
During the sixties, America witnessed political disruptions, three high profile political assassinations (John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King), cultural innovation, and conflict, both domestic and international, of an unprecedented nature. The United States was witnessing cultural change expressed in rock
and roll music and dance, as well as the advent of feminism, youthful defiance of the “establishment,” and, of special significance, the gradual collapse of segregation.
Soon after arriving in the nation’s capital, Gonzalez went to work on securing legislation that would expand the rights of minorities to vote. For decades many states had imposed a poll tax as an effort to discourage low income adults from voting. The repeal of the poll tax was especially significant in Texas where Latinos and Blacks had a low voter participation due to the cost of voting.
There was much political work to do, particularly in voting rights, equal rights in employment, and housing. Four years after securing passage banning the poll tax, Gonzalez lined up prominently in support of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act.
San Antonio was one of the first cities in the South to fully desegregate schools and open up department store lunch counters to African Americans. These early civil rights victories were important in that they made San Antonio a model city where racial strife had been avoided and progress in inclusion came at a steady pace. Gonzalez also saw that San Antonio needed jobs and as a young U.S. Congressman, Gonzalez, with a vast
network of political connections, secured federal funds to bring Hemisphere 68 to San Antonio.
Henry B. Gonzalez was a pioneer in the world of Texas politics. He entered politics at a time when many thought it was impossible for a Mexican American to win political office in Austin or Washington. Because of Gonzalez’s early successes in the Texas legislature, Mexican Americans from South Texas followed his lead. Irma Rangel is but one example. A Kingsville Democrat, Rangel won her seat to the Texas House of Representatives in 1976, becoming the first Mexican American woman elected to the Texas Legislature.
Our Westside political leaders continue in their quest for equality and justice, better jobs, and greater educational opportunities. Much remains to be done. Other leaders from the Westside who have followed in the path created by Henry B. Gonzalez include Henry Cisneros, Leticia Van de Putte, Hope Andrade, Julian and Joaquin Castro, and Charlie Gonzalez. They and others have provided extraordinary leadership and continue to contribute to making San Antonio a model city.