The 1975 expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act impacted millions of Mexican Americans in the Southwest. But the idea began with just one man who wanted to help his community and make his parents proud.
Political & Civic Engagement
At a young age, Rosie Castro was outspoken about racial, educational, housing and gender inequality. Despite facing pushback, she became a prominent political and civil rights activist.
Castro was born in San Antonio on March 7, 1947. Her mother, Victoria Castro, migrated from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and cleaned houses in affluent Anglo neighborhoods.
Dora Flores Olivo became one of the few Latinas elected to the Texas Legislature in 1997 and remains a fierce advocate of Latino voting rights and education.
Olivo was born March 6, 1943, in Sinton, Texas, 129 miles southeast of San Antonio. She was the third of eight children born to Isidro Ramirez Flores and Luz Garcia Flores.
She attended Texas A&I University in Kingsville (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville) and earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 1966. After finishing college, she taught at Zavala Elementary in Corpus Christi.
A lawyer for a landmark Texas desegregation case in the 1970s, Gabriel Gutierrez Jr. made contributions that brought important changes for Latinos’ access to public education.
Gutierrez was born Jan. 10, 1938, in Austin, Texas. His mother, “Sally” Perales Gutierrez, worked as a custodian for the Austin Independent School District while his father, Gabriel, worked multiple jobs.
Growing up on the Texas-Mexico border, Francisco Cigarroa developed an understanding that would prepare him to become the first Latino chancellor of the University of Texas System, which allowed him to put into play the creation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“Being aware of that the border region was an underserved area, I understood that to get educated was an important value to then be able to give back,” Cigarroa said.
June 5, 1975, was a red-letter day for Patricia Villareal, a San Antonio native and a staff member of the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights of the House Judiciary Committee. That was the day the bill extending the Voting Rights Act – and expanding it to Latinos – was passed.
Villareal was born in Sonora, California, to Lonnie Villareal and Stella Finnegan. Her father was a Mexican American who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He met her mother, a woman of Irish descent, in Manchester, England.
Not getting an education was “not an option” for David Ayala and his three siblings.
Ayala was born March 3, 1949, in Pharr, Texas, to Marcelino and Ana Maria (Guajardo) Ayala. After he graduated from high school in 1967, he attended Pan American University in Edinburg, hitchhiking the 15 miles from home to campus. His mother always made sure he had a plastic bag with him.
“She didn’t care about me getting wet,” Ayala said, “but she wanted to make sure my books didn’t get wet if I got caught in the rain.”
Luis Vargas Saenz Jr. is a Cameron County district attorney in Brownsville, Texas. However, the path to a seat at the front of the courtroom wasn’t easy.
Saenz was born Aug. 8, 1951, in Carrizo Springs, Texas, to Luis Saenz and Filomena Vargas Saenz.
His parents divorced when he was 5, leaving Filomena to raise six children. The family would travel north each year to do farm work for 60 cents an hour.
For 45 years, Rachel Medina Ayala was an educator in Brownsville, Texas, working her way up from elementary school teacher to assistant superintendent.
Ayala was born May 13, 1947, in Brownsville to Francisco Medina and Maria Torres Medina.
She credits her educational success mainly to her parents.
“When we graduated from high school, it wasn’t a matter [of] ‘Are you going to go to college?’ It was a matter [of] ‘Where are you going to go to college?’” Ayala said.
Antonio "Tony" Martinez was born Dec. 31, 1945, in Harlingen, Texas, a town about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. One of six children, Martinez grew up when the railroad tracks were the dividing line between Anglo-American and Mexican-American families.
Later, his family moved to San Antonio, Texas. He attended the Peacock Military Academy, a private high school, and graduated in 1963.