Interview: Leo Montalvo, The First Mexican American Mayor of McAllen, Texas Part 2

Date of Interview: September 14, 2017
Interviewed By: Chuy Ramriez
Posted: August 15, 201

After teaching mathematics in the public schools, Montalvo would serve as intern with a Ford Foundation program and became an activist in the early 1970s.  He was a Spanish columnist at Ya Mero, the United Farmworkers Union newspaper published in McAllen, Texas and would run for Treasurer of Hidalgo County, Texas in 1972 as a third Party Raza Unida Party candidate.  He would serve two terms as Mayor of McAllen.

Chuy:  We are in Leo Montalvo’s office in McAllen, Texas. Today is Thursday, September 14, 2017.

Leo, after you graduated from Texas A&M, you came back to South Texas. Were you married by then?

Leo:  I was married and had two kids.

Chuy:  How old were you by the time you graduated?

Leo:  When I graduated from A&M? Well, I graduated in ’66, so I was twenty-three years old.

Chuy:  Okay. So, you come back to the Valley, and you spend some time in the public school system teaching math. Where was that?

Leo:  I started at Edinburg High School teaching mathematics. Related Math, if you want to call it mathematics. Beginners’ math.

Chuy:  There’s nothing wrong with that, Leo.

(Laughter)

Leo:  A lot of people say that. And I also taught mechanical drawing and coached slide rule.

Chuy:  So, you did the public school work for how many years?

Leo:  Well, I was in Edinburg for a year and a half. I started my second year, actually, a about a month before Hurricane Beulah hit in ’67. Then from there, I went to work at Mission Junior High, teaching math again. So, in 1968-69, I got a fellowship grant from the Ford Foundation to do an internship with whomever I wanted or set up a plan. And so, I started off más o menos in 1969 in MALDEF in San Antonio.

Chuy:  Let me just interrupt you. How did you find out about the Ford Foundation fellowship?

Leo:  Well, as my principal back then, my compadre, Oscar Valadez, and my fifth-grade teacher, he’s the one who gave me a notice that they were looking for applicants from the Southwest. And he said, “You might want to look at this.”

Chuy:  What was the Ford Foundation specifically interested in, in terms of their applicants?

Leo:  They were looking at the minority students or minority people to take leadership roles in the community. So, they had…The leadership development program was run by a guy named David Grant in Albuquerque. And David was half Indian and half Anglo.                                                                                                                When I applied, he came down to McAllen and talked to me and says, “Look, we’re going to fly you in to Santa Fe for a one-on-one interview with the board.” And the board was made up of not only David, but some other people, leaders within the community, both from New Mexico and Colorado. As a matter of fact, David had a chief from an Indian tribe on the board.

Chuy:  In your submittal what did you propose to do?

Leo:  One was to find out what was going on politically: how the system worked, how can you get involved in the community on issues affecting the city, affecting the county and just, you know, be a little hell-raiser, you might say. Question the establishment.

Chuy:  Okay. And so, you got it.

Leo:  I was one of the twenty that got selected. They paid the entire salary for a year. Then they gave me travel expenses; mileage, hotel, rental. Then they said, “Okay, where is it that you want to start?” So, I wound up starting with the Mexican-American Legal Defense in San Antonio at the time that Pete Tijerina, the late Pete Tijerina who later became district judge and Mario Robledo.

Chuy:  Obledo

Leo:  Robledo

Chuy:  No, Obledo.

Leo:  Mario Obledo.

Chuy:  Let me ask you. So did your teacher or your principal believe that you had any particular motivation that you should apply for this…

Leo:  Not really. Not really. He just wanted to get rid of me from the junior high because I was a hell-raiser there.

Chuy:  Oh, okay.

Leo:  I was questioning the school system’s expenditures as they related to migrant programs. Migrant monies were being used to off-set other expenses of the school district that had no relation to migrant education.

Chuy:  I see. So, they were using special migrant monies for the regular classroom instruction and that was a violation of the regulation.

Leo:  Exactly.

Chuy:  So they wanted you out?

 

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Leo:  Um-Hmm.

Chuy:  But I suppose because he saw this as maybe where you might fit in.

Leo:  Ah, probably, but I thought that might be secondary.

Chuy:  Okay. But, in any case, you outline a one-year program and you begin with MALDEF. Let’s quickly go through all the places on the itinerary for that program and then you can come back to that specifically.

Leo:  Okay. After I spent three months at MALDEF, primarily looking at complaints that people had in various communities. I’d go out there, interview people and report back to Mario Obledo and a couple of attorneys that were there.

Chuy:  The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund was also a Ford Foundation grantee at the time.

Leo:  Yes, it was.

Chuy:  And they had been in existence for how long? Do you recall?

Leo:  A couple of years, not that long. As a matter of fact, they had about maybe two or three attorneys on staff. One of them was a guy, last name was Lopez, Ellen Axelrod and Mike Mendelson. And of course, Pete Tijerina and Mario Obledo were the top two as far as running the organization. And they were filing mostly federal suits pertaining to discrimination in the school system, employment and what have you.

Chuy:  Okay. So, you spent three months there. Then where did you go after that?

Leo:   After that, I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico where I did an internship with HELP, Home Education Livelihood Program, that was being run by Alex Mercuri, at the time. The same thing: we went out and looked at various communities, primarily north of Santa Fe, Peñasco, Taos, Mora, little communities that…

Chuy:  And what was Mercuri doing at the time?

Leo:  He was the director of health.

Chuy:  But what was he doing in those communities?

Leo:  Housing programs, employment, whatever minority groups at the lower echelon needed. They were looking at programs, economic development as well.

Chuy:  Just to put it in perspective, Leo. At that time also, you’re seeing the remains of the Office of Economic Opportunity programs that were all focused to some extent or another in community development. Correct?

 

Leo Montalvo Tape 2

Leo:  Yes. OEO.

Chuy:  What Alex was doing over in New Mexico and so forth, was in some way, a result of those kinds of federal programs instigating activities.

Leo:  Exactly.

Chuy:  Okay. And after that, where did you go?

Leo:  I went to California, San Jose, with a community based organization there.

Chuy:  Okay, and again, we’re talking about what year?

Leo:  1970

Chuy:  Okay. And who are some of the players in San Jose?

Leo:  There was a…I don’t recall the director’s name but I know there was a lawyer from Texas out there. Actually, he was not being a lawyer because he had been disbarred in Texas.

Chuy:  I see. Chicano?

Leo:  Chicano. And, again, it was like community involvement, get people elected to public office. In San Jose, they met with the mayor and some of his staff as to how to improve, again, community relations with the people and, also, again, creation of economic development jobs and so forth.

Chuy:   So you have some grass-roots community organizing, pressuring the politicians for the benefit of the neighborhood, that kind of activity.

Leo:  That’s right.

Chuy:  And what did you do there, learn?

Leo:  Learned and visited some of the OEO programs. One in Hollister, California, Gilroy. Wound up going to Sanger, California, Parlier. Again, finding out what’s happening in those communities, what can you learn to bring back to my hometown de McAllen.

Chuy:  Okay and where did you end up finally?

Leo:  With the Cabinet Committee on Spanish Speaking in Washington D.C., Martin Castillo was head of that agency at the time. It was about four or five blocks from the White House.

Chuy:  Now you’ve got a Republican Administration in Washington. So, what is the Cabinet Committee on Spanish Speaking?

 

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Leo:  The Cabinet Committee on Spanish Speaking was supposedly trying to create opportunities for Hispanics and so forth. I didn’t see that much activity because most of the guys heading that agency, again, were Republicans and they were from California. I suspect because of Nixon. Nixon was from California. (Laughter)

Chuy:  Well, sure. So, is that where you ended up the year?

Leo:  I ended that year early because I found a job in San Antonio, and I cut my stay short by about maybe thirty days in D. C.

Chuy:  So now when you’re finishing your tour there with the Ford Foundation, you’re now in San Antonio. What month and year was that?

Leo:  It was mid-July 1970.

Chuy:  Okay. By mid-July of 1970, in South Texas, things have already started happening. You know, in November of ’68, there was a walk-out in Edcouch-Elsa.

Leo:  Right. I’m familiar with that one.

Chuy:  And then, in February of…

Leo:  ’70.

Chuy:  Well, actually, I moved to ’71. The Pharr Riot was not until you got back.

Leo:  No. Actually, when the Pharr Riot was taking place, I was en route, as a matter of fact, I stayed at the apartment de Michael Mendelson.  On the actual day of the riot I was with Michael Mendelson on my way to Walla Walla, Washington, to do some evaluations of OEO programs on a contractual basis.

Chuy:  Okay, so by that time, you’re working with whom?

Leo:  Educational Systems Corporation.

Chuy:  Educational Systems Incorporated. ESI.

Leo:  No. ESC. Educational Systems Corporation.

Chuy:  And who are they?

Leo:  Some guys from D. C. who had an office in San Antonio. The guy that was a director there, initially, when I went to work there, was Conrado Cruz, who had been an OEO CAP director in Laredo. When he left, a guy by the name of Indy Gonzalez was director there and wound up later with a Republican position in D.C.

Chuy:  Okay. And what are you doing with ESC?

 

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Leo:  Again, primarily looking at OEO programs, and making sure they got the support they needed. Training. Community outreach. How can we help you do better? Those sorts of things.

Chuy:  Okay. And so, you’re there for how long?

Leo:  Oh, I wasn’t there long. I quit there and came back because my family was in McAllen and I was coming back and forth.

Chuy:  When did you return to McAllen after that?

Leo:  I’m going to say, early…I’m going to say probably late ’71. Maybe January of ’72 because I remember I wound up running en La Raza Unida in 1972.

Chuy:   Okay. So, during the time that you’re working for ESC, you are going back and forth. So, you’re staying on top of what’s going on in South Texas, I take it.

Leo:  Oh, yeah. I was pushing school board elections here. Became a write-in candidate at one time in McAllen. Some of my so-called friends, kind of tipped off the other side. (Chuckles) Because, you know, a write-in candidacy back then was on machines and you had to practically get knots in those little levers to know how to open, it in order to write the name of the write-in candidate.

Chuy:  So when you return in earnest to McAllen, it’s in late 1970. That’s what you’re saying. While you are working out of town, do you recall visiting Uvalde, Texas, in connection with the walk-out?

Leo:  No, not Uvalde. I visited Abilene when I was at MALDEF. There was a student walk-out out there and…

Chuy:  Why would you go to Abilene?

Leo:  Because I was still with MALDEF in San Antonio. I went out there and provided some math instruction to kids who had been expelled, trying to coordinate matters with Global Axelrod and Michael Mendelson and the late attorney who defended Efrain Fernandez.

Chuy:  Um-hmm.

Leo:  He was a great attorney. You may remember him.

Chuy:  I remember him. What do you recall factually about the Abilene school walk-out? Why was there a walk-out and how many students were involved?

Leo:  There were a few hundred students who walked out and it was strictly, you know, a lot of racism, poor treatment of Raza. Limited staff, Hispanics, opportunities, very little. It was just one of those attitudes of indifference, superiority with the White administration.

Leo Montalvo Tape 2

Chuy:  And do you know what triggered the walk-out? Do you recall?

Leo:  Supposedly, bad treatment of Hispanics.

Chuy:  So, you were teaching math to high school students who had been expelled?

Leo:  Well, tutored. Yeah. And negotiations came pretty fast. There was a…I’m trying to remember the guy who wrote the book on Mexican-Americans out of LA, who was one of the guys that was brought in to kind of negotiate and mediate, you may say, the return of those students back to class and so forth.

Chuy:  I see. And do you know how long the students had been expelled?

Leo:  Probably a week.

Chuy:  Probably a week. The reason that I ask you is because the number of high school and Chicano walk-outs during that period of time, ’68, ’69, ’70, maybe, some people claim it’s maybe over thirty. And I don’t recall that all of that has been confirmed. Now, there may have been some kind of actions by students where they walked out of class or in small numbers or whatever.

Leo:  Not that many.

Chuy:  But my recollection is that the substantial walkouts in Texas were Crystal City, Edcouch-Elsa, San Antonio.

Leo:  San Antonio. You had…I don’t recall. There was another one that I attended that was some kind of demonstration. And it was here in the Kingsville-Alice area because I remember coming down from San Antonio.

Chuy:  It could be Robstown.

Leo:  Could be.

Chuy:  And then, there was one in Uvalde as well.

Leo:  Do you recall Gabriel Tafolla?

Chuy:  Sure.

Leo:  Era de Uvalde. I think he may have been involved in that. Gabe passed away.

Chuy:  Yes, Gabe has passed away. So, Leo, at some point you come down to McAllen from San Antonio and how are you employed down here, then, after your return?

Leo:  I started working on my master’s. I got admitted into the PA-UTA program, Pan American-UT Austin. And so, I was doing primarily consultant work, speaking at training seminars, especially when it involved Chicano history, political stuff in the community

 

Leo Montalvo Tape 2

and so forth. And it was, back then, you know, the pay was a hundred bucks a day, which was a lot of money for going, plus, of course, the per diem and expenses.

Chuy:  And so, you did that, and you got your master’s in what subject area?

Leo:  I got my master’s in school administration, education.

Chuy: Okay.

Leo:  Then I went back into the school system. I got hired as an assistant high school principal in Edcouch-Elsa in ’73-’74, and I had been in the PAU-UTA program the year before at Pan Am.

Chuy:  I see. At some point, you’re also writing a column for the Ya Mero Newspaper, which was a newspaper organized in part by the local United Farm Workers.

Leo: Yeah. David Fishler was the guy who used to run it.

Chuy:  How did you get involved in writing the column.

Leo:  I ran into some guys who ran into David. I said, “Well, I could maybe write you a column en español, Tablas y Visagras. What’s happening? ¿Donde estabas que no te había visagras?

Chuy:  Um-Hmm.

Leo:  And that lasted for…no pay, obviously, and just trying to keep up with some of the activities going on in McAllen.

Chuy:  Okay, so you were covering the McAllen scene for the newspaper. And it was in Spanish?

Leo:  En español.

Chuy:  And what were the topics that you covered?

Leo:  Education, employment, discrimination. You name it. Parte de la politica in terms of who was elected to office, how people voted and so forth.

Chuy:  Were you a member of PASO?

Leo:  Not per se, but I did attend some meetings with PASO. The guy who headed PASO then was Abel Ochoa.

Chuy:  Right.

 

 

 

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Leo:  And Abel had also been a teacher in Edinburg. Eventually, I wound up hiring Abel as a physics teacher in La Joya.

Chuy:  Is that right? Well, I think the last time I saw Abel, he was a representative for  one of the teachers’ organizations.

Leo:  Unions.

Chuy:  Unions, yes. And I remember that Abel was the president of PASO, certainly in the very late ‘60’s and then became very, very active for a while there.

Leo:  And at that time, other people who were not totally immersed in PASO, but were sympathizers, would attend meetings. The late Leo J. Leo, who at one time ran against Thurmond Carter, I think for county commissioner in Precinct 3. And he lost and supposedly, he lost the primary and then turned around and endorsed a Republican in that area.

Chuy:  Leo did?

Leo:  Yes. Leo did. He even brought Albert Peña from San Antonio. Albert Peña was a county commissioner active, el papa del otro Peña. I don’t know whether he became an attorney and had a public office as well. Albert Peña III. So, yes, those were the days.

Chuy:  So in 1970, the Raza Unida party was formed here in Hidalgo County. So, I guess for part of that period, you’re doing your service with the Ford Foundation.

Leo:  Well, in ’70, again, I got through with the Ford Foundation. In August of ’70. The reunion that all the Fellows had that were people from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and a few from California and a few from Colorado, we had the end of the internship conference in Santa Fe. And that’s the time, obviously, when David Grant’s wife died of a heart attack, you know, at the age of thirty-nine. And David Grant’s staff called me up and said, “This is what happened. We want you to keep track of the Fellows. We are going to go through with this stuff even though we just buried David’s wife.”

Chuy:  Okay. So, when Alex Moreno runs for county commissioner here, in 1970, so you recall any of that race.

Leo:  I was in Precinct 34.

Chuy:  So you would have been included in his Precinct.

Leo:  Yes, so we supported him.

Chuy:  So we fast-forward to 1972. In 1972, the Raza Unida Party goes statewide and there are numerous candidates filing in Hidalgo County as I recall, pretty much for most of the positions except county judges and district judges.

9

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Leo:  Well, there was one tax collector for which I was the candidate. We had Ricardo Molina for state senator. We had a couple of gringos.

Chuy:  John Hart.

Leo:  John Hart for state rep. And I think there was another state rep candidate. I don’t remember if Leo Garza was a candidate.

Chuy:  No, he was a Democrat later. Stanley Ramos ran for JP.

Leo:   Stanley Ramos ran for JP candidate. Barber from Pharr.

Chuy:  And of course, we had some statewide candidates. Alma Canales was running for state treasurer, I believe. Ramsey Muñiz for governor.

Leo:  Yeah.

Chuy:  Why did you decide to run for that job and to run as a third-party candidate? What was the motivation there? I don’t know if you’ve given it any thought, in retrospect.

Leo:  No common sense. (Laughter) Well, you know, it was a lose-lose situation. I didn’t expect to win, and I figured tax collector because, at that time, that particular office obviously involved collecting taxes, involved numbers. You know, instead of sending one account for twenty parcels of property, they were sending twenty letters instead of one. And we thought, back then, that we could computerize the system. And obviously, Lyons was the tax collector that was not running for re-election at the time and the Democratic candidate was Ciro Treviño. And Ciro Treviño was being challenged by the guy, I think, that you had a confrontation with, Milton Richardson?

Chuy:  I don’t recall.

Leo:  You don’t recall Milton Richardson?

Chuy:  I recall the incident. I don’t recall whether Milton Richardson was running against Ciro.

Leo:  Yeah, he was running for the Democratic nomination.

Chuy:   So, Judge Richardson had been defeated by Ed Gómez in ’70 and now, he was running against Ciro in the primary?

Leo:  For tax-collector, yeah.

Chuy:  I see. So, you figure if Richardson wins, there’s a shot at it.

Leo:  No. I didn’t think Richardson was going to win because Ciro was Lyons’s right-hand guy. When Lyons dies, Ciro had already won the primary.

10

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Chuy:  The Democratic primary, I see.

Leo:  I was raising hell at the time anyway. When that happens, Ciro gets appointed full-time. He’s in, he’s in. He’s in even though he had an opponent in November, which was me. And so, I remember that Channel 5, a guy by the last name of Richardson, who was one of the reporters had an editorial, “This is bad news. This guy should have and equal chance, ta-ra-ra. Wait until November.” And of course, that didn’t happen.

Chuy:  But you’re saying you didn’t anticipate winning? There was a Democratic party in this county. It was a strong party. There’s mexicanos getting elected to office. Kika de la Garza is our Congressman. Richardson, obviously, has been defeated as county judge, soundly, the previous year. What is the reason for running in a third party if it’s not to win?

Leo:  Well, the consideration back then was, obviously, that the Democratic Party consisted of conservative Republicans, mostly Anglos, who were in control. I mean, who was your Democratic chair, in a county that was already seventy per cent raza. And it was a question of, “Well, if we try to challenge him, we might be able to bring about some changes.” Those changes came about when then, your conservative Democratic started parting company and really supporting Republican candidates which they were doing all along anyway. You practically had to ask permission from the gringo establishment to run for office if you were a minority. It was one of those things. You know, I was told by a lot of people, “You know, if you had run on the Democratic ticket, you could’ve beaten Ciro Treviño. Ciro Treviño had no credentials at all. Here you are, mathematics degree, advocating this, advocating that.” Pero, I didn’t see myself winning.

Chuy:  It seems to me that the Raza Unida Party was not created because it was supposed to be a permanent structure that was going to replace either of the two parties. That it was more of a tactical move or maybe even call it a strategy for purposes of organizing people and educating the community.

Leo:  Well, that could have been the case, but what turned people off, both gringo and raza, was la Raza Unida party.

Chuy:  Sure.

Leo:  If had been the People’s Party, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

Chuy:  Yes. Using La Raza was very much in-your-face to people and could be interpreted as being separatist. And certainly, someone can take advantage of that label and call it separatist, and they have, in fact. Successfully.

Leo:  Oh, yeah. Yeah.

 

 

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Chuy:  And so my response to that, often times is: “It is a group of young people who are organizing the Chicano movement and La Raza Unida. They are not politicians who are being financed by substantial sums of money and have PR firms advising them. They don’t have mentoring systems and they are basically, in many cases, babes in the woods.”

Leo:  Yeah. No political experience whatsoever.

Chuy:  Precisely.

Leo:  No strategy, nada.

Chuy:  So in any case, you don’t win. (Laughter)

Leo:  I wait four years, then run for state rep.

Chuy:  As a Democrat.

Leo:  As a Democrat. It was going to be against Felix McDonald. But then Felix McDonald is brought in by the powers that be, J. C. Looney, and they put up Looney’s son, Cullen Looney, as the candidate. I mean, I won some precincts, but again, being former Raza Unida, ta-ra-ra, and even in areas where I thought I was going to win, I didn’t. I think I lost a precinct in Edinburg. I don’t remember which precinct I lost, but it was either 30 or 31. I lost it by one vote, split down the middle with 100% raza voters. Then others I lost, obviously I was out-financed, practically ten to one. It was, you know, a respectable outcome, considering. I lost by a thousand votes in the entire district, which is not bad.

Chuy:  What years were you in law school.

Leo:  1979 to the end of 1981.

Chuy:  Okay. And so, after that, you come back to McAllen.

Leo:  I come back to McAllen.

Chuy:  And so by that time there’s a more mature effort being organized here at the city council at McAllen.

Leo:  Well, the situation in McAllen. I was involved in 1973 in McAllen when we had the first Chicano run for mayor.

Chuy:  Tell us about that.

Leo:  That was the late Carlos Godinez. Carlos, a well-respected doctor and active in the community. He was on a couple of boards in the city. He decided to run for mayor

 

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Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

against Jack Pruzler. At that time, I think we had like eight precincts in the city of McAllen: Precincts 7, 8, 34, 37, 26, 27, 48 and 49. I volunteered for that campaign. But the people who were supporting Carlos were a little apprehensive and said, “Well, we want your help, but we don’t want you to get too close y la chingada.” Y les dije, “Miren, cabrones…”

Chuy:  So you still had the Raza Unida stigma.

Leo:  Well, yeah.  I said, “You know what? If you guys think that because Carlos is a doctor and because he’s married to a gringa, he can come on his white horse with his white wife and his white hat, you guys are mistaken. If you’re going to win this race, you’re going to win it with raza also. Okay, here are the precincts. This is going to be a hot race. My prediction in looking at the numbers is that we’re going to have, at least, eight thousand votes.

Chuy:  Turn out.

Leo:  Turn out.

Chuy:  Now, who are you talking to at that time?

Leo:  Oh, I’m talking to guys like Ed Romeros, Jesse Treviño, Martínez, the late Beto Cavazos, some of the clan that was supporting Carlos. I said, “Look. Carlos lives in Precinct 8 and so does Jesse. My wife and I live in 34. My brothers in 34. You know, in those gringo precincts you’ll get eight hundred votes. That means that you need thirty-two hundred plus one vote, if my prediction of eight thousand is correct. To win.” “No’mbre, you’re crazy. That turn out is too high. The most you’ve had as a turn out is forty-five hundred.” “Yeah, but those were burro races, this is a horse race. It’s different. This is a first-timer.”  How many votes? Eight thousand four hundred and forty-six.

Chuy:  That was what came out?

Leo:  Yep. And I told them, “I’ll take five percent up or down.” Five percent up, it was eighty-four hundred. Missed it by forty-six votes. And Carlos got trumped. He didn’t get close to that.

Chuy:  What was your effort in the barrio? Any special effort that they made?

Leo:  Well, I walked some streets.

Chuy:  But besides that?

Leo:  Well, I gave these guys advice that consisted of this: Don’t waste your money on the Monitor.

Chuy:  That’s the newspaper.

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Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Leo:  Yeah, local newspaper. Invest your money on house-to-house in the Chicano precincts, in 48, 49, 26, 27. El gringo que va a salir o no va a salir y va a votar por ti o nó va a votar por ti. You don’t even have to talk to him. La raza en estos presintos acá, you need to get them. There will be some who will not vote for you because they’ve got ties because of employment or whatever to Jack Whetsel. Jack Whetsel, at the time, was the owner of Broadway Hardware and Jack was a good guy, you know. But being a good guy doesn’t get you all the votes on the other side. At the time, I had a 1969 Chevrolet Impala and I placed a couple of megaphones on the speakers on the car. I went down the street in the barrio, Colonia Hermosa, Colonia Balboa, “Get out and vote”, Get out and vote.”  “Get out and vote.” “Don’t waste your money. You’re better off buying tamales and having pachangas en el barrio.

Chuy:  When was the next time there was a challenge to the power structure of McAllen?

Leo:  In 1981.

Chuy:  What happened?

Leo:  Well, Carlos Godínez loses in ‘73. A guy who wins there commissioner is Othal Brand. He wins the commissioner seat. In ’77, there’s another mayoral race. This time Othal Brand versus Rafael Flores. Rafael Flores ran a good campaign but he didn’t win. I mean, Othal was spending money left and right. He employed raza and gave small scholarships to some Chicano students, what have you. And the guy was just a much better campaigner than Rafael. Rafael loses in ’77.

Chuy:  Was it a wipe-out?

Leo:  I don’t recall, Chuy. I’m fairly good about the numbers, but that’s one race that I never pay any attention to in terms of the numbers. Here comes 1981. Prior to 1981 we had some bad news in McAllen with police, a brutality situation where police were abusing detainees, hitting them on the counters, punching them when they were handcuffed and so forth. There was a lawsuit brought against the city at the time. I was in law school and so were you. Then comes the 1991 campaign, where Othal Brand is being challenged by the late Ramiro Casso. And there is a slate: Ramiro Casso, the late Richard Salinas and George González. Three highly qualified people, a doctor, an engineer and the other an educator with a PhD who is a professor at Pan American. The Casso race for mayor involved three people: Othal Brand, Casso and Mike Frost. Mike Frost was a commissioner at the time and so, he goes for it.

Chuy:  Now, these are not party elections. They’re non-partisan.

Leo Montalvo Tape 2

Leo:  Non-partisan. Well, Ricardo Salinas is running against Cárdenas. George González was running against, I think it was Roberto Gutiérrez who ran and lost and so did George. El único que ganó fué and that was against Cárdenas was Richard Salinas. There’s a run-off was between Brand and Casso. That race was the race of all races because of the turnout and it was heated and so forth.

Chuy:  Was that converted to mexicano versus Anglo?

Leo:  Not really…but

Chuy:  Not openly but there were undertones.

Leo:  Not openly. The Anglo community, you know, Othal Brand may be a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch. Ramiro loses by, I’m going to say, if I remember correctly, seven hundred and eighty votes. During the early vote, Ramiro was behind sixteen hundred votes. It was thirty-two hundred to sixteen hundred.

Chuy:  Wow. So Othal Brand could pull out the early vote?

Leo:  Well, he did and he paid some good money. And like the late Leo J. Leo used to say, “He who pulls out the early vote, for the most part is going to win the election.” On election day, I mean, it was a turnout that they’d never seen before. To date, to date, you have not had a turnout like that, either in numbers or in percentage. Sixteen thousand, six hundred thirty-two votes cast in 1981 for mayor. That represented, I’m going to say about fifty-one percent of the registered voters. Ramiro was only able to make up eight hundred and twenty votes. He lost by seven hundred eighty. Pero the tactics they also used were just bad tactics to the point that Ramiro got up on a stand alla en the old Pronto, well actually, next to the Pronto which was the Luis M. Guerra Building off of Hackberry and 23rd. He said, “I’m not going to recognize this victory. It is racist. Anytime you use racial hatred to win an election, you are the scum of the Earth.”

Chuy:  And what did he mean by that, racial hatred?

Leo:  Well, that Othal Brand had used Anglo versus mexicano, that mexicanos couldn’t be trusted.

Chuy:  But that surprises me that that would be such a novel tactic. I mean, hasn’t that always been the tactic?

Leo:  Well, sure. But when you have Hispanics in our own community who are educated and who can’t see beyond their colored glasses, then it’s an insult to them.

Chuy:  To whom?

Leo:  To la raza.

 

15

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Chuy:  I know what you’re saying but what I’m saying is, “Is it conceivable, in retrospect, that Dr. Casso, of the world, highly respected, obviously—even I respected him a lot for many, many, many years and considered him a friend—that he believed and that his supporters believed that Chicanos had arrived? And that, by golly, they had a good candidate and that now was the time for Anglos to vote for a Chicano. Isn’t that possible?

Leo:  Well, it’s possible, but I think that Casso’s words were directed at Brand himself.

Chuy:  I understand that and I am not suggesting to you that they were appropriate or not appropriate. What I am saying is that perhaps, in my naivete, still, I would never, ever presume that Chicanos have arrived in the political world and that Anglos are going to support Chicanos. It’s going to be a rare, rare event.

Leo:  Ah, no. I agree. I agree.

Chuy:  Fast forward. You then get elected, along with others, finally.

Leo:  Again, in 1983, I come back from law school. They come over, “We’re running some candidates ahora en mayo. We’d like for you to run.

Chuy:  And so…

Leo:  I’m not interested. I’ve just been in practice a year. I’ve got to make some money. (Chuckles) I said, “Mira, just go out there and look for somebody else. If you can’t find anybody who’s willing to do it, I’ll reconsider.”

Chuy:  And a long story short, that team won.

Leo:  Yeah.

Chuy:  So, for the first time, you had four Mexican Americans.

Leo:  We had three.

Chuy:  You had three.

Leo:  We had the majority in the history of the city.

Chuy:  And who were the mexicanos?

Leo:  Armando García, Nicho Salinas and myself.

Chuy:  So you had yourself as a lawyer, Armando as a CPA and Salinas was an engineer.

Leo:  Right.

 

Leo Montalvo   Tape 2

Chuy:  Obviously, it took that caliber of candidates to convince los mexicanos that the mexicanos had finally arrived in McAllen.

Leo:  Maybe not necessarily the caliber because the caliber had been there before with physician Casso, engineer Salinas and professor Gonzalez.

Chuy:  So what happened this time?

Leo:  The organization was better. The strategy was better. We didn’t rely on them. We didn’t put ads in the Monitor. We played, tactically, a dormant kind of campaign. We didn’t show up for debates. I was against that because how in the hell are we…? Concentrate on la raza, bato. Concentrate on la raza. Let these guys know what the hell you’re doing. I won against a well-known guy. Vicke, who was the owner of half of the Seven-Elevens in the city, by one hundred and thirty-seven votes.

Chuy:  So you had to run a quiet campaign, not awake the ire of the opposition, of the Anglo opposition and rely on the Mexicano vote.

Leo:  Yeah.

Chuy:  And you still won by only a hundred and some votes.

Leo:  One hundred and thirty-seven.

Chuy:  Okay. (Chuckles) Do you recall what the voter registration numbers were back then?

Leo:  This was in 1983. Well, if we had thirty-two thousand in 1981, make it thirty-five thousand in 1983.

Chuy:  And what were the breakdowns in terms of ethnicity?

Leo:  I’m going to say 70:30, at least.

Chuy:  So, the numbers, when people say the Mexican American majority, the numbers are actually meaningless for Chicanos, are they not, in electoral politics?

Leo:  They are meaningless if you don’t go out and vote.

Chuy:  Precisely. And that, in fact, has been a phenomenon that we have never been able to change, have we?

Leo:  No. Again, the prime example is the Casso case of 1991. You have sixteen thousand, six hundred thirty-two people voting and now you have sixty-two thousand, twice as many and hell, what kind of turnout did you have? Thirteen thousand, fourteen thousand. In this last race between two Anglos, Jim Darling and Othal Brand Jr., they didn’t have ten thousand! Not even eight thousand! (Chuckles)

 

Leo Montalvo    Tape 2

Pathetic! Pathetic!

Chuy:  We’re going to come back for third, Leo.  (Laughter)

Leo Montalvo

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