• by Dr. Cynthia E. Orozco • IDRA Newsletter • February 1996 •
The history of Mexican-origin women in voluntary organizations is a history largely untold. Women historians have studied women’s organizations (where most women have historically organized) but have given little attention to those composed of both women and men and those composed of Mexican-origin women.
Chicano studies scholars have rarely addressed women in organizations. In particular, historians of Chicanos have yet to fully study women’s participation in the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). LULAC is the oldest Mexican American civil rights organization in the United States. Founded in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, by Mexican American men, the league quickly evolved into a state-wide and then a national organization.
LULAC can be compared to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It is a middle-class organization that has diligently protected the civil rights of Mexican-descent people in the United States. In the 1930s, LULAC men filed the first class action lawsuit against segregated public schools. They were also responsible for changing the classification of la Raza from “Mexican” to “White” in the 1940 U.S. census. LULAC also moved the Federal Employment Practices Commission (the first federal civil rights agency) to protect la Raza from employment discrimination. At the local level, LULAC desegregated schools, pools, theaters, housing and real estate.
In 1933, LULAC extended full membership privileges to women through gender segregated chapters (or councils) called “Ladies LULAC,” and women typically organized only with women until the 1960s. Ladies LULAC became particularly important in Texas and New Mexico. The first ladies council formed in 1933 in Alice, Texas, and in 1934 LULAC created the office of Ladies Organizer General (LOG) to organize women’s chapters. By 1940, these chapters numbered 26 while men’s totaled 100. In the 1990s, women constitute over 50 percent of LULAC’s membership, and they helped elect the first female national president in 1994.
This essay will introduce LULAC feminist Alice Dickerson Montemayor who challenged LULAC ideology. Montemayor’s feminism challenged the entrenched patriarchal nature of LULAC and Mexican American society in the 1930s.
Alice Dickerson Montemayor
Among the ranks of LULAC were independent women, a few with feminist inclinations. One of the most radical women in LULAC was Alice Dickerson Montemayor who at the time of her activism in the 1930s was a wife, mother, worker, businesswoman and middle-class woman. It is equally important to characterize her as a free-thinking, assertive, independent feminist. She belonged to LULAC when patriarchal ideology was strong. Her husband was not a member of LULAC. Moreover, her ideology as well as her actions were anti-patriarchal particularly as it related to the family and the political mobilization of women.
Alice Dickerson Montemayor was a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman elected to a national office not specifically designated for women (the position of second vice-president general, the third highest post in the organization). She was also the first woman to serve as an associate editor of LULAC News and the first person to write a charter to sponsor a Junior LULAC (youth) chapter. She was an ardent advocate of the inclusion of youth, including girls. Moreover, she was an avid supporter of more Ladies LULAC chapters. In short, Montemayor promoted the interests of middle-class Mexican Americans, women, girls and youth during her tenure in LULAC from 1936 to around 1940.
Born on August 6, 1902 in Laredo, Texas, Alice Dickerson (known as Alicia) grew up with a Mexico Texano identity. She also claimed her indigenous and Irish heritage. Unlike most of la Raza in the early 20th century, she grew up in a bilingual home.
Montemayor’s education made her an exception in the Mexican-origin community in Texas, especially for women. She graduated in 1924 and attended night school at Laredo Business College for a year. A high school education was rare for the working class and Mexican Americans in the 1920s. Those attending college were few; in 1930, 250 persons of Mexican-origin were in college, most of whom were men.
Barriers created by race and gender limited Montemayor’s education despite her desire for higher education. When Laredo Junior College opened its doors in 1947, she registered for night school and attended for two years. Her role models included Marie Currie, Amelia Earhart, Carrie Nation, Frances Perkins, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Hayes and Irene Dunne. Her Méxicana role models went unnamed.
Laredo Ladies LULAC
Montemayor joined civic life around 1937 when her then only child, Francisco Jr., was in school. Her participation in public life paralleled many heterosexual women’s traditional lifecycle which revolved around patterns of childbearing and childrearing.
In 1936, Montemayor helped charter a council in Laredo. Membership fluctuated from 17 to 34. Membership was kept small, intimate and exclusive of working class women; members had to be recommended. Most were married homemakers while others worked as secretaries for the city and county. Most had a high school education.
In the 1930s, Laredo Ladies LULAC was one of the most active councils. The chapter encouraged women to vote, held citizenship classes and encouraged women to “not be only at home” and “to have aspirations to work away from home.” The educational committee assisted the mother of second-grader Roberto Moreno obtain justice for their son who had been “severely whipped” by his teacher Joyce Williams. They also sponsored benefits for the Laredo orphanage, raising $250 for flood survivors, bought school supplies for poor Mexican-origin children, sponsored a column in Laredo’s major newspaper and published an edition of LULAC News. Delegates traveled to LULAC’s annual national conventions out of town and sponsored Junior LULAC.
LULAC News reports indicate that Ladies LULAC largely worked independently of the Laredo men’s council. It was not an auxiliary. In 1984, Montemayor said, “men’s LULAC had nothing to do with us.” On two occasions when the two councils co-sponsored events, the division of labor fell along gender lines.
Montemayor’s Rise to National Prominence
Montemayor’s local activism connected her to national LULAC. She was the first secretary for most of 1936-1937 and president from 1938-1939. As secretary, she reported the chapter’s activities to the LULAC News’ column “Around the Shield,” which focused on local councils. She wrote, “We have always said and we still maintain that at the back of progress and success the ladies take a leading hand.”
Montemayor soon garnered national attention. She was one of two Laredo ladies’ council delegates to the national 1937 Houston convention and 1938 El Paso convention. At Houston, she was the only woman on the five-member finance committee. In 1937, the nominating committee (which consisted of one delegate from each council and was overwhelmingly male) named her to a national post.
Between 1937 and 1940, Montemayor held three national positions – second national vice-president general, associate editor of LULAC News and director general of Junior LULAC. The position of second vice-president was not gendered; indeed, the first person to fill the position was a man, Fidencio Guerra of McAllen, Texas. But after Montemayor’s tenure in 1937 and until the office was abolished in 1970, women held this post. Apparently, the position became defined by gender only after a woman held it. There is no evidence that women defined this position as their own.
Montemayor used her three positions to advocate for women and youth. As second vice-president, she promoted the establishment of more Ladies LULAC councils by writing, speaking and corresponding.
As associate editor of LULAC News, she advocated for women. At a Uvalde, Texas, regional convention she introduced a resolution. She sold LULAC News advertisements and wrote for the publication. She penned a stinging unsigned editorial titled “Son Muy Hombres(?).” Two sexist incidents moved her to do so. Montemayor wrote:
“A statement was made to us, in writing, by one of our high officials which reflects the attitude assumed by our ‘Muy Hombres.’ One unidentified male LULACker wrote a national officer, ‘I hope that President Ramon Longoria will get well soon. There are those of us who hate to be under a woman.'”
The second incident also involved the national office, presumably President Ramon Longoria of Harlingen. The national office ignored three letters from El Paso Ladies’ LULAC seeking advice, so they withdrew from the league “rather than create trouble and friction.” (The chapter later reorganized.) Montemayor concluded about the incident, “My honest opinion of those who think in that line, is that they are cowardly and unfair, ignorant and narrow minded.” She appealed to the LULAC and United States constitutions. She concluded by asking any member to author an article in favor of “suppressing” ladies councils or denying them “equal rights.”
The third national position held by Montemayor was the position of director general of Junior LULAC. In 1937, Mrs. Charles Ramírez of San Antonio’s Ladies LULAC developed the idea for Junior LULAC and a resolution to create them. Ramírez and Mrs. Santos Herrera organized the first Junior LULAC. But Montemayor was the primary force behind the youth chapters called Junior LULAC. In August 1938, Montemayor began a series of essays to get senior councils to organize youth. Besides serving as a local sponsor, she penned several essays to foster their organization after she was no longer an associate editor or an official youth organizer. They included “Let’s Organize Junior Councils,” “10 Reasons Why,” and “Why and How More Junior Councils.” Montemayor wrote the first charter for a youth chapter. Around March 1937, Montemayor organized the second Junior council at her house, and it proved the most active chapter.
Montemayor recruited both girls and boys for Junior LULAC. She believed this necessary so “by the time they are ready to join the senior councils they will abandon the egotism and petty jealousies so common today among our ladies’ and men’s councils.”
Her son, Francisco Montemayor, Jr., wrote, “We have heard that there is a Junior council of ‘just girls,’ Heck, we don’t like that. We rather have a mixed group like we have in Laredo, because we feel like there is nothing like our sisters.” He warned against a majority of girls and rallied the boys to prevent this.
Montemayor believed Junior councils to be leadership training grounds, necessary to the formation of good citizens and future LULAC senior members. From Junior LULAC, “good Americans” who were capable public servants, skillful debaters, knowledgeable citizens and literate, independent thinkers would result. Montemayor taught the Juniors debate and acting skills every Sunday. She also took five Junior officers to the El Paso national convention.
Montemayor’s Feminist Essays
Montemayor also challenged patriarchal ideology through her essays. She wrote more articles for the LULAC News than any other woman or girl in the history of LULAC, typically signing her name Mrs. F.I. Montemayor. She also penned several essays without signing her name.
Among youth and adults, Montemayor stressed independent thinking. She wrote, “Having the ability to think for oneself and forming an opinion of your own is a necessity in our organization.”
“We Need More Ladies Councils” was her first essay. She pointed to many inactive LULAC councils and asked women to come to the rescue. “Sister LULACS,” she said, “our brothers need a good big dose of competition.” She noted that there were 71 men’s and 15 women’s chapters but only 26 and four respectively at the annual convention. She believed men engendered this competition because of allegations that they were superior to women.
But Montemayor also believed in the fundamental superiority of women. In “A Message from Our Second Vice-President General,” she asked women to join the “LULAC family.” Women, she believed, had intuition, “Women wish to mother men just because it is their natural instinct and because they see into the men’s helplessness.” Women also had common sense and were “able to see at a glance and penetrate into, in a second, what most men would not see with a searchlight or a telescope in an eternity.” She added, “Women are the possessors of a super logic. They hang to the truth and work with more tenacity than our brothers.” She concluded that LULAC would not flourish until women helped men.
The editorial “Son Muy Hombres (?)” appeared in March 1938. Montemayor did not doubt that machismo was prevalent in LULAC and, despite the question mark, she had faith in men’s ability to change.
Another essay, “Bringing Up Baby Properly,” reinforced the idea of women as caretakers. She believed it was up to “senior councils to prepare our children” but still stressed this as women’s work.
Gender Politics and Conflict
Cooperation and harmony did not always characterize relations between men’s and women’s councils; competition and conflict existed too. The February 1937 LULAC News hinted at a conflict in Laredo when it mentioned the chapter “weathered a storm” of local character but did not detail the nature of the storm because it was decided that “such things happen in the best regulated families.” According to Montemayor in 1984, “they [Laredo LULAC men] had no use for us_they didn’t want us.” And they “just hated her,” especially Ezequiel Salinas of Laredo, the national president from 1939 to 1940. She said they refused to vote for her at the national conventions. Montemayor questioned whether or not it was just her the men disliked. She believed other men’s councils and LULAC men were supportive.
She indeed had the respect of men because in 1937 she participated in the Corpus Christi, Texas, ceremony honoring the deceased Ben Garza, LULAC’s first president. In 1980, she named her allies J.C. Machuca, San Antonio attorney Alonso S. Perales, Brownsville attorney J.T. Canales, and Austin educator Dr. Carlos Castañeda. She also corresponded with San Antonio attorney Gus García. All of these supporters were atypical LULAC members, all college graduates and well-traveled men. She optimistically believed she had the support of men throughout Texas. LULAC’s dismal record of gender politics, however, suggests that Laredo men’s attitude was the typical male sentiment though perhaps not as blatant.
After April 1940, Montemayor’s name is absent from LULAC News. This may be attributed to the temporary decline of LULAC, repression from macho LULACkers, and changes in Montemayor’s family life. Montemayor’s legacy in LULAC ended around 1940.
She left a mark. As early as June 1937, LULAC News wrote:
“No wonder she has been ‘cussed’ and discussed, talked about, lied about, lied to, boycotted and almost hung, but she claims she has stayed in there, first because she is a LULACker and next because she wanted to see what the heck would happen next.”
LULAC’s method of political mobilization, its theory of political empowerment, and its familial ideology were patriarchal. Montemayor’s activism and ideology challenged male privilege. She argued that women and children be mobilized by LULAC to empower la Raza.
How did Montemayor view LULAC and her place in LULAC? She was a staunch advocate. The league, she argued, would “educate our race and make better American citizens out of every Latin American.” For women, LULAC was “as much a vital organ to the Latin American women, as it is to the Latin American men.”
In 1986, she still considered LULAC significant and the most important organization in which she was involved. About her role in LULAC, she reminisced, “I was a very controversial person. Many men didn’t want any ladies involved in LULAC.” She said, “The men just hated me_I guess men don’t think women can do anything.”
Alice Dickerson Montemayor introduced progressive ideas to LULAC; she had a critique of women’s oppression decades before the Chicana feminist movement. She challenged the notion of women’s place as the home and by example showed the diligent work women were capable of in public and political life. She questioned the myth of male superiority and argued women competent, if not superior. She identified machismo in action and fought to eradicate it through informed feminist reasoning. While Montemayor exhibited a feminist consciousness, she also embodied a female consciousness in her concern for children and family.
By example, Montemayor disproves assumptions about women in LULAC, about wives and about members of Ladies LULAC councils. Nevertheless, she was an anomaly in the history of LULAC in Texas and the United States, and no other feminist in the league has proven as controversial with perhaps the exception of fiery ex-Texas state director Rosa Rosales. In Rosa Rosales lives the spirit of Alice Dickerson Montemayor.
Dr. Cynthia E. Orozco has a post-doctorate from the University of New Mexico. She is currently completing a book entitled, No Mexicans Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. This essay was excerpted with permission from the author from an article that will appear in the forthcoming book, Writing the Range (University of Oklahoma Press).
Alice Dickerson Montemayor is the mother of IDRA lead trainer, Aurelio Montemayor, M.Ed.
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[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]