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How an early experience with racism led one woman to become an activist and writer

Carla Eckels
Elvira Valenzuela Crocker is the author of MANA, One Dream, Many Voices: A History of the Mexican American Women’s National Association.

Elvira Valenzuela Crocker was inducted into the Fairmount College Hall of Fame at Wichita State University last month.

Elvira Valenzuela Crocker has spent decades working as a journalist and activist in Kansas and in Washington D.C. Her career includes heading up the women’s section at the Wichita Eagle and Beacon, helping to start the U.S. Department of Education and leading a national Latina organization, Mana which she wrote a book about in the 90s. In February, she was inducted into Wichita State’s Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. For this edition of In The Mix Carla Eckels sat down with Crocker to learn how it all began.

Interview Highlights

Let’s talk about, your early life living in Garden City.  I understand you were in third grade when you realized that you had a passion for writing.

Yes I did. I would stop at the library on my way home and I'd always check the section that said Hispanic or Mexican or something like that. And I always checked and there was always just a little bit of information, a few books and I thought to myself, well, you know, maybe I could become a writer and maybe I could add to that collection at the library. So that's what I did.

I was in the third grade. I won my first essay contest in the third grade. I made money at it because there was a reward. It was like a $25 savings bond. So that inspired me to, I thought maybe I could write, and I could do something good with it.

The other thing that I learned was that at the end of the school year, the teachers handed out permission slips, takes, lessons, swimming lessons and so I wanted to take them. My brother, who was just slightly younger than I, wanted to take them too. So, my parents let us sign up, and in their hearts, they knew that what was going to happen. They knew that they weren't going to let us do that, but my father, I think was the one who thought we should just check and make sure that this is the case. Right?

So, the day of the lessons, we walked over to the swimming pool and the teachers were, well, the one woman was actually matching the teachers to the students and so anyway, at the end of it, we were the only two left standing. So, I said, “Excuse me, you didn't call our names." And she said, "I had no intention of calling your names!" And I said, "Why not?" And she said, "Because you're Mexican." And I was really gutsy in the third grade. And I said, "So?" And she said, "Well, you're not allowed to swim here." And I said, "Oh." So, we walked home.

When we got home, my mother was waiting for us at the door, knowing full well what was going to happen. But by the end of the day, several people, including the woman who was the employer of one of my sisters, was a florist, and she knew the city fathers. So, she started calling them and saying, "What's going on here?" And then other people in the community, including some of my older brothers and sisters who had formed a group called the Latin American Club. And so they all went to bat for this whole thing. And by mid-summer, we were actually taking lessons in that pool.

So fortunately, that happened. And, you know, Garden City at the time had the largest free concrete municipal swimming pool in the world, that was what its fame was. And I could have really, probably taken it more personally, but I didn't, because in my house, we talked about all kinds of things to run the dinner table. And one of the things we discussed is why people behave the way they do? Why are some people racist? You know, is that a learned thing or is that something that's, you know, embedded in them? And so, the fact that we could talk about that made it much easier to analyze what was going on with you in your daily life.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.