José Angel Gutiérrez is a 78-year-old political activist and educator who in 1970 cofounded our state’s Raza Unida Party, regarded by many as the most ambitious political organizing force to emerge from the nationwide El Movimiento, which advocated for Mexican American civil rights during the late sixties and seventies. The party won a host of local elections across South Texas but had faded significantly by 1981, when Gutiérrez completed his second term as county judge in Crystal City.
Our rage was about living in segregated South Texas—the deprivation, the inequality. There was no voice for us. The Democratic party, until 1994, was the one-party dictatorship throughout the South. Our enemy has always been the Democratic party. And we saw that. We said, “Why are we all underneath this thing? They take us for granted. They use us. They don’t do a damn thing for us.” They still don’t.
I think [Raza Unida’s] greatest achievement was the loss of fear [among Chicanos]. The second was the realization that we could run our own governments. Once we started exercising the allocation of resources, we realized, “This is how we can own our destiny.” We used urban renewal money, community block grants, and revenue sharing. We created a Chicano middle class in Crystal City.
But the Valley to this day has chronic unemployment, much higher than the national unemployment rate. And yet the politicians, who are now all Mexicanos, basically, don’t fix those problems. You’ve still got the lack of connectivity for the internet. The obesity, the high blood pressure. [Many of] the streets are unpaved, still. And the elected officials think it’s okay.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Days of Rage.” Subscribe today.