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Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics

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"Cold Anger™šis an important book about the empowerment of working-class communities through church-based social activism. Such activism is certainly not new, but the conscious merger of community organizing tactics with religious beliefs may be. The organizing approach comes from Aul Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundations (IAF) . . . The book is structured around the polifical life of Ernesto Cortes, Jr., the lead IAF organizer who has earned recognition as one of the most powerful individuals in Texas (and who has been featured on Bill Moyers' "World of Ideas") . . . Cortes fashioned a hard-ball Alinsky approach onto the natural organizing ground of church-based comunities. The experiment began in San Antonio . . . and was successful in the transformation of San Antonio politics.

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1. Moses and Paul: The World's Greatest Organizers

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Moses and Paul: The World’s Greatest Organizers

Dallas, 1986

“Anybody remember Moses?” Ernesto Cortes Jr. asks a group of farmers and farm activists from 40 states who have come to Dallas to discuss their problems and hear Cortes speak at a Farm Crisis Workers Conference.1 A few members of the audience nod and look at each other as if to say, “Who the hell is this and what have we gotten ourselves into?”

Cortes is the coordinator of a dozen or so Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizations in Texas, such as San Antonio’s COPS and the Rio Grande Valley Interfaith. Because of his 20-year community organizing career in Texas and around the nation, Cortes has become a legend among American political activists and a source on Hispanic politics for journalists from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a slew of other publications. The prestigious MacArthur Foundation gave him one of its “genius” grants and $204,000 to do with as he saw fit. Esquire identified him as one of the people who represented America “at its best.”2 Texas Business magazine called Cortes one of the most powerful people in Texas—along with Ross Perot and corporate raider extraordinaire T. Boone Pickens.3 Somehow, with all of this, you don’t expect him to be talking about Moses.

 

2. We Are Willing to Sacrifice

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We Are Willing to Sacrifice

La Meza, 1988

Five hundred miles south of Dallas is La Meza, Texas. A desolate little stop on a back road, La Meza is a Rio Grande Valley colonia, a neighborhood of 65 Hispanic families, perhaps 400 people in all. It is just outside of Mercedes, which has a population of 12,000 in the county of Hidalgo at the southern tip of Texas where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the world seems to dwindle. Even the low, wide horizon, the orange groves, and the patchwork fields of onions, cabbage, or carrots cannot stop the feeling that you are in a land that shrinks its people, forcing them inward, isolating them from their nearest neighbors, from the rest of America, and perhaps even from themselves.

La Meza is directly across the road from the Sunrise Hill Park, a public park with picnic tables, playground equipment, and a sweeping sprinkler system to keep the grass a bright winter green. But unlike the park, La Meza’s people, mostly migrant farmworkers, have no green grass. They have no water. Or sewers. Or paved streets. To drink, they must take a water jug to the Sunset Drive-In Grocery where the paved road by the park begins. At the grocery store, they pay the owner 25 cents to use an ordinary outdoor spigot to fill their water jugs. To wash their clothes or dishes or faces, they cannot afford the tap water and so they fill their barrels from pools of water in the irrigation drainage ditches that hold the runoff from nearby vegetable fields. The ditches are full of pesticides and herbicides, and the people of La Meza know that water in the ditches is bad for them, but what else can they do? Water is water. And, sometimes, life itself.

 

3. We Need Power to Protect What We Value

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We Need Power to Protect What We Value

Austin, 1988

Charles “Lefty” Morris and I spot Ernie Cortes walking ahead of us into the Texas French Bread Bakery and Deli. We are going to meet him for a late lunch. Morris is a successful attorney and former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who has recently grown disenchanted with the gritty little skirmishes of political combat and has been seeking ideas about how to change the structure of the war itself. He had heard about Cortes and wanted to know more about him.

Cortes has just come from a doctor’s appointment, where he was warned one more time to shed a few pounds. Only about 5 feet 7 inches tall, Cortes’ genetic tendency to be overweight worries his wife Oralia, but his obvious comfort with his teddy-bear body belies worry and lends a surprisingly sensual air to him. It is hard not to be drawn to his dark eyes, which compete with a bushy, graying mustache to dominate his face. Physically, he is almost oblivious of himself. His attire is conservative, but he is as mindful of his clothes as a 3-year-old. During the day, his shirttail might work its way out of his trousers, his tie might be witness to his meals, or the unnoticed string of a price tag might dangle from his sleeve. No matter—to him or to anyone else. Cortes clearly does not dress to be the center of attention. In fact, throughout his career, he has tried to deflect the spotlight from himself to the people who hold his organizations together. With each of his successes, however, that has been harder to do.

 

4. You Feel Like Your Work Is a Ministry

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You Feel Like Your Work Is a Ministry

San Antonio, 1986

I drive for almost an hour through the suburbs and shopping centers in the rolling hills of northwest San Antonio before I find Mary and Jesse Moreno’s home near the University of Texas Medical School. Jesse has worked for almost four years to remodel the white brick and frame house with bright blue shutters that sits on two acres in the tree-filled neighborhood. The house is spacious and comfortable for Mary and Jesse and their four children who range in age from 6 to 11. Wide windows bring in the pastoral scenes from the backyard where the children’s pony grazes peacefully. While the kids watch Saturday morning cartoons in the den, Mary heats coffee in her microwave and we sit at a huge pine table in the dining room, where books and newspapers are stacked alongside children’s art, school papers, and comfortable family clutter. The washing machine is humming in another room, and we hear Jesse hammering away, making repairs on the carport he recently added. Mary is telling me about her children with an enthusiasm that makes her seem younger than her 38 years. Her jet-black hair is cut stylishly short and she wears a diamond drop around her neck.

 

5. The University of COPS

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The University of COPS

San Antonio, 1986

The doors to the old elementary school on the grounds of the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish on the West Side of San Antonio are locked. Only the small red, white, and blue lapel button taped over a doorbell gives me any assurance that I am where I want to be: at the office of the neighborhood organization COPS. A hand-lettered sign lets me know I must ring the bell to gain entrance. The parish and the West Side neighborhood are so poor and devastated by urban renewal that they can no longer support the school. So the 70-year-old building is locked, boarded up, and used only for periodic sessions of an adult literacy class—and for the COPS headquarters, located on the second floor and accessible to the West Side leaders who run the organization. After my first visit, I understood the necessity of the locked doors. There are hazards in the old building and in the neighborhood. One day I lost my footing and fell on a chipped cement stairway that had no railings. Another time, a mentally retarded man exposed himself to me in the parking lot.

 

6. Anger Gives You Energy

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Anger Gives You Energy

Los Angeles, 1986

“Pastor Sinnott, please leave the room and wait in the hall!”

Edward T. Chambers, teacher, issues the command, and the Reverend Thomas Sinnott, student, follows it.

Chambers, director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, is teaching a seminar on power at Mount St. Mary’s College in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. Tom Sinnott is a Lutheran minister from New Jersey, and he is one of about 100 people from across the nation who are attending the IAF’s training program for church leaders and community activists.1

During the next 10 minutes, Chambers orders other people to leave the room as well—a youth gang social worker from East Los Angeles, a school teacher from El Paso, a lawyer from East Brooklyn, a Methodist minister from St. Louis. All obey the order. After all, Chambers is the head guy, the leader, the man in charge of the program. But the program is about power, and about how most middle-class and poor people give consent to have it taken away from them.

 

7. The First Revolution Is Internal

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The First Revolution Is Internal

Austin, 1986

I wait for Sister Christine Stephens in the coffee shop at the Ramada Inn, one block from the State Capitol building. She is about 20 minutes late for our appointment, and when she finally arrives, it is only to pause long enough to apologize for the delay of her airplane and to excuse herself for a few minutes more to make a telephone call. The call is to check with the lieutenant governor’s office about his itinerary for an upcoming tour of the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley. Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby Jr. wants officials from the state’s water agencies to see the neighborhoods where people live without adequate water and sewer systems, and Stephens is making arrangements for the trip. But at the last minute, Governor Mark White, who is facing a stiff challenge to his reelection bid, decides he wants to go along.1 And now, with the governor’s staff and press entourage, arrangements have to be made for 50 people. What started out as a simple visit by water officials has turned into a political circus, which Stephens must manage. As I watch the tall, no-nonsense, graying woman in a blue business suit, there is no doubt in my mind that she can handle it.

 

8. The Black Hand Over San Antonio

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The Black Hand Over San Antonio

San Antonio, 1966

It is two weeks before the May Democratic Primary election. University of Texas graduate student Ernesto Cortes has recruited his aunts and neighbors to join him and other college students to stuff envelopes and go door-to-door for a Mexican-American attorney, John Alaniz, who is trying to get elected to the Bexar County Commissioners’ Court, the official local government arm of the state of Texas. In San Antonio, the political heat is at the boiling point, particularly for those candidates like Alaniz who are backed by the emerging progressive coalition of Hispanics, blacks, teachers, unions, and limousine liberals who have won a few offices in the past but have never come close to seizing real power—a voting majority on any public body in the city or county. Now, with more than 100,000 of Bexar County’s 235,000 registered voters living in the coalition’s strongest voting precincts, the coalition is threatening to capture the majority vote on the five-member county commission and take over the local Democratic party organization. If Alaniz could win, he would join on the commission Albert Peña, who represents the West Side and who built a Hispanic political machine when he organized Viva Kennedy clubs in the 1960 presidential election. With Peña and Alaniz, plus the vote of the genial incumbent liberal County Judge Charles Grace, who is favored to defeat handily his election challenger, the coalition would control county government. Cortes and the young college-educated Hispanics coming of age in San Antonio and getting involved in politics for the first time are almost euphoric. Change is in the air. Particularly on the West Side, where most of the city’s Hispanic population lives.

 

9. Tactics Is the Art of Taking

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Tactics Is the Art of Taking

Chicago, 1964

Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago has pulled out all the stops to turn out a huge Democratic vote for Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in the November presidential election. He has lined up most of the city’s black organizations to cooperate in the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort. But only six weeks before the election, leaders of the black Woodlawn Organization regret acting so hastily—not because of anything Johnson or the national Democrats had done, but because their too-early presidential endorsement seems to endanger their own local political goals.

With the help of Saul Alinsky in 1960, The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) had been organized by a group of black residents and church leaders to keep the University of Chicago from expanding into their neighborhoods. After its successful effort against the university, the group decided to focus on other projects to upgrade their community, and TWO had become a force to be reckoned with in Chicago politics. This year, the city administration had committed to make certain capital improvements in TWO neighborhoods. But with the virtual lockup of the black vote for the Democrats, Mayor Daley and city officials were under very little pressure to deliver on their commitments to TWO—at least for now. What’s the hurry?

 

10. When People Act on the Gospel Values

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When People Act on the Gospel Values

Chicago, 1971

When Ernie Cortes came to the Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute in 1971, Saul Alinsky was conspicuous by his absence. Edward Chambers was fully in charge, struggling to build a program to attract and train professional organizers. When Alinsky died of a heart attack in 1972, it was Chambers who had to scramble to raise money to keep the training institute alive. Alinsky’s speaking fees had supplemented foundation grants to underwrite the program, and now without Alinsky, it was going to be difficult for the IAF to survive financially.

“The first five years I had to sell my soul to raise money. Foundations wouldn’t fund us and I had to figure out a way to make it self-sufficient,” Chambers recalls.

Everything was in a state of flux within the IAF—the money, the ties with local organizations, the concept of organizing, and the development of training programs for organizers and volunteer leaders. Then Ernie Cortes came along and dropped into the brewing stew his interest in theological concerns.

 

11. Leave Them Alone. They're Mexicans.

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Leave Them Alone. They’re Mexicans.

San Antonio, 1973

Father Edmundo Rodriguez was one of those activist priests who seemed to be everywhere.1 For him, there was no shortage of good causes—civil rights, bilingual education, police brutality, welfare rights. A Jesuit, he once in the 1960s organized an effort to get San Antonio’s charity hospital, the Robert B. Green, to set up a grievance committee for its patients. During this effort, Father Rodriguez first met Ernesto Cortes, who was serving on the hospital’s board. Now in 1973, an older and probably wiser Father Rodriguez and Ernesto Cortes were talking about developing a new kind of organization on San Antonio’s West Side, one that would be different from the dozens of community groups that had sprung to life almost overnight during the Great Society. In the mid-1960s, federal money was free-flowing for VISTA volunteers, Legal Aid programs, Model Cities citizen’s groups, community action agencies, and dozens of other ventures with window-dressing requirements for “citizen participation.” But the money bags had giant strings attached, some of which were pulled so haphazardly as to cut off the circulation for any legitimate or independent citizen action. The money also created a new class of local bureaucrats whose first loyalty in many cases was to their own livelihood rather than to their less fortunate clients. Cortes wanted none of that. Public money should support public projects—not groups of activists whose independence and integrity could be compromised with high salaries and low accountability. At the Industrial Areas Foundation, Cortes had come to believe wholeheartedly in Alinsky’s Iron Rule—never do for people what they can do for themselves.

 

12. A Theology That Does Not Stop

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A Theology That Does Not Stop

Los Angeles, 1976

Sister Maribeth Larkin has only a small role to play today at city hall when members of a new East Los Angeles community group make their presentation to the city council. All she has to do is to translate from Spanish to English the words of the local leaders who will present the concerns of the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO) to the council. But she is queasy. Fear grips her stomach, and the telephone call from Ernesto Cortes doesn’t help.

“I’m testing you out,” Cortes tells her. “We’ll see how well you do today and then decide how we can use you.” That’s all the shy and slender, clear-eyed Sister of Social Service needs to lose her breakfast, even consider calling in sick. How can she possibly stand up and talk in front of the politicians and news media in the chambers of the Los Angeles City Council? Yet, how could she even consider backing out with so many people depending on her? Once again, fear and duty—the hallmarks of her life—provoke conflict within Maribeth Larkin. As usual, duty wins the battle, but the fear remains and turns to panic when she and almost 200 UNO members arrive to see that the council chambers are already full.

 

13. We Are Not an Illusion of the Moment

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We Are Not an Illusion of the Moment

Houston, 1978

Houston, Texas, is a city true to its past.

It grew out of a land development scheme in a hot, humid, mosquito-infested marsh in 1836 when two imaginative entrepreneurs—J.K. and A.C. Allen—persuaded Texas hero Sam Houston to lend his name to the settlement in return for a few acres of free land. Sam Houston also used his influence in 1837 to help the outpost become the capital of the new Republic of Texas.1 In the next two years, the city’s population tripled from 500 to 1,500, and the Allen brothers began to make a fortune. With Sam Houston on their side, the developers boasted to their East Coast investors that their city would soon become the “great commercial emporium of Texas.”2

For the next 142 years, other imaginative developers, cotton brokers, merchants, railroaders, bankers, oil producers, shippers, and lawyers had a host of public officials on their side as well, and they made deals every bit as clever as the Allen brothers’ alliance with Sam Houston. Like the Aliens, their money-making schemes helped the city grow.

 

14. Is COPS Coming to Your Neighborhood?

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Is COPS Coming to Your Neighborhood?

New York, 1986

Texas Lieutenant Governor William P. Hobby Jr. and I share a cab to La Guardia Airport on a crisp fall afternoon. It is one of those interminable rides out of Manhattan, with the mix of high speed, quick stops, and long waits that sends most Texans in New York into orbit. But I am relatively free of anxiety because we have plenty of time before our plane departs and Hobby is calm because . . . Hobby is always calm, sometimes even maddeningly so.

We have been in New York to see the bond rating agencies about the financial condition of the State of Texas, which has not been good since the price of oil slipped from $21 to $11 a barrel. Wall Street is wary of Texas’ ability to meet its obligations, and we have been part of a delegation to reassure investment bankers and bond analysts that state officials will behave responsibly and with fiscal “prudence.” No one in the state can do a better job of reassuring Wall Street than quiet, serious—even shy—Bill Hobby, who since 1972 has stood guard against extremism in Texas government.

 

15. We Are the Only Alternative

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We Are the Only Alternative

San Antonio, 1986

“Most people have come into our communities to destroy them . . . the Klan . . . the dope dealers . . . the developers. . . . The people have looked to their ministers to defend and protect them.”1

The speaker is the Reverend Nehemiah Davis, the distinguished black pastor of the Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Fort Worth. The setting is the modern new Catholic chancery of the archdiocese of San Antonio. The audience is a group of about 60 Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and Texas community leaders from eight Texas Industrial Areas Foundation organizations who are meeting to get to know each other better and determine how they can exert statewide influence as a network. Some of them have driven 13 hours from El Paso to be at the meeting, and several of the El Paso representatives speak no English. So the low rumble of simultaneous translation from English to Spanish accompanies the dialogue, which is about power and how to solidify it locally and leverage it statewide.

 

16. There Is No Substitute for the Fire

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There Is No Substitute for the Fire

Austin, 1986

Ernie Cortes and I join Ernie’s wife Oralia and several of his Texas organizers in the bar of the Ramada Inn on the south bank of the Colorado River. The hotel is old, rather shabby, and off the beaten track for the legislators and lobbyists who flock into Austin for politics and business. So it is quiet this Friday evening. We can talk and relax. Robert Rivera, who has just become a new father, is there, along with two Catholic sisters—Pearl Ceasar and Mignonne Konecny—who are organizing in El Paso and Fort Worth. The group is awaiting the arrival of Sister Christine Stephens and other organizers from around the state who are coming to Austin for a meeting of organizers from each of the local organizations. Cortes brings them together frequently, and their meetings are both joyful reunions and serious strategy sessions. And there are reports—progress reports, book reports, research reports—even “scouting” reports for new people and new ventures. Cortes usually presides and often tells the organizers, “I’ll give you three minutes to talk if you’re good, but if you’re boring I’ll cut you off in 30 seconds.” So the meetings are punchy, packed with information, and laced with good humor. A meeting is scheduled for the next day. Tonight, the organizers are just glad to see one another, reflecting a comfortable camaraderie that has built up among them over the years.

 

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