Interview with Longtime Houston Activist Maria Jimenez
By Nick Cooper
How did you first get involved with activism?
As a child living in Mexico, I was first exposed to activism by my father. He was an active member of the miners’ union in the largest steel plant in Latin America in the early fifties. My maternal grandfather was also a social justice activist, and a teacher in a small rural town in northern Mexico. My father came from a blue collar working family, and my mother from middle and upper class family heritage. Adults around me made a distinction between families who lived in homes with dirt floors, from those with cement floors and from those with mosaic floors. In these terms, I realized very early that the world was full of injustice and mistreatment. However, my father and grandfather also clearly demonstrated that one had to fight it, and organize against it.
When we moved to the US, we were seen as a working class, immigrant, non-English speaking family of Mexican origin. Mexicans suffered overt discrimination in the mid-fifties in Texas. I remember not being allowed to eat in a restaurant on the road to Houston after crossing the border. Later as I started school, I would learn that the language, history and culture of Mexico, and Mexicans were objects of rejection and scorn. We were threatened with expulsion if we spoke Spanish in school (in rural areas, it was also corporal punishment). As children, we were only allowed to play in a single city park in our neighborhood in Magnolia. I remember the times when economic downturns increased our vulnerability to keep a roof over our heads and secure basic necessities. As a young girl, I confronted attitudes of discrimination against women, and the role of dominance given to men. Needless to say that by the time I was 13, I was sure that my life’s work was to eradicate social injustices.
My first practical experience came through my involvement with the Catholic Youth Organization at Immaculate Heart of Mary. A priest there urged us to become active in gathering food, clothes and donations for striking farm workers in Rio Grande City in 1966. Many community leaders in the neighborhood were active in support, and I remember they got together a bus of people to go down to support the strikers. We followed the 500-mile march to Austin on a daily basis in church and at home. The possibility that social movements lead to redress of injustices became a reality for me.
Soon, I was competing in high school oratory contests. My topic was the oppression and exploitation of the Mexican-origin population in the US. Every judge either gave me a high score or the lowest score. Prejudice and discrimination continued to be a way of life, but the growing social movements of the sixties were also waking many of us up into action.
Once in college, I first joined the Young Democrats, but quickly was recruited by the first grape and lettuce boycott organizers of the farmworker movement led by Cesar Chavez. This experience enriched my understanding of labor and social movements within a political and economic system that upheld the wealth and privilege of a minority of corporations and elites. At the same time, the Mexican American Youth Organization appeared on the scene at the University of Houston and in the neighborhood. The Chicano movement became a vehicle for fighting the oppression I had long experienced in Texas. I worked to establish an independent political party, the Raza Unida Party, and ran as state representative candidate. I supported the women’s liberation movement, opposed the war in Vietnam and supported revolutionary struggles that I had become aware of through my student activism. With the Black Student Union, we brought in Angela Davis and Stokley Carmichael. We also financed Cesar Chavez’s first trip to Houston.
What has been your experience with Houston, politically, and in terms of organizing here?
Houston is easy territory for organizing since the majority of its residents are largely unorganized and politically inactive. Any place you begin to facilitate a process for an organized, collective voice that challenges power opens the possibility of change. In my youth, I assisted in organizing in neighborhoods to get support of the lettuce/grape boycott, to create independent community action through “concientizacion,” organizing, mobilizing and through building independent political processes like the Raza Unida Party. When progressives were elected to the UH student government, we were able to move resources to bolster community initiatives and advance national or international movements. In the last 20 years, I have been focused on organizing in immigrant communities.
As a woman in activism, what are some of the things you could teach male activists?
In the process of transforming reality, we transform ourselves, but some of the transformation has to be deliberate. We have grown up in a society of inequalities and the reinforcement of privilege. We all have to work to deconstruct these aspects of our world view, and examine actions that exclude and marginalize. This is true with respect to gender, and also social class, ethnicity, race and so many other areas of privilege. The revolutionary state is personal as well as societal. We can’t organize or agitate for any change if first we don’t work on changing the influence of elitist economic, political, and social structures on our own conduct and responses. This is difficult, but a necessary step if integrity is part of our definition of revolutionary action.
Living in a capitalist system how do you find harmony? Your daughter told me that you like to kick back and enjoy the TV show “Covert Affairs” — is it odd to find yourself cheering on a CIA officer, or do you just find a way to put aside what you know about the CIA?
You do not find harmony. One lives with those contradictions and fights its systemic impacts on a daily basis. A good example is how we enjoy entertainment that is produced by mega-corporations and incorporates the belief systems that reproduce inequalities. Even worse is the current practice of allowing mega corporations like Facebook or Twitter to own the history of revolutionary movements and messages on their own “terms and conditions.”
When I watch something like Covert Affairs, I do not forget it is fictitious, and I see it as reflective of the system of oppression. I like that the agent is a woman, and the fast pace of the genre of action movies. The content is always about the agent’s refusal to go along with the CIA as an institution, and she battles on her terms. At the same time, it offers a view into who is deemed “the enemy.” Most of the times, it is a Middle Eastern power or a Russian criminal agency, rarely has it been a revolutionary movement. Most striking is that the most serious “enemies” are rogue CIA elements within. But in the end, good triumphs over evil and the CIA is whole again. I never forget it is fiction.
However, I refuse to get on Facebook or Twitter or other social network sites because they legally appropriate what was the purview of the social movement or revolutionary organization. That to me is far more serious. It used to be that movements would donate their archives to public libraries for public view. Now they are instantly in public view, but are privately held by the mega corporation.
What are the projects you are working on in the Houston area, and what groups are you currently working with?
At this point, I am only working with the Houston United Prevention of Migrant Deaths Working Group to establish a response to increased deaths and disappearances of migrants in border areas. We helped establish the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas (see southtexashumanrights.org).
How would you characterize the US treatment of immigrants?
Regulatory schemes that guarantee control, high profits and low wages, and the criminalization of human mobility, are essential for the neoliberal model of global economic development. Military integration in border policing, and the denial of rights of displaced populations domestically and internationally, reproduce a defacto system of slavery for marginalized economic and social sectors, particularly unauthorized international migrants. No one wants undocumented immigration except the human traffickers, unscrupulous employers and contractors who deliberately profit from it. Ever increasing measures that deny immigrants equal protection before the law have made everyday life difficult and oftentimes, life-threatening for millions. Any immigrant can testify that being undocumented is a huge problem. Driving a car without a license, health care, educational, workplace safety and family stability all come at a high cost, and human toll. Fear, exclusion, and suffering have become permanent aspects of immigrant life in our city and in the country.
Recently, there’s been some discussion in Houston on the question of letting cops participate in activism, and on activists being friends with cops in general. How do you think about that?
On this issue, I refer to Lenin. He clearly stated that revolutionary work has to take place in all institutions of society, no matter how repressive or backwards. Revolutions have triumphed when soldiers, police and other repressive forces split and support the revolution. So, I think individuals within repressive agencies can be progressives, and even revolutionaries.
What is your advice, or a lesson you would give to young activists in Houston?
Your greatest asset will be patience; the road toward fundamental change is long and arduous. One has to start where the people are; so sometimes, we have to crawl with the slowest and not run with the fastest. Study your reality, and don’t just act. Theory has to be woven in the course of the struggle, but practice is the determining factor in the creation of change. To rephrase educator Paulo Freire: People act upon their environment in order to critically reflect on their reality, and transform it through further action and critical reflection. Above all, be a Zapatista — “manda obedeciendo,” lead by obeying, listening to the people. Because the soul of organizing for social change is the people.
by Nick Cooper