Badass Ladies of History: Jovita Idár

In the early 20th century, a teacher, a journalist, a nurse, an education reformer, and a political activist served the people of South Texas, teaching children who were shut out of public education, exposing law enforcement involvement in racial violence, organizing nurses for the Mexican Revolution, and protesting President Woodrow Wilson’s policies toward Mexico. More incredibly, these things were not accomplished by five separate activists but by one young woman: Jovita Idár.

Idár was born in Laredo, Texas in 1885, the first daughter in a family of journalists. Her father Nicasio published La Cronica, a Spanish language newspaper that covered issues such as transnational politics, school segregation and poverty in South Texas, and preserving Mexican culture. Her brothers began writing for La Cronica in their teens, while Idár sought teaching certification to put her parents’ lessons in social justice to practical use. At 17 years old, she obtained teaching certification from the Holding Institute and found a position in the tiny town of Los Ojuelos. The schoolchildren were exhausted from hours working in fields and malnourished because their families were not paid a living wage. The school building had no means of heat, no textbooks, and more students than chairs. Her pleas for funding went ignored; white education leaders in Texas refused to make a young, female Mexican American teacher or her poor Mexican American students a priority. After one demoralizing school year, Idár realized she could do more to change the living and educational conditions of the children of South Texas as a journalist than as a teacher in a rural school. She returned home to Laredo and began writing for La Cronica along with her father and brothers.

For several years, Idár focused on education and poverty, but racial violence in South Texas propelled her into political activism. In June 1911, 14-year-old Antonio Gomez was charged with attempted murder for scuffling with a white grocer who tried to remove Gomez from his store. A whisper campaign spread the notion that Gomez had stabbed the grocer, and he was taken from jail, beaten to death by a lynch mob that included several members of the Texas Rangers, and dragged through the Laredo streets. Idár covered the lynching of Antonio Gomez in La Cronica and publicized protests against the Texas Rangers’s role in his death, while her father organized the First Mexican Congress to launch a formal civil rights campaign. The strong showing of women at the Congress led Jovita to organize La Liga Feminil Mexicanista (Mexican Feminist League), which organized free bilingual literacy classes for Mexican migrant workers, developed a bilingual public school curriculum, and opened well-supplied elementary schools ““ including a new, heated building in Los Ojuelos. La Liga also actively courted poor and migrant women to serve on its advisory board despite disapproval from Orden Caballeros de Honor, an organization for Mexican American businessmen that funded the First Mexican Congress and La Liga. Rather than bow to pressure from the men’s group to limit their membership to middle class women, La Liga cut ties with Orden Caballeros de Honor and staged theatrical and musical performances to raise funds for their work.

In 1913, the San Francisco Examiner published this editorial cartoon depicting a male figure in a sombrero labeled MEXICO running fruitlessly toward "Progress" wielding a pistol and an anarchist's torch. (via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1913, the San Francisco Examiner published this editorial cartoon depicting a male figure in a sombrero labeled MEXICO running fruitlessly toward "Progress" wielding a pistol and an anarchist's torch. (via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1913, the Battle of Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande River from Idár’s hometown, drove thousands of families into South Texas. La Liga expanded its focus from education to emergency services for families fleeing the Mexican Revolution. They collected food and clothing to distribute to refugees, and in March 1913 Idár led a group of La Liga members into Nuevo Laredo to treat civilian casualties. Once in the city, the women treated all wounded ““ civilians, revolutionaries, and government soldiers alike. Their stint in the battle zone also gave the members of La Liga first hand knowledge of the U.S. government’s involvement in the revolution. The U.S. Army occupied several key cities on both sides of the border, including both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, under the guise of containing the revolution. Political cartoons from the time prove this intervention came with a heavy dose of racism and ethnic prejudice. U.S. newspapers supported the narrative of lawless, brutal Mexicans who needed white, Protestant intervention by running stories of the violent transitions of power in Mexico ““ but without disclosing how often the U.S. military provided the violence necessary to keep pro-U.S. leaders in place and U.S.-owned industries in Mexico afloat.

Idár returned to Laredo in the fall of 1913 and began writing for El Progreso, a Spanish-language newspaper that had gained notoriety for criticizing U.S. intervention in Mexico. She gave eyewitness accounts of U.S. troops in border cities, and within months her articles openly criticized President Woodrow Wilson for sending U.S. troops to interfere in the revolution. The most controversial of those articles was published in the spring of 1914. In April, a minor, non-violent confrontation developed between U.S. sailors and Mexican soldiers over a few drums of oil from the Tampico oil fields. The U.S. sailors were briefly detained and then released with a written apology from the Mexican commander. Idár’s editorial charged President Wilson with using the event, known as the Tampico Affair, as an excuse to occupy the oil fields, the city of Veracruz, and its port. Within days of publication, the staunchly pro-Wilson Texas Rangers moved to close the El Progreso print shop. Idár stood in the doorway, refusing to let them enter. The next night, they returned with sledgehammers and smashed its printing presses, linotype machine, and containers of ink. The newspaper never recovered, but Nicasio Idár’s death in the summer of 1914 provided a new opportunity for its staff. Jovita Idár became La Cronica’s editor in chief, and several former El Progreso writers joined her there. The Idár family began organizing migrant workers’ and railroad workers’ unions in 1916 in conjunction with the American Federation of Labor, and La Cronica covered workers’ rights issues extensively under Idár’s leadership.

Idár married Bartolo Juarez in 1917. They moved to San Antonio, where she operated a free bilingual school through the 1920s, volunteered as an interpreter at charity hospitals, and founded Texas’ first Democratic Party-affiliated political action group for Mexican Americans. Idár was also a constant presence in several regional newspapers, particularly in her later years when failing health forced her to give up more physically demanding forms of activism. She wrote editorials on public education and against lynching in both English and Spanish language newspapers. She also wrote for two Italian American newspapers in San Antonio, La Voce de la Pattria and La Voce Italiana, calling for immigrant communities to band together against violence when World War II propaganda led to attacks on Italian Americans. Idár died in San Antonio in 1946, shortly after she and her brothers donated their personal papers and rare copies of La Cronica and El Progreso to the University of Texas. The Jovita Idár Juarez Collection was destroyed in a fire in August 1965, obscuring her legacy. Nevertheless, documents from other members of the Idár family provide evidence of a remarkable woman dedicated to the pursuit of education and justice.

3 thoughts on “Badass Ladies of History: Jovita Idár”

  1. YES! YES! YES! Jovita Idar is one of the most incredible women to ever have existed! She’s sort of a big deal at Our Lady of the Lake University, and while no-body will admit to it, I think she’s the inspiration for the Sisters’ program to educate very poor Mexicans/Mexican-Americans and all other PoC when it was verboten to do so (classes were held in the OLLU basement!) many, many years ago.

    Brava!

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