TONY SANCHEZ HAS SHAKEN UP Texas politics this year with his bid to become the state’s first Hispanic governor, but he is not the first Hispanic Texan to appear on a general election ballot. That distinction belongs to Ramsey Muñiz, of Corpus Christi, who ran as the nominee of the Raza Unida party in 1972 at the age of 29. La Raza Unida was born out of Hispanic discontent with a Democratic party that was controlled by conservatives, and it succeeded in shaking up the old guard. Muñiz received 214,000 votes, and heavily favored Democrat Dolph Briscoe defeated Republican Hank Grover by only 100,000 votes.

Muñiz appeared to have a future in politics. He had played football at Baylor, he had graduated from law school and would become a lawyer, and he was described as being eloquent and charismatic. But he ran again in 1974, drawing only 94,000 votes. Then in 1976 he was arrested, accused of conspiring to smuggle 6,500 pounds of marijuana from Mexico. He fled to Mexico but was apprehended and returned to serve five years in prison.

In 1982 he was arrested again, this time in possession of cocaine. One charge was dropped, and he pleaded no contest to another, serving two years. He seemed to have put his life back together and was working as a paralegal in South Texas in 1994, when DEA agents caught him and another man with ninety pounds of cocaine in a rental car. Today he is inmate number 40288-115 at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he is serving a life sentence.

To some academics and Chicano activists, however, he remains an important figure, as a founder of La Raza Unida and, according to himself and his defenders, a “mexicano political prisoner.” Muñiz and his attorney, Dick DeGuerin, of Houston, maintain that a client, who, as it happened, was being tracked by the DEA, was responsible for the car and the cocaine. A “Free Ramsey Muñiz” movement with roots in Texas and California can be found on the Internet, along with claims of his innocence and samples of his writing and poetry.

I first learned of Muñiz and the controversy that surrounds his case in Mexican American studies courses at the University of Texas at Austin, and I became curious about his past and his life in prison. I began corresponding with him about a year ago. What follows is Ramsey Muñiz, in his own words—the story of a life that could have turned out differently:

On being imprisoned: “If there is a hell, I know I will live in heaven, for I know the nature of hell in this confinement.”

On his mission: “The evenings until past midnight I firmly devote to my cultural, spiritual, political, and historical studies. My destiny was to sacrifice, enlightenment, loneliness, consciousness, self-realization, and the total responsibility for the liberation of our people in all aspects of life. From the beginning, I knew that suffering, sorrow, grief, loneliness, and eventually confinement would be my companions for principles.”

On mainstream politics: “Yes, we now have Hispanic-Latino candidates for governor in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. We hold nothing against our Latino-Hispanic brothers and sisters. Our struggle and movement are the formation of our own political structure. They will soon find out the trickery and untruthful tactics of the two-party system.”

On La Raza Unida: “The essence, sustenance, and sacred political destiny of the Raza Unida party has never died. Throughout Aztlán, in the barrios, schools, universities, and even in the present state and federal prisons, there are writings, meetings, debates, and demonstrations seeking and preparing our political destiny, which must be achieved.”

On his wife, Irma: “In the darkest moments, nights, days, months, and years of my imprisonment, my beloved wife, Irma (Citlalmina), has demonstrated the love, care, and understanding of a true Mexican princess. After all these years, we share a love story of our ancient past. We both believe in the liberation of our people. And that liberation frees our souls.”

On education: “United States Bureau of Prisons statistics reveal that the majority of raza youth incarcerated were dropouts and/or never received a high school diploma. The barrios, the streets with dead ends, violence, drugs, and death became their educators. The American educational system has been unable to reach the minds and hearts of our youth, thus creating the victims for the oppressive, final destruction of life-prisons.”

On the future: “By [November] the Raza Unida party will have begun again in California. What I have stood for all this time is going to return. It doesn’t matter how deep the confinement or the length of the incarceration. The truth of our political power will rise once again.”

Diana A. Terry-Azíos is a Chicago-based freelance writer.