Access to the American political system has been limited for Chicanos and Latinos in general. Despite becoming the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, entry into political offices at the state and national level have not been reflective of the population growth rate by Latinos. José Angel Gutierrez’s Albert A. Peña Jr.: Dean of Chicano Politics, demonstrates the political savviness and ability to turnout the vote by one of the early Chicano political leaders in public office in a major urban center. Albert A. Peña Jr. rose to prominence in San Antonio, Texas and his leadership is demonstrative of the Chicano struggle for political inclusion in the United States. Stemming from the rise in popularity that biographies on significant Chicano leaders have commanded recently and given the intense political polarization the country faces today, this volume warrants attention and circulation in both Latino and non-Latino spheres.
Having been a chief figure in local, state, and national politics, Peña, in his efforts to organize and strategize focused his efforts on coalition-building that transcended racial and ethnic lines. During the Chicano Movement, he established and led grassroots movements and organizations and nurtured them into features of today’s political institutions. Through three aspects of Peña’s life (biography, politics, and public leadership), Gutierrez reveals a blueprint for successful political organizing, an activity which has been a challenge for Latinos and other marginalized peoples. Gutierrez unveils Peña as a central figure in mainstream Chicano politics seeking to obtain political representation for Chicanos. These are activities that Gutiérrez himself was involved in during the Civil Rights Movement, and which propelled him to prominence alongside Corky Gonzales, César Chavez, and Reies López Tijerina, albeit in a different sector of movement activity.
In seventeen well-substantiated chapters using archival materials, oral histories, secondary sources, and other resources, Gutiérrez provides long overdue attention not just to a Chicano icon, but to an incredible Chicano statesman. Peña, a native of San Antonio grew up in a culturally rich Chicano community. Gutierrez shares this detail about Peña’s youth to demonstrate his ability to understand and respond to his constituents. Born into a middle-class family, Peña’s father, Albert Sr. eventually earned a law degree and became one of the few Spanish-speaking lawyers in San Antonio, all the while exposing the younger Peña to broader horizons.
Before Albert Jr. could follow in his father’s footsteps the attack on Pearl Harbor temporarily interrupted his life. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Peña, in response to Japan’s aggression, joined the Navy and served valiantly in the Atlantic. After World War II Albert Jr. returned to San Antonio and completed his education, which culminated with a law degree. However, despite passing the bar exam, Peña quickly saw greater needs within the Chicano community in San Antonio. The nagging poll tax which limited voting rights, segregated schools, and lack of political representation all became causes that Peña would champion. These issues prompted a greater vision within Peña to bring about change locally and nationally.
Peña knew that in order to have a strong national political presence he had to start small and have solid barrio support. However, in the early 1950s, many forces worked against the political representation of Chicanos, including traditional segregationists within the conservative Democratic Party of Texas, who became known as Dixiecrats and would eventually become Republicans. At that time Peña, along with Rubén Munguía, an influential local printer, became actively involved with the Loyal American Democrats (LAD), and later with the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations (PASO).
In 1952, Peña, Munguía, LAD, and other associates pledged their support to Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. The Stevenson campaign faced challenges by Democratic segregationists who pledged their support to Eisenhower. Stevenson, who needed all the support he could get, planned a campaign stop in San Antonio where Texas Democrats planned a rally at the Alamo. Peña appealed to the Stevenson campaign by proposing a rally near San Antonio’s Westside. After initially agreeing to hold a rally near the Chicano barrio, Stevenson cancelled after pressure from the White contingency within the Democratic Party. Peña responded quickly by further organizing Chicanos, mobilizing prominent leaders such as Gus García and Chicanos from the Rio Grande Valley and making it impossible for Stevenson to back down. This was the first time a presidential nominee addressed a Latino electorate as the shouts of “Viva Stevenson” resonated in the streets of San Antonio (p. 58).
Peña set a precedent that would be respected by politicians seeking office at all levels as he mobilized and brokered the Latino electorate and vote. In return, he vouched for the interests of Latinos as he garnered political appointments for Chicanos. As a result, groups such as the Viva Kennedy Club emerged as Peña, along with other Chicanos, would elevate John F. Kennedy to the presidency. Personally, his political career flourished when he became county commissioner in Bexar County and later municipal judge. Gutierrez ends his study by shedding light on Peña’s extraordinary long life and accomplishments.
The main strength of Gutierrez’s work lies in the inclusion of many high-profiled Chicanos involved in the political realm between the 1950s and the 1970s while situating Albert Peña Jr.’s efforts at the center of the national political scene and linking major political players with the establishment. Gutierrez provides a genuine account of Peña’s life along with an emphasis on his personal flaws and the blunders he committed during his career and life. In doing so, Gutierrez provides several key lessons fitting for current and future Chicanos and Latinos interested in providing political leadership.
Today, with the U.S. political system in disarray due to gerrymandering and attacks to the democratic process with the rise of voter I.D. requirements, the ingenious political practices exhibited by Albert Peña Jr. remain relevant. As Americans strive to preserve democracy while resisting tyrannical forces from within that have further widened the economic gap in this country, it is important to look at the political victories of yesteryears and learn from the effectiveness of strong leadership and organizational skills. Albert A. Peña Jr.: Dean of Chicano Politics provides numerous lessons to anyone interested in the U.S. political system and or any aspiring politician. This book is useful for students of Chicano and minority politics, and should be used in ethnic studies, political science, and Chicano/Latino studies and many other courses.