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The Legacy of La Raza Unida

  • News Image
    Rosie Castro (left) was one of the 10 women Anthropology Professor Brenda Sendejo (right) featured in her Ph.D. dissertation. Today, Castro is best known as the mother of rising Democratic politicians Julián and Joaquín Castro. Sendejo reunited with Castro at a 40th anniversary reunion of La Raza Unida members held in Austin in July.
  • News Image
    Southwestern students Abby Morales and Janice Contreras (middle) stand with Brenda Sendejo and former Texas Raza Unida chair Maria Elena Martinez at a 40th anniversary reunion of La Raza Unida members held in Austin. Martínez was the inspiration for Sendejo’s Ph.D. dissertation and was one of four Chicana activists Sendejo and her students interviewed over the summer for their project called “Spirit Stories: Narratives of Spirituality and Social Justice."

Anthropology professor’s research focuses on early Chicana activists in Texas

La Raza Unida is no longer a registered political party in the United States, but its legacy is still very much alive.

Studying that legacy is the focus of research conducted by Brenda Sendejo, assistant professor of anthropology at Southwestern.

El Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida, or La Raza Unida Party, was founded in Texas in the early 1970s by Mexican Americans who were concerned about the lack of Mexican American representation in local and county politics and about how few Mexican Americans were registered to vote. It quickly spread throughout the Southwest and even to some parts of the Midwest.

The party was part of a broader set of social and political movements in the post-World War II era that also focused on issues such as labor rights, education reform and sexism. While the party itself is no longer active, many of its members are still involved with politics and in community activism and organizing.

Among these women is Rosie Castro, a San Antonio resident who once served as chair of the Bexar County Raza Unida Party. Today, Castro is best known as the mother of two twin sons who are considered rising stars in the Democratic Party. Julián, who currently serves as mayor of San Antonio, was chosen to be the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in August. Joaquín is a Texas state representative running for Congress. Both brothers credit their mother’s activism with their interest in politics.

Rosie Castro is among 10 women Sendejo highlighted in her dissertation for her Ph.D. from UT-Austin. Sendejo recently had an opportunity to meet up with Castro at a 40th anniversary reunion of La Raza Unida members held in Austin. At that reunion, Sendejo presented Castro with a copy of her dissertation.

“Rosie and her sons’ journeys are pretty incredible,” Sendejo said.

Sendejo said the legacy of early Chicana activists such as Rosie Castro is still very much alive in people like the Castro twins and in people like herself who are now devoting their lives to studying the history of Mexican Americans.

Since joining the Southwestern faculty in 2010, Sendejo has tried to give her students access to some of the Chicana activists she has known. In 2010, she helped Kappa Delta Chi arrange for Chicana feminist historian Martha Cotera to speak at the annual Cesar Chavez dinner. She has invited Susana Almanza, the director of an environmental justice organization in East Austin called PODER, to visit campus Nov. 14.

Last summer, with the assistance of a faculty-student grant from Southwestern, Sendejo launched an oral history project that has given Southwestern students a chance to interview some Chicana activists themselves.

Abby Morales, a sociology major who graduated in August, interviewed Velia Sanchez, a retired teacher who fought for bilingual education in central Texas, and María Elena Martínez, another retired bilingual educator who was the last chair of La Raza Unida Texas from 1974-1976. Martínez was the inspiration for Sendejo’s Ph.D. dissertation.

Janice Contreras, a senior psychology major, interviewed Rev. Virginia Rincon, an Episcopal pastor in Austin who has been active in fighting for immigrant rights, and Yvette Mendez, an art teacher in Austin who is both a Chicana and Native American activist.

“This project was a great way to expose students to conducting original research,” Sendejo said.

One thing Sendejo is particularly interested in is the spiritual change that occurred in Mexican American women who became activists. Among the women she has interviewed, Sendejo said 80 percent have experienced some form of spiritual transformation over their lifetimes – a transformation from the kind of Catholicism they knew growing up to a different kind of Catholicism or a totally different kind of spirituality.

“I wanted to know why this is happening,” Sendejo said. “As it turned out, a lot had to do with their activism in the movement as well as growing up in Jim Crow Texas and experiencing racial discrimination and sexism.”

Sendejo said Rosie Castro is a good example of a Mexican American woman whose spirituality has changed. Although she was brought up in a devoutly Catholic household and attended 12 years of Catholic school, Castro began questioning some of the church’s doctrine as her activism increased. The last time Sendejo interviewed her, Castro said she participates in a community of likeminded Catholic women who have their own mujerista theology that denounces the patriarchy and sexism within the church.

“The relationship between her spiritual trajectory and her political life is fascinating,” Sendejo said. “She has found a way to continue to be Catholic without being part of an institution she finds flawed.”

Sendejo said even if they leave the church, many Mexican American woman in her study remain devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe and/or view her as the Aztec Earth goddess known as Tonantzin.

Sendejo also is interested in whether the current generation of Mexican American women has had a similar or different experience when it comes to religion. After Contreras and Morales conducted their interviews, Sendejo interviewed the two students.

“As it turned out, both these students have also have had powerful experiences with their own identity,” she said.

Sendejo gave a presentation about her intergenerational oral history research project, which she calls “Spirit Stories: Narratives of Spirituality and Social Justice,” at the annual Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (Women Active in Letters and Social Change) conference at UC-Santa Barbara in July.

Sendejo is now working on turning her dissertation into a book that will include her work with the students and updates on what the women she interviewed are doing now. She is applying for a sabbatical in the fall of 2013 to finish the book.

Sendejo said she hopes to start a Chicana/Tejana archive at Southwestern. “There is a need for more research on Chicana/Tejana religious and spiritual experiences,” she said. “I’d love to start an archive building on ‘Spirit Stories’ at Southwestern one day.”