Interview – Aurelio Montemayor, Activist, Educator, Part 1

Date of Interview: Saturday, July 17, 2017
Interviewed By: Chuy Ramriez
Posted: September 10, 2021

Aurelio Montemayor began his teaching career at the San Felipe Independent School District (since having merged with the Del Rio ISD); (search for interview of Blandina Cardenas in February 2021 edition of IberoAztlan) in the late 1960s.  In 1968, Montemayor became a county director of the VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America).  Due in large part to his activism, Val Verde County officials would successfully have the VISTA program terminated in that County. Chicana/a activists would organize one of the largest protest marches in Texas (the Del March) in the Spring 1968.  Subsequently, Montemayor would help found El Colejio Jacinto Trevino in Mercedes, Texas and Juarez-Lincoln College.  He has been associated with the Intercultural Development Research Associates (IDRA) in San Antonio since  1976.

Chuy:  Today is the April 16th, 2017.  We’re here with Aurelio Montemayor at my home in San Juan, Texas.

Aurelio:  Tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up and where you graduated high school.

Aurelio:  I    grew up in Laredo. I was actually adopted when I was six months old. I was born out of wedlock in Mexico City from a Mexican father and a Lithuanian-American mother. When I was six months old, she came down to the border in Laredo and my adoptive mother       was a social worker. So, she went to that office with me in her arms. Since my genetic mother was from Chicago, my mother said, ‘We can’t help you.” It’s during the Second World War in Texas.

She said, “But you can stay with us, the Montemayors, until you decide what to do.” Then my (biological mother) supposedly communicated with her family in Chicago and they told her, “You can come back to us but not your Mexican baby.” So, she was going to give me up for adoption, leave me actually in the orphanage in Laredo. There was an orphanage there operated by nuns. The Montemayors, my mom and dad, they had a son that was fifteen years old, decided they would keep me so they adopted me. My mother knew people locally so it moved very quickly. My adoption happened within a month. So, I was adopted, my mother disappeared and we never heard from her again. So, I grew up as Aurelio Montemayor  in Laredo. My original name was Fredrick Salvador Alcalde Soper. So, I grew up in the barrio. My mother was a social worker. My father was a bookkeeper. The neighbors saw us as middle-class although we were pretty poor but in comparison to the other people, you know, my dad was not a day laborer.

Chuy:  It’s all relative. (Laughter)

Aurelio:  It’s all relative. When I look back, my mom’s and dad’s salaries were like a secretary was getting. So, I grew up there in Laredo. I went to Catholic School, St. Joseph’s Academy. I was also an altar boy, so I was really close to the Catholic Church. We went to Guadalupe.  I graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy in 1960. I had pretty good grades but I wasn’t competitive so I didn’t come out being Valedictorian or Salutatorian but I knew I was going to go to college. I always knew that but I hadn’t made any pla’ ns. My parents didn’t have any money at the time so I started Laredo Junior College. And a buddy of mine was going to St. Edward’s University in Austin and he came back during Thanksgiving,  I don’t know, some break, and he said, “I can get you into St. Edward’s. I said, “Really?” “Yeah”. I had never heard of the college. So by January, I was starting out as a second semester freshman at St. Edward’s University in Austin, run by the Holy Cross Brothers. They used to call it “Little Notre Dame” because the people that couldn’t get into Notre Dame in southern Indiana would bounce over to St. Edward’s, a beautiful little campus.  I was in Austin and my interest was Literature. I’d grown up pretty isolated because when I was three years old, my brother had gotten killed. He was a sophomore at A&M and he played in the band, got killed in a car accident. So, I ended up being an only child and according to my parents, had saved their lives. I’d grown up extremely protected and became a bookworm. So, by the time Igot to St. Edward’s, Ihad  read every major American playwright. I had read novels, short stories and everything else. And so as soon as I  got to college, I connected with other students, you know, that liked the same things.

Chuy:   So you begin at St. Edward’s, what year?

Aurelio:  ’60. No, January of ’61 because it was second semester and I graduated in ’64. I got my degree in four years. While I was a St. Edward’s, I was still very religious, very connected to the Church and I went to the Cursillo de Cristiandad which was the kind of the Jesus movement in Chicano males. It came to us from Spain. It was still a very young retreat and I became very much involved in it. Through that retreat in the summers, I participated conducting those retreats.

Chuy:  Cursillo.  How do you spell that?

Aurelio:  c-u-r-s-i-double ll-o.   A short course in Christianity.

Chuy:   A short course in Christianity?

Aurelio:           Cursillo de Cristiandad. It came from Spain. It started in the ’40’s in Spain with some men who were doing the…you know there’s the traditional pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela… and these men were saying, “How can we    reenergize the laity, the men, and bring them closer. So, they started a very powerful  retreat that was co-led by priests and laypeople. But it also cut across class lines so you also had both working class and professional men coming together in strong brotherhood. And men who were wife beaters and children haters came out loving their wives and loving their children, radical changes. It was a major shift in personality. I was a sophomore in college and those of us who were Spanish speakers were invited to Cursillo. It was actually  held  in Round Rock. Cursillo, Monterrey had sent a whole bunch of young men from Boys’ Town in Monterrey and we got to know a lot of people. Anyway, I got involved in it and I guess because of the acceptance within it, that I was all of a sudden reconnected to all this. The Cursillo … I unconsciously  cut across class lines because I was being very much in line unknowingly becoming very elitist because, you know, I’d grown up in a neighborhood where I was the only one who read what I read. I had nobody to talk about it with when I was growing up. And my high school buddies were not interested in what I was interested in. So in College, because it opened to me, I was into Philosophy, Literature and Art. It would have separated me even more from La Raza, but through the Cursillo, there was a deep connection. Just all of a sudden, I felt that. And I ascribed it to my faith and religion and all that stuff.   When the summer before my Junior year I helped in the retreat, people from Del Rio were there. One of them was the President of the School Board of San Felipe. The other one was the Deputy Superintendent of the School Board of San Felipe. They became entranced with me. They had never met a young mexicano like me. And Tony Gutierrez, who the Deputy Superintendent dijo,

“Vente a trabajar  con nosotros.” I said,”Dejame acabar  el degree. I’m in my junior year.” Vente. Here’s your contract.”

Chuy: When you say they “had never met a mexicano like you”, I take it that you mean you were articulate in English.

Aurelio: I assume that. I think it’s because I unconsciously talked about what I’d read and what I did. They weren’t used to seeing a person who grew up in the barrio in Laredo or their barrios. Although there were a lot of people who came out of that barrio de San Felipe who became doctors, lawyers, PhD’s and all that. But there was something they saw in me distinctively different that they wanted me as a teacher. So, when I got my degree, finally, at St. Edward’s, the summer of ’64. I already had a signed contract. In fact, they were going to hire me without a degree, you know with an emergency certificate. And I had zero hours in pedagogy, in education. I was a straight English and Philosophy major, minor in theology and so I learned to teach by teaching there. And I loved it. I fell in love with it. So, September of ’64, I started teaching in Del Rio.

Chuy: What grades were you teaching?

Aurelio: All the Junior English, and one class of Freshmen. It was a small high school so I was the Junior English teacher.

Chuy: Was that Del Rio High School?

Aurelio: No, San Felipe. That’s when they were two different districts. San Felipe, I found out,  had a very interesting history because in the ’30’s, they went to court and were allowed to become an independent school district, because they were getting second-hand books and second-hand teachers and all that. They were the “Mexican School” of a large district. They succeeded in court to become separate, so they were always resource-poor but with a very powerful community spirit. And I fell in love with it when I was there. I had never experienced a city in that way. I had never experienced a town that was divided racially and when and if I made contacts with the Anglos I never understood what their shit was because I grew up knowing relatives in Mexico who were poets and artists and ves y todo eso. So I had a sense of the huge spread of culture en los mexicanos. I grew up with it, you know, my parents maintained me to be fully bilingual.

Chuy:           Let me ask you this. San Felipe, was it one hundred percent Chicano?

Aurelio:  No, it was one percent Black. It was a very interesting phenomenon. Some families that had gone to Mexico during the Civil War had come back across the border from Muzquiz and places like that had settled into the Mexican  barrio. In fact, a very well-known plumber, Ican’t remember what number they called him, his native language was Spanish. He spoke a very broken English and he was African-American who grew up in Mexico and when he was a young man came to Del Rio. And so, I never had a White student during four years as a teacher in Del Rio, not during the regular classrooms.  They were all mexicanos and a few Blacks.

Chuy:   …going through school. I am trying to recall if I ever had one, but I don’t believe I ever had a Chicano teacher. I certainly didn’t have a Chicano English teacher. So, help me understand from a teacher’s view there in Del Rio. You’re a Chicano, you’re obviously bilingual, correct? You’ve got students in English class. You’re teaching them basic English grammar, comprehension and the like. Did you use Spanish or were you permitted to use Spanish to communicate?

Aurelio:  Well, first of all. I grew up…When I was in High School, my mother had become a super secretary. She was the registrar of the   Jr. High School in Laredo and all the kids came from the surrounding barrios to that High School. Most of the administrators and most of the teachers  in Laredo were from Laredo and were mexicanos. Most. There were a few Anglo teachers. They were considered to be better in English and all that.  In Del Rio, again, the Superintendents, the Administration, most of the teachers were for San Felipe, they had grown up there and most of them went to Sul Ross College. One of the reasons why I was special was because I was one of the few who had gone to a private college. I went to St. Edward’s University. You know. The tradition, though, was that the Head of the English Department was the Senior English teacher, and they always hired an Anglo, because they thought, “She speaks English better.” So, the first Head of the Department was Ms. Bodard and the one who was there when I left.   She was bad news. Anyway, you could tell they were doing a disservice to los mexicanos by being there. Now, my attitude when I started as a teacher changed radically because  I had Juniors reading and writing at the Third Grade level. And I wanted them to read the essays I liked and the English textbook in American History and I loved American Lit. and they were just somewhere else. I think one year, the first year, I flunked sixty percent of one of my classes. . “.Ay, Mr. Montemayor, good, strong teacher.” Like I should have done that. I realized that the problem was with me, not with the students. So then, by my fourth year of teaching, I had changed radically the way that I taught. And I did use a lot of Spanish, especially for humor, had fun with the language and there was no big issue at the time. Some teachers may have used some Spanish, some might not.

Aurelio: And we had some principals and some teachers who spoke with an accent but my first principal was  Simon Ramon, a wonderful man.  He was really the kindest, most compassionate man. And in fact, my last year of teaching, Ms. Passly, who was the Head of the English Department, was really pissed off because I had changed my way of teaching radically. And she didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t like what I was doing. So, one day, Mr. Ramon,… In those days you weren’t observed or evaluated much…Mr. Ramon came in and sat in my classroom. I said, “Sure.” I was having the kids talk about culture or whatever. And then he left. No me dijo nada. What had happened was that she had told him, “Mr. Montemayor is doing some radical things in his classroom. You better watch him.” Because by then, I was having the students go out and do their service in the community. In other words, the research they were doing, they would come up as a class with a research question and go out. And one of the questions they were asking was, “Why are the Laughlin kids going to Del Rio? Laughlin Air Force Base is in the San Felipe area. And there was a yearly tratado that would let them go there so that federal money would go over there because after all, those kids didn’t want to go over here anyway and Del Rio could handle them and all that. This has been a traditional passage. So, my kids started interviewing and in fact they were escorted off base because they had gone in to interview a group of kids on base as to why those families didn’t want their kids to come to San Felipe. And then another group of fifteen or sixteen was interviewing families because their question was, “Does San Felipe have an inferiority complex?” What they were getting was the effects of racism and that’s how they were looking at it.   So, Mr. Sigala called a meeting of all my Juniors in the old auditorium. We were all there and he asked, “What’s going on?” I said, “Sir, they’re doing they’re research. Do you want to stop them from doing their academic work?” Pos acabenlo pronto!”· and he walked out. You know, I was holding up for the kids to do the research they wanted to do. So that was in a period of four years that I had gone from a really stupid, blind grammar-checking teacher to figuring how the students could do their own discovery, their own writing and stuff like that. So I was changing very much personally in terms of questioning institutions, but I still had great faith in education and Church. I was also teaching Bible class in the evening with the Catholic Church and l was finally realizing, Oblates are sending us these Spaniards over here to talk down to us. They they send their priests over here and they were in charge of the parishes and they would make fun of our Spanish and say we didn’t put up enough money,

Then I remembered when I was a kid as an altar boy, Father De Anda, who was from Madrid, was very arrogant.

I remember in the sacristy when he was vesting, he would say really slimy things about how we were    and all this other stuff. And he would give his Washington and Lincoln sermon in big feasts,     Easter.”Estoy cansado de ver a Lincoln (pennies in the offering)”. And he would pick up the penny. “Quiero ver mas de Washington (nickles).” And nobody would question him and everybody would put more money en Ia colecta. Y era pura gente pobre en Guadalupe. (Laughter) And none of that hit me until finally, I was sitting there. He invited us to supper to the Parish House and he had some Chivas Regal Scotch and a big steak. And there were some volunteers from Extension, who were like Catholic VISTAS and they worked in the barrios. And they and I were teaching the classes to the High School kids en Ia Doctrina.

Chuy: This is in Del Rio.

Aurelio:  San Felipe. It happened that the Church in San Felipe was Guadalupe like the one I had grown up in.

Chuy:      Oh, I see.

Aurelio:   And the Parish Priest was a Spaniard. Y nos dijo, “Los pobres siempre van a estar con nosotros. No se mortifiquen.”I was starting to say, “Oye, cuando va a hablar de Ia injusticia encontra del obrero?” I was starting myself…it wasn’t the Chicano Movement; it was the sense of…

Chuy:   Justice.

Aurelio:  justice. Que Ia gente pobre dejaba el dinero en Ia colecta and the Church was giving them nothing back. They just wanted more of that. That was opening up and then I got involved in the election of the first Chicano mayor in Del Rio, with all my students knocking on doors. My first political involvement. I was supporting another teacher who was running for City Council, who was on the outs with the “in” party. So, we got him elected.

Chuy:  Now let me ask you. This was in ’68?

Aurelio:  ’67-’68 school year.

Chuy:  Now, in terms of the politics, the county is Val Verde. Is that Val Verde County?

Aurelio: Um-hmm.

Aurelio Montemayor

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