It was election day in Texas, and Alicia Chacón had already cast her vote.
During a primary season that garnered scant attention from many El Pasoans — the county saw one of the lowest voter turnouts in years — 83-year-old Chacón, a lifelong Democrat, was still watching closely. Ever the politician, she worried about timing.
“It was a little disappointing to me to realize that the election was on the same day as the State of the Union (address),” she said, talking on speakerphone from her home in the Ysleta neighborhood of El Paso. She worried that the March 1 primaries — not to mention the Ukraine invasion begun by “that idiot in Russia,” she said — might steal the spotlight from the president’s speech.
As midnight approached on March 1, election results spoke to the tremendous impact Chacón has had on El Paso politics: Locally, 22 female candidates won their primary races. Even before that night, women made up the majority of El Paso City Council and the state legislative delegation, and are gaining in judicial and county levels, holding roughly 40% of positions in each. There may be no better time to talk about the influence of former El Paso County Judge Alicia Chacón, a trailblazer for women and Chicanos at nearly every level of El Paso government and beyond.
“She literally had to kick down doors to let people through,” said former city Rep. Lily Limón, who counts Chacón as a close friend and a mentor.
In 1970, the 32-year-old mother of three broke her first major political barrier for El Paso, becoming the first Mexican American elected to the school board at the Ysleta Independent School District. For the next two decades, she toppled barrier after barrier in a rapid series of firsts: first woman elected to El Paso government in the role of county clerk, first Mexican American woman elected to the El Paso City Council and first woman elected El Paso County judge.
During a phone interview with El Paso Matters, the slow cadence of Chacón’s voice lent itself to an image that others have cast of her: a serious woman with an unflinching gaze, an uncanny memory for El Paso electoral maps, and a strong sense of fairness and propriety.
“She’s like white-gloves proper, like no-white-after-Labor-Day proper,” said her daughter Corrine Chacón. The family jokes about how tough it is to make her mother laugh, she said, “and she realizes it, but she’s not about to change who she is. She came to play a certain role and cracking jokes is not it.”
That role has involved being “direct and blunt and honest … about assessing challenges we faced as a community,” said former El Paso state Sen. José Rodriguez during a meeting last November at the El Paso County Commissioners Court. There, the commissioners voted to memorialize Chacón by naming the commissioners’ courtroom in her honor. A ceremony to formalize the naming of the Alicia R. Chacón Courtroom will be held on March 30 at the Enrique Moreno County Courthouse, 500 E. San Antonio.
An army of women
After nearly 15 years of voting by mail, this year even the storied politician had to request her ballot twice. Chacón blamed the new voting restrictions enacted in Texas’ most recent legislative session. It was a small fight, resolved through paperwork and with the help of her daughter, but one that Chacón remembers well.
Born in Canutillo on Nov. 11, 1938, Chacón’s political acumen came from both sides of the family. Her mother, the daughter of a Mexican revolutionary who fought as a general for Pancho Villa, was a homemaker active in the PTA. Her father, a World War II veteran and machinist, was a devoted Yellow Dog Democrat who would put her to work passing out cards during local elections.
“Hey, I was a political operative since I was a kid,” she said in a 1996 University of Texas at Arlington Tejano Voices oral history interview.
Her parents paid poll taxes in order to vote, and in 1960 — Chacón’s first chance to vote in a presidential election — she did too, waiting three hours in line to cast a ballot for John F. Kennedy Jr. She was 22 then, and already active in Democratic circles in the same manner as many El Paso women she knew: behind the scenes.
“At that time, it was mostly men that were at the head, that were the elected officials,” she said. “But there was always an army of women that helped.”
Male politicians of the time relied on women during campaigns, she said. “If it hadn’t been for them, … a lot of men would never have been elected,” she said.
Her children’s crumbling elementary school building spurred Chacón to run for a seat on the YISD school board in 1970. The steam heating tubes running through Ysleta Elementary school broke regularly and “the kids would get wet,” she recalled in the oral history interview. “My kids could have been burned but luckily they weren’t.”
Chacón campaigned door-to-door, walking Alameda Street, Ascarate and Cedar Grove while her mother watched her kids. As always, she was flanked by two or three older women. “Women were not out of their homes alone very much. Most of the things were done in couples,” she explained.
Recruiting women to her campaign often required going through a man.
“We had to persuade the men that there were going to be other women there, that there was not going to be any hanky pankies or those types of activities going on — that it was strictly for a mission, and that the mission was important.” She said their efforts had a long term impact. “I think even of generations where perhaps it was not normal or natural for (men) to accept their wives being involved,” she said.
Chacón became the first Mexican American woman elected to the YISD school board, but not even the victory itself came easy. In an election with resonance to present-day, Chacón’s 50-vote margin of victory led to an investigation of voting machine malfunctioning (despite the fact that other school board members had won by equally slim margins) and a delay in certifying her victory. Months later, and only after lawsuits were filed by the newly formed Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), Chacón finally gained her seat.
Once on the board, Chacón relied on her personal experience to set policy: when she was a student, Chacón had never been taught by a Mexican American teacher. In her two terms on the school board, Chacón fought to place Mexican Americans and women in leadership positions.
In her oral history interview, she remembered one of her first such battles with then-YISD Superintendent J.M. Hanks.
“When he brought in these recommendations — traía como cuatro gringos (he had about four gringos) and I just said, ‘You know, Dr. Hanks, do you not have a Mexican American that meets all the requirements for principals?’” she said. “And he just looks kind of dismayed, you know, like what are you talking about? And he ponders the question and he says, ‘Well, I think I do. I think I have one person’… And so we had the first Mexican American principal.”
In the years that followed, Chacón broke other barriers: She was the first woman elected as El Paso County Clerk, then the first woman in the country to serve as a regional director of the Small Business Administration, appointed by former President Jimmy Carter. At that point, she had to push a man from the seat of power — in the nicest way you can imagine.
For months, the Republican appointee, who had been told by the Carter administration that he’d been replaced, simply would not leave the Dallas office. Chacón grew tired of waiting. She flew to the Dallas office, found an empty office desk, and set about arranging her predecessor’s retirement party. “Once he has his retirement party, how can he stay?” she reasoned. The gambit worked.
With each new position, she faced new hurdles. She was told that calling out inequities was “divisive,” she said in the oral history interview. “That term has followed me my entire life.”
Critics said that deliberately hiring women and Chicanos was discriminatory. Chacón “had made it very clear that she was going to be appointing Latinos, Hispanics, Chicanos, to positions in the county and some people just didn’t like that,” former state Sen. Rodríguez said of Chacón’s legacy at the Commissioners Court November meeting. “But being Alicia Chacon, she persisted, and insisted that we open the doors to all people.”
A “magnificent effort”
In 1990, El Paso County hit a grim centennial: It had been 100 years since a Mexican American had served as county judge. Chacón decided to run. “I said, ‘This is our year. You know, it is 100 years. How much more are we going to wait?’ And so we mounted a magnificent effort,” she said in the oral history interview.
The last Anglo-American that Chacón booted from power adopted a scorched earth policy on his way out, she said in the oral history interview. After losing the election to Chacón, he burned through $24 million in reserves during his remaining months as a lame duck county judge. By the time Chacón took office, the county had just one year left in operating expenses and Chacón was forced into fiscal damage control, cutting social services and raising taxes — one of a few factors she cited for her narrow loss in the election for her second term. But even under those circumstances, she laid the groundwork to bring water to El Paso’s colonias.
After that race, Chacón retired from elected office. “Se callo un chango, sigue el circo (a monkey fell, the circus goes on),” she said in the oral history interview, recorded two years after the lost election. “That has to be our attitude, in that we have to continue.”
That’s exactly what happened, according to Limón, who said an “incredible number” of Mexican American candidates emerged thereafter. “They really felt the door was swung wide, wide open,” Limón said.
Chacón went on to serve as national chairman of MALDEF and president and CEO of United Way El Paso for seven years until her retirement. Chacón advocated for farmworker rights, bilingual education and more local issues and helped to found the Border Farmworkers Center. And she continued to nurture and mentor El Paso political leaders, including Limón, who credits Chacón as one of the main people who encouraged her to run for city council in 2012.
Chacón left the county judgeship perhaps earlier than she wanted, but nearly 30 years later it is her name that will last.
“All of the important issues in this community are dealt with in this room,” said former El Paso County District Attorney Jaime Esparza, as he urged the commissioners to vote in favor of the dedication. He called Chacón “El Paso’s Cesar Chavez.”
“And in this room, what is more important than anything is that when you vote, you vote for our community,” Esparza added. “Judge Alicia Chacón would want you to make sure that the voice of the community is always heard.”
Cover photo: Alicia Chacón sits next to then El Paso Mayor Jonathan Rogers. Standing are former city Reps. Ed Elsey, Pat Haggerty and Orlando Fonseca. (Courtesy of Chacón family and friends)