Hispanic Power In The Panhandle

Louis Dubose. The Texas Observer. January 15, 1988. p.10

Two years ago, on January 24, county law officers here executed a stack of arrest warrants and brought in 72 suspected drug users identified by undercover agent Raul Sanchez. Most arrested were young, poor and Hispanic and after the first two of the defendants who elected to go to trial received 25 and 70 year respective sentences, others began to bargain, offering pleas of guilty in return for more lenient treatment. When the final case was adjudicated, Amarillo Globe-News reporter Jane Thrall calculated that together defendants had paid fines of more than $60,000 and were sentenced to a total of 659 years in prison.

Chip Formby, news director at Hereford radio station KPAN, said the drug busts were “not right when they arrest 80 people and don’t even recover four pounds of marijuana and minute quantities of hard drugs.” Texas Civil Liberties Union Director Gara LaMarche described the proceedings as “sham trials.” And Amarillo attorney Selden Hale, who studied transcripts and then submitted a friend-of –the-court brief at an appeals hearing, called them “political trials…Salem witch trials.” Hale said that those convicted were “for the most part small-time marijuana users.”

Responding to criticism of the drug prosecutions, District Attorney Roland Saul cites failures of defendants appeals as proof of the validity of the charges and described the sweep that consummated nine-months of undercover work in the Hispanic community as “an excellent operation.” Hereford Mayor Wesley Fisher said that the drug bust proved that “drug use is not considered a misdemeanor in Hereford.” Yet because of what occurred here in January of 1986, many argue that political life in this hardbitten and windswept Panhandle town will never again be quite the same. Lines here have been drawn in the dirt and the 8,000 Hispanics who account for about 50 percent of  Hereford’s population have stopped mourning and begun to organize.

Concerned Citizens of Deaf Smith County began with a meeting of three, all family members of young men arrested in the 1986 drug bust. Irene Cantu’s husband had been sentenced to 30 years for delivery of .02 ounces of heroin. Bessie Mendoza’s husband is serving ten years for possession of marijuana. And Pete La Fuente’s 17 -year-old  son had received a ten-year probated sentence, and a $2,000 fine for possession of marijuana. The group first met, after court proceedings were concluded, at La Fuente’s house. “We knew we couldn’t do anything to change the outcomes of the trials,” La Fuente,  who owns a local bookkeeping service, said. “But we thought we had to have some kind of political organizing to change things for Hispanics here.”

The citizens’ group has outgrown its single-issue focus and 30 to 35 dues-paying members now draw from 80 to 150 local citizens at monthly issues forums. At the top of a growing agenda that now includes such issues as bilingual education, the Hispanic dropout rate, parks and recreation, and the standard curb-and-gutter civic questions is a two-word imperative by which many remember Chicano activist Jose Angel Gutierrez: seize power. “What we realized,” La Fuente said, “is that things will not get better for Hispanics as long as Hereford is run by the growers, the country club and the courthouse. Hispanics have been kept out of power and some of it is their own fault. Hispanics here don’t want to get in on the ground floor and work their way up.”

Yet the ground floor is precisely where most Mexican Americans in Hereford remain.  Unlike El Paso, Laredo, or the towns of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, in Hereford there is no indigenous Hispanic aristocracy, no professional class, no power brokers. And though the New Mexico state line is only 60 miles to the west, there are no links to the old Hispanos of that state. Most Mexican Americans in Hereford trace their origins to the migrant farmworkers who since the 1940s have provided growers here with a conveniently elastic supply of labor. And people settling out of the “migrant stream” is a trend that is likely to continue, according to Herb de la Rosa of the Hereford office of the Texas Employment Commission. De la Rosa, who works with migrants, said that the local Hispanic population will continue to grow as agriculture becomes more mechanized. The new population, he suggested, is not inclined toward political participation. “It’s going to take a lot of political education,” de la Rosa said.

The migrant labor pool is the only class of Mexicans that ranchers and growers who govern here have come to know firsthand. There are few real avenues of communication and no mechanisms for the sharing or transfer of political power. A more accurate model of the dynamic of ethnic relationships here will be found in deep East Texas where blacks live in complete segregation in neighborhoods that to this day are called “the quarters” or the “colored quarters.” Other writers have not been so kind in their description of ethnic and class division in Hereford. “South Africa” and “a boil on the Panhandle,” Molly Ivins wrote in her column in the Dallas Times Herald. And “South Africa in Hereford” was the headline of a one –page essay that Gara LaMarche wrote for the Civil Liberties Union Reporter. The school mascot here is the Whiteface and haircuts are $6.00 at the Whiteface Barbershop on Third Street. The world’s largest concentration of feeding cattle fatten on local grain in feedlots strung along State Highway 60. Jack Brand of the Griffin & Brand transnational produce company maintains a home and office here and Mayor Wes Fisher owns one of the region’s largest onion and potato sheds. Hereford is a growers’ and ranchers’ town.

And the growers and ranchers who have held political power here are not inclined to turn it over readily to the hired help.  Growers fight with the Texas Rural Legal Aid attorneys, who set up an office in Hereford in 1978, are the stuff of legend. Lawyers for the TRLA, a federally-funded branch of the Legal Services Corporation, do most of their work on behalf of farmworkers, usually filing against growers and shed owners for minimum wage violations. Inside Legal Aid’s Hereford office is a collection of grapefruit-sized rocks thrown through the windows before heavy wire mesh was bolted in place to protect the workers and property. One former sheriff promised “a one-man-war” against TRLA and for a while delivered. And according to TRLA attorney Steve McIntyre, lawyers are still run off the road by hostile drivers and there are still threats by telephone. McIntyre also said that one TRLA lawyer was recently threatened at gunpoint and a paralegal was chased from a labor camp by a contractor swinging a chain.

Labor contractors, who are pressed to bring in field and shed help at bottom-dollar wages, often serve as point men for the growers; it is the contractors who most frequently position themselves between migrant farmworkers and the attorneys sent in by the federal government to serve them. And though elected officials are no longer so vitriolic in their public attacks against Legal Services attorneys, the relationship between TRLA and local government remains at best adversarial. Several years ago, Legal Aid attorneys won a wage settlement case against Mayor Wes Fisher. And the local district attorney’s law partners frequently defend growers sued by TRLA plaintiffs.

Roland Saul, the District Attorney who has held office for ten years, has frequently been embroiled in criticism. According to Claudia Stravato of the High Plains chapter of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, a number of defendants in the 1986 drug cases were represented by court-appointed attorneys who were also Saul’s law partners. (Saul maintains a private law practice.) Saul, who Stravato insists has “incredible leverage” on juries and grand juries in the county, has been also publicly reprimanded for misconduct. In December of 1984, the regional grievance committee of the State Bar of Texas filed a civil suit against Saul, recommending that he be suspended or disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct. In February of 1985, according to the Amarillo Globe-News, Saul was cited for similar infractions by the Texas Prosecutors Council which also issued a public reprimand. In August of 1985, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson charged, in a written opinion on a 1980 labor/growers lawsuit, that Saul had violated ethical canons. Saul’s law firm, according to Robinson, represented local growers while Saul, acting a district attorney, sued labor organizers. And the State bar is currently investigating a complaint filed by Silvana Juarez that alleges Saul harassed her during her 1987 election campaign when he tried to discourage her fundraising.

It is voting rights lawsuits filed against the city, county and school districts by the TRLA, that now tilt the political landscape of Deaf Smith County. (The first of the four suits was filed with the help of TRLA paralegal Trini Gamez six months before legal services arrived in Hereford in 1978. The suit, according to Gamez, cost her son Americo, who was named plaintiff, his job with the county.) But it was this series of lawsuits that eliminated at-large election of members of the city commission and the school board. And boundaries of previously gerrymandered commissioners’ court precincts have, by court order, been redrawn. “One line split the San Jose Labor Camp right down the middle,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre also questions local estimates of population that fix the city’s Hispanics at lower than 50 percent. He cites 1980 census statistics and insists that today’s percentages are closer to 60. The 1990 census, he said, will provide an important assessment of potential Hispanic political strength in the city and county. But even if the Mexican American population is not the majority in Deaf Smith County, it certainly represents the ascendant minority. And it is an under-represented minority. Until last year’s city election, only one Hispanic, restaurant owner Paul Avalos, had ever held elected office in the city. And according to Gamez, he was not a bona fide representative of the Hispanic community, but rather a candidate promoted by the downtown business establishment dominated by Anglos.

The Amarillo Globe-News series that recently spawned a storm in the Panhandle also took Hereford to task for a paucity of elected Hispanic officials. In their November 2 lead editorial, Globe-News editors claimed that the problem is representation, not discrimination, and encouraged more Hispanic political participation. But the editors might have uttered a Panhandle heresy, and precipitated the regional anti-press uprising, when they praised TRLA for its work on behalf of migrants and commended Concerned Citizens of Deaf Smith County for focusing attention on the problem of Hispanic representation.

The editorial also included the fact that only one Hispanic serves on the city’s 28 appointed board positions. Quoting Chesterton, they wrote of Hereford’s Anglo leaders: “It’s not that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”

“The problem,” Hereford Mayor Wes Fisher said in a recent interview, “has been that nobody was interested in running and the candidates who did run weren’t very capable. We’re interested in working with Hispanic people here in Hereford.” Fisher insists that Hispanics in the city represents 42 percent of the population and said that he expected that more Hispanics will now run for elected office. He does not foresee, however, a Hispanic majority on the city commission. Fisher soundly defeated Sylvia Flores, a Hereford woman who ran against him in the last mayoral race.

Nor does Fisher perceive Concerned Citizens as a legitimate political actor in the community. “Most of those people are relatives of young men put away in a drug bust here two years ago,” Fisher said, adding that he does not think that the group represents the majority of the responsible Hispanic community. “We’ve got a lot of successful and responsible Hispanics in Hereford,” fisher said. “Most of them are good people.”

“The mayor has described us as ‘irresponsible Hispanics, ’ “  Concerned Citizens’ La Fuente said. “He’s an irresponsible Anglo. He’s an old-fashioned mayor who has made his money off of Hispanic workers.” La Fuente is looking toward 1990 as a year when Hispanics will win a healthy plurality, if not a majority on the city commission and perhaps two seats on commissioners’ court.

If the drug raids on the Hispanic community galvanized Mexican American opposition to city hall, Concerned Citizens has turned that opposition into a political force. Shortly after the trials were concluded, the local group brought Stravato, of the civil liberties union, to Hereford to help local leadership address some of their grievances at the ballot box. Stravato and Richard Martinez of the Southwest Voter Registration Project helped local leaders register 700 new voters (23 of them Anglo). And Concerned  Citizens turned out blockwalkers for last April’s city election to help elect Silvana Juarez, the first woman and second Hispanic to serve on Hereford’s city commission. Juarez, a 25-year-old department store clerk is described by some members of the Hispanic community as very inexperienced.  And she agrees. “But,” she adds, “I proved it can be done. And so far the Mayor and commission members have been cooperative.” Juarez has been a quiet member of the commission, thus far devoting much of her time to constituent service and learning the workings of city government.  According to Stravato, even members of the Hereford Hispanic community might be underestimating Juarez. Stravato described the campaign that Juarez organized, with the help of her family and Concerned Citizens, as very efficient, “And Silvana’s mother is a real force in the community, a real Jefe,” Stravato said.

According to Stravato, the election of a single commission member was itself a considerable achievement. “The city,” she said, “ made it as difficult as possible to vote.” Stravato described a city election in which voters were required to vote on a local sale tax referendum at precincts, then in another central location cast votes for mayor, district and at-large city commission members, and school board trustees. “And,” Stravato said, “ at the central polling place each voter had to enter and exit three separate times to complete their voting. And many of the Hispanics were voting for the first time.” Stravato said that Richard Martinez of the Southwest Voter Registration Project had much to do with the Juarez victory and laid the groundwork for future general electoral success. “Until I got involved out there,” Stravato said, “I never really understood the concept of empowerment. What Martinez taught me is that without a history of belonging to some type of organization, people don’t know how to use power. And in Hereford, power is new to them.” Stravato said that the new political leaders in Hereford now have the confidence to question. “In December of 1986,” she said, “everyone was shy, with heads and shoulders down. But a lot has changed in a year. A real sense of local leadership has developed.”

Perhaps the most attractive and articulate leader to emerge from the political whirlwind is 31-year-old Irene Cantu. Cantu became a convert to political activism when her husband was sentenced to 30 years for the sale of .02 ounces of heroin to undercover agent Chavez. She criticized the harshness of the sentence because her husband had agreed to a voluntary commitment for treatment soon after he was arrested. “He was indicted five days after he left the Vernon State Hospital,” Cantu said. “He was seeking help; he was an addict. I’m not saying that what he did was right. I know that he was wrong. But what they did was not just and it didn’t solve the drug problem in Hereford.”

“When that happened, I was so filled with hate, all I wanted was revenge. They said it was a cleanup of the community, then busted only people from the poorest areas of town. I think that the other side of town might need cleaning up too,” Cantu argued.

Cantu has been an important spokesperson for the citizen’s group and many here consider a television interview that she did with Amarillo NBC affiliate news reporter Sue Speck as a turning point in the public’s perception of what happened in Hereford two years ago. Texas Civil Liberties Union Director Gara LaMarche, who met with Cantu at an early Concerned Citizens meeting, described her as “very impressive, a persuasive speaker who is obviously very bright.” But Cantu said that she is not interested in political offic . “I don’t think it would work. Too many people here would think that my motive is revenge. But that’s not it. That’s all behind us,” Cantu said. Her motive, she insists, the motive that she shares with other members of the citizen’s group, is to get a fair number of Hispanics elected to local political offices. Cantu is even talking of looking for a candidate to challenge Joe Brown, the county sheriff who Cantu says claims to be a Hispanic. Brown, she insists, is responsible for much of the selective enforcement directed at the Hispanic community.

Selective law enforcement has become a tactic by which elected officials seem to be attacking the leadership of Concerned Citizens. District Attorney Saul has refused to permit the husband of Bessie Mendoza to return on parole to Deaf Smith County. According to Stravato, Saul has made it known that those who were tried will not be allowed to return when paroled. Included in that group is Irene Cantu’s husband, Eddie. And Cantu has suggested that she might have to leave Hereford in order to be reunited with her husband who could be paroled within the next two years. Bessie Mendoza has already left. Stravato, who had to return to her job as an Assistant Controller in Austin, said she hopes that the group in Hereford continues to get some outside help. “They are,” she said, “ so close. But it’s so isolated…and something is very wrong out there.” Many credit Stravato, for much of the group’s success. “She’s like a patron saint,” LaMarche said. “She was out there almost every day for a year,” Stravato was living in Amarillo where she was president of the High Plains civil liberties chapter.

No one here is talking of a takeover. At least not yet. But in this High Plains county of 21,000 the political landscape is changing. Novitiate Hispanic political activists lack a single dominant charismatic leader like Jose Angel Gutierrez who led the electoral takeover of Crystal City 14 years ago. And without tested political machinery, they will make mistakes, as they did when they ran a pair of Hispanic candidates against one Anglo in last years’ city commission election. But court decisions, demographics and that odd intangible that an ebullient George Bush once described as the “Big Mo” seem to be on their side.

What the Anglo political establishment did here two years ago might have been more than the injustice that local Hispanics have claimed. The drug raids that have focused national attention on this small Texas town might also serve to hasten the need of an old and paternal system of government. “God willing,” Cantu said, “something good will come out of this.”