Genuine calm and a child-like mischievous chuckle obscure an underlying intensity in one of the most elder of the scholar-activists of the Texas Chicana/o movement. Mario Compean remains as genuinely optimistic as when I first heard him speak to a group in November 1968. A group of dejected Mexican American parents had just learned that their children who had boycotted classes at Edcouch Elsa High School would be suspended or expelled from school. Some of the 175 students would lose at least one semester of school credit. Some would lose the entire school year’s credit. For the boys, Vietnam seemed like the next stop. A seemingly promising student boycott to call attention to the dire conditions of the school facilities, the undeclared war against speaking Spanish and the lack of Mexican American culturally relevant school textbooks appeared that evening like a catastrophe. Parents were finally out in full force that evening in hope that someone could explain why things had gone so, so wrong and whether there was any hope of recovery from this most severest of blows.
The group which Mario headed, at least symbolically, the Mexican American Youth Organization (“MAYO”), had been credited (or blamed) at least in part for the student walkout. But there had never been a stringent MAYO structure to speak of. Any small group of young people, acting entirely autonomously, would typically adopt the MAYO label and determine locally what strategy and tactics to use. Perhaps Mario had been invited because some hoped that he could help explain what the next step should be.
Mario spoke in Spanish on that evening from atop a bed of a truck. There was no microphone. He was the last to address the parents. There was no plan to be had that evening. It was a dry-throated consolation, little of which I recall. But it was in Spanish, a fluent Spanish. And the parents listened. He connected their children’s struggle in the public schools with the parents’ own struggle and asked for the parents’ courage over the next few months in support of their children. Change would not be easy, he advised, but the parents would have to support their children, and not give up on them. It would be a lengthy struggle he told the audience.
Mario was never the dynamic speaker of the Texas chicana/o movement. His forte was always as a patient, behind-the-scenes organizer and collaborator with the hundreds of diverse and decentralized activist groups of young people throughout Texas. There has never been a durable and cohesive state-wide Chicano/a political organization in Texas, though no doubt, numerous attempts have been made. PASSO (during the early 1960s and Raza Unida Party (during the 1970s) come to mind. Mario Compean has understood that the diverse and complex nature of the Texas Chicano/a community has traditionally hindered the development of well-organized community organizations with sufficient influence to effectuate change. Central to the strategy which he has consistently advocated for the improvement of Mexican American communities is political action. Those who have followed the history of Chicano/a activism in San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas know the lengthy trajectory of the numerous efforts undertaken by many activists over the past fifty years to change the course of political dominance in that region.
Mario Compean has been one of the most durable champions of those efforts. Listen in to our video interview and, if you desire more, read on with the transcript of his 2017 interview as well.