Legacy Interview – Mario Compean Part 1

Interviewed By: July 14, 2017
Posted: 04/10/2021

Today is Friday July 14, 2017. We’re at 1313 Guadalupe Street in San Antonio, Texas. We are interviewing Mario Compean.

Mario: Part of that legacy aqui en San Antonio…you may want to look up an early book that was done by Rodolfo de la Garza. At the time he was in the Department of Political Science at UT-Austin. It is an early book about the Chicano movement by a political scientist, ves. In there, he has a chapter on MAYO and the Mexican-American Unity Council. He talks about that vision that we had at the time.

Chuy:  Okay. I’ll revisit that.

Mario:  I can’t remember the title, but look him up. Maybe you can find him. It was probably in the…

Chuy:  Early seventies?

Mario: Sixty-nine. Early Seventy.

Chuy:  Sixty-nine? Oh, that was right in the middle of it then. Well, we’re here on Guadalupe Street, sitting in the second story of this office building and you are involved with Immigration Services. Your organization is called…?

Mario:  Academia America.

Chuy:  Academia America…

Mario: Incorporated.


Chuy:  …Incorporated. Which is a nonprofit, I take it.

Mario:  Yes, it is.

Chuy:  And what you are involved in is… you’re providing some kind of formalized training to persons who want to become U.S. citizens through the naturalization process. Is that correct?

Mario:  That is correct. We have a course that prepares our clients or students to take the exam and to pass it. That is the objective. We also help them with paper work…not legal paper work because we cannot do that without an attorney. But we work with at least two non-profit legal service centers here. We have been working with them for a long time…about five years. They help prepare the legal application packet for our clients at a reduced cost because we negotiated that.

Chuy:  Right.

Mario:  First, most of the people we have here are Mexican. Second, they are working class with low education and a very low income. They can’t afford the fees. A private attorney will charge a minimum of a thousand dollars to prepare the application. If there is additional work…well, you know…you’re an attorney…if there is additional work, you add on charges.

Chuy:  Well, sure.

Mario:  So for individuals who have criminal history issues, then that costs them more. It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories from our clients. “Pos le pague diez mil y no ha hecho nada.”

Chuy:  Oh, my goodness.

Mario:  Now, I am not saying that all lawyers are crooked, but there is that element there. Not necessarily crooked, but they take advantage of the people because the clients are not familiar with the system.

Chuy:  Well, let me ask you this. What would be typically, on the legal side, assuming that there are no extraordinary obstacles, for the applicant, such as criminality or inability to prove certain things… the legal fee for assisting an applicant?

Mario:  As I said, a private attorney minimum is one thousand.

Chuy:  One thousand? That’s the minimum?

Mario:  Minimum. With the legal nonprofits, we are looking at half that much for that part…the cost of preparing the legal packet. The fees are different levels. There are application fees that clients need to pay to the immigration service.

Chuy:  Oh, those are separate fees?

Mario:  Separate set of fees. Right now, for most people with no issues, with a clean record, they have to pay seven hundred twenty-five dollars. Eighty-five of that is for the biometrics and the rest is for the processing of the application. Then there is a mailing cost, but also some require translations so that is an added cost. Typically, our clients will pay the seven hundred twenty-five plus the five hundred to prepare the paperwork…

Chuy:  A reduced fee.

Mario:  …if they go with our partners. All we ask them for is seventy-five dollars for our part. So, they are looking at fourteen hundred bucks.

Chuy:  Okay. So, let’s say fifteen hundred through the process that you’ve set up. But if it’s through a private attorney, then you’re looking probably at a minimum of two thousand dollars.

Mario:  That’s really cutting it. It’ll probably be closer to three thousand.

Chuy:  Three thousand. Okay. And that’s per head…per person, right?

Mario:  Per person.

Chuy:  Okay. Now, let me ask you this. On the application process, would a person with a high school diploma, knowing English, be able to assist an applicant?

Mario:  The answer is “yes” and “no”. The “no” has to do with the issue of practicing without a license. Ves, it’s a no-no. They are not supposed to do it. If you are not a licensed attorney you can’t do it. If they catch you, they’ll process you. There is one way to get around it and that’s another licensing procedure. There is what is called an accredited representative. That means that a person has to get a license from the Department of Justice to practice Immigration (Law). But they are required to have some kind of training: classes, experience.

Chuy:  Well, sure.

Mario:  But otherwise, the only other way they can do it is under the supervision of an attorney, as a paralegal.

Chuy:  Okay.

Mario:  So that the “yes” part is, even as competent and as experienced as a person may be, with an education and a professional of sorts, can help them do the work. If they screw up, they mess up the client.

Chuy:  Right. My experience has been that when you’re dealing with people with limited English or no English and they are poor, it is extremely more difficult to manage that kind of client.

Mario:  Very difficult because first of all, they start fresh, not knowing anything about the system or the laws and how they work. Immigration Law is very complex. So things that appear to them to be minor things, may really be serious in Immigration Law.

Chuy:  Which only shows that you really need to have legal counsel, basically. Particularly, if you are poor and you do not speak English.


Mario:  Yes. Now that applies a hundred times over in the current situation.

Chuy:  Why is that?

Mario:  Because of the difference in enforcement policies from the previous administrations to the current one… there’s a change. Whereas before, the policies were focused on just keeping out the hard core criminals. There was flexibility to look the other way for certain offenses, even some felonies. As long as they could show, with the proper documentation…certified documents, court records, for example, that they had cleared all of that, more than likely, they could get by. That showed that they had paid their debt to society.

Chuy:  That was kind of an administrative deferral?

Mario:  Aha. So now the idea, if I can use that kind of language, is “Screw them.”  It’s focused on keeping people out. In fact, the director of ICE, in testimony before Congress a month ago said, “If you have the slightest infraction on your record, even if it’s a traffic ticket, you are liable for deportation[1] and that is the way we are treating it. So, their objective is to find little “cositas’ in each applicant. If they find something, that’s up for denial and even for processing.

Chuy:   It’s a zero policy, right?

Mario:  Yes. So, what we are advising our clients is first, don’t take our word, don’t take your “tio’s” word or your “comadre’s” word. Take the attorney’s word. You go see that attorney.

Chuy:  You know, Mario, to digress from that, my sense is that people who have been raised in Mexico, under that culture in Mexico, do not have the same perception of the laws that we have in this country.

Mario: Oh, yeah. It’s very different.

Chuy:  Very different. It seems to me, from my experience, and I practice right on the border, that there is a perception among Mexicans that the law is not always necessarily enforced in Mexico. And that there are ways around the laws, even the harshest laws…that there’s ways around there.  It’s a very personalized process, if you have a friend or know a politician. There is less of an attention to detail. Does that make sense to you?

Mario:  It sure does. Some clients have come in and said to us, “Cuanto le doy?”  La mordida.

Chuy:  La mordida. Right.

Mario:  I’ll say, “Nosotros nada mas cobramos lo de las clases y ya”.

Chuy:  And that is obviously not only a decades-old, but I think probably a centuries-old part of that culture. So, I know that there are a few groups like yours in Texas, that are doing this kind of service. But, do you have an idea how many throughout the state are actually organized formally the way you are and are performing these kinds of services to applicants?

Mario:  What do you mean…groups?

Chuy:  Organizations like yours.

Mario:  Not too many. Here, we’re the only ones.

Chuy:  In San Antonio. In a typical year, you’re seeing how many people?

Mario:  Our fiscal year runs October 1 through September 30. In the first three quarters of this fiscal year, we have enrolled one hundred seventy-five students.

Chuy:  Okay, now. Describe your students. Are these people who have entered the country undocumented? Illegally? Not in compliance with the law?

Mario:  Yes. Some of them came in that way. What happens is that some time back they adjusted their status[2] and became legal residents.

Chuy:  That would have arisen out of the Reagan years, correct?

Mario:  Well, that law has been around forever, but the Reform Bill passed during the Reagan years legalized many farm workers.[3] That was the Reform Bill in 1986 and there was another Reform Bill passed in the early 90’s. Those two reforms gave some type of legal status to whomever was here legally at that time.

Chuy:  You mean prior to that time?

Mario:  Right. So, we get some of those. But the main route is adjustment through family. One becomes a citizen and they bring in the rest. For the education part, we can only enroll those who are legally qualified because, first, they cannot apply for citizenship if they are not residents. Then, if they are residents, they have to have a five-year residency. One exception is for those who have been married to a U.S. citizen for three years. They don’t have to wait five years. So, we have to check all that. If they don’t meet all those requirements, there is no way they’re going to get it.

Chuy:  Let’s go back. So those people whose status was adjusted by virtue of the Reform Immigration Law, some of those folks are still formally adjusting their status. They still have to prove their presence in the country prior to those years. Do you get some of those?

Mario:  Oh, yes. We refer them to the Center because we cannot do legal work for them.

The proposal that I am finishing right now is so that we can provide legal services. Hire an attorney so we can do it ourselves. I said our group was the only one that teaches classes. For legal services providers, there are only three non-profits at St. Mary’s University Law School.

So, we work with two of those groups. The other one works by themselves. The main one is “Raices” with close to thirty attorneys. They are non-profit and all they do is immigration. They are our partners but they have a back-log…a waiting list.

Chuy: Well, sure.

Mario:  So it is difficult for our clients to get an appointment when they need it, on demand. They have to wait a long time. There is another group that started recently, but they only hold consultations once a month. So in the meantime people are asking when they can get an appointment. To get around it, we are trying to run with it and get our own attorney.

Chuy:  And you could get any number of legal assistants or paralegals for that.

Mario:  Oh, yes. Arturo, who was on the panel, is our main instructor here. He and I took a forty-hour course: Introduction to Immigration Law. As soon as we get the attorney, we will be able to work under the attorney’s direction to do that kind of work.

Chuy:  Does the attorney have to be present here in your facilities or can he…?

Mario: Not necessarily. As paralegals, we can do the preliminary work.

Chuy: But he or she, the lawyer, signs off on it.

Mario: The lawyer has to sign off on it.

Chuy:  So the lawyer has exposure?

Mario: Oh, yes. That means that if we would do the preliminary work, then the lawyer has to do the final entry. That’s before the pre-work is submitted.

Chuy:  So there is no easy way?

Mario: No. There is a form they require called G28 Notice of Entry. The attorney has to sign it. It works both ways. For the benefit of the client, if there is an issue and you don’t have that form, you can’t intervene. The client is left hanging. With that notice, the attorney can call and inquire about client status directly. Right now, clients only have one option and that is to go online. But all they tell you is; “We sent you a letter a year ago and you haven’t responded”. That’s it.

Chuy:  No other chance. So the classes themselves are for an examination that is given.

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  Is every applicant required to take that examination regardless of their status?

Mario: If they applied for citizenship, they have to take it.

Chuy:  And that’s the ultimate?

Mario: Everyone that applies has to take it. There is no two ways about it. The only wiggle room that they have is for those who have trouble with English. If they meet the other requirements, residency is one of them and age is another one, then they can take it in Spanish. We have a course for that group and a course for those who have to take it in English.

Chuy:  Is there any reliable data available of the number of persons who are in this state who are undocumented?

Mario: Oh, yes.

Chuy:  And what is the most reliable source of that data?

Mario: The Immigration Service itself. They are the ones who keep it.

Chuy:  Okay. Are there any academic sources?

Mario:  Homeland Security.[4] It’s on their website and it’s called The Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Each year it’s published for the previous year. Right now the most current one is for last year’s data. And it’s published every September.

Chuy:  And I take it that it has estimates of the number of undocumented people?

Mario:  They have all kinds of statistics data: the number that come in each year legally, the estimated number of undocumented people by state and by what the Office of Management  and Budget calls core-base area, similar to metropolitan area on the Census.[5]

Chuy: Right. Formally, SMSA.

Mario:  So now San Antonio it is called San Antonio-New Braunfels and it’s eight counties, including Bexar. So that handbook has all the breakdowns and then they also publish periodical report summaries. They call it Immigration Flows. They summarize the data for a year. Nationally, they break down the data by how many are present, by state, by occupation and also by gender. And the Handbook has all the details in each category.

Chuy: All right.

Mario:  In the Handbook you can find the number of documented and undocumented people in each area, by state or by region.

Chuy: Okay, let’s shift gears, moving to the VISTA Minority Mobilization Program. My earliest recollection of the MM Program, Mario, was summer or fall of ’68. The program as it was envisioned, what do you know about why the program was created and what was its mission under the OEO?[6]

Mario:  My own recollection is that there were two social work professors at Lady of the Lake College and they are the ones who talked to me about it. One of them is Gilbert Murillo who is still alive here.

Chuy:  I remember him.

Mario:  Gilbert Murillo was involved here locally with all the movement that was going on. There was a lot of activity at the same that time MAYO was forming and prior to that. Some LULAC[7] types, but professionals around here were attacking employment discrimination in two units in the City. Primarily the electric cooperative, now called CPS Energy. That comes from the original name, City Public Service Board. These guys said “there is a lot of employment discrimination here. The only Chicanos working there are the ones digging the ditches.”

Chuy:  So it was union oriented. Fair to say?

Mario:  It was more the professional class and community leaders.

Chuy:  Oh. The administrative class.

Mario:  Yes. The second track was employment discrimination at Kelly Air Base. So those were the two tracks they focused on.  Some of the people at Kelly were union members because there was a union there.

Chuy:  Where does Munoz, Henry Munoz, come in?

Mario: He wasn’t part of that, as far as I can recall. I think he was AFL-CIO.

Chuy:  Okay. Go ahead. So that was happening. There was activity about employment.

Mario: Yes, and Gilbert Murillo was involved in that. But then they also received a big push and mobilizations with the farmworkers’ strike out at La Casita[8] en el Valle. Then this group really mobilized…

Chuy:  To support La Casita strike.

Mario:  Yes, and then some people who were active with the Archdiocese, the Crucistas[9], also became part of that. So all of a sudden, you have a lot of activity coalescing around the Farmworker issue. That was also what was going on. Then there was another pocket of activists and they were focused on the City politics.

Chuy:  The GGL.[10]

Mario:  Yes, and there was an older man whose name was Raul Rodriguez. Every single City

Council meeting, he was there and he was raising hell. The newspaper columnists referred to

him as “The Gadfly”

Chuy:  “The Gadfly” Rodriguez.

Mario:  Around him, an Anglo man from the East came in. His name was Tom Cayhill. He started a newspaper called “El Inferno”[11]. So, you have two places of activity at physical locations. Right by the Mexican-American Unity Council on West Commerce[12] was the office of the professional group. They call themselves Federation for the Advancement of Mexican-Americans, FAMA. And those were the guys who were active with discrimination. Then the newspaper guy and the old man, Mr. Rodriguez, located farther south down the street here a few blocks, that also merges with Frio. There was a man who later became involved with Raza Unida who owned that building.  He was a firefighter and his name was Martin Sada.

Chuy:  Sada. S-a-d-a?

Mario:  Uh-huh. So, he lent them part of the building and the offices of “El Inferno” were there. Tom Cayhill, the publisher and editor lived there. The front part was the newspaper office and there was a little back room. That is where he slept. So we used to hang out, the meetings over here and at the “Inferno”. There was a lot of activity going on. So again, Murillo was involved with all of that. Later on, somehow, Murillo and the other professor…I believe that professor was at Trinity University, by the name was Richard Reimer, conceived the idea of the minority mobilization program as part of VISTA. But there was an Austin connection. I don’t know the details of that.

Chuy:  Okay.

Mario:  Except that one person that did come up was Gonzalo Barrientos[13] and Jose Urriegas[14].

Chuy:  Right. Alex Moreno, who is an attorney in McAllen, is a former state legislator. He was one of the first Raza Unida candidates back in Hidalgo County in 1970. He got involved as a student with the La Casita Farm strike. That indicates to me that La Casita farmworker strike was symbolically getting a lot of attention and interest and a lot of it in San Antonio, number one. Number two, the MM VISTA program comes to South Texas to El Valle in the spring of ’68 or the summer or fall of ’68. Some of the people who are there, and they are all from outside of the Valley, are Ruben Barrera[15], who is now an attorney, and Roberto Garcia[16], who’s a former municipal judge, in Austin, retired. I don’t know if El Profe was an MM.

Mario:  Yeah.

Chuy:  Was he? Well, El Profe from San Antonio comes in that same period down to the Valley to Pharr, San Juan. Jose Urriegas is the first Supervisor for the MM program. In retrospect, for me going back and looking at that, I see the MM program as an amazing creation which must have been concocted by somebody who really knew what they were doing. And I cannot believe that this was something that came from Washington. I remember that Gonzalo Barrientos was at the Administrative Offices in Austin with the VISTA program. And I need to find out what that relationship was. But this is where I’m headed. You’ve described to me, activities, in the 60’s, the mid to late 60’s, that are occurring in San Antonio among different groups, right? My suspicion is that it’s happening to some extent in academia, and to some extent with those people who are looking for advancement in jobs. They are not getting them. And then there is a general discontent with the GGL which is the political machine that controlled government here for many years. When the MM VISTA program comes in, now you have people who are actually given some kind of a stipend. Small as it was, people are able to survive on that, right?

Mario:  Yes.

Chuy:  And now there’s actually a strategy. Now it’s not just people complaining and protesting or whatever. And now there’s a strategy.  Can we organize the discontent in some form?

Does that make sense to you?

Mario: It sure does. That was the objective of the program. That was the concept. It was to have community organizers go out in those communities. The problem had been diagnosed as lack of participation. They would train communities to take problems by the horns themselves. So the specific mission of the VISTA volunteer was to go out and organize those communities. How that fits in with MAYO is that Gil Murillo hired me to be a recruiter trainer. That is how we used that program to build the MAYO statewide. It may not have been planned detail by detail, but that is the way it worked.

Chuy: Um-Hmm. It was a general, conceived plan. Come decimos en espanol, “al troche y moche”, but there was a sense of mission. Right?

Mario: Right. So, the way it came out was that the VISTA organizers wore two hats: they were

VISTA organizers and they were MAYO’s.

Chuy: Right.

Mario: And like you said, what we had was a paid army of organizers. That’s really the best way to describe it. And it worked.

Chuy:  Is it fair to say that part of that objective was to identify leadership in those communities that would then, in their communities, commence to organize around whatever issue that might exist?

Mario:  Cultivate, develop local leadership.

Chuy:  Efrain Fernandez[18] was also…

Mario: Yes. That’s right

Chuy:  …an MM organizer from those years.

Mario:  Exactly. He’s still there?

Chuy:  He’s still there in San Juan. I have not seen him for a while, but he is still there. I know he was interviewed recently by an academic program there in the Valley. I am looking forward to seeing what the interview was about. Now you mentioned the Cruciistas. What can you tell me about who they were and what they brought to the mission here.

Mario:  Some of those were converts analogous to the Born Again Christian types.

Chuy:  Within the Church, though?

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  Within the Catholic Church?


Mario:  Exactly. Within the Catholic Church. The Cursillo Movement. The “cursillo” is from the word course. Gil Murillo somehow connected with them and hired some of them to be the trainers.  They would do part of the training. It consisted mostly of testimonials: “I used to be…. and now I’m a changed person.” I remember one guy when we were doing a session, I guess for Del Rio or Uvalde, I can’t remember, one of the two. And that guy goes on like an Evangelical preacher and he tears his shirt apart. “Mira,” he says, “this is from the past.” Una cicatriz from top to bottom.

Chuy: A scar right down his stomach.

Mario:  Yes, and the style of delivery captivated the young people.

Chuy:  Well, I don’t recall exactly when, but it was in ’68. I was invited to one of those sessions. And I don’t remember much but, I remember that there were two people there, Chaca and El Tigre from Laredo. And I obviously lost track of those folks many, many years ago. And David Lopez from the Valley who was also a supervisor, who is deceased. He became a lawyer and is deceased.

Mario:  Yes, I was wondering about him. I couldn’t remember his name.

Chuy:  Yeah. My recollection is that I came up with David Lopez and gosh, I’m a high school senior at the beginning of the school year and I came up and attended one of those sessions. I remember something about the testimonial approach. I remember leaving there feeling, for the first time, that I was beginning to understand myself and know myself. And I have a sense that that was what they were doing. That they were drawing out from the participants a sense of self and identity.

Mario:  A sense of self-worth.

Chuy:  Yeah, yeah. Self-worth and I always wondered where that came from. Now, one of the things that the Crusiista Movement also contributed to the Movimiento was the song “De Colores”.

Mario: Oh, yeah. The became the farmworkers’ song.

Chuy:  But that is something that came from them, is that correct?

Mario:  Yeah, it comes from the Church, from the Catholic religion.

Chuy:  All right.

Mario:  Every time there was a demonstration.

Mario Compean

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