AP Explains: Why Term ‘La Raza’ Has Complicated Roots in US

Russell Contreras, Associated Press, July 12, 2017

The National Council of La Raza announced this week that it was changing its name to UnidosUS, dropping a word that has deep roots but may have hurt the organization in moving toward the future.

The change to remove “la raza” comes amid a backlash from conservatives and a desire by the civil rights group to appeal to younger Latinos in the United States.

The term la raza —meaning “the people” — has roots in post-revolution Mexico and in the U.S. Chicano Movement of the 1970s which helped elect some of the nation’s first Latinos to public office. Often mistaken for its literal meaning in English, “the race,” la raza has been used to describe people whose families have migrated from Latin American countries.

But in the ever-evolving discussions of race and ethnicity in the U.S., some Latino advocates see the term as outdated and no longer useful in an era of a racially diverse society and President Donald Trump.

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After World War II, some Mexican-American civil rights leaders fought against racial segregation. They also argued that Mexican-Americans were white or “a class apart” who didn’t fit into a black/white racial U.S. legal structure.

But radical activists from the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s rediscovered Vasconcelos’ essay and rejected notions that Mexican-Americans were white. They established the La Raza Unida Party in South Texas in 1970 to give more political power to Mexican-Americans in Texas and California.

They fielded candidates for city council and school board seats and eventually for Texas governor. Maria del Rosario Castro, the mother of former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Texas Congressman Joaquín Castro, was an active member of La Raza Unida Party.

At political rallies in Texas and at marches in California to support Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, young Latino activists yelled, “Viva La Raza!”

Out of the political upheaval, a more moderate group was formed — the National Council of La Raza — with the help of Ford Foundation funding in 1968.

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The National Council of La Raza developed into a major Latino civil rights organization, hosting U.S. presidential candidates and receiving sponsorship dollars from tobacco, automobile and oil companies.

Still, because of the group’s outspoken stances in support of immigrant rights, some conservatives attacked the organization as being “anti-white” and pointed to the term “la raza” in its name.

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