The Dallas Morning News
Tuesday, July 29, 2003

High Profile : José Angel Gutiérrez

By Bryan Woolley / The Dallas Morning News

José Angel Gutiérrez was 12 years old when his father died. After that day, his view of the world changed, he says, because the world changed in its treatment of him. "I became just another Mexican."His father, Angel Gutiérrez, was a physician in the small South Texas town of Crystal City. Because his father was a professional man, the community even the Anglos had treated young José with respect. "I was somewhat of a privileged kid," he says.

"My father was not wealthy by any means. He was a Mexican doctor dealing with Mexican clients who paid him with chickens and onions. But we were certainly better off than the regular Mexicans in the community. And we were not migrants. We had been there all the time.

"After my father died, the very people who had smiled and said, 'Oh, you're a good boy,' wouldn't even give me the time of day. Then I saw how my mother was treated by the Anglos who had praised her and helped her and worked with her when she was the doctor's wife. They turned right around and tried to steal X-ray machines and all kinds of things from her. The same people!"

"It was very traumatic," he says. "I had grown up with a strong dose of self-esteem, with the support of my parents. I was bilingually fluent, confident, poised, the whole thing. Now I was being told, 'You've got to keep your place.' 'Place' being kid, Mexican, wrong side of the tracks, all those things. I wasn't used to being treated like that. I began to connect the dots. I discovered it meant something to be Mexican."

This was the birth of a militant the beginning of a long political battle that would bring him to national attention and controversy in the tumultuous 1970s. He has mellowed a little over the years and in his newest book softens the definition of his old enemy. But in some parts of South Texas, the mere mention of his name is still enough to make tempers rise.

In 1957, the year the physician died, being Mexican in South Texas meant being socially and economically inferior to the Anglos in the community and being politically powerless.

"This being a Mexican thing began to really drill into me," José Angel says. "I thought, 'What the hell is this deal?' "

Out and back

When he graduated from Crystal City High School in 1962, the now politically and socially aware José Angel went away to earn his bachelor's degree at Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M at Kingsville) and his master's at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. Later he would earn a doctorate in political science from the University of Texas at Austin (1976) and a law degree from the University of Houston (1988).

After he had earned his bachelor's degree, Mr. Gutiérrez and his wife also a college graduate returned to the hometown where his father had been so respected. They applied for teaching jobs. They were turned down. After they earned their master's degrees, they tried again. They were turned down again.

So Mr. Gutiérrez grew into a firebrand leader of the budding Chicano movement, an effort by militant Mexican-Americans to wrest political control of Crystal City and Zavala County from the Anglos who had dominated them for generations.

He founded La Raza Unida (The People United), a political party that for years staged protest marches and boycotts and had angry confrontations with local law enforcement officers and Texas Rangers ("the governor's private army," he calls the Rangers).

During the early 1970s, La Raza Unida won control of the Crystal City school board, the city council and all Zavala county offices, plus a few offices in other counties and states. At 26, Mr. Gutiérrez was elected to the school board that had refused to hire him as a teacher. In 1974, he became Zavala County judge.

He tells the story of those heady days in his 1998 book, The Making of a Chicano Militant: Lessons from Cristal, which has become a standard history of the Chicano movement. But the work that captures the heat and rage of the early struggle for Mexican-American dignity and power is Mr. Gutiérrez' first book, written on the scene of the fight: A Gringo Manual on How to Handle Mexicans.

Mr. Gutiérrez sold it out of his car trunk for $2.50 a copy. The little, self-published paperback, badly printed on a Mexican press in both Spanish and English, describes 141 "tricks" (movidas) that white people, Anglos, gringos have used to keep Mexicans and Mexican-Americans "in their place."

"I realize that books in themselves do not end oppression," Mr. Gutiérrez wrote in the introduction. "This book is a limited manual on how to deal with a racist, imperialist, colonialized society of white people."

It's also a satire about powerlessness, a humorous "guide" for white people who want to learn how to oppress Mexicans more effectively. But its true purpose was to train grass-roots Chicano leaders in strategies for organization, protest and negotiation.

(Example: Trick Number 8: "Chicanos have long complained about police brutality. The Texas Rangers, the migra [Border Patrol], the local pigs are almost always lily-white. When Chicanos protest the brutality and discrimination of the pigs, invariably someone will demand more Chicanos on the police force. Bad mistake. Chicanos get what they want. Brown pigs must be tougher and meaner than gringos in beating other Chicanos. Now even the rinches [Rangers] have a few Chicanos on board.")

In 2001, Arte Público Press reprinted an expanded edition of A Gringo Manual that incorporates an essay on powerlessness and 100 new "tricks" to exploit Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants.

A subtler fight

The last "trick" in the original book, however, is a promise: "The tricks discussed in these pages don't cover all the techniques gringos use against us now. You could never cover them all. But the next book in this series will tell about more gringo tricks and also tell about some tricks we Chicanos can use to extend our power. Watch for the next book, The Chicano Manual on How to Handle Gringos."

Now, almost 30 years later, Dr. Gutiérrez finally has kept that promise. Earlier this month, Arte Público published A Chicano Manual on How to Handle Gringos. In the new book, Dr. Gutiérrez' theme no longer is powerlessness. For as the border of the Hispanic world moves northward, he says, so does Latino economic, social and political power.

"Over the next 18 years," he writes, "our power condition will grow from potential power to realized power. We will become the governors and the governed. We will have established political sovereignty over much of the United States. The White House, the various state houses, the numerous city halls, the many school administration buildings, and scores of community college presidents and chancellors will be positions held by Latinas and Latinos."

A Chicano Manual is a guide to dealing with the gringo foe in that changed world.

However, in both the revised edition of A Gringo Manual and the new Chicano Manual, Dr. Gutiérrez has changed his definition of "gringo."

A gringo traditionally a pejorative Mexican word for "Anglo" is no longer simply one of "a racist, imperialist, colonialized society of white people." Now a gringo might belong to any race or ethnic group. "Not all Anglos are gringos," he writes, "and not all gringos are white. I have met some Hispanics, blacks and Mexican nationals that are as racist and prejudiced against our Raza in the U.S. as any gringo. In fact, in Mexican society there is an entire class of anti-Mexican Mexicans. I have met many of them."

"I try to use the word 'gringo,' carefully," Dr. Gutiérrez says in an interview. "It's a mindset. To me, a gringo is anyone with anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant views. Some of them are us. There are 'High-Spanics' who want to be anything but Mexican. It doesn't follow at all that all Anglo-Saxons are gringos. Racism is not the exclusive venue of white people."

Other matters also have changed since the '70s. La Raza Unida is dead, partly the victim of laws and judicial decisions that make it difficult for third parties to get candidates onto election ballots and partly because of internal conflicts, fracture and scandal. Dr. Gutiérrez and others are trying to revive it as a social protest movement but not as a political party. (Its Web site is

And the militants who organized and led the original Chicano movement are no longer young. "We're past middle age," Mr. Gutiérrez says. "Our generation has given its last hurrah. We're like dinosaurs heading for extinction."

The Crystal City firebrand of the old days is a gray-haired grandfather now, with "Ph.D." after his name. He's about to start his 11th year as a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has a law office in Oak Cliff. He's recognized as a distinguished author, editor and lecturer.

"The generation that succeeded us got the benefit of us confronting racism head-on," he says. "And, to their credit, a lot of gringos stopped being racist. Maybe they still are privately, but not in their policies. Most people now are at least civil and polite. It's not politically correct to be a bigot in public."

Nevertheless, the Chicano fight isn't really over. The political and social situation of Mexican people in Texas is worse now, he says, than in the '70s.

"Our numbers are larger, but we've made very little gain in educational attainment. We're poorer than we were then. We're less skilled than we were then. We're sliding.

"But I have a sense of humor. I still maintain optimism. I think we can make it better."

José Angel Gutiérrez

Date and place of birth: Oct. 25, 1944, Crystal City, Texas. Family: Wife, Gloria; grown children Adrian, Tozi, Olin, Avina and Lena; Andrea Lucia, 15, and Clavel Amariz, 12; four grandchildren. Occupation: full-time university professor and part-time attorney. The most interesting job I ever held: lifeguard at a just-integrated public swimming pool when I was 19. My heroes are: Virginia Muzquiz of Crystal City, my political godmother; Emma Tenayuca, organizer of San Antonio pecan shellers; Reies Lopez Tijerina, greatest Chicano leader of the 20th century Guests at my fantasy dinner party would be: [Chilean leader] Salvador Allende, [Polish president] Lech Walesa, the Apostle Paul, Marie Curie, Ho Chi Minh, [labor leader] Saul Alinsky, Lyndon Baines Johnson, [comic actor] Cantinflas. My favorite president is: Theodore Roosevelt. My favorite movie is: Twelve Angry Men. The best advice I could give a 20-year-old: Get a job, get an education and go paint the White House brown as soon as you can. My last meal would be: lamb chops with red wine from Chile, and a good, cheap Dutch Masters cigar afterward. My worst habit is: getting so engrossed in work that I don't eat. My best asset is: optimism and good humor. I'm happiest when I'm: drinking red wine. I regret: nothing.