Q&A with Cynthia Orozco about Mexican American Civil Rights Activist Adela Sloss-Vento

The essayist Adela Sloss-Vento (1901–1998) was a powerhouse of activism in South Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley throughout the Mexican American civil rights movement beginning in 1920 and the subsequent Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. At last presenting the full story of Sloss-Vento’s achievements, Agent of Change revives a forgotten history of a major female Latina leader. 

Cynthia E. Orozco’s Agent of Change: Adela Sloss-Vento, Mexican American Civil Rights Activist and Texas Feminist is the first comprehensive biography of a formidable civil rights activist and feminist whose grassroots organizing in Texas made her an influential voice in the fight for equal rights for Mexican Americans.

Give us the elevator pitch for your research and the resulting book.

Adela Sloss-Vento was one of the most important Latina civil rights activists of the twentieth century. Her life spanned the rise of the Mexican American civil rights movement before 1960 and the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s. She operated independently in predominantly male environments: civil rights activism; politics; and, as an essayist, public-affairs journalism. Even though she lacked a college education, lived in rural South Texas, was married with two children, and worked as a jail matron, she left an unprecedented array of writings in English and Spanish. She even wrote the presidents of the United States and Mexico offering advice. She was unique.

How did you get interested in the subject of your book?

I met Adela Sloss-Vento in 1978, when she was seventy-five and I was college sophomore conducting research on the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest and most important Latino civil rights organization in the nation. She had written a book on Alonso Perales, its founder and her co-activist. Sloss-Vento helped me by sharing her archives, which dated back to 1927. At the time, she did not mention the central role she herself had played in the Mexican American civil rights movement and even the Chicano movement. Thirty-three years later, I saw some of her writings in the Perales archive and realized how important she had been.

What lessons can activists learn from Adela Sloss-Vento’s work in grassroots organizing in Texas?

While Sloss-Vento’s efforts toward racial desegregation, women’s rights, labor justice, and immigrant rights did not result in any change in state or federal legislation, she provided a voice for all these interests during the era of Jim Crow/Juan Crow and before the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. With every op-ed, letter to the editor, or letter to an official, she made a political statement—a statement few other Mexican American women were making. Her tenacity is most impressive.

How did Sloss-Vento advance her progressive views rhetorically and how was her voice unique and impactful?

Sloss-Vento never studied government, social sciences, or literature at a university; as a public intellectual, she appealed to morality and Christianity. She believed in democracy and justice, even criticizing European fascism during World War II and calling for true pan-Americanism for Latinos and Latin America.

In what ways did some of the long-forgotten archives you consulted in your research challenge outdated scholarly trends?

There is not enough research on “organic” public intellectuals, those who never received college degrees. Before the internet, to be a public intellectual activist meant really having something valuable to say and saying it repeatedly. Sloss-Vento reminds us that sometimes we are surprised by those whom society underestimates—in this case, Mexican American women.

Cynthia E. Orozco is a professor of history and humanities at Eastern New Mexico University, Ruidoso. She is the author of No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movementand coeditor of Mexican Americans in Texas History.