Alonso Perales, a Mexican American civil rights activist, diplomat and intellectual, began documenting and writing about Mexican American life in the early 1900s. His words would later help shape the future.
UT history professor Emilio Zamora, who has dedicated his studies to Mexican American history in the U.S. and has studied the life and works of Perales, said he’s “arguably one of the most important civil rights leaders in the history of the U.S., particularly in the history of Mexican Americans in the U.S.”
Perales’ early years were harsh. Born in Alice on Oct. 17, 1898, he was orphaned and homeless by the age of 12. Although he was later adopted by the parents of one of his friends, Perales learned to survive, working on railroads and picking cotton.
“He would get up in the cotton, and tell the older Mexican American cotton pickers that this was not the life that they should lead, that they should aspire for something better, that this work was so exploiting, that they should think about something else,” Zamora said.
Perales graduated from high school and served in the Army during World War I, fighting in France. Later, he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a clerk for the U.S. Department of Commerce while also attending college. After earning a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from what is now George Washington University, Perales was hired by the government of Nicaragua and went on diplomatic missions throughout Latin America.
But Perales’ accomplishments went beyond his career: He was a keen observer of the Mexican American experience. Fluent in both in English and Spanish, Perales was passionate about civil rights and equality and wrote letters, speeches and essays in both languages that were published in newspapers, in addition to two books. His letters and other records are preserved at the University of Houston.
“He was also very seriously committed to using his skills to develop what he called a truly democratic civil rights organization in the Mexican American community,” Zamora said.
Perales was a primary founder in 1929 of the League of United Latin American Citizens, known today as LULAC. He testified before Congress several times on issues such as immigration and employment.
Perales died in 1960 in San Antonio.