16 Chapters
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2. We Are Willing to Sacrifice

Mary Beth Rogers The University of Chicago Press ePub

2

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.

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9. Tactics Is the Art of Taking

Mary Beth Rogers The University of Chicago Press ePub

9

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?

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13. We Are Not an Illusion of the Moment

Mary Beth Rogers The University of Chicago Press ePub

13

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.

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16. There Is No Substitute for the Fire

Mary Beth Rogers The University of Chicago Press ePub

16

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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3. We Need Power to Protect What We Value

Mary Beth Rogers The University of Chicago Press ePub

3

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.

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