Armando Navarro, The Cristal Experiment: A Chicano Struggle for Community Control, 1998

From 1970-1975, Chicano activists and political leaders behind the stewardship of Jose Angel Gutierrez successfully secured positions on the Cristal City, Texas school board, parlaying these victories into wider municipal and county elected offices. For a short five year period, Chicanos through Ciudados Unidados (CUP) and the Raza United Party (RUP) attempted a peaceful revolution in education, economic empowerment, and political representation.

Armando Navarro’s The Cristal Experiment: A Chicano Struggle for Community Control explores this 1970-1975 period but also its predecessor from 1963-65. In 1963, Chicano politicians influenced by the civil rights movement’s emphasis on accommodation and integration attempted to reform Cristal City’s municipal government such that it served the needs of both its white and Chicano residents. Driven by Brown v. Board of Ed., the G.I. Bill (which enabled many Mexicanoes to attend college and enter professions), and the growth of a Mexican American middle class, these early leaders formed the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASSO) to help them organize the Mexican and Mexican American community politically. They achieved success but whites maneuvered against them by running conservative Mexican American candidates under the Citizens Association Serving All Americans (CASAA). In addition, even as Mexicanos moved into positions of political strength, economic power remained in the white community, allowing them to apply pressure such as firing individuals with opposing political views or lowering wages. Internal divisions within PASSO did not help either and by 1965, whites had reestablished their interests in municipal government.

The late 1960s and early 1970s changed conditions. The militancy of the “rights” movements (Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights, etc) contributed to the growth of the Chicano movement as did opposition to the Vietnam War, which mobilized protest movements in greater numbers. Riding this momentum, Cristal City’s Latino leadership, much of it behind Jose Angel Gutierrez organized the RUP and CU to run candidates of their choosing for municipal positions beginning with the school board. Cristal City’s population increasingly “browned” enabling Gutierrez and other to utilize a cultural/nationalist approach. Setting up a powerful and organized political machine through the CU allowed for discipline and control, though perhaps not the model ideal for participatory democracy (Navarro argues that while political machines rarely encourage greater participation, the Cristal City experiment was unique in that Mexicanoes were given greater input into political and municipal decisions than ever before). Gutierrez and CU handed out patronage and slated candidates. Eventually internal divisions emerged. While some appeared more principled such as concerns over the autocratic style of Gutierrez and the CU/RUP, others seemed more petty or as Navarro argues based on “greed”. By the late 1970s, the RUP ceased to be a recognized legal party and faded into obscurity while Gutierrez retreated to Oregon. [note – Navarro credits the decline of the Chicano and other rights movements nationally concurrent with the end of the Vietnam War which probably contributed to fewer and fewer protesters]

Five years in power remains no small feat. The CU/RUP attempted to make gains into county offices as well. They were successful in moments such as Gutierrez securing a county judgeship. Additionally, within Crystal they tried to bring numerous changes. First, educationally, much of the predominantly white teaching staff found themselves pushed out or replaced by Mexicanoes and sympathetic Anglos. A bilingual program was established and history and English courses featured more Chicano and non-white voices. However, bilingualism proved controversial not only for whites but for some local Mexicanoes as well who voiced concerns that their children were not acquiring English at a sufficient rate. Funding for the new initiatives came from the federal government (Republicans were courting Mexican voters) which left them somewhat under the purview of these agencies. Insititutionalization of these changes never occurred. When federal funding dried up, the staff remained primarily Latino but the school fell under state/local regulation, limiting some of the more radical changes brought by Chicanos. Economic empowerment programs proved even less successful, mismanagement along with white opposition limited even small gains as each successive attempt failed to deliver the economic independence that leaders pronounced (in fact as Navarro notes in the conclusion, Mexicanoes in Cristal City remain worse off economically now and more dependent on “gringo” employment than in the 1970s … the schools as well according to Navarro do not measure up to the 1970s standards). One shining success did emerge. The creation of a health center/clinic serves as perhaps the greatest achievement, providing an institutionalized changed that benefited everyone but especially the Chicano community.

By 1975, numerous tensions surfaced to undermine Gutierrez and his followers. First, from the beginning problems emerged with the abilities of local Mexicanoes to work in the needed political positions. Many lacked training or education such that Gutierrez and others resorted to outside recruits that though Mexicano spoke more English than Spanish. Many in the community felt uneasy about “outsiders” and the fact that the CU ran what amounted to a political machine exacerbated such concerns. Rivals organized themselves under numerous auspices (many in conjunction with the local white population though white flight had begun in significant numbers as many refused to send their students to the public schools or simply resented Chicano political power) eventually achieving success in 1976 and after. Some of the internal divisions that began to plague CU/RUP resulted from clashing egos between leaders or in some cases “greed”. Still, Gutierrez and the CU’s autocratic nature did little to ease tensions. Moreover, Gutierrez occasionally made political remarks that alienated followers and others such as promises to create “little Cubas” all over Texas or promoting violence in earlier speeches before coming to power. Though political acumen remained high, the occasional rhetorical flourish did little to ease concerns. As Navarro summarizes the “politics of community” were replaced with the “politics of self destruction”. Along with continued white resistance, internal divisions magnified the damage done to CU/RUP.

Though Navarro maintains that what occurred in Cristal City from 1970-1975 serves as an example of a “peaceful revolution” by his own lights he notes that few changes were institutionalized and that Mexicanos in Cristal City today are worse off. Whites remain in power economically and as landholders. Stereotypes about Mexican passiveness and disorganization were obliterated but few of the reforms remained. Navarros summarizes twelve insights drawn from the experience: local government cannot fully solve “internal colonialism”, state and federal government prove far more effective at exacting long term significant change than local government, third parties success remain severely limited by the two party system, factionalism cripples all, strong leadership needs the support of equally capable technicians, ideology must be cohesive (esp. since Cristal City today has nearly universal Mexicano representation but no real ideology), the Iron Law of Oligarchy (all large organizations are oligarchies so the RUP operated in such elitist fashion but did so for the gains of the many, yeah a little creepy) , the progressive possibilities of political machines (though he notes they are not very good for exacting real social change), Mexicano officials don’t guarantee Mexicano progress , the need for a party’s own economic resources, and that no amount of foreign aid can solve domestic problems.


— Navarro seems to ignore the possibly deleterious effects of white flight on Cristal despite acknowledging the economic power of whites … even though the Chicano movement might have thought about a more inclusive approach, the political environment of the period may have not allowed for such

— Navarro seems on one hand to lay failure at the feet of white structural resistance and racism but in other moments blamed mismanagement, ineptitude, greed, and internal divisions within the CU/RUP … it would seem they probably all contributed, probably rather equally to failure

- though Gutierrez and others constructed an impressive political machine Navarro appears surprised as voting participation declined each election which is typical of machine politics … yes machines can be progressive but they also have numerous unintended consequences, alienation being one of them

- use of language… though Navarro explains his shifting use of Anglo, Gringo, and white in the footnotes, it might have been useful to have been more explicit about such terminology.

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