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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.