65 years of LULAC in Iowa

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LULAC Davenport at one of the meetings prior to officially organizing the LULAC Council 10 in Davenport, IA in 1959.
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The National League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) was founded in Corpus Christie, Texas, in February 1929 to advocate for the civil rights of Latinos in the United States. During its early years, LULAC built a strong base of councils in Texas through which it fought discrimination in education, housing, and employment by negotiating with local leaders and politicians and by pursuing legal cases. In the famous Mendez vs. Westminster case in 1946, LULAC successfully challenged the segregation of Mexican American students in the California education system.

In the 1950s, under the leadership of national president Felix Tijerina, LULAC expanded into the Midwest.  Relatively little is known about these midwestern LULAC councils, many of which were short-lived. In Iowa, a handful not only survived, but developed as strong advocacy organizations that took a lead role in the civil rights movement at the state and local level in the 1960s and 1970s. 

These days LULAC Iowa membership is made up of 607 due-paying members, 19 total councils with 3 of them being Collegiate Councils and 3 of them Youth Councils. 

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Here is the story of the early councils of LULAC in Iowa

By Janet Weaver

The first LULAC council in the Midwest was founded in Chicago in 1956, followed by councils in Indiana and Wisconsin. The next year, national LULAC president Felix Tijerina approached Jesse Mosqueda, a Des Moines bookkeeper who had grown up in Fort Madison, about expanding LULAC’s presence in the Midwest into Iowa. Jesse contacted Chai Vasquez in Fort Madison and in February 1957, Mexican Americans in Fort Madison organized Iowa’s first LULAC council, chartered as LULAC Council 304.

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LULAC 304’s first elected officers.
Back row from left: Sebastian Alvarez, Felix Sanchez, Father Adrian Kempker, Jesse Guzman, Benito Ramirez, & Johnny Mendez.
Front row from left: Ernestine (Tinnie) Mendez, Lupe Reyes, Susana Pavon, Eleanor Guzman, & Francis Ramirez.

Over the next few months, Mosqueda helped organize two councils in Des Moines.  On June 16, 1957, LULAC Council 306 and Ladies Council 308 were officially inaugurated during an installation banquet and dance held at Hotel Fort Des Moines, attended by Felix Tejerina, national LULAC secretary Alfred Hernandez, and national LULAC coordinator Tony Campos to present the charters and install officers. Carlos Barahona served as the first president of Council 306; Ila Plasencia as the first president of Ladies Council 308 with Mary Campos serving as treasurer. National LULAC officers inaugurated Jesse Mosqueda as regional governor for Iowa and William Rocha as district governor.

Over the next two years, LULAC expanded its presence in Iowa when Mexican Americans in Mason City and Davenport formed councils. LULAC Council 319 in Mason City received its charter in 1958, followed by LULAC Council 10 in Davenport on February 16, 1959, which elected Henry Vargas as its first president. The formation of a youth council in Des Moines, Junior LULAC Council 18, brought the total number of LULAC councils in Iowa to six.

Iowa LULAC councils, labor unions, and migrant agencies marched in Des Moines to press for passage of migrant worker bills pending in the Iowa legislature, 19169. 1,500 activists marched in Des Moines in February, 1969. This type of collective action pressured legislators to pass the migrant housing and migrant child labor bills and was an effective strategy for raising awareness in Iowa of the needs of Mexican American workers within its own borders.

Through these six councils, Iowa Mexican Americans laid the groundwork for the civil rights activism that would be the hallmark of Iowa LULAC in the 1960s. They stressed the importance of participation in politics as a means to achieve social and economic parity and were active in the Democratic Party, forming and leading “Viva Kennedy” clubs in the 1960 presidential campaign. Membership in a national organization gave Iowa LULAC councils the credibility to participate in local government and gain a voice in pressing for change on issues of fair housing and employment rights. Iowa LULAC leaders regularly served on the first human relations commissions in their towns in the early 1960s and on executive boards of civil rights organizations such as the Davenport Catholic Interracial Council.

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10th Annual LULAC Convention, Hotel Blackhawk, Davenport, Iowa, June 3, 1967
Photo Courtesy Iowa Women’s Archives Migration is Beautiful

Women often formed the backbone of these early councils. Through LULAC’s education scholarship program, they organized dances, picnics, chili suppers, and raffle ticket sales to support annual fiestas and queen competitions to raise money for education scholarships. Often excluded from PTAs and other white, middle-class, voluntary organizations, Mexican American women in Iowa used the networks and resources of LULAC to advocate their rights as they skillfully moved between family and community. In so doing, they nurtured and passed on to their children an activist consciousness firmly rooted in their cultural heritage and identity.

Article and photos courtesy Migration is Beautiful of the Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries

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