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.'
* 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.
Most important, perhaps, loans have become available for modernizing and improving existing homes. And where new public housing has been built, it is well laid out, running in at right angles from the roadway, in low two-story blocks with space and often trees between them. Particularly eye-catching are the dramatic murals filling the end walls of each block fronting on the roadway. They are in the style of the great Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros; and they center on Mexican and Mexican-American themes from Aztec gods and the conquistadors to Zapata and contemporary farm-workers' leader Cesar Chavez. It is a dazzling display challenging any Mexican-American tempted to believe he was born sad.
The man who started the ball rolling toward all this is Ernie Cortes. (Nobody calls him "Ernesto.") Still only in his 30s, married, with a baby daughter, and devoted to his family, he is even more matter-of-fact than Mrs. Cortez (no relative, although both were born on San Antonio's West Side). When this writer phoned from Los Angeles on a particular Friday to ask for an appointment with him in Houston, where he now has his office, he answered that it was impossible because he would be in El Paso the entire day. I then asked when was the earliest possible time convenient for him.After consulting his diary, he replied that on Saturday he would be taking classes from 9 till 3; but if I could be at his office at 4, he would be there. He was -- having come straight from his classes with his wife and daughter. (The classes he is teaching in Houston are in community organization. It was community organization that had taken him to El Paso the day before.)
At the beginning of the 1970s, after Mr. Cortes graduated from Texas A&M at College Station, he intially worked for poverty agencies but apparently concluded that they were often counterproductive in that they institutionalized poverty and bred albatrosses in the form of ponderous and often empire-building bureaucracies.
Disillusioned, he pondered alternatives and came up with a bright idea -- a very bright one, in the light of the fruit it has borne. It was that his fellow Mexican-Americans could be lifted from their sadness and poverty only by first identifying their needs and then organizing to do something about them by constructive action within the system and according to the rules. (He would be the first to concede that he was much influenced in coming to this conclusion by the teachings of the late Saul Alinsky in the 1960s.)
So in 1972, Mr. Cortes began a self-appointed, two-year task of knocking on doors -- seven thousand of them -- on San Antonio's West Side and asking people what their needs or most urgent priorities were. He kept a card index of their answers. Surprisingly, at least to an outsider, Mr. Cortes discovered that what worried most people most had nothing to do with politics or getting representation on the city council, where at-large voting had prevented Chicanos from winning a seat. Their top priority was drainage. Repeated flooding often wakened them to beds awash and snakes in their homes. Largely responsible were the unlined creeks and the spreading development of San Antonio's almost exclusively Anglo North Side, where the concrete of new highways and shopping malls sent floodwater straight down into the saucer of the West Side barrio.
The next step was the organization of COPS -- Communities Organized for Public Service. (Mrs. Carmen Badillo, the current president of COPS, said they had hesitated about "COPS" as an acronym because of its association with the police. But it was judged better than COD, the acronym for Communities Organized for Drainage.) Mr. Cortes was and is against any organization being built around a single person, be it he or anybody else. So he insisted that COPS be community based. Membership is by community; and this has meant in practice for the most part by the Roman Catholic parishes of the West Side.COPS is funded by these parishes, although Protestants contributed some of the initial money to get it going.
To prevent the organization's becoming a vehicle for the political advancement of any one individual, tenure of its presidency is limited to two years and no individual involved in it can run for political office and remain connected with it.
Consequently, leaders of COPS tend to be community members like Mrs. Badillo and Mrs. Cortez, who have started from scratch and learned as they went along. Mrs. Cortez said COPS has "given me a better education than all my years of formal schooling." Mrs. Badillo said that at first she was scared to pick up a phone to call a city official, let alone walk up City Hall steps to confront one. She and other women had been faced with threats to their lives; and the husbands of some of them had been threatened with loss of their jobs. But, she added, she had come to see you had a certain security when you were the master of each subject you tackled, when you insisted simply that the rules should apply to you, too, and when you had the community behind you.
COPS's first victory at City Hall -- over drainage -- came from its representatives presenting their case only after having fully mastered the subject. Indeed, they turned out to have more of the facts at their fingertips than had the municipal officials they were dealing with. And so it is with everything they tackle: They ensure by proper preparation against the brush-off and against having the wool pulled over their eyes.
As for timidity, Mr. Cortes had a remedy for those scared of having to stand up and make a case for the first time. At that first City Hall encounter with then Mayor Charles Becker, the lot fell to Mrs. Hector Aleman. She had admitted in advance to feeling nervous. So what did Mr. Cortes do? He had all 500 of the COPS members present rise to their feet at the same time as Mrs. Aleman and close around her in effective support.
The Chicanos of the East Los Angeles barrios have followed suit. Their COPS is called UNO, for "United Neighborhoods Organizatoin." They brought in Ernie Cortes to do the behind-the-scenes groundwork, and they were helped by the simultaneous transfer from San Antono to the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese of Bishop Juan Arzube. As in San Antonio, the organization is in some ways a federation of Catholic parishes, involving an estimated 93,000 families in East Los Angeles. The priest in one of these parishes, the Rev. Pedro Villaroya, said he saw in this a revival of the role of the Spanish missions centuries ago which gave their names to so many cities up the Californian coast. Los Angeles itself was founded in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de porciuncula.
As in San Antonio with COPS, so in Los Angeles with UNO: Protestants helped with the seed funding to start the organization going. But in Los Angeles, one Protestant church, the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the Lincoln Heights barrio, has been a community member of UNO from the start.
There, the writer talked to Miss Lydia Lopez, a member of the vestry of the church and a UNO activist. In many ways, she reminds one of Mrs. Badillo and Mrs. Cortez -- handsome, conservatively dressed, radiant chestnut-colored face with little or no makeup, impressivley self-controlled, sure of herself and matter-of-fact. Miss Lopez recalled that a survey in the barrios had shown that the main concern was high automobile insurance rates, and so UNO had decided to tackle that first.
UNO did its homework and discovered that the principal reason that insurance cost so much was that East Los Angeles was zoned together with Beverly Hills, the city's plushest area. And so, Miss Lopez said, "We were incorrectly paying for the high claims made by the Rolls-Royce and Mercedes owners over there for the least scratch to their cars. We decided to get this righted by arguing for zoning according to postal ZIP codes. There followed meetings with representatives of 14 insurance companies, all Anglo, and (she said) they have changed their zoning to our proposed system." The benefit to Chicanos in the barrios? According to Miss Lopez, a cut from 20 to 40 percent in automobile insurance rates.
More recently UNO has had meetings with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and with the so-called Commitee of 25, representing the city's Anglo establishment. UNO also did battle with the Safeway grocery chain after Mrs. Diane Tarango had initiated a complaint about the service in her local Safeway store. Initially, Miss Lopez said, the chairman of the Safeway board simply hung up when UNO telephoned him. But after a UNO campaign, Safeway is undertaking improvements in the entire East Los Angeles area, with the chairman of the board himself calling Mrs. Tarango to report progress or explain delays.
Fr. Villaroya said: "The Mexican-American is losing his sense of infiority. He has seen that he does not have to become Anglo to get anywhere. Once you get taste power, you do not surrender it."
As an outsider journeys from one Hispanic community to another in the US, he realizes that if the Mexican-American has long had a sense of inferiority, he has also had something denied other Hispanics which gives him a latent strength and an abiding consciousness of his roots. This is the umbilical cord provided by the geographical contiguity of Mexico with the US and by the knowledge that the five states where most Chicanos live were once totally or partially under the Mexican flag. They did not become part of the US until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which sealed the victory of the US in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
In New Mexico in particular, there are Mexican-American families who can trace their ancestry there back through several generations to the era that preceded the war. (Ironically, however, New Mexico is the one of the five Southwestern states with Hispanic concentrations in which Latinos are declining as a proportion of the total population. The other four are California, Arizona , Colorado, and Texas.) But whether they be of such longstanding residence or relative newcomers, Hispanics in the southwest live with reminders of the area's Mexican past in the names of cities, rivers, mountain ranges, even of streets. Often there goes with these a residue of Mexican-Spanish architecture.
Consequently, their relationship to the country under whose flag they now live is radically different from that of descendants of the great 19th-century European migration to the US. European immigrants consciously broke with their past, cut the umbilical cord to their native lands, and crossed 3,000 miles of ocean -- a symbolic divide -- to start a new life in the New world. Unlike the Chicanos, the two other major Hispanic groups, the Puerto Ricans and the Cubans, also had to cross water to get here, even if the circumstances of their arrival also differ from that of the Europeans.
In his recently published book, "Race and and Class in the Southwest," Mario Barrera of the University of California at Berkeley has written: "In the 19th century the area known now as the Southwest was incorportated into the United States through a war of conquest. With the Southwest came a population of former Mexican citizens who were granted citizenship by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. These were the original Chicanos. During the remainder of the century a social and economic structure crystallized in the Southwest in which Chicanos and other racial minorities were established in subordinate status. It is into this structure that succeeding generations of Chicanos have been fitted during the 20th century, with some modifications."
That structure persists. But Chicanos are making the first effective efforts to change it. They are increasingly conscious of the latent power that is theirs if it is harnessed and directed.
Next: The Cubans