Texans are forever taking their children to see the Alamo, and a lot of them go to the San Jacinto Battlefield. But if they really care about Texas history, they should make a pilgrimage to Crystal City, where ordinary working people made a lot of history.
Crystal City was the site of the biggest concentration camp of World War II. Japanese families were there from 1943 through the end of the war. A few Italians and Germans were also sent there from other parts of the U.S. and Latin America. The United States traded them for our own prisoners of war.
Crystal is also a great civil rights site. The Chicano movement that terrified Anglos in the 1970s began in Crystal City. The struggles of some of the most desperate working families in America took place in Crystal City. For a while there, they won!
I think it was in 1963 that five very courageous Latinos took city government power from the dominant Anglos. With only 10% of the population, Anglos had always dominated everything. Then in 1969, Juan Campeon and Jose Angel Gutierrez convened La Raza Unida Party at Salon Campestre just outside the city limits and on the banks of the Nueces River.
La Raza Unida soon took over government in all of Zavala County and in surrounding counties. Inspired by La Raza, other Chicanos throughout America began to form their own fighting civil rights organizations.
Today, only the cement steps of the old Salon Campestre remain. There are no historical markers for La Raza Unida. They hold no government offices, but Mexican American Democrats and other organizations owe their initial inspiration to the courageous workers of Crystal City. There’s a great play about it. It’s named “Crystal.”
About 8,000 people, nearly all Mexican Americans, live in Crystal. A branch of the historic Nueces river runs (when there is enough water) just outside the city limits. There are no unions in existence, even though the CIO tried in the 1940s and the Teamsters tried in the 1960s to organize the cannery workers.
There are no museums in Crystal City. The library is closed. There are several statues of Popeye the Sailor Man and some claims to be the Spinach Capital of the World, but the great contributions and sacrifices of working families are noted only in the minds of certain Chicanos and a handful of amateur historians like us, who care about real history.