Book Review: Raul Yzaguirre by Stella Pope Duarte
Stella Pope Duarte will give the Festival keynote address on Friday, September 29, 5:30pm at Light Hall on the campus of Western New Mexico University. “Up the Spiral Staircase”: A young girl who liked to read, collect words and produce dramas enacted by barrio kids in her backyard, will in mid-life, find herself a nationally acclaimed author. How did it happen? In a heartwarming, humorous conversation, Duarte—now a multi-award winning author–will share her surprising rise to success via the ups, downs, and twists and turns of a journey that began with a mysterious prophetic message. Led by the “writer within,” her story is an amazing trek into the world of invisible forces, dreams, symbols and awakenings that lodge in every writer’s heart. Duarte will also participate in the “Three Wise Women” panel about the writing life on Saturday, September 30 at 1:30pm at the Seedboat Gallery. Tom Hester shared his review of Duarte’s most recent work, Raul H. Yzaguirre: Seated at the Table of Power:
From “Sí, Se Puede” to “We Are Here, Take Account of Us”
La Causa, the movement by Latinos to gain their rightful place in U.S. society, chipped out its foothold in the 1960’s with larger-than-life leaders. Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Reies Lopez Tijerina, Jose Angel Gutierrez, Corky Gonzales and many others aroused a generation with charisma and fiery words.
To make the transition from those days of marches, boycotts, and mass rallies to years of national policy making, securing funds for staff and facilities, and laying plans for improved housing, education and employment, is to call upon a different sort of leader.
Stella Pope Duarte’s new biography, Raul H. Yzaguirre: Seated at the Table of Power, tells the story of such a leader who built the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) into the most influential Latino organization of the 21st century.
Duarte, esteemed as a talented writer for If I Die in Juárez about the rapes and murders of young women in Ciudad Juárez and for Women Who Live in Coffee Shops and Other Stories, traces Yzaguirre from his childhood in the lower Rio Grande valley, living with his grandparents, to his service as U.S. Ambassador in the Dominican Republic during the Obama admininstration.
Themes are repeated. Throughout the book Yzaguirre’s capacity for work and his honorable conduct are traced to his mother’s father, Gavino Morin, whom he called Papa. Yzaguirre’s firm commitments to courtesy and justice came directly from grandmother Licha Morin, Mama.
Although Mexican Americans and the Spanish language predominated in San Juan, Texas, bigotry, segregation and prejudicial school policies oppressed the majority during the 1940’s and 50’s. In an episode that Duarte and no doubt Yzaguirre himself cast as heroic, the 13-year-old Raul ran away from home to work on a Corpus Christi fishing boat. It was during that interlude when he chauffeured Dr. Hector Garcia, the founder of the GI Forum, a civil rights organization that focused on Mexican American men.
Returning home and to school, Yzaguirre excelled in debate and extemporaneous speaking during Interscholatic League events that introduced Texas students to the best competition. Pushed by his mother, who lived down the block from the Marins, Yzaguirre knew that failing to attend college was not an option, but that his family also had no savings. He joined the Air Force, raced through George Washington University and by the mid-60’s was in the middle of community organizing.
During the Johnson years Yzaguirre chaired the National Organization of Mexican American Services, NOMAS, comprising largely university students. The White House illegally employed the CIA to spy on and then to subvert the group, creating conflict with other Latino organizations just beginning to find their voice. The period was fraught with constant debates about civil rights and relations between the African American and Latino organizations, about the war in Viet Nam and where civil rights fit in fighting that war, and about electoral politics and the politics of protest and the streets.
Before Nixon became President, Yzaguirre and some friends from the Office of Economic Opportunity formed a consultantcy group, with the bland name of Interstate Research Associates. The IRA pledged to be both think tank, gathering needed statistics about the state of the Latino American community, and program generator, helping groups to become change agents. Yzaguirre was in charge. Within four years the IRA was employing 100 or more staffers.
As the Nixon years progressed, business for IRA slowed and Yzaguirre, who had married while at George Washington University and working in a medical lab, was tempted to return to San Juan, Texas, and operate a service program. His family had endured hard times in the early days of IRA and he was looking for some stability and regular income.
Instead, Yzaguirre accepted the chairmanship of the Southwest Council of La Raza, a failing Phoenix advocacy organization. It would be years before Yzaguirre would find either stability or an adequate income for three children living in suburban Maryland. The biography follows the meandering course of the National Council, which in 2017 changed its name to UnidosUS.
The chairman, never wavering from his commitment to Hispanos in communities across America – the Mexicanos, Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Cubanos, Puerto Riquenos, Salvadoreños, Guatemaltecas, Latino Americanos, Hondurans, Nicaraguenses, and dozens of other national origin groups – and always highlighting their values and their importance in the economic, social and political lives of this country, used every strategem and lever to advance his cause.
Was there no charity organizing Latinos who had made it big in America? The NCLR created one. No advocacy for Latino actors, producers and directors in film and television? The NCLR created one. No single voice for Latinos facing HIV-AIDs, home-ownership discrimination, employment discrimination? The NCLR provided one.
This is a big book because Yzaguirre has led a big life. Now retired and battling Parkinson’s, he allowed Duarte to capture his interpretations of his challenges and victories. When the story strays from Yzaguirre, it tends to become a bit formulaic. The biography, which was financially supported by the NCLR after Yzaguirre left the chairmanship, does not attempt to assess the shortcomings of its subject. Nor does it have footnotes and an index that would have increased its value as a reference for the people and issues that it discusses. However, this biography provides an essential introduction to a vital figure in Chicano – and therefore North American – history.
Stella Pope Duarte is described as a “magical weaver with a sure hand and a pure heart,” and praised as an author who “will enlarge humanity.” Duarte has won honors and awards nationwide, including a 2009 American Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, the Southwest Book of the Year Award, and a Book Sense 76 Selection. She is a descendant of Irish and Mexican American parents, and was born and raised in the Sonorita Barrio in South Phoenix. Inspired to write by a prophetic dream of her father, she believes that writing, like love, begins within, or it doesn’t start at all.