HARLINGEN — During his historic campaign across Texas, the first Mexican-American gubernatorial nominee inspired students like Rogelio Nunez to continue pushing for the growing civil rights goals of the Chicano movement.
In 1972, Ramsey Muniz, the first Hispanic to run for state governor, was awakening students across Texas on college campuses like Texas A&I University in Kingsville.
Last Sunday, Muniz died at 79 after suffering complications from myasthenia gravis, leaving a tortured legacy that, after 50 years, still burns in the wounds of Mexican-Americans’ struggle for civil rights.
While his two gubernatorial bids under the La Raza Unida party helped democratize Texas’ electoral system, his drug convictions led to the party’s collapse.
In 1972 and 1974, Muniz’s bold runs for governor under the banner of La Raza Unida challenged the conservative Democratic Party’s stronghold on the state’s political system.
Throughout Texas, he was helping to transform a generation of young Mexican Americans.
During his campaign strains, Muniz fired up Mexican Americans across the state.
“It was packed,” Nunez, executive director of Proyecto Libertad, a human rights group in Harlingen, recalled of the young lawyer’s speech at the A&I University student center in 1972.
“It was a pivotal moment,” he said. “Ramsey was very educated – he was a very good speaker. He was very inspiring – he inspired me. I was beginning to understand how our people had been discriminated against. what black people have been through.
In La Joya in 1972, Amancio Chapa volunteered to work on Muniz’s first campaign for governor.
“We were going door to door, having community meetings in neighborhoods,” said Chapa, 76, a former executive director of Amigos del Valle who served as the fine arts director for the La Joya school district.
In 1971, Chapa joined the La Raza Unida party.
“You have this new political movement with liberal progressive Mexican Democrats,” he said.
During his campaign, Muniz carried the La Raza Unidas flag, introducing Texas voters to a third political party.
“He had a very progressive platform,” Chapa said. “He was advocating for greater opportunities in higher education in universities, addressing high dropout rates in public schools, more economic opportunities for Mexican Americans, which means better wages. He was anti-war — he saw Mexican Americans being drafted and dying at higher rates — and he was an early advocate for women’s rights.
During this time, the Rio Grande Valley was one of the poorest regions in the country.
“We had some of the highest homeownership rates in the United States,” Chapa said. “We had little or no representation in local government. At this time, the Anglos controlled almost all political offices in the three counties.
CHALLENGE OF THE BIDPARTITE SYSTEM
Among Mexican Americans, Muniz “has been very well accepted,” Chapa said.
“The only criticism was that his policy was ‘too left-wing – he won’t win,'” he said. “At that time, the Mexican American community was very dedicated to the Democratic Party, and many liberal Democrats in the Mexican American party were more loyal to the National Democratic Party. It was one of the biggest problems we had in the valley.
“DEMOCRATIZING THE POLITICAL PROCESS”
In the general election, Muniz received around 200,000 votes, or about 6.3%, while Democrat Dolph Brisco won with 47.8% of the vote.
“The Democratic Party had a lock on the system – it was a very conservative party,” Chapa said. “For the first time, the Democratic Party candidate did not obtain a majority of the votes cast. Ramsey’s candidacy helped progressive Democrats participate. He attracted a younger generation who began to advocate loudly for a change in the party structure.
Muniz’s entry into Texas politics has pushed the Democratic Party to open up, he said.
“Ramsey’s campaign has helped democratize the political process,” Chapa said. “It put pressure on the Democratic Party – they couldn’t take the Mexican-American vote for granted anymore.”
THE DEATH OF THE PARTY
After a second run for governor two years later, Muniz opened a law practice in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Chapa said.
Then, in 1976, he pleaded guilty to drug charges after the first of three arrests, serving a total of about 3o years in federal prison.
“Obviously it was a big disappointment for us,” Chapa said. “Obviously this was a blow to our political movement. Obviously, the party did not survive this hard blow. But for me and many people I’ve interacted with across the state, that hasn’t diminished our commitment to the Chicano movement.
By the mid-1970s, organizers formed the party’s offshoot — the Mexican American Democrats, Chapa said.
“Many said, ‘We are going back to the Democratic Party, almost pushing the identical program of the La Raza Unida party,'” he said.
Maintaining his innocence while declaring himself a political prisoner, Muniz asked his supporters to petition President Barack Obama for his release.
In 2018, he was released on humanitarian grounds.
“I never lost my respect for Ramsey,” Chapa said. “For me, he will go down in history. Although he had his legal troubles, I still consider him one of the main leaders of Chicano.