Memories Of The VISTA Minority Mobilization Program and Of an Earlier Self

by: Ruben Barrera
Posted: August 25, 2021

I live between two worlds; Travis County, where Austin, a sanctuary city, is located, and Bastrop County, where it’s dangerous to be Mexican American.

On June 23, 2018, twenty-four people were arrested in the quiet community of Stony Point, a Bastrop County neighborhood that borders Travis County, where Austin is located. Twenty three of the twenty-four people arrested were of Mexican-origin.[1] Mexican-origin people were being targeted by local law enforcement.

Stoney Point is a neighborhood where neighbors speak Spanish. Homes are brightly painted, and many of the men work in construction. Nestled in the neighborhood is a tiny Catholic church, Iglesia San Juan Diego. Leaders of the church stood outside the church complaining that the Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook, a Republican and former head of the Texas Rangers, was targeting Mexican-origin people.

It had been less than a year after Texas Senate Bill 4 went into effect; this state law aimed to punish Austin, known as a sanctuary city, because it refused to assist federal immigration authorities in enforcing a draconian immigration policy. Senate Bill 4 was condemned by Latinx leaders because it allowed local officers to racially target Latinxs they suspected of being unauthorized Mexican immigrants. Although state and local police could not arrest people on immigration charges, they could arrest them on other charges, such as not having a driver’s license or having a faulty turn signal. But once in the county jail, they can be identified as unauthorized immigrants and picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This is exactly what happened on the night of June 23, 2018, in Stoney Point when the local Bastrop County sheriff’s office targeted Latinxs. Out of the 24 arrested that day, thirteen were funneled into immigration proceedings.

What can happen next? I wondered, Is history repeating itself? Are we back to the pre-civil rights days when Mexican-origin people were rounded up and deported? As I read about this situation in Bastrop, it reminded me of questions and concerns I had as a Vista volunteer in 1968 for the Minority Mobilization Program. I was reminded how we revolted against a system targeting Latinxs to remind us of our place, to remind us that we did not belong. As I read about this situation, I remembered how, as a young man in the summer of 1968, I joined a special VISTA program called the Minority Mobilization Program because of the racism experienced by Blacks and Latinxs in the sixties. Could this be happening again, and what does this all mean, I wondered?

It was the fall of 1966, the beginning of my senior year of high school when all seniors had to see the high school counselor to discuss career plans. I was the first of my family to graduate from high school. I wanted to attend college, but I did not have any idea where to begin. Maybe now, I hoped, was when I could learn how to enroll into college. When I told the counselor of my plans, he immediately recommended I join the Army. No, I told him, I did not want to join the Army. But why not, he asked? I do not want to go to Vietnam, I said, and I was hoping you could help me get into college. If you do not want to serve your country, he glared, I cannot help you. That was the last time I saw him, and it was the beginning of an awareness, an awareness that there was something wrong. I had gone against the script of what was handed down to me. I had stepped outside the role of what was expected of me. I was not expected to go to college, but to enroll in the Army. Something needed to be done, but what? This feeling led me to join the Mexican American Student Organization (MASO), a student organization for Hispanic students at the University of Texas where I was a freshman in the fall of 1967. As a member of MASO, I met future Mexican American leaders like David Montejano and Alex Moreno. It was also in MASO where I and two other students, Alberto Garcia and Robert Perkins, were recruited to be part of a special VISTA program, the Minority Mobilization Program, a special program recruiting Mexican Americans to serve in Mexican American communities.

VISTA’s lofty mission was to end poverty in America. The typical VISTA volunteer in the sixties was a white college student assigned to poverty-stricken areas and being involved in tutoring, literacy programs, health centers, recreation centers, counseling, and GED programs for the poor. But the MMP volunteers did not fit this image. First, we were not white college students. We were from “barrios,” Mexican American communities. We knew the language. We knew the culture and the heritage of our people. This is what made the MMP special. We were recruited because we did not need to spend time learning about our people, our language and our culture. A second characteristic of the MMP volunteers was that we did not want to be social workers. We were not there to be tutors, recreational leaders, and GED teachers. And third, we did not see poverty as the problem. As we gathered in San Antonio for training that summer of 1968, approximately 50 of us, I could see we all had the same awareness—something needed to be done. But what needed to be done was still not clear. But in the training, an answer emerged.

The genius of the MMP for the volunteers began with the training that took place in San Antonio. San Antonio at that time was the staging ground for the Chicano movement in Texas. And it was there where we were able to touch something bigger than what we had ever understood. It was there where we were submerged to thinking about the self-determination and empowerment of ourselves as Chicanxs. It was there where we met and heard the ideas of leaders of powerhouse organizations, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Mexican American Unity Council, San Antonio Neighborhood Youth Organization and the Mexican American Youth Organization. These “brown prophets” were not colorblind and were not preaching integration and equality. They instead advocated for the empowerment, control, and self-determination of Chicanxs. Their message was clear. We were not going to Chicanx communities to eliminate poverty but were going there to empower communities for self-determination. Our mission was to train Chicanx leaders in the barrios to take over and make their own decisions. I can hardly overestimate the influence of this training on our minds. The trainers had a powerful belief in the importance of what they were doing and had a powerful talent for making us believe in what we needed to do. I was fascinated by the people I met there, Jose Uriegas, Mario Compean, Ignacio Perez, and José Angle Gutierrez, men who believed and lived their beliefs. They went straight to what we as trained volunteers needed to do, and then they released us.

We scattered over 5 areas of Texas: San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, Houston, the Laredo/Del Rio area and El Paso. I found myself in the Rio Grande Valley in mid-summer 1968. Submerged working with migrant communities known as colonias, I and fellow MMP volunteers, Homer Mora and Alberto Garcia began surveying the colonias, trying to get to know the residents. This survey happened during the middle of the summer, and most of the families had long since migrated north to work the crops. The only residents there were the elderly who were too sick to travel or grandparents who stayed to take care of young grandchildren. We were viewed with suspicion, so needless to say, our idealism soon began to wane, as whatever grandiose expectations we had were quickly subdued. We realized quickly that we could not accomplish much working in the colonias.

But something happened that summer when we befriended students enrolled at Pan American College, located in Edinburg, Texas. We were immediately welcomed and were not considered outsiders. We had found our advocates. The students’ endorsement provided credibility to what we were doing, and by the beginning of the fall semester, a MAYO chapter was formed at Pan American College to advocate for the rights of Mexican American students. One of the members of the Pan American MAYO group was Lali Saenz. She had graduated the year before from Edcouch-Elsa High School, a school for the two local communities of Edcouch and Elsa, located in Elsa, not far from Edinburg. When she went home to visit one weekend, her high school brother told her that a group of his high school friends were been expelled for speaking Spanish, so Lali immediately began organizing the high school students and asked the Pan American MAYO group to help.[2] They met with the local high school students and parents to protest racial discrimination at the high school. On November 14, 1968, a school walkout began. Some 150 students boycotted classes.

The eyes of Texas then became focused on what was happening in Edcouch-Elsa. But it was not only the students who worked to attract attention, but some of the parents also got involved and began attending the school board meetings, demanding change. Before long, you heard rumblings from other school districts, in Weslaco, McAllen, Pharr, San Benito. News from Rio Grande Valley newspapers, Valley Morning Star, The Edinburg Review, The Rio Grande Herald, The Monitor in McAllen, and even the San Antonio Express began publishing articles about what was happening in Edcouch-Elsa. MALDEF was then called to represent the students. A federal lawsuit filed in Brownsville overturned their expulsion as unconstitutional, and the court ordered the school to reinstate the students.

I wish i could say the MMP volunteers organized the walkout, but we did not. The leaders of the walkout were students—Lali Saenz, Javier Ramirez, Raul Arispe and Mirtala Villareal They were the organizers. All we provided was assistance to the students. I remember attending several Edcouch-Elsa High School student meetings with Jose Uriegas, a VISTA Supervisor. They were trying to verbalize why they walked out and what they wanted. As Vistas all we did was facilitate the discussion. I remember their demands, and one of them was not to be punished for speaking Spanish.[3] I remembered our training. Language was the beginning of our identity. The students were being punished for being of Mexican descent. I heard how some of the students were made to stand in front of class and ask for forgiveness for participating in the walkout before being allowed to return to school.[4] Why humiliate them, I asked? Why attack their dignity? I remembered the code articulated by our trainers about being proud of being Chicano and speaking Spanish. This code had meaning, and it gave us dignity, yet here were high schools students following this code even when things did not go well. This confirmed that we were on the right track.

As Vista volunteers, we changed our focus from the colonias to the local youth. However, we also began to get attention. The same newspapers that had reported on the students began reporting on the MMP connection to the students.[5] News articles, editorials and letters to the editor from local residents, county officials and congressmen began calling the MMP volunteers “professional agitators,” “communists,” “using students to do their dirty work,” “standing in the wings trying to fan the spark into a final blaze.” It was not only in the Rio Grande Valley, but MMP volunteers were getting attention in Houston, Laredo, Del Rio and San Antonio. We were reported as being an arm of MAYO, a recruitment tool for MAYO.[6] It was true that MAYO had an influence over us. Mario Compean was one of our trainers. Jose Uriegas was also a member of MAYO and a leader in the MMP, teaching community organizing. But it astonished me why the local officials couldn’t see the conditions of racial discrimination that led people to revolt. I guess it was easier to blame it on “communism.” Think of the irony, the absurdity of those school boards, editors, governors, congressman who called us subversive when they refused to focus on the racial discrimination that was pushing the youth to rebellion.

Everything came to a climax in March 1969 when Governor Preston Smith disbanded the MMP Vista program in Del Rio.[7] The county commissioners blamed the MMP for initiating a protest rally over police brutality issues. Ironically, this disbanding of MMP in Del Rio inspired one of the biggest protests of the Chicano movement in Texas. Around 3000 people descended upon Del Rio in March 1969 supporting the MMP Vista volunteers. We marched to the Val Verde County courthouse where José Ángel Gutiérrez read the Del Rio Manifesto.[8] He nailed it to the courthouse door. It accused the county commissioners and the governor of shutting down the Vista MMP because they were afraid of protests in the Chicanx community which had been aided by the MMP VISTA Volunteers. The manifesto warned the governor of social unrest if the MMP’s cancellation was not rescinded. And it called for legislative protection for the MMP. The manifesto condemned the Anglo establishment for waging a war of cultural genocide against the Chicanx community. It went on to express the need for self-determination for “La Raza” and of the importance of Spanish to the survival of our Chicanx culture.

Despite the protest, the MMP was not reestablished. In fact, afterwards, other counties, including Hidalgo County when the county commissioners voted to dissociate itself from the MMP Vista volunteers in April 1969.[9]  By the summer of 1969, one year after it began, the MMP was no longer, but the seed had been planted, and the fruit began blooming. MAYO had grown to around 30 groups in many of the same communities served by the MMP: San Antonio, Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Del Rio and El Paso. By now the MMP Vista volunteers had become the core members of MAYO. MAYO had chapters in the same locations where the MMP VISTAS had served, the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo, Del Rio, El Paso, Houston and, of course, San Antonio.

In December 1969, MAYO held its first statewide conference at La Lomita Mission, an abandoned Catholic seminary in Mission, Texas. The conference was to focus on the future of the Chicano movement in Texas. José Ángel Gutiérrez was calling for a statewide political party, La Raza Unidad Party, to challenge the two statewide parties in Texas, the Democrats and Republicans. He called for the MAYO groups to form the bases and conduct voter registration drives and raise funds for political campaigns. The emphasis was to win elections and take control, self-determination and empowerment. It was the same code articulated when we started training as MMP Vista volunteers. Walkouts and marches were not enough. I remember that day when he called for volunteers to go with him to Crystal City and help form La Raza Unidad Party. I went with him. I have a photo of myself at the La Lomita conference, standing around José Ángel. Every time I look at that photo, I realize the importance of the MMP. We had made a difference and left our mark.

The story I have told here is made of history and memories of an earlier self. Events were simpler in those days. But there are complexities to every story that are never so simple and neat. I don’t want to give the impression that the criticism we received was white against brown, Anglo against Chicanx. Much of the backlash and criticism the MMP received was from Mexican American leaders, government officials, and local citizens. There were letters to the editors from local citizens, local politicians, local governmental officials, as even congressmen like Henry B. Gonzales and Kika de la Garza were attacking us. I remember those days when we simply ignored them and called them “vendidos.” Now I realize it was all too simplistic. But I wonder why these local leaders, governmental officials and congressmen ignored the racism and discrimination all around them. Why did they not want to confront it? They would rather not talk about it and hid from it. Now i understand that many jobs depended on this type of system. If you tried to talk about it and confronted it, you could lose your job. That was why the young were so effective. They had nothing to lose. They were not afraid to state aloud what they thought. Local leaders and politicians had made a bargain with the system, but no one had made a bargain with the youth. They were not part of the bargain to keep the system going. In fact, that was why groups like MAYO were so attractive to the youth. Both realized that the system was not working. It needed to be broken up, broken into pieces. It did not matter who they blamed, outside agitator, communists or Cuban influences, as times were changing, and the MMP was part of the change.

The MMP was a trivial historical episode that happened over a generation ago, remembered by few. After the dissolution of the MMP, volunteers returned to our communities and became teachers, lawyers, some doctors and some judges and politicians. The years have gone by. There is no doubt that a change has occurred for our people. Life has steadily improved for Mexican Americans. We have become more prosperous. Things are being done that needed to be done. We have had some improvements in education, jobs and wages. Walls have fallen. Barriers have crumbled. We now have Mexican Americans in position of power, from school boards, in cities and counties, state legislatures, Congress and the Supreme Court. But despite all the civil rights laws, all the monies thrown at the problem, there is still a disparity, an inequality. Evidence shows that a massive gap in education, income and wealth still exists between races.[10] The obvious question is why. After all the programs and all the money, none has worked. Let us return to the story for another look.

In the times of the MMP VISTAS, we saw racism very simply. It was obvious what was expected from you and where you belonged if you were Mexican American. It is not as obvious in today’s world. In the time of the MMPs, racism was visible. Today many still cling to overt racism, and it was just a matter of time that somebody like TRUMP should arise. He uses the anxieties of racial fear to rouse his supporters. Have we forgotten when he first appeared stroking the fear of Mexicans bringing crime, drugs and rape to America? How about whose people he wished would immigrate to America instead of Mexicans, Muslins and Haitians, and the anti-Asian bias because of what he labeled as the “Chinese virus.” Madness and hysteria filled his rallies. How can we explain Trump other than a clinging of and return to racism and white supremacy? He brought to the surface what has been there all along.

Demagogues are still here, stroking racial fears. It is an uncomfortable truth that this toxin is still with us. It is poisoning succeeding generations. You can still hear the screaming from the 2018 Neo Nazi March in Tennessee, “WHITE NATION, START THE DEPORTATION.”[11] You hear today the demagoguery blaming immigrants for a rise in COVID infections. This racist nationalistic theme is being used by Trump’s acolytes, Governor DeSantis in Florida and Texas Governor Abbott when you hear them espousing the same demagoguery by accusing President Biden of facilitating the COVID virus by not reducing immigration through the southern border.[12]

Recently we have heard a phrase coined as “The Replacement Theory.”[13] It was first used in France by Renaud Camus who referred to immigrants as colonizers and occupiers replacing Europeans. It is a term beloved by white nationalists and touted by Tucker Carlson who openly declared that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the people now casting ballots, with new voters from the Third World. He adds that when this happens, you dilute the political power of the [White] people in one county if you change the populations. He goes on to say that he, a White person, would become disenfranchised as a current voter every time they import a new voter. He goes on to cry out that Western Civilization is under the dire threat of being weakened and replaced by immigrants of color, espousing that a true believer cannot let this happen.[14] The tragedy is that this is not just rhetoric. It is racist propaganda that has helped incite violence. Two years ago, on August 3, 2019, Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old White man walked into the Walmart in El Paso Texas and killed 23 people and wounded 24.[15] He left a hate-filled manifesto that spoke of a Hispanic invasion of Texas. It warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners. He railed against the Hispanic invasion of Texas, saying that if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.

The question I ask myself today is not too different from the one I asked my earlier self when I joined the Vista MMP: What does all this mean? It was much easier in those days to recognize racism. Nowadays, it takes more skill. There is still racism that must be recognized and challenged. Today, civil rights legislation is being disassembled. The US Supreme Court this year gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) protecting the minority vote.[16] It also began disassembling Section 2 of the VRA in an Arizona case. States like Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Mississippi and Alabama are purging minorities from voter registration lists and enacting new voter ID laws creating more barriers to voting.[17] And laws such as the Texas Senate Bill 4 are being implemented in other states like in Arizona and Alabama, targeting Latinxs. These are the challenges that await the leaders of today. To be ready for the future, one must confront the type of racism wherever it’s encountered. It is harder to recognize this type of racism. This type of racism does not espouse a belief to discriminate. It does not directly target people of color. For instance, today’s Voting Rights legislation does not propose that blacks or Latinxs cannot vote. But the intent and outcome of the legislation is to make it difficult for people of color to vote. Today it is not beliefs that are as important, but the outcomes must be challenged. Outcomes must be examined and rectified.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) emerged in the 1970s and 1980s by legal scholars to examine outcomes. One of the core ideas in Critical Race Theory is that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but is something embedded in legal systems and policies. One of the founders of CRT is a Mexican American law school professor, Richard Delgado, who currently teaches at the University of Alabama School of Law and is a leading expert on CRT. He argues that racism is not a bygone relic of the past but is a normal feature of American society.[18] Racism is embedded within the systems of society and institutions, he argues.[19] Today’s racism is manifested through structural and systemic racism that is codified in law, embedded in legal and social structures and woven into public policy.

CRT analyzes the structures of education, health, housing, income and discovers how racism has infected the structures and perpetuated a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. Delgado and others announce that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. CRT acknowledges that the legacy of slavery and segregation and second-class citizenship continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation. The issues raised in CRT are what must be confronted by today’s leaders. One of the most compelling demonstrations of how racism has been replicated through systemic racism can be found within the American educational system. Many of us still recall the challenges to desegregating the South. We can still see images of troops escorting black students into schools after Brown v. Board of Education. I still remember the busing protests when schools were integrated. Even now, after all the changes to the educational system, inequality persists in the post-civil rights era.

The persistence of systemic racism in education is explained in CRT’s studies. The Harvard Law Professor who also was a founder of CRT, Derrick Bell, argued that Brown could not effectively promote racial equality.[20] Bell noted that Brown was limited in its relief, and the persistence of racial inequality following the civil rights era implicates the law as maintaining racial inequality. He noted that Brown was unable to reach the insidious nature of racism because it is not merely an exercise in ending legal segregation. For example, Bell asserted that to reach a racial and equitable balance, you need to address other systemic practices that perpetuate racial inequality within diverse schools, such as loss of faculty and administrators of color, many of whom lost their jobs in the wake of Brown. Bell observed that changing demographic patterns, white flight, and the reluctance of the courts to urge the necessary degree of reform rendered further progress in Brown impossible. To uproot all vestiges of segregation, root and branch, Bell and other proponents of CRT have proposed challenging racial inequalities in education, including the following:

  1. The predominance of curriculum that excludes the history and lived experiences of people of color and imposes a dominant white narrative of history.
  2. Eliminating instruction that characterizes students of color as in need of remediation.
  3. School discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color and compromise their educational outcomes.
  4. School funding inequalities, including persistent underfunding of property poor districts, many of which are composed primarily of children of color.
  5. The narrow assessment of testing scores that are used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of students of color.

Critical Race Theory has especially been useful in the fight to balance public school funding so children in poor districts, mostly Latinxs, could get a decent education. In the 1989 decision in Edgewood v. Kirby, the Texas Supreme Court held that Texas system of funding public schools violated the Texas Constitution provision requiring the state to maintain an efficient school system and provide equal distribution of knowledge. Schools in Texas before the Edgewood case relied on property taxes. MALDEF argued that the state’s formula for funding public schools helped keep poor districts in a cycle of poverty. The school financing formula racially discriminated, argued MALDEF. Texas allocated funds to school districts for each student to get a minimum of education. The districts could use local property tax revenues to subsidize their schools, enabling wealthy districts to spend much more than poor districts. Edgewood was a poor district comprised mainly of Mexican American students. It had bad buildings, bad curricula, inexperienced teachers, teachers on emergency certificates. It did not have as wide a curriculum. By contrast, the Alamo Heights School District in San Antonio had gleaming buildings with pools and classes offering art and music, everything a student needed for a well-rounded education.

We were just beginning our training in San Antonio as MMP VISTA volunteers in May of 1968 when 400 Mexican American students staged a walkout at Edgewood High School, demanding school repairs, modern equipment, qualified teachers, and a better curriculum. This protest was the beginning of what is considered one the most important legal decisions involving school funding. The work is not finished, but the students laid the groundwork. In similar fashion, MMP Vista volunteers laid the groundwork for MAYO and what happened afterwards, but the work is still not finished.

Critical Race Theory has come under attack especially in state legislatures controlled by Republicans. It has become a rallying cry for the right. In Texas, Governor Abbott signed legislation, HB 3979, effective September 1, 2021, prohibiting public schools from discussing topics related to Critical Race Theory.[21] Why this is happening now needs to be asked by the new generation of leaders. What you see now is a kind of despair, a collective insecurity, reflected in many White politicians. They seem to perceive a threat to their existence. They are doing everything to stop the truth being told. They are afraid of the truth: that racism is systemic to America. The work is not finished.


[1]Austin American Statesman, Bastrop Sheriff Maurice Cook Targeted Latino Neighborhood, July 3, 2018.

[2]The Monitor, MAYO Group Airs Demands, November 13, 1968.

[3]Valley Morning Star, Here are the Demands of the Striking E-E Students, November 16, 1968.

[4]The Edinburg Daily Review, E-E Students Forced To Beg Forgiveness, December 12, 1968.

[5]The Valley Morning Starr, VISTA Spokesman Denies His Group Fomented Unrest, November 28, 1968.

[6]The Edinburg Daily Review, VOTES NO VISTA RELATIONS, April 16, 1969.

[7]The Monitor, Smith Effort To Oust VISTAS Fought in Val Verde County, March 17, 1969.

[8]The Avena-Wilson Collection, No.8-MAYO IN DEL RIO (1969), March 8, 2015.

[9]The Edinburg Daily Review, VOTES NO VISTA RELATIONS, April 16, 1969.

[10]Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, Locked in Place, Winter 2019.

[11]The Hill, “White Nationalists March Through Tennessee Town,” October 18, 2017.

[12]KHOU-11, “Gov. Abbott says Biden is releasing undocumented immigrants with Covid into Texas,” Mar. 4, 2021.

[13]CNN, The Point, “How the Ugly, Racist White Replacement Theory Came to Congress,” April 15, 2021.


[15]The El Paso Times, “What We Know about the trial of El Paso Walmart Shooter,” August 4, 2021.

[16]The New York Times, “Supreme Court Invalidates Key parts of VRA,” June 26, 2013.

[17] Brennan Center for Justice, “Voter Purges,” July 20, 2018.

[18]Richard Delgado, Rodrigo’s Sixth Chronicle; “Intersections, Essences and Dilemma of Social Reform,” 68 N.Y.U. Law Rev. (1993),

[19] Ibid.

[20]Derrick Bell, Race Racism, and American Law (3rd ed. 1992)

[21]The Hill, “Texas Passes Law Banning Critical Race Theory in Schools,” Kelly Alexandra, June 17, 2021.





Ruben Barrera
A native of Austin, Texas, Ruben Barrera is a graduate of the University of Texas, Austin, and obtained his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1990. He practices in Austin. In 1968, Mr. Barrera took off one year from his studies at the University of Texas to serve as a volunteer with the Volunteers in Service to America Minority Mobilization Program (VISTA). He was assigned to Hidalgo County. He also worked for La Raza Unidad Party in Crystal City, Texas in 1969.

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