Legacy Interview – Mario Compean Part 5

Date of Interview: Saturday, July 17, 2017
Interviewed By: Chuy Ramriez
Posted: 04/19/2021

Chuy:  So in terms of the election results, there was a run-off between McAllister … do you remember who got into the run-off?

Mario:  It was a white guy, but I really can’t remember the name. I want to say that his last name was Hill but…

Chuy:  Okay, and so you came in third and within a few votes of a run off?

Mario:  Yeah. A change plus or minus…

Chuy:   So that for that time it would have been a major, major, major success.

Mario:  It was. I think it sent ripples throughout.

Chuy:  Is it fair to say, Mario…and of course, as you know, this essay that we are working on is called The Legacy of the Chicano Movement and La Raza Unida. And I know you are a modest man and obviously there are all kinds of factors that contribute to it, but in terms of putting up a face to the system, overtly and challenging the system, would that have been the first time a Chicano actually faced the power structure on an equal basis?

Mario:  Yeah. Prior to that, there hadn’t been that type of confrontation with the power structure. There had been opposition, because these Liberal guys had been working on it for a while for several years. There was one example prior to my race, but it did not acquire as much significance as mine and that was Peter Torres[22]. Before I ran, there had only been two guys who had managed to crack the GGL. That was Henry B. in the early 50’s.

Chuy:  But he joined the GGL. The GGL endorsed him?

Mario:  Yeah. I don’t know the details, but he was the first one to get in. But the real outsider

who cracked through was Peter Torres. He was the first one.

Chuy:  Okay.

Mario:  It was a similar movement, in a sense, but only political: the candidates, and all of that…

Chuy:  But did the GGL allow him to win?

Mario:  Well, he ran independently.

Chuy:  But did they put up a candidate against him?

Mario:  Oh, yeah. But he beat him.

Chuy:  Okay. So, Peter Torres actually did defeat, head-on, a GGL candidate?

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  Won.

Mario:  But his race was a different type of race.

Chuy:  Explain.

Mario:  It was a conventional political campaign. Ours was a movement.

Chuy:  Right.

Mario:  There’s a difference.

Chuy:  Well, that’s what I’m saying. We’re talking about the legacy of the Chicano movement and so there is not, prior to that, the identity, that he is running as a Chicano.

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  And that is the first time in San Antonio where a Chicano, as such and calling himself such, runs for office.

Mario:  Oh, yeah.

Chuy:  Now, I asked you earlier, “What was your mission in running?” Obviously, one would think that it’s self-evident. Well, of course, to win. You always want to win. But was that your ultimate mission?

Mario:  No, the whole focus or main purpose was to throw out the GGL because we identified it as the group responsible for the conditions in the barrios, the neglect of our people and for purposely and intentionally keeping us Chicanos as a subordinated people. So, our campaign defined itself as such. We’re out to throw these guys out so things can change and bring better conditions to our people in the barrios. So, it was much larger than just one person getting elected to City Council.

Chuy:  Okay. I’m going to offer two observations of the results of that race, Mario, or maybe three. One is, it showed San Antonio that if a young person could challenge the GGL, challenge the Mayor and get close to the run-off, that you were beginning to see the possibility at least, that the GGL could be defeated and defeated solidly. Right? Number One. Number two, that you had a Chicano running who identified with the Chicano movement and even then, in San Antonio, that someone who had those kinds of leanings, might be elected, sooner rather than later, and that was the precedent that was being set. And that finally, perhaps more importantly, is that that might mean the beginnings of a structural change across San Antonio among Chicanos. By structural, I mean political, economic, educational and so forth.

Mario: Um-hm.

Chuy:  So for people who are political by nature, who are watching the results to this campaign, did they take advantage of it?

Mario:  Oh, they sure did.

Chuy:  How did they take advantage of it?

Mario:  One thing that our candidacy did was show that it could be done. It set off in-fighting within the GGL. On the one hand, there were those who were saying, “We have to crush these little mother*******s.

Chuy: Um-hmm, um-hmm.

Mario:  And then there were the moderate voices who said, “We need to adapt.” So, then, there were Whites, non-GGL types, who saw it as an opening. So that by ‘73, the first non-GGL mayor gets elected.

Chuy:  Who was that?

Mario:  Charles Becker, owner of a grocery store chain that no longer exists. Well, he doesn’t own them now. There may be one or two stores left, pero se llamaban Handy Andy Food Markets. So, he was the owner, Charles Becker. He ran and won, defeated the GGL.

Chuy:  Was there a Chicano candidate?

Mario:  I don’t recall. But our two subsequent races in ’69 and ’72, provided empirical data for MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Fund) to argue for single-member districts. It was used so that by the mid-70’s, as soon as the Justice Department forces the change and the City changes to single-member districts, overnight, the majority of the City Council are Chicano and Black. That’s a significant part of the Legacy.

Chuy:  Perhaps, one thing that is very important in that is that you said “there is empirical data”.

And what do you mean by “empirical voting data”?

Mario:  Voting returns show us that in many of the Westside and Southside districts, I beat the incumbent Mayor two to one. And I won some pockets outside not considered Chicano at the time. Closer to the airport, there’s a place called…the barrio name is La Piedriera because there is a rock quarry around there. People used to work there and in fact, that’s partly why Chicano people settled there. So, that’s a pocket there, one precinct that I carried.

Chuy:  So, all of a sudden someone who is familiar with data can look at the precincts and identify where the right precincts are and percentages and maybe where voter registration might increase and that kind of thing, right?

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  Where you can improve turnout. So that is a major, major, major result of that.

Mario:  Si. MALDEF used that data to argue. They said, “The fact that the at-large system here is in place keeps Chicanos from being represented. So, for them to have representation on City Council, we need to stick to districts and this data shows it.” That if our candidates had run on single member districts, we would have won.

Chuy:  Okay. So that’s the second result of that campaign. And as it were, the campaign had long-term political effects that probably would not have existed or resulted but for that candidacy.

Mario:  Right. It inspired others to run for office so that by the single member district era, when that begins, you have other Chicanos emerging. Younger Chicanos who don’t grow up with the power structure. With one exception, who was Henry Cisneros. But guys like Abelardo Uresti, activist with MALDEF and Raza Unida. He got elected to City Council and he turned out to be a really good one.

Chuy:  Right.

Mario:  After that, you had a succession of candidates that grow up in the barrio representing that area. This area, for example, if I had run by a district, this would have been my area although I live on the western edge of the district.

Chuy:  Yeah, you would have been a Commissioner, if you had run for Commissioner in a separate District. So, by 1969, in the Fall of ’69, after your election, we are down in La Lomita in Mission having a MAYO Convention. Did you participate in any of the organizing of that or the setting up of the process for that?

Mario:  Yeah, well, the getting people there, that was my role. Then Jose Angel, he was the main organizer as I recall it. He did most of the work. We had all those people there and we had to make sure that everyone came. I don’t know if you recall that it was billed as the National MAYO

Convention. (Laughter)

Chuy:  Yeah.

Mario:  At La Lomita, there were some really important events that were taken up as part of the program. I don’t know if you remember about that.

Chuy:  Well, I remember three things because we were the sponsors down there. I remember, as it were, Alberto Luera and I ended up doing the mashed potatoes and the beans and all of that because, when the women got there, Marta Cotera, prominent, of course, they made their own manifesto and they said, “We ain’t cooking for nobody.” (Laughter) And they got into the auditorium and locked themselves in to have their own separate convention. I don’t know if you recall that.

Mario:  I remember that was part of it.

Chuy:  I remember being somewhat shocked simply because it was amazing to me how the women had evolved so quickly into their own consciousness within the Chicano movement. Right? I remember that vividly and because I did a lot of cooking. (Laughter) I had the responsibility for security so I had very little time that I spent in any of the sessions.

Mario: Yeah.

Chuy:  That was one result that I thought that was very, very important. Secondly, was the Raza Unida plan that we were going to create, a third party. And at that time, I thought, I really believed that the Raza Unida Party, within my understanding of what it would be, was a necessary part, or step in what the Movement needed to do. I was really focused on that. And the reason, was that we had just had an election in San Juan, my hometown, in 1969, and it was the first time that three Chicanos were running for Mayor and Commissioners. It was a three-member Council, Mayor and two Commissioners. These were older fellows. I was still in high school. When the results came in, I noticed that they won in the Chicano precincts, but barely, and they had lost substantially in the Gabacho precincts. And I looked at the numbers on the turnout and I said, “Wow, it’s all a matter of turnout. I mean, the votes are there”. Right? So, I had a real sense that that kind of data was important. So, when La Lomita came up and the Raza Unida Party was a goal of that convention, then I was very impressed by that. Then the third thing that came out of that was on education and the Colegio, the Chicano College that was being developed at the time. Not that those goals were embraced by everyone, you know, but there was enough for everyone there. So, fast-forward, by 1970, by the time we come out of that Lomita Conference, Jose Angel is already trying to organize the party in his part of the world and we got ours. I remember that we were struggling with the name. We had to use three words for the name of the party so we couldn’t use La Raza Unida Party. So, we came up with Raza Unida Party.

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  And that’s the way we got it organized in Hidalgo County and we got the signatures and so forth. I don’t recall what happened in the Winter Garden area; whether it got thrown out that first year or whether they were a write-in. Maybe they were a write-in, I don’t remember.

Mario: I don’t either.

Chuy:  So now in Hidalgo County, we’re doing the same thing that you were doing here when you were running. We wanted to create some kind of a data base. Among the first candidates in 1970 is Alex Moreno, who is running for County Commissioner, Precinct 2, and he loses. But now we have data and the data shows that Alex Moreno, in those precincts that we talked about, in San Juan and in Alamo, he won substantially. The turnout was greater and the difference of the vote was substantial. So, now we knew where to target, right? The 1970 Hidalgo County Raza Unida Party is the direct result of the 1969 National MAYO Convention. So now we’ve evolved from a movement to actually challenging the power structure right at its doorstep on an equal basis, right?

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  So from there, I want to go to the state Party. I want to put you at…where was it? At the Majestic when we had the first Raza Unida organizing…?

Mario:  Are you talking when we organized the state party, when we agreed to…, when it was decided?

Chuy:  I think so.

Mario:  That meeting took place at a location that is down a few blocks…

Chuy:  Aqui?

Mario:  …at the corner of West Commerce and Colorado. It was called at the time Salon Tejas.

Chuy:  All right. So, there was substantial attendance, from my recollection. It was a pretty good group of people there and there is a debate going on. And what is the debate about and who are the players?

Mario:  Who are they? I don’t remember.


Chuy:  Maybe we can try. (Laughing)

Mario:  The debate centered on whether we wanted to create a state party or just stay focused on a regional basis.

Chuy:  By regional, like the party in Hidalgo County.

Mario:  Or Crystal City.

Chuy:  Or Crystal, right.

Mario:  So that was the central focus of the debate. The players were Jose Angel and myself plus the MAYOs. Everybody was on one side or the other depending on where they were from. Everyone in Crystal City, of course, supported the local strategy and everyone outside supported the state strategy.

Chuy:  Except for us. I supported the state strategy. (Chuckle)

Mario:  I supported the state-wide strategy because I said, “I don’t want just a Crystal City, I want many.” It seems that the best way to achieve that is to have a statewide structure. Because otherwise, the local strategy would leave out all those outlying areas. We have a hu-u-u-ge space out there in West Texas, for example, and the guys in the North Texas area and in Houston. So those would have been left out. I thought that there is only so much time that you can count on people to be committed to you on a day-to-day basis, if they are not working for the local area. So, they could come to Crystal City, spend a month, then they get tired and leave.

Chuy:  Exactly.

Mario:  But, the fact that we had a state party kept them continuously engaged because they were interested in changing the local communities.

Chuy:  Let me ask you two things about that, Mario. First, and I’ll let you take it whichever way you want. Approach it whichever way. At first, what is your sense of whether the people who were attending that first meeting saw the goal as creating a formidable statewide organization to challenge the other parties? Or whether they saw it as an interim strategy? Or perhaps a third option, it wasn’t even on their minds yet? What are your thoughts?

Mario:  That’s a difficult one. We were caught in the movement, in the action so it had its huge disadvantages. You have to invest a lot of effort and resources in fighting little fires that just serve to be distractions. I guess one of the worse negative effects that it triggered was that the Democratic Party really felt threatened and they became the active enemy against us and many of those guys.

Chuy:  Including Henry B.

Mario:  Well, he was the main one. There were others, for example, Joe Bernal. Since they were already public figures, they, each one of them, had their own loyal base. And they were upset.

Chuy:  Well, but that was a natural reaction because they’ve invested their efforts in the Democratic Party and so now you’re basically challenging their own livelihood, are you not? Indirectly?

Mario:  Right. And they were also under pressure. Much like it’s done today, they were under pressure to criticize us. They had to disavow us. For example, when I ran for City Council, I took part in that press conference where Jose Angel made his famous statement. I was right there.

Chuy:  Which statement?

Mario:  “Kill the Gringos”.

Chuy:  Oh, okay, wow. Were you running for Mayor at the time?

Mario:  Right after that.

Chuy:  Oh, my goodness!

Mario:  No, as a matter of fact, let’s see, it was during the campaign because that press conference was held at our campaign headquarters.

Chuy:  I was thinking that it was held down the road, yeah.

Mario:  For some reason, the media did not come after me. They just went after Jose Angel.

Chuy:  Well, they might have overlooked it. (Laughter)

Mario:  I made a statement. I announced there, “We’re going to take Henry B out.” (Laughter) Even that, they did not pick it up.

Chuy:  I remember that whole issue later than that. I am going to suspect that Willy Velasquez did not make the National MAYO Convention. And I am going to suspect that Willy was

opposed to the Raza Unida Party from day one. Correct?

Mario:  Say it again?

Chuy:  That Willy Velasquez was not in agreement with the creation of Raza Unida Party.

Mario: Oh, no, he was in strong disagreement.

Chuy:  What was his background that would indicate why he would not embrace that as a strategy?

Mario:  He didn’t believe that Raza Unida was workable. Some of his comments that I recall were that he was reading the history of quote, “Third Parties in National Politics” and every political scientist wrote, “They’re failures, they’re short-lived so why waste your time with them? So that was his attitude. That they wouldn’t succeed because they’d never succeeded in history.

Chuy:  But did he perhaps also have any stronger ties to the traditional liberals in San Antonio?

Mario:  Yeah, he was connected to the Liberals here in town. He started out as a protégé of

Henry B, but they had a falling out.

Chuy:  But did he continue to have a relationship with either state or national Democratic Party?

Mario:  Oh, yeah. He was there in Washington with the Democratic Party.

Chuy:  That’s kind of what I remember. I don’t remember many conversations with him as the Raza Unida Party was being organized. I do recall that he was already involved with the Southwest Voter Registration Project and that, at least in the areas where we were involved in Hidalgo County, we were the only resource available to him for voter registration. And I think to this day, Juan Maldonado probably continues to be one of his directors over there at the Southwest Project. But Raza Unida had two initial statewide runs with Ramsey Muniz. Then you ran. What year did you run?

Mario:  ’78.

Chuy:  Okay. Let’s go back to the first statewide campaign. I am going to challenge you to recall. There was a meeting either one early morning or late at night, on the Southwest Side. My recollection is that it is in an old building, maybe like a gas station or a machine shop or something. We all met because we had an emergency. We still did not have the signatures, but we needed to file a candidate for governor. So, we showed up there for this emergency and we were all standing around in this place. You were there. Jose Angel was there. And that’s when we first heard about Ramsey Muniz. Do you recall that session?

Mario:  Yeah. I had a role in recruiting Ramsey. I didn’t set out to recruit him. I had had contact with the people in Waco, with MAYOs. I had been going there, not regularly, but on an occasional basis. They had had a walkout there. I don’t know if you recall.

Chuy:  I don’t recall that.

Mario:  About one hundred Chicanos got suspended.

Chuy:  I see.

Mario:  I was____Chairman brought in to raise hell about that. At any rate, I got to know the guys in Waco. There was one guy that I thought might be a good candidate so I went over there to recruit the guy. He said, “Oh, no, no, no.” What was his name? Johnny…he owned a night club. Johnny Something. Anyway…

Chuy:  Oh, Johnny. Was he the guy who married Alma Canales?

Mario:  No, that’s Steve.

Chuy:  That’s Steve. Right. Okay.

Mario:  That’s Steve Espinosa.

Chuy:  Also from Waco, right?

Mario:  Yeah. So, Steve and his brother and Johnny were all part of the MAYO group.

Chuy:  Right.

Mario:  So I went to Johnny in Waco and said, “Johnny, you’ve got to run, man”

Chuy:  For governor?

Mario:  For governor. He said, “Aw, no, Mario”. You know, those guys over there have that West Texas accent.

Chuy:  Actually, East Texas…drawl.

Mario:  East Texas Gringo drawl. Then he said, “I think that Ramsey would be the best candidate”

Chuy:  You didn’t know Ramsey.

Mario:  I had met him, yeah.

Chuy:  Oh, had you met him?

Mario:  Yeah. I had met him because he was involved with… he had some role advising in that walkout.

Chuy:  I see. So, we’re there at that meeting and, as usual, Jose Angel is one of the guys that’s

controlling the conversation. And, I think, we’re still even talking about, I think, whether we go statewide or not. Right? (Laughter)

Mario:  About to canvass. (Laughter)

Chuy:  So that was the discussion. I think it was a very early morning meeting, madrugada, something like that. I remember driving all the way from the Valley up and we’re standing there. I am looking around and saying, “We have a party in Hidalgo County. We’ve already collected signatures and we know that’s it’s a pain in the ass.” I remember, Mario, on the signatures for 1970. I remember recruiting farmworkers, viejitas, y todo, and we went out and got signatures everywhere. Right? And then I was a little disappointed that we had a whole bunch of candidates filing who had not even helped with the project. (Laughter) So I am looking around saying, “Who’s going to be our gubernatorial candidate.” Of course, in my mind, the worst candidate would be Jose Angel Gutierrez. I’ve said it all along, just simply because I thought that we would end up fighting the press and explaining and all of that stuff, right, for all these indiscretions. (Laughter) Anyway, I remember that he had to go somewhere. So, he said, “Here is my application. If nobody else runs, then I’ll run.” And I’m going, “What the hell is going on?” And then, I had seen Ramsey Muniz standing there, but I thought he was a Gabacho. And we left without a candidate. I don’t know if you remember that.

Mario:  No.

Chuy:  We left there. I did. I left that meeting without knowing that there was a candidate. So my attitude was, “Well, if there is no statewide party, there’s no statewide party. We still have Hidalgo County.” And it wasn’t until later, that I realized, maybe a day or two later, (Laughter) that Ramsey Muniz was the candidate for governor. I said, “Who’s that?” (Laughter) The guy who was there. So that’s the way the statewide party got organized.

Mario:  Yeah. I called the guys and asked, “Do you still think Ramsey would be a candidate?” They said, “Yeah.” So, I said, “Well, get his butt over here!” (Hilarious laughter) He came.

Chuy:  Yeah.

Mario:  I do remember, though, the problems that we had recruiting candidates because I know Jose Angel asked Pena, Bernal and I don’t know who else and they all said, “No”.

Chuy:  Well, none of those guys were going to do it.

Mario:  Jose Angel and somebody said, “Well, you run.” So llegaron aquellos, los de Waco, so when he left, he had already signed the papers.

Chuy:  Se fue. Well, I just want to touch briefly on Ramsey. That’s obviously a totally different story. But one of the things that Ramsey Muniz brought to the table was the approach. His approach was totally different to what we were accustomed to. (Chuckle)

Mario:  Oh, yeah.

Chuy:  He really was not a person who was apt to sit down and prepare a cogent presentation of ideas. But he was a good-looking character, very appealing to the camera and that kind of thing. And I frankly don’t know that anybody who was serious about winning would’ve ever, in that era, in the early era, would’ve run for that office. I don’t know if Ramsey ever believed he could win, but I think he and his family made one of the greatest sacrifices…

Mario:  Oh, yeah.

Chuy:  …that you can make. After the second election, which would be, I guess, ’74, Willy Velasquez comes to South Texas. I believe it is then that Jimmy Carter’s now been nominated for President by the Democratic Party. I think I have that correct. And Willy Velasquez comes down. I don’t know whose emissary he was, but we put together a group of people and he came down and he said, “Well, you guys have given it your best, but this is the perfect opportunity to join the Democratic Party. There’s a good opportunity to make some headway.” There was a division among the group. Those Chicanos who had been elected to office tended toward dropping the Party (Raza Unida) and join in the election of Carter and those who had not, tended to move away from being involved in the Democratic Party Certainly, from where I sat, that was

a consistent approach, which was, in my mind, the Party (Raza Unida) was a tactic, part of a long    term strategy. We’ve done that and now we can do greater things. Whether or not that made any sense and still makes any sense, I have more questions about that now more than ever. (Laughter) That comes with age and experience. But I want you to share your thoughts about that because I know that you ran for office and still Raza Unida in, what was it, ’78?

Mario:  ’78.

Chuy:  And so for all practical purposes, the statewide party did not die until…when? When was that the last time?

Mario:  Well, officially that’s with my race.

Chuy:  Okay. So that was the last time there was a viable three percent vote?

Mario:  Right. The chance was there but the total was very small. It was like twenty thousand.

Chuy:  And for those who don’t know, what we’re saying is that you can continue being a viable party on the ballot only if you keep getting at least a three percent vote.

Mario:  Right. So, I didn’t get it. Pero, the other part of the strategy that we had argued all along, and on those terms, it was a successful race. As popular as Ramsey’s campaign was and the vote total that he got, he never achieved what I did with twenty thousand, which was cause the loss of John Hill.

Chuy:  Um-hmm. And I’m going to get into that.

Mario:  That’s what Jose Angel always argued on the balance of power. We may not have the power to elect someone but we have the power to withhold, deny, the election to someone. That’s exactly what happened. When I was asked one time, “Why did you run?” I said, “Well, I have two objectives. One is to defeat John Hill.” (Laughter)

Chuy:  Did you say that on the record?

Mario:  Oh, yeah. I said it here. The background for that statement has to do with the fact that… see John Hill was the Attorney General and he had opened an office in Crystal City to support the opposition against Raza Unida. So I said, ‘He’s doing that, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to make him lose the election.” (Chuckles)

Chuy:  And that whole John Hill election, I think for me, does two things, historically, in terms of legacy. I agree with you that while it may not have been voiced or believed by many people, that Raza Unida was a spoiler, that that was a legitimate function of Raza Unida Party. Because, we had evolved at that point to electoral politics, which is a totally different, totally different arena, where small power pockets have a major role. This is what I mean. See if it makes sense to you. We talked about the MAYO folks, in the early years being a cadre, which is a clear distinction from being a membership oriented or a mass movement. It’s a cadre of organizers. That kind of cadre may not be what you need for a revolution, but in a political system, a small cadre, well organized can be very critical. And so, I saw Raza Unida always, always, as a spoiler. There was a way as you say, to withhold or get people to withhold the vote and defeat somebody. And that is valuable. In American politics!? That is a valuable tool…

Mario:  Oh, yes.

Chuy:  … which people did not realize. I don’t know to what extent Jose Angel really believed it, but I think your election showed it with John Hill.

Mario:  Right.

Chuy:  In particular with John Hill, for two reasons, I think. One is that as a Democrat, John Hill made a critically bad decision. One, he assumed that he had all of the Chicano Democrats on his side. And he did so because he had never had any experience with Chicanos. And the few Chicanos that he had on his campaign staff were not people who had ever run a statewide election and who had very few direct connections with the mass of Chicanos. So, once he got through the primary, he thought, “I won’t even spend any money” (Laughter) And that was the lesson he learned. Also, what is important about that John Hill election is that he showed his true colors because he immediately sold out to the Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court. Right? So, you go full circle, back to the Mexican-American Youth Organization National Convention, the creation of the Raza Unida Party, all these things that seem to be sporadic ideas that are being thrown out, actually have some thought behind them, some philosophical and strategic thought behind them. Right?

Mario:  Yeah. Oh, yeah.

Chuy:  How have the academics?…Have the political scientists ever understood that? (Chuckle)

Mario:  Not really.

Chuy:  Yeah. I think that’s a big, big failure.

Mario:  They’re locked into the conventional analysis model and that’s the rule of Willy’s argument about not going Raza Unida. The model says it fails and therefore you’ll be wasting your time engaging in it.

Chuy:  But only if your objective is to win and create a traditional party. But if that’s not your objective…

Mario:  That’s a statement that I make often. That we were not out to create a political party. We were out to transform society and the race relations in the state of Texas. That is fundamental change. I wasn’t there because I wanted to be somebody as an elected official. That’s never been my goal. But, when the academics interpret it, they only have one model. They’re locked into it and there’s only one way they can analyze it or they’ll be laughed off by quote, “their peers”. So, they don’t want to take that risk. But also, what happens, as I’ve mentioned to you before, those researchers, in most cases, get their information second hand. They were not there, they don’t have the context looking at the data the way we look at it because we lived through it. If you look right now at the guys that have some type of good politics in the Democratic Party, they all learned it in the Chicano movement.

Chuy:  And that’s the final area of inquiry. I believe, Mario, that what Raza Unida Party was doing in those early years was collecting data that was important. It was also showing the past to anyone who would be interested in running for office: “This is what it takes. This is how you do it.” So, in a lot of ways, the mentorship that occurs from that is critical.

Mario:  Yes.

Chuy:  For instance, here in San Antonio, you have a different city, politically, than what you had thirty-five, forty years ago. Fair? Now, to the extent that we are comfortable with or not…(Chuckle) the elected Chicano officials, that’s a different story. But in terms of given an opportunity, that’s the real legacy of Raza Unida and the Chicano Movement. Correct?

Mario:  It is. At our fund-raising event last year, there were five former City Councilmen from the Westside sitting as part of the audience. They were elected to office because of what we did.

Chuy:  Right.

Mario:  So, they buy tickets and contribute money. One of them is my banker. (Laughter)

Chuy:  Oh, wow.

Mario:  Just recently he called me up and said, “The Consulado needs somebody for doing fundraising.  Are you interested?” I said, “Sure.”

Chuy:  Of course.

Mario:  So, I announce to the crew here, “Me vendi con el PRI.

(Hilarious laughter)

Chuy:  At this late age. Me estoy vendiendo. Bueno fuera.

Mario:  But, that is a legacy, I think. And the other one is in community development. The idea for development of this particular section of neighborhood was floated in the mid 1950’s. But the guys had never really made it happen because they were part of the power structure. They were the all the ones with the sombrero in their hand so they never got anywhere…Westside businessmen. Then the Movement generation took hold of it and took it to fruition…revitalized this particular area. You have the Avenida de Guadalupe and you have the Mexican-American Unity Council, the two living legacies of the Movimiento here. That’s not all. Te acuerdas de one of the goals of the MAYOs that we had in Raza Unida was to build Centro Aztlan?

Chuy:  Yes.

Mario:  So Luera built the one in Laredo and La palomilla de Houston built the one there. It still exists. And we built here, a Centro Aztlan, and it still exists. The one here is focused on cultural stuff. The generation that runs it now is different.

Chuy:  Right. Right. No, that is definitely the cultural legacy tambien of the Movimiento

Mario:  That started in the early 80’s. In fact, I was one of the incorporators.

Chuy:  Is that right?

Mario: Ahorita, the Mexican-American Unity Council is in a discussion, just like the National Council of La Raza, to change the name. Nacho is trying to stop that effort. So, he got copies of the original charter and he says, “Guess whose name is on there?” (Laughs) I was one of the original incorporators.

Chuy:  Well, back then there were so few of us that we ended up with everything. (Laughs) Well, let me ask this final question. Certainly, I want to appreciate your time, Mario, and I wanted to have this discussion for many, many years, for obvious reasons. In these two interviews that we’ve had, maybe four or five hours, have we gotten down to what has been important, from your perspective? And this is what I mean. A lot of the interviews that I have done, where people have interviewed me, there seems to be a superficial veneer and a misunderstanding or insufficient understanding of what we were doing. And what I have tried to do in interviewing these folks, and I am interviewing a bunch of them, is trying to get their own thoughts, your personal feelings about why you were doing what you were doing.


Mario:  Part of it is what I said on that panel that you attended two months ago, that it’s my own experience growing up. As you well know, being a migrant farmworker, working the fields was not exactly paradise. (Laughter)

Chuy:  Far from it.

Mario:  The fact that it wasn’t only me and my family, but everyone around us, was in the same condition, which was dirt poor, living in poverty. And now, fifty years later, this area is in Zip Code 78207. And this is where we did much of the work fifty years ago. That report on poverty studies showed lo jodido que estaba. Well, fifty years later, it’s still the same, if not worse. The unemployment rate here is close to 50%. The high school drop-out rate, the rate of people on public assistance, there is no opportunity. It’s still the same, bien jodidos. So, you contrast it with one deep in the Northside, the people without high school in that precinct is 3%. Here, it’s close to 50%.

Chuy:  It’s a very powerless community.

Mario:  It gets transmitted from generation to generation. I wanted to change that. That’s why I was doing it. Not only for me and my family, but for others. Being an elected leader was not part of the plan. It was not an important part. I was not interested in a career in politics. A transformational change is what we were after as a program, as an individual. That was my goal. The vehicle to get it done, that was always a different question. To get there, we tried at MAYO. In the early conversations that we had at MAYO, we defined that strategy.

Chuy:  We did.

Mario:  So that building La Raza Unida was the second stage of that strategy. And as you say, now that you mention it, I remember that it was actually formerly approved there at La Lomita Conference.

Chuy:  Well, that’s what I had been focusing on because I had not seen, for Texas, this kind of a broad approach, which will hopefully give the reader an understanding that what began in the late ‘60’s, in one form has continued through today. And you can point back toward that period and say, “Oh, I understand what the connection is.” Because unless you see the connection, unless you understand the connection, the perception is that they’re unrelated. That a successful, Chicano Congressman, politician in South Texas by some magic formula got himself elected and it’s wonderful. Absolutely not! It is a long process. It’s been a long process to get him there. And the second, and final, conclusion that I keep confirming to myself is that, and I am impressed by that, truly, sincerely impressed by that, is that I keep seeing people like yourself, who go back to the 60’s, and they remain committed to the same general goals of transforming Chicanos in our communities. And whether we do it one way or another, in different ways or whatever, there’s still that umbilical cord that’s connected back to that. Now, we may have our disagreement, egos and personalities and stuff, but I sincerely see one heck of a group of highly intelligent people.

Mario:  I think that was really the key source of our success. Somehow people with those qualities came together at the same time…converged, without any training, really.

Chuy:  I totally agree with you. I totally agree with you.

Mario:  As far as laying out the plans, I know that on some occasions Jose Angel has made the statement, “We didn’t do anything. We didn’t know anything. We just did it by the seat of our pants.” But he forgets, we spent a weekend in Crystal City, en la casa de el___which is actually next door to Carrizo Springs. So, it was Jose Angel and his wife then, myself and my wife then, Nacho Perez and Ernie Cortez, who just that weekend mapped out the strategies for the politics, the community development and all of that. So out of those retreats, Juan Pattan walks out and builds the Mexican-American Unity Council, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. So, we engaged in that type of planning and those discussions that we had__________________ while we were_______. That laid out the strategy long term.

Chuy:  Yeah, I think that it’s easy to confuse yourself or to confound yourself if you’re asked a question about what has occurred during these four or five decades. But if you take it step by step, the way we have tried to do it, then I think that all of these connections make a lot of sense. Because I can assure you, that what I did, whatever little I did, was not by the seat of my pants. (Laughs) It took a lot of work to organize the Party in Hidalgo County with lawyers and supporters and it was not by the seat of my pants.

Mario: At your age. (Laughs)

Chuy:  Well, particularly at that young age. And not to claim any credit. But, I guess what I am saying is that I am impressed in going back and interviewing people like Leo Montalvo, who became the first Chicano mayor of the City of McAllen, who was a Raza Unida candidate. Alex Moreno, who became a State Representative, Democrat, but who ran as the first Raza Unida in 1970. He was one of the first Raza Unida candidates, right? And Alex was at La Casita Farms organizing with the Farmworkers. And if you visit with Alex today, he is really focused on a historical re-evaluation, going back and doing a lot of history about the Chicanos. And I look at you, who continues to be involved in these kinds of things, right?

Mario:  I had to leave after my race for governor in ’78, because I was unemployable. (Laughs)

Chuy:  Obviously. Well, that’s one of the risks, isn’t it?

Mario:  Yes. When I was running the campaign, I was invited to speak. I was brought over to Wisconsin to speak at the University as a means for the students over there to provide a sense of the __________. In the audience, when I spoke, estaba un bato ahi, ves, a _______. After I spoke, he comes and asked me, “Are you interested in coming to graduate school here? I said, ”Sure.” He said, “I’ll call you in six months.” In May he called me. The following year in ’79, he called me. “Do you still want to come to graduate school?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “I have some fellowships, but you need to send in your application in a week.” So, me arranque. I had everything in a week, lo mande. In two weeks, “You’re in.” (Laughs)

Chuy:  And that was an opportunity that presented itself at the right time. If it had not, you would not have gone to graduate school.

Mario:  Right. Because I was trying to figure out what to do, I didn’t have a place to live to begin with. I could’ve stayed with my parents but…I was so broke, friends sold plates to raise money for my plane fare. So, llego a Wisconsin with one suitcase.

Chuy:  Well, that’s a novel, that we’re going to look at.


Mario:  I was stuck the whole summer living at the dorms. That’s one reason I left, but I always wanted to get a graduate degree. Once I was there, that’s a whole new stage of my activity because I became involved in Chicano studies and recruiting chavalos, next generation and mentoring them. So, all this time that I’m out there, that’s what I’m doing, besides working.

Chuy:  So there’s always a parallel relationship with the community.

Mario:  So everywhere I went, I adapted to the local situations. I retired, I came back and said,

Ya estuvo” No, it didn’t work. (Laughs)


Chuy:  No, it doesn’t work. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. Mario, thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

Mario Compean

To Learn More About Mario Compean

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