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The CHICANOS

By Geoffrey GodsellStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 1980



San Antonio

* Chicanos (or Mexican-Americans) think they are the only Hispanics in the US. * Puerto Ricans speak Spanish too fast and eat their's's.'

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* Cubans are rich.

These are stereotypes current among Hispanics about themselves. They may be unfair or misleading. But the one about Mexican-Americans is at least understandable: They outnumber by far every other Hispanic group in the US.

According to Bureau of the Census figures for March 1978, Chicanos constituted 59.4 percent of all Hispanics in the country. In the five Southwestern states where most of them live (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California), 85.2 percent of Hispanics were Chicanos. If the 'illegals' or 'undocumenteds' were included, the proportion of Mexican-Americans would be much higher.

Henry Cisneros, a member of the San Antonio City Council and expected by some to be his city's first Chicano mayor, said Mexican-Americans are set to become a dominant political force in these five states -- all of them, be it noted, in the Sunbelt. Consequently, Mexican-Americans are already concentrated in an area to which, in a national context, both economic and political power is shifting.

This historic city, with 53 percent of its population Chicano and with the Alamo and the Roman Catholic missions reminding a visitor of its Mexican past, is a microcosm of the Mexican-American awakening. Jan Jarboe, dynamic and youthful assistant managing editor of the San Antonio Light, described her city as a laboratory for all five Southwestern states. One of the key figures in this awakening, the self-effacing but intensely committed Ernesto Cortes, said power in San Antonio was being shifted from Anglos to Chicanos, just as in Atlanta it has been shifted from white to blacks.

A saying still current is that to be born Mexican-American is to be born said. But to be driven around "El West Side," San Antonio's Chicano barrio, by Mrs. Beatrice Cortez is to see with one's own eyes that hope is springing where there was once despair. Mrs. Cortez is a handsome, friendly, but "no nonsense" woman with children still in school. She gave up her civil-service job over four years ago to enter community work, "both to learn and to teach. I hope, too, my kids will see me as a model." (Her parting injunction: "Write what you've seen and heard -- not the preconceptions you might have come with.")

There is still poverty on San Antonio's West Side. It's not the high-rise slums of Northeast cities, but lots and lots of "little bitty houses" (as Mrs. Cortez called them), often not more than cabins or shacks, each of them having its own usually tidy "little bitty" yard. But the residents have love and attachment for their neighborhood. They do not want to move out. This was symbolized by the varnished, carefully fashioned shingle hanging from one modest porch reading "The Perez Residence."

What these people want is something better right where they are. "Parents," Miss Jarboe said, "want to keep their children here, not see the children tempted to move to Dallas, Houston, or -- heaven forbid -- Los Angeles."

Something better is what the West Side is getting now, thanks to its residents' having successfully organized themselves from 1974 onward to force the city to pay attention to their needs. Since then, more and more of the West Side's roads have been paved. More and more of its creeks have been concrete-lined to divert devastating floodwaters. A successful war has been waged on Anglo-owned meatpacking plants and junkyards to come into compliance with environmental standards. City money has been used to refurbish existing schools instead of to build a proposed new administration building. Public libraries have been improved. The building of a shopping mall over water supplies has been blocked. Parks (with tennis courts and barbecue pits) have been laid out.