Interview: Leo Montalvo, The first Mexican American Mayor of McAllen, Texas Part 1

Date of Interview: July 26, 2017
Interviewed By: Chuy Ramriez
Posted: August 15, 201

The First Mexican American Mayor of the City of McAllen, Texas. talks about his family immigrating to Texas  in 1952 when Montalvo was nine years old.  He spoke no English and was placed in the first grade.  Montalvo would graduate high school on schedule and attend Texas A & M University on a partial scholarship.

Chuy:  Today is July 26, 2017. We’re in McAllen, Texas, with Leo Montalvo. Leo, tell us about your family, where your family is from and about your early life.

Leo:  Both of my parents were from Cadereyta, Nuevo León, México, a small community about forty kilometers east of Monterrey. Cadereyta is now obviously a big city with a tremendous PEMEX plant. I went to school at Miguel Hidalgo Elementary for a couple of years. My father then, along with my mom and the kids, moved to Monterrey for a couple of years. He worked at Cerveceria Cuahtemoc in Monterrey. Then, all of a sudden, we’re back in Cadereyta. I started fourth grade there and shortly thereafter, I was coming to the United States with my parents in August of 1952. My youngest sister, Elida was born in Harlingen and was kind of the anchor to get across legally. My dad got an employment letter from a relative here in the Valley at the time.  And we lived in Mission from ’52 to ’55.

Chuy:  This is interesting. Let me ask you about that. So, Elida is born in 1952?

Leo:  No, Elida was born in 1949, in Harlingen.

Chuy:  In 1949, okay. And she’s the youngest?

Leo:  She’s the youngest.

Chuy:  Does that provide some nexus so the family can apply for immigration family reunification status?

Leo:  Yes. At the time, the immigration laws were not what they are today.

Chuy:  What do you mean by that?

Leo:  Well, right now, in order for a US born child to be the anchor for her parents, she’s got to be twenty-one years of age. At the time, that wasn’t the case. And, of course, back then, we didn’t have as much quote “illegal immigration” as we have now, not only from Mexico, but obviously, from Central America and other countries.

Chuy:  I suspect that back then, in the 50’s, it was also very important for the agricultural producers to have the cheap Mexican labor. So, immigration was necessary.

Leo:  It was, but my father was not a farmworker. My father was a carpenter and so that was a much better skill and then he obviously had guaranteed employment from someone who was related to us. It was an uncle of his. No, he is not going to be a ward of the state. He is going to be employed, if I have anything to do with it. And so that is how all of us managed to come across.

Chuy:  Well, it’s interesting. So under the immigration laws, the applicant for immigration would have to show that there was certainty of employment so that the immigrant would not become a ward of the State.

Leo:  That is correct. En español le decían que tenía que tener una carta de trabajo.

Chuy:  A work letter.

Leo:  Somebody who was going to employ him if he came out here.

Chuy:  I see. So, you come over to the U.S., to Mission in 1952. How old are you?

Leo:  Nine years old.

Chuy:  You’ve gone to school for a few of years in Cadereyta, right?

Leo:  Cadereyta and in Monterrey.

Chuy:  You arrive here, and you obviously have to go to school. Tell us about  elementary school, and what the experience was like.

Leo:  Well, the experience was kind of funny because here I am, at age nine, being placed in Kindergarten with 5-year-olds.

Chuy:  Why was that?

Leo:  I didn’t know any English whatsoever. I knew how to write, add, subtract, multiply, all that stuff. But no English. So, therefore, they said, “We’re going to put you in Kindergarten. It was at Roosevelt Elementary at Second Street and Francisco in Mission.

Chuy:  How old were the other kids?

Leo:  They were five years old. Five and six. Again, it was Kindergarten. I managed to spend about three months in Kinder. Then they moved me up to first grade. Another four months in first grade. Then they placed me in second.

Chuy:  And why was that? What was the reason for the advancement?

Leo:  Well, it was the learning of English, and getting along and being able to do the English. And I would tell kids, “Hey, I’ll teach you the math and you teach me the English.” (Chuckles) The entire school population, as far as students were concerned, was 100% Hispanic. As a matter of fact, I didn’t come to see an Anglo student in my school until I was in junior high in McAllen.

Chuy:  Seventh grade.

Leo:  Correct.

Chuy:  So, did you eventually get to a point where you were with your peers in terms of age?

Leo:  Yes. By the time we moved to McAllen. Again, by the end of my first year, I finished second grade. I got to third grade and at half year, they promoted me again to the fourth grade. And so, I wound up catching up with my peers.

Chuy:  By what grade was that?

Leo:  By fourth grade.

Chuy:  Let me ask you this. During this time, did your parents have anything to say about your education? Or was it left entirely to the school district to decide?

Leo:  It was left entirely to the school district. My parents’ only concern was, “Don’t get in trouble in school.” And believe me, when I did, I kept it to myself because if I told my parents, I would get a whipping at school and I would get a whipping at home.

(Laughter)

Chuy:  I think that was true for most of us.

Leo:  I think so, too.

Chuy:  How would you describe yourself as a student up to the sixth grade, if you can recall? In terms of comparing yourself to other students.

Leo:  I had a better command of math than anybody in my class. We would have  contests. We’d divide the class up in teams and then challenge each other with the teacher’s help. That’s what kept me…That’s what kept teachers from labeling me as a disabled student or not a bright student, that I could run circles around them with math. And, as a matter of fact, teachers in the elementary grades throughout, whether it was in Kinder or through the sixth grade, I was always given the task, “Hey, why don’t you teach the other ones in little groups?” The exchange was, “Well, I’ll do that, but let them teach me some English.”

Chuy:  That’s interesting. Maybe I’ll digress here, Leo. You’re describing to me an educational process, a pedagogy in which the teacher is using a kind of Montessori system, where the students are teaching students. Correct?

Leo:  That’s right.

Chuy:  So, you’re learning English from students in terms of your interaction with them and then, they’re learning math or getting math assistance from you.

Leo:  One of the things that I had trouble with, Chuy, was that back then, you know, not having the command of the English language kind of forced me to translate the English to the Spanish and the Spanish to the English to be able to understand it. Now, it’s different. I can switch gears from English to Spanish without even thinking about it, without having to process anything.

Chuy:  Well, that’s what you call Tex-Mex.

(Laughter)

Leo:  But it’s automatic.

Chuy:  It’s automatic.

Leo:  It’s not, like, well, let me think in Spanish now how this would sound in English. I don’t do that anymore.

Chuy:  So, you were translating as you learned. You were translating the language, rather, the substance that you knew already in Spanish. You were translating that to English.

Leo:  Right.

Chuy:  So essentially you had learned a lot, but you had learned it in Spanish.

Leo:  Yes.

Chuy:  By the time you move up to the junior high, middle school, seventh grade, which school was that?

Leo:  That was Lamar Junior High.

Chuy:  That’s in McAllen.

Leo:  That’s in McAllen on Tenth and Jasmine.

Chuy:  Okay, so the family had moved to McAllen by then.

Leo:  We moved to McAllen in 1955 and my first year in McAllen schools was sixth grade. And my teacher was…her maiden name was Dibrol but she got married to a nephew of another teacher there by the name of Pyle. She would assign me, again, to do the math for her because she didn’t like it. (Chuckles) Okay?

Chuy:  Okay, now you’re in seventh grade. Is it a mixed class in terms of Anglos and mexicanos?

Leo:  Yes, it was.

Chuy:  What experiences did you have there, for the first time, now, interfacing with the Anglo students?

Leo:  It was, there was always a separation. The Anglos would kind of get with their friends, whether it be on the playground or across the street at what was called The Cottage, where instead of eating in the cafeteria, you would go out there and get a hamburger or a hot dog or what have you. But in class, for the most part, the number of students was almost 50:50, fifty Hispanic and the rest Anglo. Most of the teachers were Anglo teachers.

Chuy:  But you did have some Hispanos?

Leo:  Spanish. In junior high, if I remember…

Chuy:  Spanish teacher, you’re saying?

Leo:  Yeah, Spanish teacher. In junior high, if I remember correctly, there was maybe one, last name of Vasquez. Even when I was in high school, I graduated McHi in 1962, there were probably, maybe three or four teachers that were Hispanic. Homero Peña, who taught mathematics, Frank Maldonado who was a coach, Estela Cuellar, who later became a school board member in McAllen, Spanish teacher, and Zoila Rodriguez, Spanish teacher.

Chuy:  Okay, so there’s four teachers then. So, you’re in seventh grade and you’ve told us there’s not a whole lot of integration among the students occurring. How did you feel about this new circumstance?  Did it hinder you in any way?

Leo:  No, no. One of the things that my mama used to tell me was, “Look, you need to do well in school…ta, ra, ra.” “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll take care of it.” I hardly ever took books home. I did all my work either at school, during class or in what was called back then, a study hall period. And I always made decent grades, you know, A’s and B’s.

Chuy:  So, you would consider yourself a pretty good student in Middle School.

Leo:  Oh, yes.

Chuy:  So now you’re in High School, which now would be?

Leo:  ‘59. 1959.

Chuy:  You’re in high school in ’59.

Leo:  Keep in mind that back then junior high was seventh, eighth and ninth Grade. And so, I started in ’57.  Fifty-eight, ’59, I was at Lamar. And then, sophomore year…there are some activities then that are still going on right now. In 1960, I was at the high school. That’s the year Irene Garza was found dead in the canal[1].

Chuy:  Oh. And just for the record, Irene Garza was a teacher when she was murdered and that was 1960.

Leo:  April 16, 1960, is when they found the body.

Chuy:  And right now, as we speak, the accused murderer is a former Catholic priest. He is at the county jail, awaiting trial for that crime.

Leo:  That is correct. You know, it’s amazing. I used to live on Cedar and 21st in McAllen during this time. And used to walk from Cedar and 21st down 21st all the way down to Hackberry where Navarro School is at now. Then I would go east on Hackberry until I got to 16th Street. There cut north one block and then cut again east at the corner of 15th and Ivy. That’s where Irene Garza lived.

Chuy:  Which is two blocks from your office now.

Leo:  One block from my office. And the thing is, I would see her from time to time because I would be passing through there at about seven thirty, seven thirty-five in the morning. And she’d be waiting in the car for her father to take her to teach school.

Chuy:  It’s amazing. Good recollection. Your activities in high school. What kinds of activities were you involved with during your high school years?

Leo:  Well, one of the coaches tried recruiting me for basketball but I was too short. (Chuckles) Although I was a very good dribbler, shooter and what have you. But I concentrated on the academic part. I competed in slide rule my junior and senior years. I won district competition both years. I placed 3rd in regionals competition both years.

Chuy:  Just for the record here. What is a slide rule?

Leo:  A slide rule is an instrument by which you can divide, multiply, take square roots, cube roots, do logarithms and trigonometry.

Chuy:  And that was something that when you and I were in school, it was something we used in some classes, but it was also an extracurricular competitive UIL academic activity. Right?

Leo:  That’s right.

Chuy:  The only use I had for a side rule, Leo, was to defend myself against dogs. (Laughter) But tell us about your competition in slide rule.

Leo:  Well, I got interested in it, again, because of the math. Mathematics was really my crutch for making good grades. And again, that was the avenue that allowed me to not be classified as a slow learner.

Chuy:  What was a slow learner? What were the implications of being categorized as a slow learner?

Leo:  You were not asked to participate in extra-curricular activities. People had a different attitude about you, that you are not very bright and so forth. And here, when you’re competing in slide rule, the first time you compete, you win district. I beat, for example, a guy who was a good slide rule competitor. But he was better at number sense, the shortcuts, multiplying numbers in your head and just writing the answers. A guy by the name of Mac Terry, son of the owner, back then, of Terry-Farris, in the ‘60’s. That guy went to MIT.

Chuy:  Terry-Farris was a…

Leo:  A clothing store.

Chuy:  …clothing store, for many, many years in McAllen.

Leo:  Yeah. Mac Terry won State in Number Sense. As a matter of fact, he was a year ahead of me. And so, I had several math teachers who were very encouraging. One was the late Margot Carver (?) who then helped organize the Mu Alpha Theta Club, which was an honorary math club. I became the president of that club after Mac Terry. I competed at district level and regional level in slide rule. And I was in the Spanish Honor Society as well. I was President of my Senior Class.

Chuy:  So, you are describing a person, Leo, who does not seem to be impeded, regardless of the limited language skills, does not seem to be impeded in competing and participating and trying to excel. Is that correct?

Leo:  That’s right.

Chuy:  Where did you get that motivation from?

Leo:  Well, again, I made good grades. My mom was very encouraging. My mom would be told by some of her friends, because she did not know how to read English, “Oh, I read in the paper that your son was on the Honor Roll. He won this, he won that.” My mom did not know anything about it.

Chuy:  But I take it she would have been proud.

Leo:  Oh, yes, she was. She was.

Chuy:  So now it’s time, well, before you graduate high school, was there anything that, any event in your life or your family’s life, that called you to take any action, any political action?

Leo:  Well, you may say it was political action, but I didn’t think it was political action back then. But I used to live right across a cotton gin, between 21st Street and 22nd, right across the street.

Chuy:  Now, this is a residential area.

Leo:  Residential area from Cedar north, but it was kind of like industrial from Business 83 to Cedar.

Chuy:  So, you lived right at the edge of the industrial…

Leo:  Right across the street from it. We had two cotton gins. We had Hidalgo Cotton  Gin on 21st and Cedar. And then we had McAllen Cotton Gin on 23rd and Cedar. And imagine a house with no air conditioning, your window screens, you have to keep your windows open so dirt, smoke, all that stuff went through those windows. And then the noise during the night and so forth. I, at the age of fifteen, more or less, in 1957, maybe fourteen, I circulated a petition in the neighborhood to take to the McAllen City Council so they could address the issue of the noise, the lint, the smoke, all that stuff across the street.

Chuy:  You’re fifteen years of age…

Leo:  Yes.

Chuy:  …and you are petitioning the local government, exercising your rights of grievance. Where did you get the idea in 1957, (Chuckles) to do that?

Leo:  I had heard that there was guy by the name of Martin Fuentes, nicknamed “El sartén”. Okay? Muy parecido a Jesse Treviño, same height and so forth. Same kind of complexion. And he had tried…

Chuy:  Wait. Jesse Treviño is short and he’s dark, moreno.

Leo:  Yes.

Chuy:  He’s now maybe in his mid-eighties.

Leo:  He’s ninety-one.

Chuy: He’s ninety-one.

Leo:  And if he’s not ninety-one, he will be ninety-one on December 25.

Chuy:  He will also be an interviewee for this program. Anyway, continue, Leo.

Leo:  Okay. And so, I said, “What in the world will I say?” So, I went…

Chuy:  But, but, but…why “Sartén”?

Leo:  I just heard that he had done something, but that he had not been successful.

Chuy:  Something similar to what you were now going to do?

Leo:  Yeah.

Chuy:  I see.

Leo:  And so, I said, “Let me see if I can get a lot of signatures.” I didn’t know how many signatures the guy got or what he did with them and so forth. So, it’s amazing, but then I wound up in town and there is this law office of a guy named Rafael Flores.

Chuy:  Who is still alive…

Leo:  Who is still alive.

Chuy:  …and who is married to former Bambi Cardenas[2].

Leo:  Exactly.

Chuy:  Both good friends.

Leo:  Yes. Rafael ran for Mayor. As a matter of fact, back then, he was just an attorney. He was elected City Councilman about 1960 or ’61. I went over. He had his office upstairs.

Chuy:  But this is ’57.

Leo:  ’57. Okay. I go over and said, “Hey, I am trying to do this.”

Chuy:  Did you know him personally?

Leo:  No. As a matter of fact, I talked very briefly to him, one minute, and then to his secretary. Le dije, “I need some type of paragraph que diga ‘we, the following, want this to take place.’ We want some correction to this problem of ours that we’ve got.”

Chuy:  You’re looking for someone to help you draft the form of the petition.

Leo:  Yes.

Chuy:  Something very simple.

Leo:  And it was just three sentences. Okay? And then, gave me four or five pages with lines so that people could sign their names and their addresses and so forth. And I paid him two dollars. And I was asked, “Well, who’s paying for this?”  I said, “I am.”

Chuy:  The secretary asked.

Leo: “Who’s paying for this?” “I am.”  “You’re not getting any money from anybody else?” I said, “No. How much does it cost to do three sentences?” (Laughs) “Well, it’ll cost you two dollars.” And so, I circulated the petition, over three hundred names and so forth and took it to City Hall.

Chuy:  Then what happened?

Leo:  Nada.

Leo:  Nothing happened. Well, I finished high school and I tried it again.

Chuy:  Okay. So, the first time you try it in ’57 and there is no response.

Leo:  No response.

Chuy:  Not even an acknowledgement.

Leo:  Not even an acknowledgement. Who in the hell is this fourteen, fifteen-year-old? (Laughs)

Chuy:  Yeah. So. you try again after you graduate High School? Tell us about that.

Leo:  Well, it was a little bit different. At the time, I’ve already graduated from high school. This is at the time that Manuel Gonzalez was running for City Councilman against Barney Jackson.

Chuy:  What year is it?

Leo:  I want to say probably ’66, ’68.

Chuy:  The next time you go back?

Leo:  Yeah.

Chuy:  Wow!

Leo:  Yeah, I was already out of college, teaching or whatever. And…

Chuy:  But you are no longer living there, but your parents are?

Leo:  My parents were.

Chuy:  And the cotton gins are still operating.

Leo:  Oh, yeah.

Chuy:  Okay.

Leo:  As a matter of fact, at the end of my senior year of high school, I walked across the street and there was a guy whose nickname was “Heavy” because he weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds. Ernest Shultz was “Heavy”. He was the manager of the gin. So, I went over to see him and said, “Hey, I need a job.” And he kind of looked at me and said, “Are you sure?” And I weighed about one hundred twenty-five pounds, soaking wet. I said, “Yeah, I live across the street. If I have to put up with the noise, the lint and all this BS, the least you can do is give me a job because I need to go to A&M. I have a small scholarship, but I need some extra money.” He kind of looked at me and said, “Well, come on over when it starts. It’ll be a week or so.”

Chuy:  When the season starts.

Leo:  Yeah. You know, this was during the summer. Well, in the meantime, I went to Corpus Christi to see if I could get a job in construction with a couple of friends of mine. It didn’t pan out. By the time I got back the day crew had already been hired.

Chuy:  The what?

Leo:  The day crew.

Chuy:  Oh, the day crew for the gin. I see.

Leo:  The day crew had been hired so the guy tells me, “I told you to come. Well, come in a few days. We’re going to start the night shift.” So, I wound up getting a job on the night shift, seven to seven. Seven in the evening to seven in the morning, $1.15 an hour.

Chuy:  That’s the summer before A&M.

Leo:  That’s the summer before A&M. That’s the Summer of 1962.

Chuy:  Okay. Now you’re at A&M. Why did you choose Texas A&M?

Leo:  I got a scholarship and that’s the only place that I applied.

Chuy:  Okay, but why were you attracted to Texas A&M? What had you heard or what did you know?

Leo:  Well, a friend of mine, Homer Delgado, son of Chicho Delgado, who wrote “Nochecita”.

Chuy:  What is that?

Leo:  It’s a song, a very popular song?

Chuy:  Was that…?

Leo:  Chicho Delgado was a musician, but he also had a grocery store on Date Palm and 21st and I used to work there. And so, Homer, who had been to Allen Academy for high school and then a bit at A&M, was a gung-ho Aggie.

Chuy:  What was Allen Academy, Leo?

Leo:  Allen Academy was a school in Bryan.

Chuy:  It’s a preparatory school. Okay. And so,

Leo:  So, Homer was very instrumental in prepping me up for A&M, you know. So, in high school, Miriam Sell (?) who was the principal at the time, said to me, “Today, there are some A&M recruiters coming. I suggest you go talk to them. See what they have to offer.” And so, I went during an assembly. And they invited me to go to A&M and take an examination, test, compete and I went out there and all of a sudden…There were about four or five of us who went, a couple of guys from McHi, then a couple of guys from Edinburg. A unos Herreras de Edinburg and este otro muchacho…There was a guy by the name of Pérez de McAllen, very bright. He was a high-ranking boy. He was offered a scholarship at Texas A&I and one in New Mexico. But he decided to do something else)  and then maybe go to college. And I don’t know if he ever did. But I went, I competed and then, all of a sudden, I get a notice that, “Hey, you have a $1000 scholarship. But it was a $1000 scholarship divided by four, four years, $250. $125 per semester. 125 bucks. Back then, the tuition at A&M was $50.

Chuy:  So, there was a little left over.

Leo:  So, it was $50, the other $75 to take care of books, maybe a building fee, whatever. So now, all I had to do is find money for room and board, And that’s why the gin.

Chuy:  That’s when the gin came in.

Leo:  Yeah.

Chuy:  Other Chicanos who were there during your time that are still around include the architect from Brownsville, Rudy Gómez.

Leo:  Rudy Gomez. Matter of fact, Rudy Gómez gave me a ride from A&M to Harlingen the day that Kennedy was killed.

Chuy:  The day that John Kennedy was killed?

Leo:  Yes.

Chuy:  You came home?

Leo:  We were coming home for Thanksgiving, and you know, driving through Highway 77, his car was a Beetle, Volkswagen. It didn’t have a radio. I said, “I’ve seen too many flags at half-mast, I wonder what happened?”

Chuy:  Along the way?

Leo:  Along the way, in Yoakum, in Hallsville. Then we get to Victoria. We hadn’t eaten so we stopped at about 2 o’clock at this restaurant in Victoria. There’s lots of commotion, black and white TV. “Why are so many flags at half-mast?” I asked a lady. She says, “You haven’t heard? President Kennedy just got killed.”

Chuy:  Amazing!

Leo: Yes, Sir.

Chuy:  Leo, I think this is a good place to stop. Typically, this would be enough. But it’s not.

(Laughter)

Leo Montalvo

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