We Won't Back Down: Severita Lara's Rise from Student Leader to Mayor

We Won't Back Down: Severita Lara's Rise from Student Leader to Mayor

We Won't Back Down: Severita Lara's Rise from Student Leader to Mayor

We Won't Back Down: Severita Lara's Rise from Student Leader to Mayor


On December 9, 1969, change was in the air. The small town of Crystal City, Texas would never be the same. After weeks of petitioning for a hearing with the Crystal City school board, students of Crystal City High and their parents descended on the superintendent's office. The students had been threatened with suspension and even physical violence. Powerful members of the community insisted they would fire the parents of students if they went in front of the school board, and still, they came. Finally, the school board removed the chairs in the gallery, and the parents and students stood until members of the school board fled to avoid the confrontation. As the students and their parents stood in front of the building, a cry rose from the crowd, "Walk out. Walk out." So began the Crystal City High student walkout. At the center of the fervor was Severita Lara. Called la cabezuda, or stubborn girl, by her mother, Lara bore the mark of a leader from an early age. She was not afraid to stand up to anyone: girls or boys, teachers or superintendents. She always followed her father's advice, "If you know it's right, do it." Jose Angel Gutierrez, the famous civil rights leader, chronicles Lara's ascent from a willful child to the mayor of Crystal City. From her father's doting support to her mother's steel-rod discipline, Gutierrez offers a detailed portrait of the early family life of the woman whose continuing struggle against segregation and discrimination began while she was still a high school student in Crystal City. He also follows her attempts as a single mother to achieve her dream of being a doctor and providing for her sons. This is the story of la cabezuda, Severita Lara, who has made an indelible imprint on American history.


The 1960s and 1970s spawned some of the most significant Hispanic civil rights and social justice activities in U.S. history. During these years, Americans gained unprecedented exposure to the plight of Spanish-speaking people in the United States, through the organizing activities of Hispanic workers, students, artists, and community activists.

Perhaps the most intellectually driven figure of the leading Mexican American—or Chicano —activist of these years was José Angel Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez, a community and political organizer from South Texas who went on to become an attorney and a prolific writer, spearheaded a new vehicle to radically alter Mexican-American political participation. It was called the Raza Unida (“United People’s”) Party. During the early 1970s, the Raza Unida Party succeeded against overwhelming odds to win key elected offices in and around Crystal City, Texas, which helped to change the face of U.S. Hispanic politics in important ways.

Gutiérrez’s political activities produced a new generation of Latino and Latina political leadership, not all of which remained active in the Raza Unida Party. Some principals in this leadership went on to become active in the nation’s major political parties, and many went on to play important roles in the U.S. Latino community’s mainstream political evolution.

Among the untold stories of this epoch in U.S. history is that of Severita Lara, a Gutiérrez protégée who became an unlikely student leader during the informing years of the Chicano

‘Chicano’ is the term that politicized Mexican Americans (especially youth) gave themselves during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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