One of the founding members in 1968 of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) in Texas, Nacho Perez discusses his background growing up in San Antonio’s Southwest side. His mother was a descendant of Native Americans who converted to Catholicism by virtue of their association with the San Antonio Spanish Missions. As a young man, Nacho volunteered to provide Rio Grande City striking workers with support during the melon strike. He would meet the likes of other activists such as Juan Andrade. After the strike, he would associate with Mario Compean, Jose Angel Gutierrez, Juan Patlan and Willie Velasquez)from San Antonio which would lead to the founding of various activist groups in Texas.
Chuy: Today is Thursday, April 19, 2018, and we’re in San Antonio with Nacho Perez. Nacho, think back to the mid-60’s and your involvement in the Chicano movement. Recall if you can the precise “Aha” moment when you felt that you were part of something that required to be explored, this thing that was eventually described as the Chicano movement? What precipitated your interest if you can recall?
Nacho: Well, I can recall clearly the day I decided and that’s when Dolores was going around the country with the grape…lettuce
Chuy: Lettuce boycott.
Nacho: Yeah, out of California and I heard her at Lady of the Lake. And people today will say, “She was at the Lake?”
Chuy: You were a student there?
Nacho: No. I heard or read or something that she was going to be there.
Chuy: I see.
Nacho: I had already heard of Cesar Chavez and the Movimiento, because of Delano, all the strikers getting beaten up. There was a lot of stuff going on in California for years, 50’s, early 60’s. So, I wanted to see her and oh, that changed my life. I think that’s what really did it.
Chuy: Do you recall who invited her? Where she…?
Nacho: No, I think it was probably his group. They had good connections throughout the country. Both some of the labor groups and religious organizations sponsored a lot of stuff. They were on the way to the East Coast, that’s where they could raise money. But, also, that’s where the great markets were for the lettuce and grapes that they were going to boycott. So, that’s where the impact was going to be made for them and for the growers and the organizing back in California.
Chuy: So, approximately, what was your age at the time?
Nacho: I think I’d just turned twenty-one.
Chuy: What about school? Had you gotten any school? College?
Nacho: I graduated from High School, Catholic school, in ’63.
Chuy: What school was that?
Chuy: Did you have any college at the time?
Nacho: I think I had my freshman year in already, at St. Mary’s.
Chuy: At St. Mary’s.
Nacho: My first year was in Santa Fe, in College in Santa Fe. Which is great.
Chuy: Really? Santa Fe, New Mexico?
Nacho: Yeah. I got a small scholarship. So, I went and came back, and I don’t know if I ever…you always think, “Should I have stayed?” Because it was tremendous. It was
great, Santa Fe in the ‘60s. Oh, my God. So, after that I came back, took like a year off, went to work. Somewhere in there, I heard about Delano.
Chuy: Okay and what, given your background at that time, I figure this is the mid 60’s that we’re talking about, what was your family background in San Antonio?
Nacho: Well, I’m a Catholic kid since I was a little boy. I am an only child. And I grew up, if you Go to my old barrio right now, the street I grew up on looks almost the same as when I was five years old, four years old.
Chuy: What street was that?
Nacho: Somerset Rd.
Chuy: Somerset Rd. Where is it located in San Antonio?
Nacho: South Side.
Chuy: South Side. And that would be south of which major road? What east-west road or street?
Nacho: South of Theo. South of where I’m at right now. I’m near Cesar Chavez and the freeways.
Chuy: And the closet public high school to the area in which you were raises would be what?
Nacho: Public high school? Probably South San.
Chuy: South San High School? That would have been the closest?
Nacho: Yeah, ‘cause that’s where a lot of the kids I knew went. Yes, ‘cause I was at St. Henry’s Church. Then St. James Church became my parish when we moved. We moved from Somerset Road north to Nogalitos St. which is like five blocks.
Chuy: Major change.
Nacho: Yeah, major, big time. ‘Cause my tío and tía lived on the next street and they had a lot, so, we bought a lot. My dad was doing well, and he built a house.
Chuy: What does your dad do?
Nacho: He was an independent businessman. He grew up very poor. You could not believe. Well, you could believe how poor he was.
Chuy: Was he from Mexico?
Nacho: No, casi todos somos, we’ve been here a long time, both sides of the family.
Chuy: So, on your dad’s sides, where do you go back to?
Nacho: Land grants.
Chuy: Land grants. What part of Texas?
Nacho: South Bexar County.
Chuy: South Bexar County.
Nacho: Think Toyota plant. That’s where it was.
Chuy: Okay. So those grants, I suspect, would have been right around the time of …
Nacho: Right around 1800’s, late 1790.
Chuy: Before the time of the Texas Revolution. Those would have been Mexican land grants.
Chuy: You said on both sides of your family.
Nacho: Yes, ‘cause on the other side of the family son Ayala. My mother is Ayala and they’re mission people. Son gente de las misiones. So, when the Spanish came, this is
probably the farthest north that they got. Maybe one more. Chuy: Right. But when you say that on your mom’s side they were mission family you can mean one of two things. They were either native, had some Native American blood…
Nacho: Yeah, I think so. The story I remember talking to my abuelas. Ofilia Lopez was my grandma. She married Teodoro Ayala. Teodoro crossed at Laredo from Mexico. He
said you could just walk across, no bridges, no nothing,
Chuy: Sure. It was a trickle of water.
Nacho: So, they met, but Ofilia, her people come from San Jose Mission (San Antonio). And there was a Jose or Juan. In fact, I think I found some documents. The Spanish priests were good about keeping records so she could trace her ancestry back to the missions.
Chuy: Well, if that’s the case, then there is the likelihood that they either worked for the Church or were somehow related to or were part of the Native American community.
Nacho: Yes, they had to be second-generation mission people. The Indians came to the missions because as I understand the history, there was a huge drought and then the Apaches, because of the big drought, they came from the South. And the Comanches were raiding them. They came for protection. A lot of them stayed and became Catholics. The missions became very successful because of the corn and whatever else they grew.
Chuy: They had an irrigation system, acequias y todo.
Nacho: Yeah, there were acequias here, through here.
Chuy: Really? Yeah, I was just reading a book about the acequias in Northern New Mexico by a fellow who was in Tomas Atencio’s academy. Do you remember Tomas?
Chuy: I was up there in Santa Fe and I was a little too late. I’ve been looking around for some of these folks.
Nacho: Land grant people.
Chuy: Yeah, and they were land grant from …
Nacho: Way back, before this part.
Chuy: So, did your upbringing have anything to do with your interest all of a sudden?
Nacho: Yeah, Somerset Rd. was a very poor neighborhood. My father could barely read and write, but he worked very hard.
Chuy: He was an entrepreneur?
Nacho: Yeah, he went to work for this company called Deep Rock. His first job he told us was to clean the barrels, the big barriles. And he would clean them. That was his job, 50 cents. He stuck with that group and before you know it, they told him, “There’s a little gas station on Somerset Road that we want to keep open. So they said, “¿Lo quieres?”
Nacho: So, here we are. I’m in San Antonio. My father’s customers are mexicanos who have their own cars now. Late 40s, 50s, after WWII, my father has a little gas station that has two pumps with glass. Before you know it, he can afford better pumps. Before you know it, he can afford uniforms. He actually had uniforms. And…
Chuy: He’s an entrepreneur.
Nacho: He’s an entrepreneur. So, the guys that go to Kelly Field and actually have a wage, an eight-hour job can go home now and can buy a house.
Nacho: In fact, I can show you some pictures, he and his compadre Chale, Charles McVerney. Es el papa de el famous musician, Charles Jr. They were partners. Deep Rock was the name of the oil company.
Chuy: They sold gas?
Nacho: Yeah, gasoline and oil. The old pumps.
Chuy: Sure. They sold probably petroleum as well. He was at the right place at the right time.
Nacho: At the right time because it was just a block or two from where I grew up on Somerset Road. So, my mom could keep an eye on it, tambien. I’ve got pictures from that house. I’ll show you.
Chuy: Great. So, you..,
Nacho: So, my point being was that Somerset Rd. was a very poor neighborhood at that time.
Chuy: And so most of your friends were…
Nacho: Most of them, yeah. They were not wealthy people, all around. I remember growing up, era barrio. Growing up, I remember the lady next door, banaba /os ninos en una tina. You know, so we had to herbir el agua, the whole thing.
Chuy: A lot of the West Side and South Side in San Antonio in the 40s and 50s, very poor.
Nacho: Yeah, very poor.
Chuy: It was very poor and conditions, medical and health, terrible conditions.
Nacho: A lot of TB and pneumonia, all that stuff.
Chuy: So, I guess what you’re saying is that with the poverty was all around you, it made a lot of sense to go listen to (Dolores) Huerta talk about how you could change that.
Nacho: Yeah. You know, I was very lucky. I was just an only child. If they had had five or six kids, it would probably be completely different.
Chuy: So, you come out of that… what did she say at that rally or that speech that really…
Nacho: I remember her as being very soft-spoken and very intense in her way. And she made her point. She says, “We’re doing this for our families.” I think it was the whole impact of her persona. I think she was just impressive. That’s what I remember. And so, the next week, Eugene Nelson stands in front of a train in Starr County to stop the melons or whatever it was.
Chuy: The watermelon strike?