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Education

San Antonio Launches Mexican American Civil Rights Institute To Help Archive History

An archive of the history of Mexican American civil rights is coming to Our Lady of the Lake University on San Antonio’s West Side.

The National Institute of Mexican American History of Civil Rights, launched Tuesday, will create the archive as part of its efforts to document and showcase San Antonio’s pivotal role in the Mexican American civil rights movement, including the 1938 pecan shellers’ strike and the 1968 school walkouts.

“Our city is home to many firsts in the arena of Mexican American civil rights,” said Paul Ruiz, chair of the institute’s board. “The work that people did in San Antonio impacted the nation.”

Ruiz said it will be about two years before the center has a permanent location to house the archive. The institute will focus first on fundraising, planning and research.

“What we’re doing right now is contracting experts to go get the data, go get the articles, go get the research,” Ruiz said. “One of the (pieces of) advice people have given us is, ‘Don’t get hung up with a building. Pay attention to the content. Get the information out.’ And we want to do that online as well as physically in real time.”

Ruiz said the institute will also start organizing community events, including book signings and presentations at schools and universities.

“We most of all want to make sure that current and future generations don’t grow up the way we did. We grew up not knowing anything about who we were,” said Ruiz, a retired educator, policy analyst and San Antonio native. “We grew up whitewashing ourselves — at least trying to whitewash ourselves — believing that that was the path to success.”

A two-year, $500,000 planning grant from the San Antonio City Council is providing the seed money to launch the center.

“Future generations must understand the sacrifices and the struggles that were required on their behalf,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg at a news conference announcing the launch Tuesday. “For the first time there will be one centralized place to house the stories and histories of the men and women who organized… right here in our hometown.”

The archive will be housed at Our Lady of the Lake University once a permanent location is found. The institute is temporarily located at OLLU’s Moye Hall, with OLLU Professor Ezequiel Peña serving as the interim director.

Diane Melby, president of OLLU, said the university has a long tradition of promoting social justice and a long list of alumni who contributed to Mexican American civil rights, including the author of the first Texas Bilingual Education Act, Joe Bernal, and the first Latina to run for San Antonio City Council, Rosie Castro.

“This is why we are honored and proud to provide a home to this most important institute. It represents all that we have worked for and all that we do work for at the university,” Melby said.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter at @cmpcamille.