Upon graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1950, Jesse Trevino would spend three years in the U.S. Army prior to returning to his hometown of Alice, Texas, to teach school for one year. He would marry soon thereafter and he and his new bride, Mary Lou, would end up in McAllen, Texas. Mary Lou, a pharmacist, and Jesse, owner of an insurance firm, retired a few years back.
For over 70 years, Jesse Trevino has been an integral part, and keen observer, of the social, economic and political evolution of South Texas. We touched on numerous topics during an afternoon impromptu interview on October 23, 2017. Jesse had lost of his sight. Mary Lou joined us and helped fill in the interstices in Jesse’s recollection with her own. Jesse and Mary Lou met at the University of Texas at Austin as undergraduates and graduated on the same day. Their recollections would include those of many Mexican American classmates at the University, including some who would become icons in education, and law, including Chris Aldrete (attorney) and Dr. Jose Angel Cardenas (educator). They reminisced about their college activism and their Mexican American organization at UT, ALBA (Spanish for “dawn,” as in the dawning of a new era).
Jesse (and Mary Lou) would have many recollections, some with significant historical value: voting at precinct 13 in Alice, Texas, the ballot box where Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign racked up the needed (and questionable) vote differential to win the 1948 U.S. Senatorial race; his experiences as a U.S. Labor Department agent serving in the Rio Grande Valley during the years of the Bracero Program. He talks about braceros dying from heatstroke and doctors making fraudulent charges of medical care of braceros to cheat insurance companies and of the relative political powerlessness of Mexicanos during the 1950s and 60s. Trevino also recalls his unsuccessful candidacy for Hidalgo County Democratic Chair during the late 1960s and Leo Montalvo’s election as the first Mexican American Mayor of McAllen, Texas.
Jesse Treviño Interview: October 23, 2017
Chuy: So you graduated from the University of Texas in 1950?
Jesse: ’50. Yeah.
Chuy: And Marylou, your wife?
Jesse: Both graduated the same night.
Chuy: The same night, okay.
Jesse: ”Class of Pharmacy, stand up. Class of Pharmacy, stand up. Sit down.”
Chuy: And that’s the end of that.
Jesse: Yeah. “I will get you the diploma later.”
Chuy: You immediately went home to where?
Jesse: To Alice, cause I wanted to get…I got engaged when we graduated. I got her the ring. I had to go to New Orleans because my brother was studying to be a jeweler. Me lo iba a conseguir al costo. (Laughter)
Chuy: I’ve heard that story before.
Jesse: It’s something that…you think about it, you know, y estaba medio fregada la cosa.
Chuy: Yeah, oh, yeah.
Jesse: I don’t even remember how I got the money to pay for it, you know. I think my parents helped me. But, we’ve been married, it’ll be sixty-six years in October.
Chuy: So, Jesse, you were born and raised in Alice?
Jesse: In Alice, yes. I was born in Alice, Christmas Day.
Chuy: What year would that have been?
Chuy: 1925. And what did your parents do for a living/
Jesse: My mother, she stayed home, you know, but she used to rent rooms and have people live there so she could have some money during The Depression and all that. And my dad worked for wholesale groceries. They sold groceries to stores del barrio. I’m sure you had them where you lived and they still exist.
Jesse: Que venden barbacoa el domingo y todo eso. He worked for wholesale groceries. And then he worked for a grocery store but he was just a clerk. He never had an education. Neither did my mother.
Chuy: So, you were not raised with a silver spoon in your mouth?
Jesse: No, in fact, you may not believe it, but I graduated; went to the university. I graduated from the university and then, I went to the Army three years. And then I taught school for one year. I was learning to drive a car when I was a teacher in their school where I had been in elementary.
Chuy: Well, do you have any fond memories of your one year as an educator?
Jesse: Oh, yes. I loved it. Like I said I brought…(the students) the Pincipal said, “You’re going to do what? We don’t even take them (students) to the fire station over here and you want to take them to Austin.” “Oh, yeah, Greyhound.” And the kids made…we figured out a budget y todo… eleven dollars. They made the trip on that.
Chuy: You wanted to take them to UT-Austin.
Jesse: To UT-Austin, yes. And I had made arrangements. At that time, Chuy, they had co-ops. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. There were co-ops. In my case, it was called Campus Gill Co-ops. It was eighty of us (students) and I got all of my friends to join there. In fact, one of the guys de los ochenta, he was a Communist. And he would just argue Communism and Capitalism ahí con los que estaban en el dormitory. It was a course I was taking that I didn’t have to take any finals on. Porque little old kid from Alice que nunca sabía ni que fregados era un comunista ni nada de eso. Boy, I got an earful there, discussing Communism and Capitalism.
Chuy: And this was at the University?
Jesse: Yeah, at the University. No, within the place where I lived.
Chuy: Oh, in the co-operative where you lived.
Jesse: The co-operative I was in.
Chuy: The co-operative, everybody shared expenses…
Jesse: Yes, everything. You know how much I paid?
Chuy: How much?
Jesse: About twenty-eight dollars a month, room and board.
Chuy: That’s nice.
Chuy: How many students did you take to the University of Texas?
Jesse: I think it was twelve.
Chuy: Were they all Mexicanos?
Jesse: Oh, yeah. Pos era una escuela Mexicana. Todavía.
Chuy: So was it still an era of segregation?
Jesse: Oh, yeah, in schools. Yeah.
Chuy: And when you were in public school, did you attend segregated schools?
Jesse: Yes, all through elementary.
Chuy: All through elementary school. In middle school, did it change?
Jesse: We were mixed. In high school we all went together. Pero había pleitos y cuanto.
Chuy: Si. What was the population breakdown?
Jesse: Oh, no sé. About ten thousand, twelve. It wasn’t a big town.
Chuy: Would you say 50:50, Mexicano and Anglos.
Jesse: Yeah, I would say, yes. Más o menos.
Chuy: And your wife, where did she go to school?
Jesse: San Antonio. She’s a San Antonio gal.
Chuy: And you met at…
Jesse: We met at the University and we started going together and we got engaged when we got through with school. I made it in three years. I went summers and everything. I wanted to get out and work. I was…My major was business administration but on Latin America so I was going to go to South American and make a lot of money and get rich and everything. (Laughter) The only place I’ve been, I mean, I did go to South America but not to work. As pleasure, I went to Brazil, Argentina, y todos esos lugares.
Chuy: So after your one year as a teacher, what did you turn to for a living?
Jesse: One week or so before I got married…We got married about eighteen months later. And one of my friends, my compadre, a professor at the University who was our mentor, you might say, había muy pocos Latinos enseñando at the University and the professor wanted Mexican-Americans to apply for a job with the Labor Department when the braceros were coming over here to work under contract. And he figured we’d be more sympathetic with those people whenever there was a dispute. A compliance officer is what you became when you signed with them, would represent the grower and the Mexican Consulate represented the worker.
Chuy: I see.
Jesse: If there is any dispute on their wages or lo que fuera, they had a contract. I don’t know why they don’t bring that back. It was a very good thing for everybody. And then they went back at the end of the contract. What I did working as a Compliance Officer, I would tell the farmers, I would have meetings with them, “Go get these guys. The workers that you have here as “wetbacks”, they can go to Monterrey and he can pick the employer and the employer gets to pick the worker. So, you get him legally, you don’t have to go through…
Chuy: illegal entry and so forth.
Jesse: …illegal entry and everything like that. He’ll be here legally, you know.
Chuy: Okay. So, at that time you were employed by Immigration?
Jesse: By the U.S. Labor Department.
Chuy: Oh, by the U.S. Labor Department. And the Labor Department administered the bracero program?
Jesse: Yes, sir.
Chuy: And what did they call it.
Jesse: The Bracero Program.
Chuy: The Bracero Program. Okay. What age are you by then, when you’re working for the Labor Department? Roughly.
Jesse: Oh, twenty-four.
Chuy: Twenty-four, twenty-six.
Marylou: He got hired ten days before we got married.
Jesse: (Laughter) And I wanted time off. “You haven’t worked here long enough. Go take three days and a weekend and we’ll cover up for you.”
Chuy: So you became a compliance officer, about ten days before your marriage?
Jesse: Yes, sir. I enjoyed working for the Labor Department because it paid more money because I was working for an ocean freight broker cause that was my major. I got a contract and it showed how much I would get. I showed it to the guy and he says, “Son, you won’t get that in ten years here.” I said, “Well, you can just mail me my check.”
Chuy: My last check.
Jesse: Well, I was looking for a better job because I was getting married.
Chuy: Where were you stationed when you were with the Department of Labor?
Chuy: Oh, here in McAllen?
Jesse: Oh, yeah.
Chuy: So you moved from Alice to McAllen after you got married?
Chuy: And your wife began her career as a pharmacist?
Jesse: As a pharmacist. Yeah. And she worked in Mission (Texas). Leo Garza was the first one she worked for.
Marylou: No, in Harlingen.
Jesse: In Harlingen? Oh, yes, we lived in Harlingen first, not McAllen.
Chuy: So the Bracero Program, goes in effect…we’re talking about what year? ¿Más o menos?
Jesse: What was the year, Hon.?
Marylou: We got married in ‘51.
Chuy: So at that point, the Bracero Program is massive, massive numbers of men…
Jesse: Thousands of them, all over the United States.
Chuy: What area did you cover?
Jesse: The whole Valley (Rio Grande Valley, South Texas.
Chuy: Okay. And all of the workers were farmworkers?
Jesse: Yes, farmworkers. They picked cotton. Well, they took care of everything. Some people had to milk the cows. And a lot of them, you might say, got here legally, you know.
Chuy: So, my impression of the Bracero Program was that somehow, once they were certified to enter the country, that the men could work directly for the farmer or they could work through a crew leader. Do you recall that?
Jesse: No, directly with the farmer.
Chuy: Okay, so they were assigned directly to the farmer.
Jesse: Now, the farmer may have a crew leader to go pick cotton or anything like that.
Chuy: I see.
Jesse: And then, (laughs) at one time, they stole all the braceros from a guy. His name was Frank Russel from Russeltown.
Marylou: You know where that is?
Chuy: Near Los Indios?
Marylou: When you turn to go to the Island (South Padre Island).
Chuy: Oh, up there. On the highway, on 44. That area is called Russeltown?
Marylou: Have you ever seen a flag that flies there, way in the back?
Jesse: Anyway, the story on that Russelltown, they stole all the braceros and took them up to Arkansas y no sé qué.
Chuy: Somebody picked them up.
Jesse: Yeah, the crewleaders. Y el gobierno me mando un telegrama que colectara dinero because he didn’t complete his contract, Frank Russell. Y fuí yo y le dije, “Look, I’m your representative and I’m going to go out and investigate at the Bracero Center and see where those braceros went to. If they went to Mexico, you don’t owe them nothing, if they got re-contracted and they went to Arkansas, you don’t owe nothing. So, what I am going to try to do is to save…” Querían sixty thousand. En ese tiempo, sixty thousand was a lot of money. “I’m going to try to clear you up of the whole thing.” And I did. I went and spent several days at the Bracero Center and found out just what had happened. I cleared him up of the whole thing. Dice, “You know, son, you’re the only government guy who’s ever done a good thing for me. I want to give you a party.”
“No, no. I get paid by the Labor Department.” “No, no, you bring the Mexican Consulate, your friends, anybody you want and here at my house you’re going to have…”
Marylou: Immigration, Dad.
Jesse: Immigration tambien. Y los llevé a todos. Y fuimos alla. Ahí está la casa todavía en Russelltown.
Chuy: So how does someone just pull out …?
Jesse: Entre la noche.
Chuy: Some crew leader comes and…
Chuy: Promises to pay them more?
Jesse: Yeah. Make more money. But anyway, they were lost.
Chuy: But who brought the action against the farmer? Was it the Labor Department?
Jesse: No, they didn’t even go check on it. They just got re-contracted or went back to Mexico.
Marylou: No, Honey. He said, “Who brought the action against Frank Russell?”
Jesse: Oh, el gobierno. The Labor Department. But he didn’t complete his term in the contract.
Chuy: Okay, so he had to have a contract with the Labor Department as well.
Jesse: Yes, each bracero had a contract that he signed.
Chuy: So the bracero signs a contract for a specific job.
Jesse: For a specific job, for a specific time, usually six months or so.
Chuy: Okay, so when the job is done, they return to Mexico.
Jesse: They return to Mexico. Which was very good. I don’t know why they don’t have it now.
Chuy: Well, it was a legal way of getting people in without worrying about illegal entry.
Jesse: That’s right. Without worrying about Immigration or anything like that.
Chuy: The risk of injuries.
Jesse: Ah, y tenían seguro de vida, y tenían seguro de Health Insurance y seguro de Workman’s Comp.
Jesse: They had to buy it.
Chuy: The employer had to buy it?
Jesse: Yes, sir, for each one.
Chuy: And was it part of your job to see that it was done?
Jesse: No, I didn’t have anything to do with that because that was done at the Bracero Center. They had to show all that proof there where they contracted it.
Chuy: Where was the Bracero Center located?
Jesse: Harlingen at the air base.
Marylou: It was Hidalgo. That’s where Tulia worked.
Jesse: In Harlingen? I don’t remember, maybe it was Hidalgo.
Marylou: I believe it was Hidalgo.
Chuy: But, in any case, they were responsible for making sure that the contracts were enforced.
Jesse: Were fulfilled.
Chuy: And the benefits to the workers were allotted.
Jesse: That’s right…were claimed. The next job I got, I went to work for an insurance company that would insure braceros.
Jesse: The company…I had something to do with them because when they (braceros) were sick or hurt, I would call the company and they took care of them. But, we had several braceros that had sunstroke and they died out in the field. No estaban impuestos a tanto sol y ese tipo de trabajo.. We would pay, I think, $500.
Chuy: Worker’s comp benefits, life/death…
Jesse: If they were dead, they would pay cash. I think it was about $500. It wasn’t very much but for them, it would be quite a bit. And the Mexican Consulate would make arrangements and ship them to their home and everything.
Chuy: Um-hmm. So, it was a very formalized process between the Mexican government, the U.S. government, the farmers, the workers…
Jesse: And they all liked it. 8
Marylou: They had to have housing for them.
Jesse: Ah, sí, they had to have housing and utilities, pots and pans and a bed to sleep in. All that kind of thing.
Marylou: Honey, tell him about the salt.
Jesse: The what?
Marylou: The salt you delivered to the house.
Jesse: The what?
Chuy: The salt.
Jesse: Oh, yeah. When I was working for the insurance company, I represented the company from El Paso. This guy from El Paso came over and signed up all the big insurance agencies de aquí del Valle. And then I was to go there and represent the company and help them get the accounts and everything else cause they were making money, insuring all those braceros. And most of them were insured by the regular insurance that they sold, you know. I was trying to help as much as I could. I would speak before groups to get them with that particular guy. It was part of my job.
Marylou: You need to tell him about the salt tablets.
Jesse: Oh, yeah. Como se murieron varios y les costo dinero a las companies, seguros, me dijeron, “We’re going to solve that problem. We’re going to give them salt tablets.” Dije, “Oh, good, that should help. They probably won’t die on us anymore.” Dije, “Tenemos garage. I can put it in the garage.” Trajeron una treila, a big, whole trailer, llena de cajas de salt tablets. Son como aspirinas.
Chuy: And they’re supposed to take them in the morning, or what?
Marylou: Throughout the day with water.
Jesse: Ah, con _______ tambien, salían las pildoras. Y entonces se las dabamos gratis nosotros para que no se murieran.
Chuy: So some of these men, they’d never worked in the fields.
Jesse: No. That’s right.
Chuy: They were urban fellows.
Jesse: They were earning more money than they would in Mexico.
Chuy: But they were urban.
Marylou: No, not all of them. 9
Chuy: Not all of them?
Marylou: No, some were already workers. But, see, when you perspire a lot, you lose a lot of salt.
Jesse: Lo que tuve que hacer, “No, don’t bring them to my house.” No cabía el carro. I made arrangements with Valley Food and Vegetables.
Chuy: Oh, yeah. In Pharr?
Jesse: In Pharr. And I paid. I knew the owner there.
Chuy: So a worker who got hurt or sick, …
Jesse: …they would have insurance.
Chuy: …there was insurance and the premiums were paid by…
Jesse: …by the employer.
Chuy: …by the employer through requirements of the same contract. Right?
Jesse: Yes, sir.
Chuy: And the worker would go to the doctor and his bills…
Jesse: And the doctors loved it. Ah, there was a racket. The crew leaders, como no estaban haciendo nada en domingo, lleveban una troca llena de braceros a cierto doctor para que hicieran a false claim. And that was part of my job too, as an insurance representative to quit that.
Chuy: So some of the crew leaders were taking the workers on Sunday…
Jesse: On Sunday y les pagaban los doctors por each bracero.
Chuy: They were making illegal claims on the insurance policy?
Jesse: That’s right. Yes. There was nothing wrong with them.
Chuy: We see that anytime there’s money flowing.
Jesse: We see that now with Medicare.
Chuy: How long did that process last, Jesse?
Jesse: Three years or more. That’s when I decided. I saw that these (insurance) agents were doing pretty good, making money. I decided to put up my own agency. That’s when I started my agency with one hundred dollars. And a guy by the name of Scott Martin, in fact he’s at one of the assisted living homes in Pharr. Scott Martin had an agency. ¿Como se llamaba? Bueno, como quiera. Él me habló. Dijo, “I hear one of the special agents,” otro de las compañías de seguros le dijo que Jesse iba a poner his own agency. Me habló y me dijo, “I hear you want to put up your own agency.” I said, “I sure do.” “Do you need a partner?” “I think I do. I don’t know a damned thing about the insurance business.” Dice, “Come on and talk to me. Let’s see if we can work out a deal for you. I’m going to help you.” What he did, he’d sign the contract and he was paying me two hundred dollars a month which was very good at that time. He owned forty percent of the agency and I owned sixty percent. And then I bought him out right after three years. By that time, I’d made enough money to where I wanted to buy him out. And I would make extra money for writing more business and I was able to pay him off. But it wasn’t very much to pay him. It was a lot of money then, but he settled for eight thousand dollars o algo así. He gave two hundred dollars a month hasta que la compañia mia tuviera suficiente dinero para eso. And I saw him just the other day. He is ninety-four years old y está en assisted living con un primo mío.
Chuy: And you’re ninety-two, Jesse.
Jesse: I am going to be ninety-two.
Chuy: So, by the time you’re thirty or so, you are set up in your own agency.
Jesse: Yes. I had the agency for fifty-two years.
Chuy: And I take it you were one of the first Mexicano agents in Texas.
Jesse: Yeah, yeah, in the Valley, anyway.
Chuy: So, let me ask you this. Do you have any personal recollection of what was called “Operation Wetback” when the government removed a lot of the men that had overstayed?
Jesse: No, I don’t remember anything like that. But I became a director of the big “I” in Texas. Fui el primer mexicano. I was the first Mexican-American to be a director…an agent. There were agents in the organization. I was the first Mexican-American. I was there three years. Y me trataron muy bien.
Chuy: Where was this, Jesse?
Jesse: It was in Austin, the main thing. It was Austin or Dallas, no me acuerdo.
Chuy: Was that with the government?
Jesse: No, no, no. It’s an independent agency. It’s like Farmer’s Group, they have a group of agents and they help you. They have seminars throughout and everything like that. I was the director and it was a good life porque pagaban los gastos para ir a las juntas y todo. And I was able to meet a lot of big agents that would help me with any problems that I might have. And became real good friends with several, especially one of them. He just passed away not too long ago but he and I went on vacations, uuh, cada rato. We would go to Mexico all over the place. We would travel different trips together, en estados unidos.
Chuy: Jesse, so you’re in McAllen in the early fifties. What is your recollection of the Mexican-American community here in South Texas in the early fifties? Just generally, in terms of the…
Jesse: Let me tell you a story that I think helped us a lot. Let me see. Let me tell you how it was. I had several students at the university that we became good friends before they graduated, you know. Uno era compadre y otros eran muy amigos. Uno de ellos que se llamaba Chris Alderete.
Chuy: I remember Chris.
Jesse: Well, Chris was in the co-op with me, you know.
Jesse: Yeah, and we talked to the Bentsens when his brother got to be a Senator of the state of Texas. And they hired Chris. He was a very good PR man for him. When he got elected and Chris was sent (?)with him, he got all of the South Texas politicians, I think here in the Valley somewhere. We met. And I got invited because of Chris, because he worked for them and I was in the McAllen school district board at that time. The Senator told these guys, all of us, he said, “I want to do something for the Valley, for South Texas. That included Corpus and Victoria and on South this way to Brownsville, you know.
Jesse: He says, “I want you guys to form an organization that will bring some…You know the problems we have here in the Valley with education, health insurance, wages and things like that. I want to be your man in Washington that you can in touch with. But form the organization.”
Chuy: Was Bentsen a Congressman then or a Senator?
Jesse: No, Senator. His brother was in the group, Don Bentsen. He and I became real good friends. Y se formó una organización que se llamó COSTEP (Council on South Texas Economic Progress), which still exists. Y entonces, la primer junta que tuvimos dijo, Oscar Wyatt was there too, Oscar Wyatt, el famoso “Gas Man”, dijo, “I nominate Don Bentsen.” “Oh, no, I don’t want to be chairman. You know how they criticized the Kennedys because he put him as Attorney General.” “No, no, no, you just sit down. We don’t have any money. We’re going to have to call the banks, the business people and other people to give us money to start this organization. And you’re the Senator’s brother. When you pick up the phone and you say “Don Bentsen”, they’re going to answer to your calls and you’re going to get some money. And we did. He got money for us. You know, all of us, pos I didn’t have any influence. I just knew Chris. That’s all the influence I had. But anyway, we formed COSTEP..
Chuy: Yes. Right.
Jesse: And one of the steps we did, and I’m sure you’ve heard of it, we got into the student loan business.
Jesse: And we loaned out so much. We helped so many kids in South Texas. In fact, cuando vino Obama mando a la fregada todo. He was going to do it out of Washington because we made a lot of money. Right now, CoStep, and I’m still a member, when Don Bentsen died, then they made me chairman of CoStep. And I’ve been chairman ever since. And we’ve got millions of dollars right now cuando andabamos pidiendo cuando comenzamos. In one organization, hay dos, uno es South Texas Higher Education y el otro es CoStep, en uno temenos como sixteen or eighteen million dollars y en el otro poquito más que eso. Millions of dollars in the bank. We’re putting it into education in different places, diferentes lugares, diversos. Ya que nos quitó Obama to make loans to students, we went in to fix your credit. You know, the people who got into too much debt and everything else. Well, this person helps them clean up and have better credit. We’re trying to do other things, you know, but we’re still active.
Chuy: Great. Yeah, CoStep has made a lot of student loans for college.
Jesse: Muchos. Thousands of them. You know what is the percentage of (student loan) collection? We lost only 1% or 2% or 3%. You know what it is the way Obama put it out of Washington? It’s 45%. Fifty percent losses.
Jesse: Es la comadre. She went to school with us. She is completely blind.
Chuy: Oh, my gosh.
Jesse: I had a watch like this one. (Watch tell date and time aloud). Y me habló Veteran’s (Administration) que si necesitaba algo. I need a watch. Y me mandaron otro. So I kept this one and I sent the other one to her. And she’s having a great time with it. She lives in Harlingen.
Chuy: That’s a great gift. So this (CoStep) was a way of addressing the needs of college students who needed financial help?
Jesse: Yes, that‘s right.
Chuy: In the early ‘50’s, here in the Valley, when you came down here, just generally speaking what was the employment situation with the Mexicanos here? How were they generally employed?
Jesse: The Mexicanos, they had problems here. You know, they didn’t have the right jobs. You would have un Mexicano for the banks to make the loans a los Mexicanos. It was different than what it is now, you know. You would have IBC that are already, pues son hechos por Mexicanos. So it has really changed. But in those days, the people were just poor. Y el Mexicano que tenían dinero, como los Guerra y todos esos que had been here forever, they didn’t really participate in a lot of things to better the community, you know. Not as much.
Jesse: And some of us, while we were in school (at University of Texas) we formed a club called El Alba Club, The Dawn Club. The dawn of a new era for the Mexican-American. (Chuckles)
Jesse: Les digo yo, “They’re still looking for us.” (Laughter)
Chuy: But this is in the ‘40’s at the University of Texas, The Alba Club. Looking for the dawning of an America?
Jesse: The dawning of a new era for the Mexican American.
Chuy: Well, that’s amazing. Because that’s what alba means, it’s a dawn.
Jesse: That’s right. It was started.
Chuy: Who were the characters?
Jesse: Pos todos los que ibamos ahí, de South Texas y de dondequiera. One thing about it, we helped each other quite a bit as we were going through life, you know. Y nunca, no faltaba nada. It’s funny, but how the University of Texas did away with all the co-ops because of a case, que no dejaron a unos entrar o hacer, no sé que borlote.I don’t know the story on it. But, co-ops were great. I put Marylou in a girl’s co-op y estaba con una comadre de la mama que tenía que tomar el bos desde aca donde vivían en Austin y luego ir a la clase. She couldn’t participate in any of the group study in the library. I got her into a girl’s co-op because we had a deal with the girl’s co-op and they had a deal with us that we would put them up on top (Note: of a list) because everybody wanted to be in a co-op. It was so reasonable. But now they did away with them. I don’t know, some lawsuit.
Chuy: Right. How about here in South Texas? When did the political action among Mexicanos begin, here in the Valley. Do you recall?
Jesse: No. Pos, Leo had a lot to with it.
Chuy: Well, no, I’m talking about the early years.
Jesse: Early years, no.
Chuy: Let me tell you what I’ve read. I’ve read that basically, Mexicanos were not seriously politically active…
Chuy: …until 1960, with Kennedy.
Jesse: That’s right. Kennedy did a lot to bring us up. Oh, by the way, we got invited to the White House. cuando Lyndon Johnson was President.
Jesse: He invited us to be guests in 1968 at the White House. And it was because of Chris. He got an invitation for us and Judge Guerra. ¿Te acuerdas que ya se murió?
Chuy: Judge Ramiro Guerra or Fidencio Guerra?
Jesse: Fidencio Guerra.
Chuy: District Court Judge.
Jesse: No, éste era district judge.
Jesse: Is that what you said?
Chuy: Yes. District Judge.
Jesse: Él es papa de “Fido”.
Chuy: Sí, de “Fido”.15
Jesse: Y De La Garza.
Jesse: No, Roberto De La Garza.
Chuy: Oh, Roberto. Kika’s brother?
Jesse: Un poquito, too much between us. We all got invited too.
Jesse: It was quite an experience because when I told him I was from Alice, (Chuckles) se le abrieron los ojos, gave Marylou a kiss on the cheek, y todo. They’re still counting at Precinct 13 where my folks voted all the time. ¿Te acuerdas de la canción esa?
Chuy: Absolutely. Box 13 (historically, where the vote tally making the difference in Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1948 election to the U.S. Senate) took place. See, Balz, Dan, The Mystery of Ballot Box 13, Washington Post, March 4, 1990, www.WashingtonPost.com/archives.
Jesse: Box 13. That’s where I voted the short time that I was in Alice.
Chuy: So in those early years, the name of Leo J. Leo comes up.
Jesse: Oh, yeah. Leo J. Leo. Very good friend of mine.
Chuy: When did you first hear about or learn about or meet Leo J.?
Jesse: Oh, es pariente de una tía mía de Alice and that’s how I met him. He went to work in Alice when he was younger, you know. And he opened a market. But Leo and I became very, very good friends. Él fue el que me metió a correr encontra de Morris Atlas para Democratic Chairman.(early 1970s election for County Chairman of the Democratic Party).
Chuy: What year was that, Jesse?
Jesse: Oh, no me acuerdo.
Chuy: Okay. That must have been the late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s.
Jesse: Sixties, por ahí. I didn’t win, pero no se enojo conmigo. His kids said something to him, “Why do you talk to him?” “Well, he wanted to be Democratic Chairman. There’s nothing wrong with that.” And we had a clean campaign. I didn’t talk bad about him, you know. I just ran clean. I had a darn good campaign, but I didn’t have any money. Y él sí. Tenía dinero a lo bárbaro.
Chuy: What was the motivation for running for that job? It doesn’t pay anything.
Jesse: Yo de pendejo, yo creo. (Loud laughter) No, I just wanted, we wanted to have Mexicanos represented in the courthouse and everywhere else.
Jesse: And that was one of the positions that was held…and he did a good job, by the way. Morris was a good man. But, why not un Mexicano, you know? Y Leo J. Leo fue el que me animó. “Entrele. Entrele. No se raje.” When I went to sign up, you’ve got to sign up against the guy you’re going to run against, you know.
Jesse: Tenía ahí mi banquero y ¿quien otro? Otro big shot tambien ahí. Y no firmé. No fuí pendejo. “No se raje, cabrón. Vete pa’ya, no le digas a nadie. Nomas anda firma y te sales a la fregada.” (Laughter)
Chuy: So you feel there was a little pressure on you not to file?
Jesse: Oh, yeah. My banker, Glen Roney. He was in Co-Step tambien. He and I became very good friends. And we still are.
Chuy: I get the sense that back then, people, like Leo J. Leo were trying to create some kind of…
Jesse: Activity. Movement. I would say it was like a movement. And we’ve made a lot of progress. You know it all that. When we got Leo elected, it was quite an accomplishment because we didn’t have any Mexicanos up at the ________.
Chuy: We’re talking about Leo Montalvo, of course, my former partner who became mayor of McAllen. And so maybe what the earlier groups had not been able to accomplish earlier, we were able to do decades later.
Jesse: That’s right. And I would say, “You well know.” because you were the campaign manager or something.
Jesse: All of us really got active in that campaign and he (Mayor Othal Brand) didn’t expect to lose.
Chuy: Right. That campaign, we probably spent between 350 and 500 thousand dollars for mayor. I’d never seen that before. But I think that the money, really, we were able to raise that kind of money for the first time, probably made it happen.
Jesse: Yep. That’s what did it.
Chuy: Would you say that when Montalvo finally won, I mean, Dr. (Ramiro) Casso had already had a shot at it. Right?
Jesse: Yes. That’s right. Rafael (Flores) had a shot at it.
Chuy: Rafael Flores had a shot at it as well and obviously from another generation.
Jesse: And you worked real hard on that one. Something to be proud of because I spent six years on the school board with Othal Brand, man. He told me several times como que, “Shut up, you don’t know anything” you know. Como que he didn’t say like that but that’s what he wanted me to do. I told him from the very beginning, I says, “Look, I am one vote just like you are. Whenever the Chair recognizes me, I am going to ask whatever question I have in mind.” Y así comenzó. De ahí pa’ adelante, todo pa’ abajo.
Chuy: Yeah. But you were on the board six…
Jesse: I was there eleven years.
Chuy: …eleven years total? So, the board has a total of seven trustees.
Chuy: So besides you, I guess Andy Anzalduas…
Jesse: Andy was there. Andy era de esos que se volteaba como…
Chuy: Como los huevos volteados?
Chuy: And who else was there? Was there anybody else there? Mexicano?
Jesse: Sí había, pero no me recuerdo.
Chuy: Never a majority. Right?
Jesse: Oh, yes. We were never a majority. Ahora somos más Mexicanos. Está como la comisíon aquí. By the way, the latest fact I’m going to fight on es que le den, Veronica resigned, I guess you know that.
Chuy: I saw that.
Jesse: I don’t want that place to close up, anyway. I want the City to furnish the necessary money to keep that place going because it’s a good gesture what the City is doing, in having a place where a person of no means, of no money, hospital or something, can die with dignity and stay there in that place.
Chuy: At the Comfort House.
Jesse: Yes. And I called her and I told her that she had done a good job and that I was so sorry that she was resigning. But they didn’t give her any money ya, you know. And the Federal Government cut off the fifty thousand that they give her. What happened to the lady who killed the man that was there? Nunca ha ido a la carcel, ¿no?
Chuy: The case has not come up for trial but they’re getting close to it. Her name is Palacios.
Jesse: Because of the Palacios family.(the Comfort House murder involved the murder of a patient strangled to death. A manager was convicted of the murder).
Chuy: So, Jesse, where do you think here in the Valley, in South Texas, where do you think Mexicanos have made progress? Has a lot of progress been made in the right direction?
Jesse: Oh, yes. ¡Como no! I think so. I know so. I can feel it all over that Mexicanos… but we’re losing a lot of them, they’re sick or whatever. I remember when we got here, we were younger y el papá de Ruben Cardenas…
Chuy: The lawyer?
Jesse: …the lawyer, estabamos, “Que sí.” Teníamos un grupo politico. We were trying to raise up y dice, “Muchachos, no se hagan ilusiones,” decía el señor, muy correcto. Dice, “El cinco nunca le gana al ocho.” “¿Qué quiere decir, Ud.?” “Ellos son ocho mil, y nosotros somos cinco mil. Por eso, no se hagan ilusiones.” Y los cinco no votan todo el tiempo. (Laughter)
Jesse: But we were trying to say, “Yes, you can do it” way back when it was very hard. They were more votes than us, you know. But that’s one of the things you learn by listening to the elderly. Now, I’m the elderly. (Big laugh)
Chuy: No, but it’s a struggle. And it is a struggle.
Jesse: It still is.
Chuy: In every sense of the word. It’s interesting. I was looking at something here. I was trying to find something about McAllen in the ‘60’s and the ‘70’s. I came across the Armando Castro situation. Do you remember that?
Jesse: Armando Castro, yeah.
Chuy: Armando Castro who was a student (at McAllen High School).
Jesse: He was a student.
Chuy: Yeah. What do you remember about that era? It was ’69 or ’70.
Marylou: That’s when you were on the Board, Dad.
Jesse: I was on the board.
Marylou: He (Armando Castro) came to the house.
Jesse: He came to the house to talk to me. You invited him.
Chuy: Oh, really.
Jesse: He had big ideas. He was quite a fighter. El pobre no pudo, I don’t know.
Chuy: What he… I interviewed him the other day. As a matter of fact, what reminded me was that, and I didn’t know all the story. I should have known it but I didn’t know it, was that Cruz Tijerina’s (federal magistrate during the early 1970s) son, remember Cruz?
Jesse: Yeah. Cruz, si.
Chuy: His son was in the same school as Armando…
Chuy: …and Armando had gotten elected president of the student body, that summer or the spring before. And Tijerina asked him to help him circulate a petition, I think it was for long hair, [to allow long hair in school.]. Tijerina didn’t suffer any consequences but Armando did.
Chuy: The principal expelled him.
Jesse: Is that right?
Chuy: And then they took his title away as president of the student class. He was expelled and they took his title away.
Chuy: Yeah, and I didn’t find out much on that. But Tijerina shows up at a Board meeting [with the petition]. And he shows up with an attorney……. But Tijerina, I guess his parents are divorced or separated, but he shows up with an attorney.
Marylou: Not his father?
Chuy: No, not his father. With an Anglo attorney, a young attorney. They [the board and Tijerina’s mother] set him up really well because once they get him to get to the podium, Tijerina’s mother comes in from the back and she says, “My son is a minor and I did not hire that lawyer.” (Laughs) And so it became a really embarrassing situation. I know because I was there at the time. But I couldn’t find anything in the paper about that. You don’t remember any of that?
Jesse: I don’t. I was on the Board.
Marylou: You were on the Board when Mando was elected.
Jesse: Oh, yeah.
Chuy: Okay. Maybe when he was elected and the following year probably not.
Jesse: Well, we know the Tijerinas, Cruz and Lilly.
Chuy: Were they divorced?
Marylou: Not that I’m aware of. Cruz and Lilly?
Jesse: No, they were not divorced.
Chuy: Cruz did not show up there at that meeting.
Jesse: But he was not that type. That’s why. He didn’t want hacer too much waves, you know.
Chuy: He was a federal magistrate tambien, so…
Jesse: Oh, yeah. The first one aquí.
Marylou: So, maybe why he couldn’t go.
Chuy: That probably explains it.
Jesse: He was a good friend of ours and so is she. We know her well.
Chuy: Was she Anglo or Mexicana?
Marylou: No, Lilly era…
Jesse: Lilly es Mexicana.
Chuy: Era muy güera ella, ¿no?
Jesse: Es de dinero.
Marylou: She’s legally blind.
Chuy: Is she? Diabetes?
Marylou: She’s been blind for a long time. 21
Jesse: No se.
Marylou: I don’t know. Lilly Tijerina es de las Garcia, ¿no?
Jesse: Garcia, rich. They have lots of money.
Marylou: Lots of land.
Jesse: And lots of land and stuff like that.
Chuy: Pero viene de familia García.
Chuy: Well, anything that I’ve forgotten to ask? I asked a lot.
Jesse: Well, I can’t remember things. But as you get older, you forget things, you know. Like I made, who made a recording, Marylou?
Marylou: Ned Wallace did.
Jesse: Ned Wallace made a recording of me.
Marylou: And who else? Robert Ramirez.
Jesse: Robert Ramirez.
Marylou: He brought somebody.
Chuy: El de Dr. (Al) Ramirez?
Marylou: From Edinburg.
Chuy: His father was Al?
Chuy: Es hijo de Al.
Marylou: Oh, you mean PhD. Yes. I was thinking…
Chuy: Oh, I know what I wanted to ask you! I know what I wanted to ask you!
Jesse: Cuando comenze el tripa club?. (Laughs)
Chuy: No, no. I want to ask you about two things. I want to ask you first, when you [mentioned] Leo J. Leo, about the student walkout in Edcouch-Elsa, remember that?
Chuy: There were about 200 students…
Jesse: They walked out.
Chuy: They got expelled. And the [school board] wouldn’t let them back in to school…
Jesse: Is that right?
Chuy: For the rest of the semester.
Jesse: For the rest of the semester?
Chuy: Yeah. And the only person who stepped up to help them was Leo J. Leo.
Jesse: Is that right.
Chuy: And they got a bus and they would bus the kids to La Joya…
Jesse: Is that right. I didn’t know that.
Chuy: …to finish the school year.
Jesse: That’s Leo.
Chuy: Yeah. Very, very few people knew that and I raised it at a meeting. He was the only one. And nobody else would help.
Chuy: And they wouldn’t take the students back. It took Judge Garza, Federal [Reynaldo] Judge Garza to order the students back. Right?
Jesse: Is that right?
Chuy: Yes, sir. And so that’s why the old man Leo should get a lot of credit.
Chuy: But the other one was the Pharr Riot.
Marylou: Oh, yes.
Chuy: What do you remember about the Pharr Riot?
Jesse: The Pharr Riot.
Marylou: The riot in Pharr.
Jesse: Oye, sí. Let me tell you about that. (Laughter) Ya se me había olvidado. Pues, I get a phone call. We were just watching TV, no, Marylou?
Marylou: I guess so.
Jesse: I don’t think we thought it was a riot. Me hablaron unos muchachos. “Look, we’re at a school.” What was it, a school.
Marylou: It was at one of the schools, I think.
Chuy: A community building.
Jesse: “Would you please help us out? We can’t get a hold of Ralph Flores or Bob Sanchez…
Marylou: Dr. Casso.
Jesse: … y Dr. Casso dijo, “I’ll wait for you at the hospital si alguien los golpea.” Yo, pendejo, I don’t know what age I was, “Oye, Honey, I’m going to go meet these guys.” Ahí voy yo a ver que pasa. We didn’t know who’d survived. (?) Y luego vi al chief. I knew Chief González de Edinburg.
Jesse: He was Chief of Police. I told him that I had gotten this message.
Marylou: What’s his name, Honey. We see him all the time.
Marylou: The guy that called you.
Jesse: What’s his name?
Marylou: And we saw him not too long ago, one of the ones who…
Jesse: He took part in it.
Marylou: Rafael defended him.
Chuy: Oh, that would have been López.
Jesse: López, sí.
Marylou: What’s his first name?
Chuy: His first name is Alonzo…he’s a PhD.
Marylou: I think he was the one who called.
Jesse: He’s got a Dr.’s degree now?
Jesse: Anyway, fui con el Chief y le dije, “Chief, these kids called me from where they’re at and they just want to go home. They don’t want to cause any problems or go into any kind of property or anything. Would you please tell the rest of them to not arrest them, to just let them go a few at a time? Dijo, “Okay, Jesse, I’ll see what I can do.” Y fue con los que estaban ahí. Por eso sabían todos los que estaban ahí. They agreed que si acaso iban a salir, que salieran unos cuantos a la vez. And just go home. You’re not going to get arrested. And nobody got arrested.
Chuy: From that building.
Jesse: Yeah. Y luego pienso verdad (ahora) que ya estoy muy viejo y todo, “¡Pues que iba a hacer a un riot! Le dije a Marylou, ahorita vengo voy a…
Marylou: And I said, “Okay”. (Laughter) But it wasn’t a riot.
Jesse: No, but they were calling it that.
Chuy: Yeah, yeah. Nobody knew how serious it was until later…
Chuy: …what had happened. It’s interesting.
Marylou: Then you said there was a police car that came.
Jesse: Ah, sí. Vino. “What do you want?” Era de otro lugar. Dijo, “Que si acaso los muchachos necesitan un ride?” “No, vete a la fregada.” (Laughter) I forgot about that.
Chuy: No ride. You know, among the people who got arrested, including me, Judge Edgar Ruiz was also arrested. The two of us went over there, like you, …
Jesse: ¿Ah, si? You were younger.
Chuy: (Snaps fingers) …they picked us up like that.
Jesse: ¿Como se llama López?
Marylou: We see him all the time.
Jesse: Me saluda todo el tiempo.
Chuy: Alonzo Lopez. He’s a…
Marylou: …a real nice guy.
Chuy: Yes, as a matter of fact. He’s a good man.
Jesse: He sure is.
Chuy: Los López de Elsa.