Every year during Latino Heritage Month, I remember an occasion in 1988 when my son and I stood on the back of my old pick-up truck with legendary civil rights leader, Cesar Chavez.
In solidarity with the United Farm Workers, we were protesting the exposure of families to harmful pesticides used on table grapes being sold at East Austin markets.
And I remember Cesar Chavez’ well-known words “the fight is never about grapes or lettuce, it’s always about people.”
Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez fought for the people and are the giants on whose shoulders we stand. But they’re not the only Latino leaders to fight for justice or work for progress.
Since the beginning of our country’s history, Latino leaders have made invaluable contributions to every aspect of American life. Countless Latino leaders in diverse fields like business, arts, religion, military, and public service have defined our national identity.
The same is true in our own community, where Latino history and culture is woven into the very fabric of Austin’s identity. So what better occasion to reflect on their accomplishments than today.
Here, we have our own giants. Last year, we lost Richard Moya the former Deputy Chief of Staff to Governor Ann Richards who became the first Mexican-American elected to public office in Travis County. Later, we lost John Treviño, the first Mexican-American elected to serve on the Austin City Council.
The momentum they built is still felt today. But they did not accomplish this alone. It was the result of our community coming together to consolidate what power we had.
In their journey, the landmark moment was the Economy Furniture Company strike in 1968 when workers voted to unionize for better pay and working conditions; eventually leading to success in those elections and the rise of the first elected Latino Mayor of Austin, Gus Garcia and our own State Senator, Gonzalo Barrientos.
If it wasn’t for the blood, sweat, and tears our community shed, those of us serving in public office now, like Commissioner Margaret Gomez, the first elected Latina to the Travis County Commissioners Court, would not be able to do our work.
Today, we have Latino elected officials on school boards, city council, the commissioners court, and at the state capitol fighting to make sure every family has a fair shot in life regardless of their ethnic background or socio-economic status.
There are too many battles fought to list here. Among them are the creation of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center, the creation of the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the establishment of Central Health.
But the one I would like to highlight was fought for decades – to bring more equitable geographic representation to the City of Austin in the form of the 10-1 system.
It allowed us to dismantle the former “gentleman’s agreement” that limited representation on the council to one Latino in a city where we make up about 35 percent of the population.
As a result, I was elected along with my two young and brilliant colleagues–Delia Garza, Austin’s first Latina Council Member, former firefighter and an advocate for housing, childcare, and opportunity; and Greg Casar, elected to the council after working in the trenches as a tireless advocate for the rights of workers.
The two of them give me hope for the future of our city and our state. They give me confidence that we will not yield the progress we’ve made. And as the fight continues, that our children and grandchildren will celebrate Latino Heritage Month with pride and be inspired to become leaders themselves.