Moises Sandoval
Moises Sandoval

Fellowship Title:

The Decolonization of a City

Moises Sandoval
January 18, 1978

Fellowship Year

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Morale is low in the barrios of this city after a euphoric four years of great successes. On March 4, a $98 million capital improvements bond issue which had been turned into a test of strength between the largely inner city Mexican American majority — now 51 percent of the city’s 756,000 inhabitants — and the largely suburban North Side Anglos, went down in defeat. The vote signaled growing Anglo restiveness with the political gains made by Mexican Americans and blacks in the past four years through a group styled on the tactics of the late Saul Alinsky and called Communities organized for Public Service (COPS). So successful has COPS become that it is the model for similar groups starting up in Los Angeles, San Jose, El Paso and Houston.

No question about it, this overgrown cow town is impaled on the horns of a struggle for power. It began in the early 1970s when the traditional landed, business and social elite was challenged by brash new developers, with the latter seizing control of City Hall. But at the same time, the long denied Mexican American inhabitants of the inner city, with a small minority of blacks, began to stir. Aided by a Justice Department order requiring the city to redistrict and by the highly effective campaigning by COPS, minorities were able to change an at-large system to one where councilmen are elected by district and in the ensuing election won six of 10 City Council posts a year ago. Only the mayor is elected at-large.

Though COPS sees all politicians — black, brown or white — as its enemies if they do not give its constituents a fair shake and though COPS’ goals are supported, according to one poll, by 70 percent of all San Antonians, the power brokers are more and more beginning to portray COPS as the enemy. This in spite of the fact that COPS does not support or run any candidates. Thus the fissures in the political landscape of this deeply divided town are more and more being described as being along ethnic demarcations. Texas Monthly headlined the struggle “the second battle of the Alamo.”

Little had been heard from San Antonio’s Mexican Americans since the real battle of the Alamo 142 years ago in one of San Antonio’s historic missions. Though this was the leading outpost of Spanish and Mexican culture in Texas when Texans gained independence in 1836, the Mexican people, in the words of one historian, were quickly overwhelmed and reduced to the status of tamale vendors along the walls of the Franciscan missions, which are one of San Antonio’s chief tourist attractions. As their number increased steadily through the years, they did manage to get a token city councilman or county commissioner elected and, of course, Congressman Henry B. Gonzales is from San Antonio. But all this occurred out of Anglo indulgence and nothing else. Anglo rule was absolute.

Today, as always, the Mexican Americans of San Antonio are mired at the bottom of the economic scale. The majority earn around $8,000 a year or less, scarcely over half the national average income for white families. Many subsist on incomes below the $5,500 poverty boundary and some receive a paltry $4,000 annually. One report says that one-third of Mexican Americans in San Antonio are either unemployed or destitute. In recent times, hunger and malnutrition rivaling in gravity the misery of the Third World have been reported in the city. Some progress has been made from the mid-Depression days when pecan workers toiled in horrible conditions to earn only $2 a week, but the gap between San Antonio’s affluent and the poor Mexican American remains a wide chasm. In that sense, San Antonio is more similar to cities in Latin America than to others in the U.S. The establishment’s policy of keeping wages down has deservedly gained this city the reputation of being a cheap labor town hostile to labor unions.

But all of a sudden five years ago a native son of San Antonio’s West Side barrio returned to organize his people and from that day forward life began to change. His name was Ernie Cortes, Jr., and he was armed with the radical fire of Saul Alinsky which the Industrial Areas Foundation of Chicago had kindled in him. Before long, the establishment began hearing from the poor people he organized. At first the incidents were small — a group of mothers asking for a stop sign at a dangerous intersection or a handful of residents asking for cleanup of unsightly trash on vacant lots. But small successes led to bigger and bigger issues. At first the reaction was astonishment and even sympathy, gradually giving way to concern and criticism and finally the name-calling and alarm of a people who realize that a cherished way of life has passed into the pages of history and the future looms clouded and uncertain. Undaunted by all this, COPS pushed forward.

In a mere four years, COPS has won $100 million in capital improvements for central city neighborhoods, helped to vote in a new plan of election districts, stopped the construction of a freeway which would have destroyed several communities, defeated a utility rate increase, scaled down a water-rate increase from 30 to 19 percent and joined environmentalists to defeat a plan which would have allowed the construction of a giant shopping mall over part of the city’s underground acquifer, its only source of water. More recently, COPS forced the city’s private Economic Development Foundation to give its leaders a voice in the selection process for new industry to be invited to relocate in the city.

These triumphs have alarmed the power brokers of San Antonio. A former major calls COPS Communists; others say they are socialists or at least against free enterprise. Developers say they are anti-growth. The denunciations have a hollow ring because the communities working under the COPS banner are mostly churches, mainly Catholic parishes and a few Protestant congregations, and other neighborhood groups. The members of these communities are conservative, job-holding, home-owning families who pay taxes, obey the law and support their churches and schools. As for being anti-growth, COPS pushed hard for the recent bond issue and for others in the past. It included outlays for the Police and Fire departments, drainage projects, streets, parks and libraries and was said to be well balanced. What COPS does oppose is suburban development at the expense of the central city’s critical priorities.

What is happening without doubt — and perhaps this is what most troubles those who found the Mexican Americans so pliable in the past — is the transformation of a people who were powerless into a community which will accept nothing short of full participation in the American way. At COPS’ fourth annual convention last November, Beatrice Gallego, the comely, dark-eyed housewife who is president of the organization, said to the 6,000 assembled delegates:

“Five years ago none of us could have dreamed that we would have had such a tremendous impact on the city of San Antonio. We know of the political impact we have had. That has been well documented through the local media as well as the state and national media. But who of us could have dreamed of the impact that COPS would have made on us and our families. Where we once felt helpless, we now feel powerful. Where we once felt uneclucated, we now know that we have as much knowledge as anyone in the city. The feeling of ‘I can’t’ is being changed into ‘We can.'”

In a recent interview, Mrs. Gallego, a soft-spoken mother of three who almost against her will came to the fore as a COPS spokesman, said: “It is dignity and self-respect that we are building here. We fight poverty, misery and injustice, but what is important to me is the people — the discipline, trust and love for our organization and for ourselves. COPS is really helping people more than solving the issues. The issues will always be there.”

Mrs. Gallego laughs as she thinks back to her first meeting with a city official as a COPS spokesman. “My presentation was in my heart and in my mind, but I wrote it down,” she recalled. “I was so nervous that I kept saying; ‘Mr. __________, sir, we are suffering with this drainage problem. Mr. __________, sir, the water is going into our homes. Mr. __________, sir, our children are having to walk through mud to cross the streets. Mr. __________ , sir…'” Now such timidity seems light years behind. Before you sits a poised and articulate leader who has successfully faced hostile local and state officials and threatened to make a national scandal of a plan to spend federal funds in violation of congressional guidelines.

It baffles the establishment how COPS could have discovered the elusive formula of how to build an organization that works. For that, indeed, is one of the amazing things about COPS. When the organization calls a meeting, it is no hard trick to get 700 persons to attend and everything goes like clockwork. Everyone is carefully briefed, the spokesmen selected, the presentations prepared. There is no confusion, digression or disruption. In one hour the business is settled, the participants debriefed and the school buses boarded and on the way home. The Anglo finds such efficiency so un-Mexican … and disquieting.

Perhaps even more threatening is the knowledge which COPS have acquired through uncommon hard work and painstaking research. They have become experts in drainage, water policy, utility rates and federal fund allocations and policies. A city councilman observed that COPS spokesmen usually know more about the subject under discussion than anyone else. It is no wonder! Every action — as COPS calls its confrontations with public officials — is not only carefully researched but rehearsed, all the way to role playing the response or reaction of the opposition. Every goal is so carefully chosen that it would be difficult to claim it is not for the benefit of the city as a whole.

In addition, each leader has crossed his or her most significant Rubicon — the fear that runs through every person. Andres Sarabia, a computer programmer at a local airbase who was the first president of COPS, said he was afraid that officials with a college education would make him look like a fool. “They are going to talk circles around me,” he would say. But an even greater fear was that triggered by threatening phone calls he got in the beginning. That forced him to come to terms with death, dealing with all the emotions and fears it conjures. With the aid of the organizer’s questions on how he would like to live so as to have no regrets on his dying day, Sarabia was able to say that he did not want to shrink away from the challenges, even at the risk of dying. Then he called upon his faith for strength. But it was never easy. “We have the mistaken impression that any public official who gets elected knows what he is doing. But when you find those who don’t, you take a risk in telling them. It is scary. I couldn’t eat before an action. I would get all nervous.”

What did more to change COPS people than anything else was to be able to see clearly what previously had been seen only darkly or not at all — that they were being ripped off! Officials whom they had held in awe had for years “re-programmed” to the suburbs bond monies earmarked for inner city projects such as critically needed storm sewers. Meanwhile, persons were drowning when heavy rains flooded low-lying barrios. Even as COPS was beginning to fasten an eagle eye on the City Council’s activities, the city voted to buy a golf course from a developer with federal Community Development Act funds which were supposed to be spent for the improvement of poor neighborhoods. (COPS action led to a veto of the purchase of federal authorities.) Developers were receiving millions of taxpayers’ money in subsidies for water main installations in subdivisions both inside and outside the city limits while central city neighborhoods had to make do with two-inch mains which made washing dishes and taking a shower activities that could not go on at the same time in one house. And the business interests who looked with condescension upon the poverty of Mexican Americans were the same people who had been careful not to invite industry which would disturb San Antonio’s prevailing low-wage scales.

Thus COPS spokesmen are angry and they do not hesitate to be loud when necessary. They know that in order to be taken seriously they have to bring hundreds of their members to public meetings, but the people are also there to learn the process and to make sure that their own leaders do not weaken and let them down. The Anglos find all this threatening. Yet, COPS people point out that the hat-in-hand approach does not work. Neither did leaving government to the sense of fair play of elected officials. If they intimidate with numbers, the powerful intimidate with money and influence, COPS leaders say. What it takes hundreds of poor people to accomplish, a developer or banker can achieve over a drink with the Water Board or Council chairman. (The chairman of the City Water Board is a developer instrumental in forging water policies which gave free water mains to developers.)

San Antonio, therefore, finds itself in the throes of more unruly democracy than it has ever seen before. Some find it an exciting, vital era and others yearn for the good old days of Mexican quiescence. The latter feel that, somehow, COPS has to be stopped — that upstart Mexican Americans have to be taught the lesson that the Anglos still have the balance of power. That seems to have been the rationale leading to the defeat of the recent bond issue. Mayor Lila Cockrell, normally considered favorable to the development of the central city, suddenly decided to oppose the bonds as the voting neared. Predominantly Anglo districts turned out heavily against the issue. Yet, given the confidence, stature and sophistication which COPS has brought to the poor of San Antonio, it seems inconceivable that one major defeat or even a whole skein will turn back the clock. After all, the Mexican Americans need only get their people to the polls to exercise their prerogatives as the majority. At present no more than 30 to 40 percent of the total turnout at an election is Mexican American.

A danger in a struggle of this kind is that human relations between opposing camps will polarize. A brick manufacturer, engaged in conversation in the City Council office as he waited for an appointment, expressed the view that this is already happening. Though the Anglo has never viewed the Mexican American as an equal, relations have been characterized by easy-going tolerance. Yet, the tensions now palpable in San Antonio bring into sharp relief the vast distance which must be bridged. Sarabia said in an interview recently:

“In their mentality, which hasn’t changed, we are not United States citizens. We are Mexicans. They treat us that way in their minds. They even deal with us that way on a one-to-one basis. They think all we like to do is go out and dance and get drunk and on Saturday nights kill each other and beat our wives.” If that is so, attitudes have not changed very much from 1970 when then mayor W. W. McAllister described Mexican Americans this way on NBC-TV:

“Our citizens of Mexican descent are very fine people. They’re very fine people. They are home loving — they love beauty, they love flowers, they love music, they love dancing. Perhaps they’re not quite, let’s say . . . as ambitiously motivated as Anglos to get ahead financially, but they get a lot out of life.” Such gratuitous remarks earned the mayor a month of picketing by angry Mexican Americans.

If San Antonians are not exactly sporting happy countenances, the faces of formerly dying neighborhoods are certainly showing new signs of life. Thanks to COPS, streets are being repaved, sewers built, parks created, water lines replaced. But more encouraging, the institutions of the barrios are becoming stronger. Father Al Benavides, COPS most dynamic spokesman, said attendance at his parish church has more than doubled. Parish organizations, benefiting from COPS’ leadership training, are stronger than ever. Among youth he finds interest and commitment rather than the apathy and religious alienation so prevalent nowadays.

It is too early to tell whether the events of the last few years in San Antonio are harbingers of things to come in Los Angeles, Houston, San Jose or any other city where COPS-type groups organize. However, in Los Angeles, United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO), as the group is called there, has already begun shaking up the barrio as never before and improving the lives of Mexican American residents, reported the Los Angeles Times. One of UNO’s goals is to reduce auto insurance costs for drivers in East Los Angeles, the West Coast’s largest Mexican American barrio. One insurance company has already adopted changes recommended by UNO and others have been ordered by state officials to research the effect of proposed revisions.

Interestingly enough, an institution started in San Antonio figured in the spread of the COPS idea to Los Angeles. It is the Mexican American Cultural Center, established to train Catholic and other clergy in ministry to the Hispanic people. Thousands have taken courses or attended conferences at the Center, located on the grounds of Assumption Seminary of the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Hispanic bishops also come there for meetings. One of these visitors, Bishop Juan Arzube of the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese, attended one of the COPS meetings and was impressed enough to start the groundwork there immediately upon returning home. What sold Bishop Arzube as it has many others is that COPS members are not the radical militant types of the 1960s but their antithesis — older, more settled, less volatile people who are the backbone of every community.

San Antonio does seem like an unlikely place for a revolution to begin — its hallowed historic role in the birth of Texas notwithstanding. While the barrios of Los Angeles, Denver, San Diego and other cities flamed and seethed with Chicano militancy in the late 1960s and 1970s, the somnolent calm of San Antonio remained unruffled. It’s true that firebrands like Jose Angel Gutierrez, now a judge in Zavala County not far from San Antonio, and Mario Compean, the current Raza Unida gubernatorial candidate, founded the Raza Unida Party and the Mexican American Youth Organization in these environs. But if they made trouble, they stirred it up elsewhere. The closest that San Antonio came to street melees was the picketing of the mayor’s office.

No, what San Antonio had to offer were leaders and these had more than music and dancing on their minds. A fearless and articulate former migrant worker was consecrated auxiliary bishop of San Antonio in the spring of 1970: Patricio Flores. At the same time, intellectually gifted and aggressive young priests like Edmundo Rodriquez and Al Benavides were just beginning to cut their clerical teeth on the massive challenges of the inner city. And though there were those who felt that Alinsky-style community organizing had seen its day, the ground was rich and fertile in San Antonio.

Something which has been part of San Antonio for much of its history enhanced the chances for success. From its earliest days, San Antonio needed a strong military presence to remain viable. Throughout colonial times, the inhabitants depended on Spanish troops to protect them from hostile Indians. Until 1866, the settlement remained largely a military garrison. And although San Antonio became the center of the largest calf-producing area in North America (300,000 head of cattle sold in its stockyards in 1974), the city still depends heavily on the military for its livelihood. There are four air bases — Kelly, Brooks, Lackland and Randolph — as well as Fifth Army headquarters. Secure jobs in the federal payroll provided some of the COPS leadership with immunity from economic intimidation.

Still, the task before Ernie Cortes was not an easy one as he began knocking on doors on the West Side in 1973. The people had seen too many fast-talking activists with grandiose ideas which did not work. What’s more, Cortes was not merely looking for acceptance but for money to launch his organization. Understandably, there was not much enthusiasm. But Cortes was no ordinary organizer.

A short, bulky man in his early 30s who had done graduate work in economics at the University of Texas, Cortes had gained political savvy while serving on the Bexar County Hospital Board and administrative experience working as assistant director of the Mexican American Unity Council. He had helped to organize farm workers in the Rio Grande Valley and led voter registration drives for blacks and Mexican Americans in various parts of the state. While such experience no doubt helped, the key was Cortes’ enormous persistence and his keen insight into the communications and influence networks in the barrio. Astutely, he realized that the only viable neighborhood institution was the church and he set out to court its leaders — lay and clerical.

The person who helped Cortes the most is a bear of a man with a gentle genius for organization — Father Edmundo Rodriguez, a Jesuit in his 30s who was and is pastor of Guadalupe parish on the West Side. His wide participation in interfaith and Catholic activities had earned him well deserved respect and credibility. Though it was not easy, he succeeded in getting financial commitments from the Episcopal, Methodist and Catholic churches and from the Church of Christ. These denominations together contributed $90,000 for the first two years of COPS’ operation, $55,000 of the total coming from the Catholic Church. A temporary organizing committee was then established and Cortes was hired as organizer for $16,000 a year. In time, the Catholic Church became the almost exclusive source of funds, both because most of the COPS members are Catholic parishes and because it was less vulnerable to pressures from opponents to COPS.

Beginning in January, 1974, Cortes went from parish to parish seeking out leaders and forming the independent groups to be incorporated later in the COPS federation. He was not interested in politicians but in persons who do the yeoman work in running parish activities or organizations, PTAs and unions. He also sought out persons who headed other formal or informal networks of the barrio, whether active in churches or not. He was looking, he said, for the “natural” leaders of the community.

Some were reluctant, feeling over committed already. Such was the case with Beatrice Gallego, whom Cortes telephoned 17 times before she agreed to talk with him. Some adopted a “wait and see” attitude as Father Al Benavides, the pastor of St. Timothy parish, who did not join until he saw that COPS indeed was different from past failures.

When the individual units were established, the federation’s structure was set up with an executive committee and a steering committee made up of the leadership of the neighborhood groups. That occurred in the fall of 1974 after COPS’ first big triumph at City Hall. Since 1945, the Mayberry storm sewer had been on the city’s plan but no move had been made to construct it. Failure to do so had cost many lives because San Antonio’s inner city is a bowl and every time it rained heavily many barrio homes were flooded. In contrast, North Side suburban projects were usually built two years after they were put on the plan. After another destructive rain in August, 1974, angry COPS members stormed into City Hall and the councilmen, astonished that the project had been dormant for nearly 30 years, voted to submit a $46 million bond issue to the electorate. The sewer is now nearing completion.

Success led to success and this in turn brought new locals or groups into the organization. (Individuals cannot join.) At COPS’ first annual convention there were 2,000 delegates; last November for the fourth annual meeting there were 6,000. In the interim, COPS has become self-supporting. Large parishes pay as much as $2,000 a year in dues and smaller groups pay less. There are now 38 locals in the organization. Self-sufficiency was achieved this year by selling $47,000 in ads for a booklet distributed at the convention. With typical audacity, COPS asked public officials, businessmen and developers with whom it had locked horns, to buy ads. Many did.

In the past few months, COPS has entered an arena in which critics said it has no business: economic development. COPS retorts that low-paying jobs are at the heart of its concerns and that the kind of industry recruited to relocate in San Antonio has much to do with whether San Antonio continues to be a cheap labor town. COPS charges that for too long San Antonians have suffered from low pay and that unimaginative industrial development forces young people who get an education to move away to Houston, Dallas or the West Coast to get jobs.

The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, a private group whose members are the industrial, banking and business leaders of the city, set for itself the goal of bringing new industry. It hired The Fantus Co. of New York to prepare a confidential economic development program which showed, among other things, that San Antonio, the tenth largest city in the nation, has been lagging badly behind Houston and Dallas in acquiring new industry. The Fantus report said that while 200 new plants have located in Houston in the past 2 _ years and 69 in Dallas, only 16 have come to San Antonio.

Though the Economic Development Foundation would not make a copy of its report available to COPS, it somehow managed to get one and there on page 50 was the issue it was looking for. “All of our lives,” said Mrs. Gallego at COPS’ annual meeting, “we have suspected that the men in power kept high-paying industry out of San Antonio. But we were never able to prove it.” Now COPS felt it had that proof. The Fantus firm recommended:

“When soliciting additional industries, therefore, development personnel must be careful not to attract industries that would upset the existing wage ladder beyond the point where it can successfully react to, and consequently absorb, newcomers. Should recruitment of new payrolls fail to consider the economic well being of existing industries, inflationary wage-cost pressures may be exacted on the prevailing wage structure. This would tend to dissipate the comparative and competitive advantages enjoyed by existing manufacturers.”

The “competitive advantage” of low pay is indeed significant in San Antonio. In a listing of 16 jobs ranging from accountant to custodian and the wages paid in 10 major Texas cities, San Antonio placed last on 14 of the 16. The Fantus report revealed that hourly manufacturing wages in San Antonio were 56 cents lower than in Dallas, $1.13 lower than in Fort Worth, $1.66 lower than in Houston and $1.33 lower than in Corpus Christi.

Reacting to a Newsweek report that the average family of four needs $16,236 just to maintain a moderate standard of living, COPS demanded that the public and private sectors join it in recruiting industry which within five years would make it its goal to pay $15,000 annual salaries.

The Foundation refused to meet with COPS but at one point Robert McDermott, its board chairman, did go to a COPS meeting with Foundation President Ralph Thomas. When they arrived at the church hall, said a local journalist, they saw all these school buses parked outside and Thomas hesitated, but McDermott urged him on. They found 400 COPS members waiting and, as TV cameras ground away, McDermott was ambushed with such a barrage of questions that the encounter did not go well. “His ego was bruised,” said a local editor.

As a consequence, accusations went back and forth for weeks, with the Foundation leaders claiming that COPS was out of its element, knew nothing about economics and had created a climate that made the Allen-Bradley Co. of Milwaukee and at least one other unnamed company change their minds about coming to San Antonio. Whether this was fact could not be definitively confirmed.

Nevertheless, Foundation officials had a tough time explaining away the controversial Fantus caution not to invite industry which would disturb the low wages in effect for existing firms. And although McDermott said over and over that the goal was to get more jobs and higher pay, it was clear at the same time that at least some of the members of the Foundation were less than top-paying operations. A case in point was Data-Point, a non-union plant which had wage scales ranging from $3 to $5 an hour, according to union officials, while the Allen-Bradley Co. was paying between $5.40 and $8.56 an hour for comparable manufacturing work.

Spurred by front page editorials urging an end to such internecine conflict, Foundation leaders finally agreed to meet with COPS but stipulated that it be in private and include only the leaders of both groups. In the ensuing discussion, the Foundation agreed to bring a representative of the Fantus Co. to explain the controversial report (at its own expense), to discuss the COPS demand for recruitment of high-paying industry and to meet bi-monthly with COPS to discuss progress. The two also agreed to join together with labor unions in training skilled workers for higher paying jobs and to meet with the airlines to discuss improvement of passenger service, an important factor in industrial development.

That seemed to quiet things down on the economic front, but the rejection of the bond issue sets the stage for what promises to be a very interesting election in 1979. The big question is whether Lila Cockrell’s active role in defeating the bond issue will prove to be a pyrrhic victory if she seeks re-election. Before this latest development, Councilman Henry Sisneros, a 30-year-old Harvard-educated former White House Fellow now a college teacher, was mentioned as having a good chance to become the city’s first Mexican-American mayor in the coming election. But some added an if — if he does not get caught in an ethnic maelstrom. Sisneros, who is handsome, bright and articulate, came into office under the aegis of the now defunct Good Government League, representing the old establishment routed by the developers and their Alliance for a Better City and, in turn, decimated in the last election. So, given ethnic tranquility, he could have wide support. But at this point there is no telling what will happen a year hence.

The only certainty is that a way of life is ending and, hopefully, a more vital, democratic process beginning. What is happening, in the view of a political reporter, is the decolonization of a city. And what the Mexican American wants was perhaps best expressed by Bishop Patricio Flores at COPS’ first annual convention:

“You are here today,” the bishop told the delegates, “not as supplicants with downcast eyes, not as welfare recipients, not as beggars. You are here as equals, as responsible law-abiding, tax-paying people. You are a people who with your sweat have helped shape this country, this state and particularly this city. You seek no special favor. You seek a just share of your tax monies to have a decent community. You have a right to equal and just consideration.

©1978 Moises Sandoval

Moises Sandoval is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner on leave from Maryknoll Magazine. His fellowship subject is latinization in the U.S.: a study of the Hispanic population explosion and its implications for the nation’s foreign and domestic policies. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Sandoval as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation and to Maryknoll Magazine. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily those of the Foundation.