When Ramiro “Ramsey” Muñiz ran for governor of Texas in 1972, he became the first candidate of Hispanic descent to run for the state’s gubernatorial seat. Despite Muñiz’s controversial legacy, his career was, for many, as inspiring as it was polarizing.
Ramsey Muñiz was born in Corpus Christi in 1942 to Rudy G. Muñiz and Hilda [née] Longoria. One of five children, the young Ramsey worked to help make ends meet for his large family, sometimes picking cotton from daybreak until evening. The future candidate was exposed to Mexican-American politics from an early age and often volunteered his time to help with the campaigns of Chicano politicians as a teenager. As a student, Muñiz excelled both in the classroom and on the football field at Corpus Christi High School, and eventually received a scholarship to attend Baylor University. He graduated in 1967 with a bachelor of science degree and went on to attend Baylor University Law School. Muñiz, who had played football for the Baylor Bears during his undergraduate years, worked as an assistant coach to support himself through law school and graduated in 1971 with a doctor of jurisprudence. The new attorney stayed local after graduation to work as an administrator for the Waco Model Cities Program, then headquartered at 1818 Columbus Avenue.
Muñiz’s college and law school years coincided with the heyday of the Chicano movement in American politics, as a growing number of Mexican Americans united to call for economic, social, and political equality. Many Chicano activists felt that neither of America’s major political parties were prepared to fight for the Mexican American cause. La Raza Unida Party (RUP) emerged in 1970 as the answer to Chicano calls for a third party that would represent the interests of Mexican Americans in Texas. Thanks to leaders such as Jose Angel Gutierrez and Mario Compean, the party’s initial success at the local level in Crystal City inspired some RUP members to establish a party presence at the state level in 1972.
After several well-known Democratic politicians turned down the RUP nomination for governor, Ramsey Muñiz emerged as the party’s most viable gubernatorial contender. Muñiz had joined the party in 1968 while still a law student. The aspiring governor selected as his running mate journalist Alma Canales who, at twenty-four years of age, did not meet the minimum age requirement for lieutenant governor. Muñiz, however, felt that as a young, college-educated activist, Canales represented the RUP’s average supporter and would help to win the vote of the party’s female members. The duo’s platform centered around bilingual education, women’s and workers’ rights, and the establishment of Mexican American political power at the local level.
The Muñiz/Canales ticket brought in 6.28 percent of the vote in the November election, most of which came from smaller Hispanic communities in South Texas. While Democratic candidate Dolph Briscoe emerged victorious over Republican Henry Grover with 48.79 percent of votes cast, the RUP was so successful in siphoning off Democratic votes that Briscoe became the first candidate to win a Texas gubernatorial election without a majority. The 1972 loss deterred neither the RUP nor Muñiz from seeking the governor’s seat for a second time. Muñiz ran again in 1974, along with several other RUP candidates seeking state and local offices. This time, the RUP attempted to recast itself not simply as a Chicano party, but one that represented the everyman. The 1974 platform proposed improvements in medical care, transportation, education, environmentalism, and urban life. Muñiz, however, was unable to gain the support of many urban Hispanic voters, and received less than 200,000 votes when election day arrived. Dolph Briscoe nabbed an easy victory as a result.
In the years immediately following the election, the party suffered from internal divisions and lack of external support. This decline was exacerbated when Muñiz was arrested in 1976 for the attempted importation of over three tons of marijuana from Mexico. The former politician fled south to Mexico, but was apprehended five months later, and received felony drug charges for which he served five years in prison. During his time in prison, the RUP continued to suffer a string of political defeats and largely faded out of the public eye. Shortly after Muñiz’s release from prison, he was again arrested in 1982 for possession of cocaine, for which he served a two-year sentence. While he found work as a legal assistant following his second release, his career was short-lived. In 1994, Muñiz received a third charge for conspiracy to distribute drugs when, during a traffic stop, police located a large supply of narcotics in his car. Muñiz pleaded not guilty, insisting that neither the car nor the drugs were his and arguing that the traffic stop was without probable cause. Many others questioned the proceedings surrounding Muñiz’s conviction, claiming that evidence pointed to a set up. In the end, the former politician was sentenced to life in prison.
To many, Muñiz was a political prisoner, unjustly accused to silence an entire party. The “Free Ramsey” movement ceaselessly fought to liberate the politician in the decades following his imprisonment, and eventually secured his “compassionate release” on December 10, 2018. The persistence of this effort testifies to the lasting impact of Muñiz and the Raza Unida in Mexican American history and on the American political landscape.