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Jovita Idar: Mexican American Activist and Journalist

Premiere: 8/5/2020 | 00:11:08 |

Jovita Idar (1885-1946) helped organize the first Mexican American civil rights conference in 1911 to address racism, lynching, and dismal educational opportunities for Mexican American children.

About the Episode

Jovita Idar (1885-1946), teacher, journalist, nurse, and civil rights activist, grew up in Laredo, Texas where her family published La Crónica, a Spanish-language newspaper that exposed segregation, lynching, and other injustices endured by Mexican Texans in the early 20th century. At a time when signs announcing “No Negroes, Mexicans, or Dogs Allowed” were common in shops, restaurants, and other public places, she helped organize the First Mexicanist Congress in 1911, a convention that tackled racism and the lynching of Mexican Americans, launching the civil rights movement for Mexican American in the U.S. She helped create the League of Mexican Women, one of the first known Latina feminist organizations, and served as its first president. Encouraging women’s involvement in public policy, Idar worked for women’s rights, suffrage, quality bilingual education for Mexican American children, and an end to racism and segregation.

Interviewees: biographer Gabriela González, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and author of Redeeming La Raza: Transborder Modernity, Race, Respectability, and Rights; award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, anchor of NPR’s Latino USA and founder of the non-profit news organization Futuro Media.


She saw no conflict between being a journalist and an educator and a feminist.

She was always on the front lines of change.

1914 Laredo, Texas.

29-year-old journalist Jovita Idar worked for the Spanish language newspaper El Progreso when it published an editorial criticizing U.S. military intervention in the Mexican revolution.

And for that, the Texas governor ordered the Texas Rangers to destroy El Progreso.

They were a police force meant to protect the Anglo-Texan economic and political elites, who would shoot first and ask questions later.

But when they arrived, they found Jovita Idar standing proudly there and she was not about to let them infringe upon their First Amendment rights as a free press.

The ranger said, 'Please step aside.' And I said, 'No, I'm standing here and you cannot come in because it's against the law.'. A Mexican American Spanish-speaking bilingual, brown woman stood up to the Texas Rangers at a time when they were committing terrible crimes against people of color and specifically ethnic Mexicans.

Idar stood her ground, and the Rangers left.

But as her brother Aquilino later described, they returned early the next morning.

They had hammers and sledge hammers and they broke the press.

They wrecked everything.

Jovita Idar was born in Laredo in 1885, 40 years after Texas became a state.

This territory that becomes the U.S. Southwest was actually part of Mexico.

When you have the U.S.-Mexico war in the 1840s, which Mexico loses, and they have to give up about half of their sovereign territory to the United States territory we now know as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

So Texas, or 'Tejas,' was part of that Spanish Mexican world.

But regardless of how long Mexican American families had been in the United States, they were often seen as foreigners in their own land.

One of eight children, Idar grew up in an educated middle class family with a strong sense of social justice.

Her father was egalitarian in terms of women's rights.

He believed that women had a right to have a political voice, and he was very proud of Jovita Idar, proud of all of her knowledge, all of her education and her daring.

After attending Methodist schools, Idar became a teacher in 1903.

Ethnic Mexican children had no choice but to attend these schools that were second rate in every way.

The buildings were falling apart. They didn't have school supplies.

And the history that they were learning taught them Mexicans were the bad guys and Davy Crockett and other Anglo Americans were the good guys. Jovita Idar quickly grew frustrated with the lack of resources and support.

'Mexican children in Texas need an education.

But if they are taught the biography of Washington but not Hidalgo, the exploits of Lincoln but not Juarez, that child will be indifferent to his heritage.'. She believed that she would have better luck helping la raza - Mexican American and Mexican immigrant people - elsewhere.

And that's when she decided to join her father and her siblings and human and civil rights activism through journalism.

Idar became a reporter for the family's weekly Spanish-language newspaper, La Crónica.

She used a pseudonym in order to not be criticized for participating in what was considered to be unladylike critiques of the political culture in Texas at the time.

The focus of Jovita's reporting was racism, segregation, poverty, being bilingual, anti-Mexican hate, women, access to democratic institutions. It's like she could have been alive today.

My name is Maria Hinojosa and I'm the anchor and executive producer of Latino USA and of In the Thick.

I was the first ever Latina hired at NPR in 1985 in the newsroom.

Then I was the first Latina correspondent hired at CNN and at PBS.

Right now, I'm one of the few Latinas running a nonprofit independent newsroom in the United States.

The number of Latinas in America's newsrooms is still very small, just over 2% in newspapers, about 4% in radio and about 8% in television news.

So journalism has been one of the slowest institutions to change and diversify and have real inclusion and equity.

In early 20th century, we have essentially the creation of Jaime Crow or Juan Crow, which is the Mexican American equivalent of Jim Crow. Signs that stated 'No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed' were everywhere.

Less known is the unfortunate reality that ethnic Mexican men were also lynched. Some people were burned alive, dragged across town.

Really horrific ways of killing people and mutilating their bodies to intimidate ethnic Mexican people so that they would not vote, so that they would not complain.

In 1911, following the brutal lynching of a 14 year old boy in Thorndale, Texas, Idar and her family organized a conference that kickstarted the modern Mexican American civil rights movement.

The first Mexican Congress, El Primer Congreso Mexicanista, lasted several days.

And it was basically a human rights congress that attracted leaders from the United States and Mexico who wanted an end to the discrimination and the lynchings.

Shortly after the congress, Idar founded the League of Mexican Women and became its first president.

The organization's main causes were women's suffrage and quality education for Tejano children.

'We want our work to be significant, contributing to the formation of character and the cultivation of the minds of future generations.'. She was in favor of women's rights to vote and to participate in the economy.

One of the most significant roles that Jovita had was to invite ethnic Mexican women to participate at a time when many Mexican American and Mexican immigrant women would have found it challenging to step into a public role, to be a part of the women's liberation process.

The Mexican revolution began in 1910 and spread to Texas border regions by 1914. La Crónica ceased publication, and Idar joined a nursing unit for the revolutionary army.

La Cruz Blanca, the White Cross, founded by her best friend, Leonor Villegas de Magnon, and they're in the middle of battles trying to save men, bandaging them up, sending them back into the battlefield, all in the name of bringing democracy to Mexico.

'When the mutilated bodies of the soldiers were brought to my door, my heart jumped in volcanic upheaval. And from that moment, I felt that the fate and duties of my life had transformed.'. After her service in the White Cross, Idar returned to journalism, writing for various Spanish-language newspapers and creating her own in 1916, titled Evolución.

'I bought a press worth more than a thousand dollars and plenty of type. I can make a seven-column newspaper and we'll start soon.'. Her legacy is teaching us to be fearless.

Being a Latina journalist in the United States of America means that the way you approach journalism is going to be different and distinct from other journalists.

We actually have played a central role in the narrative of this country.

We don't get a lot of play, we're not running the big newspapers of record, but our voices and our perspectives really matter.

Jovita Idar handed over the operation of Evolución to her brother, Eduardo, when she and her husband moved to San Antonio in 1921.

There, Idar helped undocumented workers obtain naturalization papers after the border patrol was created in 1924.

She also founded a free nursery school and tutored young children. She died in 1946 at age 60.

She used her voice to encourage women to be politically involved within the American system.

To be proactive, to join organizations, to seek an education, to craft a better future for their children.

And she devoted her entire life to that project.

'Women recognize their rights, proudly raise their chin and face the struggle.

The times of humiliation have passed. Women are no longer men's servants, but they're equals, they're partners.


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