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Interview with: Arturo Fernandez
Interviewed by: Fred
Archive Number: OH 051
FM: 00:40.8 This is Fred (Monjack??) and I’m interviewing Reverend Arturo Fernandez at the Casa de Amigos. The first question I would like to ask you is, one of the newspaper articles I read, you talked about the concept of urban ministry. I would like to know, when did you first come up with this concept in Dallas? What was the reason why you felt this was necessary, and how has the main concept evolved or changed in any way from the time you went to Dallas to here in Houston?
AF: The concept of urban ministries is not anything original, to begin with, with me or those thousands who across the country who work with this. My understanding of urban ministries has to do with the task of the total church in relationship to its involvement in the world. And in that sense, I have always understood urban ministries to be part of the mission of trust, of the work of the church in the world. In a corollary to this is my understanding of God’s presence in the world and God’s people as being not merely those who are gathered and labeled as a church, whatever that denomination is. I feel that God is the God of all people. I think I’ve always felt that very strongly. He is the God of the person who is in poverty and who cannot, in some ways, afford to go to church, because even going to church requires a certain amount of cost. Even if it means to provide a certain kind of social profile that a lot of people can’t afford because of where they’re coming from and so they don’t fit. For that reason, many churches keep springing up all over to meet this need, and I think that’s good. At any rate, the God I think that the church is praying to is not the God that is its private property. And if that’s true then I feel very strongly that the church must be the kind of agency that tries to work out God’s salvation in the total world where the real target and where the real people are. In many ways the strategies that we planned in Dallas initially, I was a pastor in the Westside part of Dallas, a highly depressed area. My hope was—and I was a pastor of the largest Mexican-American Methodist church—United Methodist Church—at that time. I was concerned with trying to serve that community that surrounded us. The community was mostly Mexican-Americans, some good number of Indians, and blacks and some white Anglos that were in small numbers. My concern was that that particular church, because it was the church of a lower social economic class, ought to be a nucleus of activity. This was during the time that I was doing my work in seminary at Perkins. A colleague of mine worked out a plan to try to develop a unified ministry in both west and south Dallas. The strategy that we were going to use was to set up rent stores and set up halfway houses there, where we would be able to reach people at the level that was easy to identify with and try to find the needs that they had in reference to their material and physical and psychological needs and then minister to those needs. But also, it was going to be very much a church-centered program. So because we were not seeking federal funds for it, it was going to bring about the kind of, I felt, relevant speaking of the word in context and leading to, I would hope, at least a total conversion of people living in that kind of situation. By total conversion I mean being able to make a turnabout in their total lifestyle and with the help and advocacy that the church could provide. People would not just simply be offered an opportunity to come to church and join the church and support the church. So when I was in the process of trying to get this organized, we wrote a proposal, and then we had, through a lot of PR and explaining and a lot of support from one of the largest Methodist churches in the world—Highland Park—we sold the idea. In fact, it was going to be a group ministry involving a black minister, a white minister, and two Mexican-Americans, including myself. But this being 1965, it was, as you well know, the ‘60s were the hard times. What this was doing was that it was dealing with delicate matters, for one thing. The other was it was attempting to move our own Mexican-American church—because we had a separate conference of Mexican-American churches—it was moving it into a ministry style that I think was not its typical style, especially since we were talking about integrating the work involving blacks and—we really didn’t know where we were going to go with that ourselves. Except we knew that’s what we ought to do. There was a bit of carelessness on my own part not to be sensitive to all the politics that I had to play on. So it resulted in not being moved before we could implement it. We were sent to Houston then. When I came to Houston, I came still with the idea of urban ministry meaning how does the church minister to the whole world, especially right in its own back yard? Because the church has always been interested in missionary endeavors. I’ve always considered that doing your love work by long distance when you can do it right here. Also, you should do it long distance, because the church is global. When I came to Houston I started looking around to decide what kind of ministry I was going to be able to bring about, so that led me into a new phase of urban work. We can get into that if you want.
FM: 09:24.6 I want to ask you a couple of questions. You mentioned about the politics involved, did you receive any pressure related to, say, politicians or business groups outside the church itself who felt what you were doing was a threat?
AF: No. Like I said, because we did not, ourselves, know where we were going. We just knew that what we needed were centers, halfway houses, and churches where people could come—out of this kind of mutual ministry. We were doing this partly because we had a mission in south Dallas, for example. In some ways we were already doing this. In fact, the church where I was pasturing had been developed out of a healing ministry. It had grown over the years very gradually and all of a sudden a healing-type of minister came. This was before I was there. Almost overnight that church grew about 300 members or so. So that was a very charismatic kind of church. What I was trying to do was, before it got too old and standardized itself into routine operations as a church, I was appealing to their sense of God did not choose you because you were intelligent, because you were rich, or because you were—and just like God drew you from the world, he drew you like he draws others to send you back into the world to minister and not to set you apart—you become a part of this sophisticated system that we call the church and isolate you from the world. And so that was my trust. Generally, it wasn’t much of a threat, I don’t think, to a lot of people because of the style in which it was being attempted. The main problem was simply one of structure and one of the facts that often—when you get into delicate ministries like this, you really have to touch a lot of bases. And in fairness to the church, which is also a political organization, if you don’t do your work adequately—and I think that is part of my own failure—but not to excuse in any way the irrelevance of a lot of our leadership. I think we’re not the church in many areas. We are less than the church. God has a difficult task trying to work through us many times because we don’t really let him.
FM: The second question I had in mind was the idea—how did it develop and change once it got to Houston? Taking in hand what you mentioned were your experiences in Dallas, how did this enable you to shape the program here in Houston?
AF: Well, when I came to Houston, I was disappointed. I was very bitter in some ways that things hadn’t worked out, and I almost threatened to move on up further north thinking that there was more urban work up there. But I decided like a good trouper to descent under orders, because that’s our method or system. We are appointed yearly. Every year we are appointed either to the same place or we are moved beyond to greener or not greener pastures. (laughter) So when I came here it was a promotion—50 dollars a month more. It was one way to justify sending me out of there so I wouldn’t be a problem, I guess. When I came here, I looked around and I found this old Northside Methodist Church building had been abandoned. The church that I came to pastor was Mesias United Methodist Church which is about 55 years old, or so. This church has been in this community and was organized through the work of the Wesley Community Center. Wesley used to be run by deacons, and they used to be very religion-centered—bible-centered—back then. Wesley Center had been in this area about 60 years, so the first members came through that process and Mesias was organized. I began to look around to see where we might locate a place for ministry and discovered this building that, at that time, was being used by a Pentecostal group that we had sold it to. So I then started attending what used to be HAY—Houston Action for Youth Organization. This was the first poverty program. We were trying to get a feel for the community, for its problems, and its needs. Eventually, about a year later after I was here and getting the lay of the land, the church was vacated by the Pentecostal group that was there, so we repossessed it. That is, the Houston Methodist Board of Missions, because it was property of the Anglo-Methodist conference here through the Houston Methodist Board of Missions. So I went to speak to them about using the building for developing of a community center. And at that time, I was thinking in terms of similar lines of what I had done in Dallas. Establishing an outreach point here where we might have Sunday school classes, where we might have revivals from time to time, but essentially emerges as a community center, as well. I didn’t have in mind then using federal money because I’m also very leery of federal monies and the way they corrupt the well-meaning people who get involved. But I would even qualify that because I don’t take that strict of a stand. There are other factors that would need to be considered. For example, any war on poverty is going to have all kinds of casualties. Any time that you move to rectify—to bring justice to a—well, however you describe a community situation where exists such tremendous degrees of inequities. Whenever you decide to muster forces to correct this, you’re going to have a lot of people who either rip it off or who are destroyed in the process, but that’s the nature of war. The very fact that we are in the war on poverty—have been—says something about the system. But anyway, I’m saying that, in essence, I’m not against federal monies. It just depends how you use it. But I tried to immediately—after the church vacated the premises—I approached the Houston Methodist Board of Missions’ superintendents—the district superintendents—at that time. And through contacts I’d established through years back, I was able to approach them about letting Mesias Methodist Church, through my ministry, use this place. And then it resulted in the Houston Methodist Board of Missions—or more, really, the superintendents—allowing that process, and so I very carefully began to investigate what would be the programs most necessary. I began with typical human crafts—I mean—services that traditionally are used by community centers. To me, that’s always been kind of a means to a greater end. I was accused by some people of just doing the traditional. And by some I mean the emerging militant voices. Not a great amount of opposition, because we had good contacts there, but they thought that I was taking the traditional route. But I certainly had no intentions. That became organized—you know—sewing classes and craft classes, and I had a lot of volunteers from the church and from other places that came. Then I offered the building to Head Start because Head Start had been funded but they didn’t have any income, so this building became a source of income. We did a lot of the repairs. In fact, the Methodist Church had had a fire in the basement before we took it over and they put 5000 dollars or so of insurance, so they had that kind of an escrow. So when I went to the board, I appealed for the 5000 dollars so I could do the remodeling because the building was a disaster just like it is now, except worse. (laughter) They accepted it so I became the general contractor of the remodeling. I got a lot of volunteers, both from the community here—from Mesias and from Methodist churches throughout the community. Eventually, we put on a lot of work. We did a lot of work to enable us to set up a child-care center for 100 children. This was the Head Start. So they took it over. My style has always been—you know—no rent, nothing, just come on, bring the program, pay your own utilities, and this kind of verbal contract. I’ve hated to get into written contracts, because the verbal was the way that we kept it as a family thing. It was very collaborative. So it worked. And then the next thing that we did was to bring in the City Health Department. And, again, this is in place. But before we did, I touched place with Wesley Community Center, because Wesley had wanted to bring in a health center for a long time into the community, or for the City Health Department, but had never been able to. They did some things at Wesley. We needed now more substantial healthcare, so I did all the necessary politicking for that and, fortunately, didn’t get upset with anybody.
AF: 22:10.0 But the main thing—I think our contribution at this point—I was a Methodist minister of Mesias Methodist Church, an old institution in this community. The heart of people—Helen Lewis was the head of it and Harold Sherman was an assistant there and Sam Price—were the three top people. In the beginning of HAY’s activities, all of the major agencies were suspicious of this new government program, and I really think that I had a lot to do with bridging and providing communication lines, because I recall calling this meeting with Helen Lewis, the HAY people, the city health department, HOPE sessions, and a great gal who is the head of the nursing division, and also a guy by the name of Patton. Howard Patton, I think, was his name, who was then the head of Planned Parenthood. Then also the director, Mike Willis, the director of Wesley. That, to me, was a historic kind of meeting because it brought a lot of supporting—or rather, it closed the gap, to a great extent. We met at the HAY headquarters on Main—2211 Main, I think it was. We met there and discussed the needs of the community, primarily in health. Now, we already had the Head Start going. I kind of mediated the meeting to a great extent, so that added a lot of trust relationships to the people there, at least enough to agree on some generals. And out of that, we ended up agreeing to set up a city health clinic here at Casa in the basement, and also agreed that HAY would help with some of the remodeling necessary—about 900 dollars, or so, as I recall. I can’t remember that. Then I got the Methodist men from our church to do the remodeling for it. They volunteered to do the remodeling then Planned Parenthood agreed to set up a clinic here. Now that, to me, was key because it now told us the direction that we were going. We were going to continue to collaborate now with agencies, except trying to humanize the thing and keep it at a very dialog and conversational level. And so that’s the way we started out in the health business. And then, to just go quickly, out of that process of careful dialoging continuously with city health and HOPE sessions, I got a contact. She recommended a guy to talk to me by the name of Dr. Cleve Armstrong, who was a student at the School of Public Health. And Cleve was also an assistant professor at the University of Houston, School of Optometry and he wanted to do a master’s project. So I talked to him about what we might be able to do here. I was not interested in him just doing a master’s project. I was interested in a master’s project that left something for the community. So we agreed that he would try to open doors for me and he would devote this project—that it would be a description of how to set up a community-based vision clinic. And so that’s what we did. I got in touch, through him, with the Harris County Optometry Association. Very conservative group, but—you know—I’ve never been conservative by orientation. I’ve found many times that I work better with conservatives than with liberals, because I’m always a bit suspicious of liberals, to begin with, and I know, generally, what conservative are. That’s a given. Liberals are an unknown factor all the time, to me, and they always do it for you anyway and in it for the wrong reasons, to boot, which is even worse. So, in many ways, I really sincerely have been able to work with conservatives, though we work with liberals, as well. We were able to get the Harris County Optometry Association to assign optometrists. Out of that process we developed the vision clinic that eventually led to utilization of ophthalmologists and is now permanently staffed by volunteer ophthalmologists. Meanwhile, the medical clinic had already been developed. That was developed, again, by a contact that I had through—I went to march in Del Rio. The Vistas were kicked out of Del Rio and so I went to march—my wife and I. When we went there—I forget—that would have been ’68 or so—when we were there, my wife met Dr. Carlos Speck and his wife Sergi, who were there for something else and, I guess, went back to see what was going on. My wife told me about them, and also, a guy from MAYO. I think his name was Vasquez. I forget his first name—Andy. Andy Vasquez met Dr. Speck and felt Dr. Speck seemed to be interested in working in the community. Carlos was interested in setting up some kind of clinic in the barrio or helping somehow. So I told him about my interest in terms of the city health experience and the need for medical care. So out of that came the establishment of the Casa de Amigos Medical Clinic with volunteer doctors. He recruited other doctors—doctors form Baylor College of Medicine, like Dr. Harry Lipscomb—a lot of great guys—Andrew McMahon, I think, and just a lot of guys. And out of that process, we carefully—incidentally, we went throughout the community. Dr. Speck visited all the doctors to touch base, to say, “Look, we are going to start a free clinic. This is only for charity people. If you’ve got any cases that can’t afford to pay, send them to us and we’ll free you up from having to work with people who don’t pay.” So we got no opposition, essentially, from the community, except one. Some clinic in the community that made a lot of money with immunizations, and when we set up City Health, they weren’t too happy about that because of the shots. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to the community—the immunization. But at any rate, we went on to seed money. Incidentally, I failed to say, the seed money concept—we tried to get money from the church to use to start the thing and then find the right agents. In the case of the vision clinic, we got money from the American Lutheran Church and also from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church as seed money to start that clinic. We got seed money to start the medical clinic from Chapelwood United Methodist Church and then volunteers and donations of medicine and frames and all kinds of things. So we ran that clinic for a little over a year—the medical clinic. It became a tremendous burden because of medicine and 125 patients a night and there was—just a hassle. And we didn’t have enough space. We were in the basement. When it rained it got muddy and everything backed up. It was terrible. So we started talking about we needed to build something. Then we started collaborating with the Baylor Department of Community Medicine—Dr. Carlos Vallbona. Carlos was getting his department started up just about that time, so it was good for him and it was good for us—to latch onto a community-based operation. That opened the doors to the county hospital district—Harris County Hospital District. Years before, I had been with other Chicano groups talking about—demanding, in fact—we need representation on the Harris County Hospital District. We need to decentralize (Menta??), we need to do this, but we didn’t have anything other than our voices to demand with. So now, here in the community I had organized a context of emerging health services and we had a medical clinic, so that when we talked, the context changes. That’s what I feel is empowerment. Not only had I, I think, helped to process that kind of empowerment by using the medical people themselves through being volunteers here, they, in turn, were doing two things: they were providing direct services and they were providing their influence in a context that was developing a power base for other negotiations—legitimating the Casa and opening the doors for a different level of confrontation. We use that process and then the work with the Department of Community Medicine further enhanced that process, so when we talk now with the Hospital District we’re talking as one who runs the medical clinic. I was the quasi-administrator—volunteer. So then, out of that process we agreed that it ought to be an outpatient clinic. That has always been my goal, the decentralization, because it brings it into where the community is. So they kind of when along with it and we mutually went into an (OYO??) grant application. Instead of taking the application ourselves as a private clinic—which we could have done—a free clinic—I felt, if we do that, when that dries up, we’re back where we were. Besides, this ought to be—just like I hold that, generally, the making of God’s presence in the world more clear is one of the responsibilities of the church, I also feel that any kind of human services of this type ought to be the responsibility of tax-based organizations. That brought them in, and so subsequently it became, then, a project of the Harris County Hospital District, but we also named, in the process, a health council, which was a new thing to the whole process. And, again, a lot of our ministry is an attempt to change structures. I do not feel that it is the business to enter direct human services-kind of activities that are mere duplications. I think that we ought to stand for something qualitatively in that it ought to always point to the humanization of the total system in that we ought to use that influence as long as we have to and then move on to something else. It kind of worked from that theory. And it seems that the end result of this—because it’s not mere speculation—what happened was we started in the basement as a little band-aid operation. We entered into negotiations; we started talking about more space, identifying health problems of this community more exactly, and began to gear up to ministering to that kind medically. And then also, keeping it human in a sense of a having lot of volunteers and a lot of interested people involved in it. And then finally, applying for a Model Cities grant to build a new health center, and you will note, the intent of the building of the health center was not to house a Casa program, as such—that is a family-oriented community—but it was really to empower, the way I had put it, these agencies that are so dehumanized, many times, by the bureaucracy—to empower them to do the kind of job that they can do in a given community. So we got the grant—to make a long story short—Model Cities grant. I got the Methodist Church to give a lease to Casa de Amigos—30-year lease, or whatever—so that we could use Methodist property. We wouldn’t have to buy property. We had no funds for that. Then I got the Methodist Church to buy two additional—this house and the other house—two additional houses, and then the Catholic Church bought two. We’re still negotiating the third piece of land for parking further down. After a long struggle, Casa is operating agency of a building. We build the health center and it’s now in its final stage. We moved in the three agencies—City Health Department, the county medical clinic, and LHMR. We picked up a new agency. What I think has been amazing, trying to wade through all the legality and all—once we moved in this direction. That’s really been a difficult thing, but we are still in the process right now of negotiating Casa’s involvement and relationship to the health center. As you know, in the back here to this white house, we’ve got a physical connection. We can go through from one place to the other. Our goal is that Casa be the operating agent, so we’re acting right now in that capacity. We’ve got to clear all these things through the awesome bureaucracy of the city. What we envision is that we provide a lot of auxiliary services and, at the same time the general operating of the health center by way of the physical plant. That gives that health center a real presence of this community in contrast to the West End Health Center. There is not that kind of community presence, and here we are. It’s always been considered a community-based operation, and I think that’s very important. The other things—meanwhile, we developed a proposal for a drug treatment program for inhalant abusers. And, again, that has been an experience. We’re the first major grassroots operation that has been funded in drugs in the city because traditionally it’s been the 5 or 6 trainees and VGS and others. What we’re trying to do is maintain the human element in the process.
FM: 40:13.0 You mentioned about your initial reluctance about federal funds because you thought that it intended to corrupt the people involved. What did you mean by corrupt—not caring about the people it was supposed to administer to? What exactly—?
AF: I suppose those are harsh terms. Almost anything is easy to overstate, especially for people like myself. Let me restate that. I think that a lot of people who are barrio-oriented or ghetto-oriented know what the problem is. They lack the skills in being able to do anything about it. That doesn’t mean they don’t do anything about it. I think it’s a miracle that people survive this process in the ghetto or the barrio, to begin with. So that means that they’re doing a lot anyway. Whether we move towards the eradication of the physical inequities that exist in these communities, it means that you have to have certain skills. You have to know how to handle politicians and all these things. What has happened with the war on poverty, as an example, a lot of people were hired that were professional workers in agencies as the head guys—sometimes with not even that experience. And then a lot of hiring was done of people that came out of the barrios or the ghettos, and they got a salary right away. A lot of these people—many had been volunteering in different places and helping to keep the thing alive, as it were. They are incorporated into another awesome bureaucracy. I have seen, literally, dozens and dozens of good people stifled completely by the process. They’re not freed up like they were before to do what they were doing anyway, but now they’re employees. They’ve got more money now and they can’t use it. And then it tends to corrupt in the sense that then they end up being defensive and offensive. (laughter) They’re the enemy now. Now they are the oppressors and seldom the oppressed, even though all of us are both. But at any rate, this is basically what I mean. Take Casa de Amigos—you see—one of my problems is when we move to getting federal money for the drug treatment program—we’ve done this voluntarily for a long time anyway—working with the kids. But it gets to the point where you can’t do it—you can’t meet the need. There are hundreds of inhalant abusers in Houston, and it’s a problem that’s basically unrecognized by NIDA. They think hard drugs and other—because where hard drugs presumably happens in the middle class areas and that’s of great concern just like pot became of great concern when it went over there. Well, inhalant abusing—inhalant abuse is not a middle-class problem in most places, even though it is also a rising problem in some sections of the country. So we’re struggling, you see, against the lack of popularity. So when we move to get a grant like 120,000 or so—that means now, let’s see, who’s going to be the project director? Who’s going to be this? Who’s going to be the workers and the counselors? Well, they should have degrees. They ought to have this and they ought to have that. That’s what is wrong with trends and VGS and all of the agencies. That’s what’s wrong with the whole blasted system—that we are so credential-oriented. This is tried now, but everybody knows that. But still we keep acting on it, and that’s terrible. At the same time, if you don’t train the people that are capable of doing it, but don’t have the skills then you only—see, the bureaucracy, I don’t think, has ever been interested in real training—functional training—because that’s one way to demonstrate their own validity—to legitimate their own—the fact that it takes professionals to do this. Recently, there’s been this big effort to get licensing of social workers. This is absurd—a complete absurdity. What we need to do is to learn how to train people in the whole art of being human. That’s our biggest problem, I think, that we don’t—skills is essential, but how do you maintain the reality of the humanness that many of us that come out of barrios and ghettos have? The concept of la familia is not a unique thing to Mexican-Americans. Anybody that has poverty in common has that sense of—and it can be developed in terms of coming out of that as a style for professionals to continue to relate to them. There is a channel through which people can be reached. Instead, it becomes a thing of old fashioned stuff, or whatever, so that you must not become emotionally involved. (laughter) The social workers are told that, and the doctor is not supposed to become emotionally involved. Well, that’s absurd. As an example, when we had the medical clinic with volunteer doctors like Dr. Carlos Speck and Harry Lipscomb from the faculty at Baylor, he used to find out—like these people don’t have a heater. It’s cold. So he would either tell me about that and I would search around and we would find a heater, or he would bring a blanket or a mattress. I remember one time he brought a mattress for this family. It was 11:00 at night and he says, “Arturo, I want you to help me take this over.” And so I dumped it in my brown truck—I had a van then—and we went about 11:30, knocked on the door, and sure enough, the people didn’t have any—they were sleeping on the floor. It’s that quality. I know that you can’t do that all the time, but if you never do it then it’s no longer part of the process of treatment.
FM: 47:59.2 It just sounds impersonal. I think that’s the main point you’re trying to get across is to try to maintain some kind of warmth involved, otherwise it just seems like it’s somebody coming over here and you can’t relate to the person.
AF: You see—the key is relations not systems. This is the sickness in our time. The sickness in our time is that everything has to be systematized, when you have a system to do whatever. And the computer thing is probably what is going to carry us straight down to hell. (laughter) Simply because that is the one element that—you know—when you talk about the computer machine—I remember reading something—I think it was Erich Fromm saying that we were making machines that behave like men. We’re making people that act like machines. I think there’s a lot of truth to that in that the computer is the epitome of the dehumanization process in the sense that it makes it all into a system. A system—when it’s all a system—has no room for relationships. There are only corollaries, or whatever computer talk may be. It is not relation. Relation is a dynamic thing that changes continuously. It takes into account the other person’s well-being or ill-being at any given moment and always a search towards the two centers meeting—two centers of ultimate meaning meeting, and that’s always a delicate encounter between two human beings. But it seems, now can you do that in bureaucracy and systems. Everybody’s defensive and covered with data and all kinds of protective devices, so you don’t know what their guy or gal is thinking or suffering. So what I would hope is that the ministry can be the continual injecting of the human element into everything and anything that is happening. To me, that is the gospel. The gospel of salvation is that people remain fully human as God intended them to be. And the book that I’m dealing with has to do, in fact, with—this is the thesis, you might say. The thesis is that the only way to achieve full maturity of personhood is that people have a concept and a kind of—I don’t know how to put it right now—but a feel for the real meaning of salvation, though they never achieve that. One of the biggest dissolutions in the church, as far as I’m concerned, is the achieving of salvation in the context of the present time. One has to be careful about this because it’s the kind of thing that, when you’re married you say, “Yes honey. I love you, but I’m not really sure.” Deep down inside there cannot ever be a very—every now and then you know that you love that person and then you do everything that love is supposed to entail, but then you fail sometimes. And then that has to raise a question, but really, “Now who is it that I love? Me or her or her or me?” It’s a kind of a yes, we both. And sometimes we both meet and yes, what a beautiful love relationship. We love each other and are meant for each other and all this stuff. I think that’s the way it is with salvation to. I’m not saying we don’t achieve it, but I’m saying that when you say, “Yes, I love you. Yes, I’m saved.” It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything because we have labeled it and we have packaged something and we claim it. We don’t know that it’s supposed to claim us. It must lay a claim upon us and it must draw something from us continuously. I’m saying that salvation is that way in church and that what we need to do is to have less of that assurance and have more of a vision of it. And know that—then having experienced it—know that it’s beyond us. And I’m saying that the same thing has to happen in what I call the spiritual aspect of a person—and in the church context or whatever. It doesn’t—church or without, because I describe people as being the three selves—the spirit, the social self, and this individual self, so kind of a triangle. I’m saying that salvation is experienced that way, or should be. And then in the social self, my thesis is that people who live in the social context must also have some kind of fleeting vision, and I call that freedom. Freedom in the sense that a free society, a real free society, that I can believe in, that humans can bloom and grow and everybody respect each other, etc. I’m saying that if you never have that, then how can you really have a nucleus around which your social self is developed? And then I also have other aspects to this triangle to illustrate how this epitome of freedom and salvation then interacts in terms of the good and in terms of our belief stand in the world that is our present stand. So I am devoted to this totally. And then I the psychological, I’m saying that liberation is that vision thing that we must work around. So I’ll take salvation and liberation and freedom and tie them together and say that through the individual, through the social, and through the spirit self we have to achieve some kind of wholeness. And then, of course, my feeling is that I’m a situational ethics guy, or conceptualist. I believe that love, God love, is the thing that ties the three together. And if you don’t have that God love, then some other principle may be at work and it confuses the issue and you go off on one tangent. I also think that people develop—and I’m describing people that develop only in the spirit salvation syndrome or the social freedom syndrome or the individual. This is where, to me, this gives me a view of persons that helps me to look at people in their wholeness, as opposed to—how can you just look at a person and say, “Your tooth needs to be pulled,” and pull the tooth? Job done. You can’t do that. Every encounter has to be a full encounter. Not that it’s fulfilled every moment, but that one comes to the encounter—that one comes to that moment of meaning with his whole person open and it becomes an open system. At the center of each other has to be that love kind of commonality. Anyway, I didn’t mean to get off on the side to much here, but basically that’s my general orientation and how I attend to all kinds of failings. When we talk—let me say something about what you said about what is poor people. I suppose besides the social—
FM: 57:00.5 The obvious economic statistics that you can bring up—people who make under whatever—6000, 5000, 4000, 3000. What differentiates—you mentioned something earlier about the family structure that is kind of a help to people that are poor, regardless of whatever background. I’d like you, if you could, to elaborate on that. In what ways does it help, and is there any difference of the family structure within different ethnic groups? Is there a difference in family structure if it’s Chicano, Anglo, black? Is one more developed or what stresses occur when it comes to rural areas to Houston or from Mexico to Houston, this sort of thing?
AF: That’s one of the major problems of our time. Of course, in terms of the Espanol that is moving in swarms to urban settings, to great metropolitan areas, that the extended family comes out of which many minority groups are operated besides the main kind of—Germans and Swedes—maybe all people for that matter. But out of which we have been able to, because of our rural orientation, maintain, if for nothing else, the security that it offers and protection against the systems that tend to overpower us continuously and make us a number. But, of course, changing social patterns and economic demands and technological advances in the valley and everywhere else has forced Spanish-speaking people, as well as black people, to swarm to the cities. And Houston, with one of its worst housing arrangements in the nation—because Houston has never taken seriously its growth in relationship to skilled and semi-skilled people’s needs. They have taken into consideration seriously the needs of the affluent, and have built magnificent houses in the areas where people have fled to escape the consequences of the inner-city lifestyles and also the industry. But when it comes to the poor, it has relatively very few housing units. It owns just a handful—maybe four, five—and then it subcontracts another few—I don’t know—between 12-18 is what they have. I think that’s absurd. It’s just incredible. So people are faced, in the first place, with that problem. Housing is a major problem. People are forced to come and find a little apartment here or a crowded place over there, so that even if a whole family comes, we’ve already got problems because of the vast distances of the communities where Mexicans and blacks can move to. That leads us to the transportation problem that’s incredible—one of the worst in the nation. What does that do to a family? Can you imagine the cultural shock that a family is confronted with in the first place of the whole lifestyle, for one thing? He gets sick, she gets sick. Where do they go? Well, you’ve got to wait because you don’t qualify. All kinds of processes are a work against the person. I think that another thing that has happened is the incidents of divorce among Hispanics have increased sharply. And this is based, not just on statistics, but on—and I don’t even know if there are any statistics on this. Based on the fact that I have been in the pastoral ministry since 1956 in small towns to Dallas to the big time, Houston, I have seen through counseling—because I have counseled to hundreds and hundreds of people. I have seen a tremendous and increase in breakdown in the Mexican-American family. Much of it has been due—out of my experience—has been due to a couple that comes to the city and then the guy—because of transportation problems and housing problems and all kinds of problems—loses his job. Then the kids coming and the guilt increases on the man, so then finally the guy is overwhelmed and he just moves away. They just break up. Or he goes to drinking first, is the pattern usually. He goes to drinking and, of course, the family suffers and then the woman gets pregnant and the man goes out with some other woman. Then further alienation and a constant shifting of the burden of the guilt from him to the woman—increase in beatings of the woman and projections of guilt and all this kind of failure. No longer outlets to demonstrate his machismo. His machismo is virtually gone because the drinking cantina is—even there it’s no big deal anymore. It’s not like when I grew up, for example. When I grew up, and I grew up in San Antonio, I used to go to cantinas in San Antonio west side. I was always afraid. I’ve never been a very brave kind of guy who went around proving his machismo, but my cousins did so that was part of the fun. You know—you went and big guys and all that was the big Saturday affair. Well, here there’s a loss there. I’m not saying that’s good, but I’m saying that when you take that away and then you take all the other supports that kept the system going before, you have a person that has no meaning. He doesn’t count or she doesn’t count for anything. I think the divorce and the moving around have caused tremendous problems. Meanwhile—that’s the lower social class. When you talk with people like that, people like this or even their own mind—and you know we had more human relations, as I said, in the extended family concept and in the poor communities. But even that begins to change, because now they come to a clinic and they come as part of a system to a system and they are, themselves, a nothing in this urban setting—inner-city. Where’s their personal witness? Where is their integrity and dignity? So when you have no personal goodness that is comprehensive and that is integrated, then what do you have? You have only a person that is bringing part of him or herself for treatment to the system that only treats a part of that. It’s really quite painful, I think, to see this, because I can remember sitting down with people. It’s still here—thank God—that we still need a kind of respect. There’s a certain respect in this relationship with a lot of people, but this younger group doesn’t know what that means. They don’t know what it means to say sir. Now, I’m not advocating that kind of thing. I’m just saying that they don’t understand the meaning of that kind of context in which that sort of respect happens. And when that happens, you see, to me, we go to the other—it’s no substitute. But, anyway, I’m just saying that poor people are confronted with that. That’s a dehumanization thing. And the other thing that is happening is that those of us who have “made it” –a dubious kind of making it—but those of us who have “made it”—the middle-class type, or the upper lower-class even—we operate under illusions. Those of us who live like we live—we live in the northwest part of town. Basically, it’s my conviction that’s not who we are—that we’re out of our area. If nothing else, humanly speaking. But that’s where we are, and that’s got a long story behind it. We moved out there temporarily. I had dropped out temporarily in this whole process here for several months or so. Then I decided I was going to be a social worker-type and my wife is working on that, so we kind of moved out of the barrio. Anyway, the people that have kind of made it—teachers and others—I think that in talking with many of them, many of them are still very guilt-ridden about who they are right now and having left something. They know that something has been left behind and they live in a suburban community, but they don’t really belong there. They don’t belong to that which somehow they still kind of remember. Many of them remember—see—a lot of people come from the valleys so many remember back home. There’s still that—maybe back home there’s still a little bit of that. Here, there is not that. So I have proposed that what we need to do is to have a series of urban conferences for Chicanos in urban settings. We really need to start talking about what does it mean to be an urban Chicano? That would take into account—let me give you this little bit that I’m also going to work with in the book. I think that communication is a major problem. Communication is not data communication that’s the problem. I think that’s the problem with computers and that’s the problem with—in fact, that’s the problem with the whole system, again, that thinks that if we really get some good statistics down about the prevalence of the poor and why they are poor. Well, X number of poor because of this, this, and this. Now we can design programs to meet that need. It’s all so absurd. That kind of communication is not—I don’t know what you call that, but justification of whatever they preplanned or whatever they see as a systems need. The system needs continual staffing, so you develop this research center. It’s a constant hassle. What I would like to see is for us to begin to sit down through—and this is equally true with the blacks. But I have to speak in reference to the Chicanos because that’s my area of specialization, because of the fact that we just don’t know Mexicans that are into this kind of thing in communities. What I’ve been thinking about is that we need to look back through the process of how we arrived where we are. Where have we been? Where aren’t we? Where are we going? When we talk in terms of communication, that is important. One thing that I’ll show you is what I’m thinking of. First of all, there’s a lot of ethnic background here. I’m going to put these two on—it’s not exactly one-to-one ratio, but for purposes of just discussion right now. My point is that the history of Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics has been—again, let me restrict myself to the southwest and talk about Mexican-Americans. We’ve been called Latin-Americans, South Americans, and we can trace the genealogy—how do you say it? We can trace it from when it was acceptable for us to be Spanish-Americans and then we jumped over one notch to Latin-Americans and then to Spanish-Americans. There was one part in there. But Mexican-Americans we avoided. That’s not—I’m 43 years old so I know some of the patterns we’ve gone through. Others may know more, but Mexican-American was avoided for a long time, and the reason for that was because we were Mexicans. The other parts were Mexicans and greasers, which kept us from being who we were. My kid said—for example—one time she was singing, “Scott does not want to play with me because he says I’m Mexican.” I was sitting in the living room and Irene was in the kitchen—my wife—and she kept playing around and I would listen. “Scott will not play with me because he says that I’m Mexican. I tell him I’m not Mexican, I’m Mexican-American, and he still won’t play with me.” And then she kept singing, “I tell him that he’s German and I play with him, but he still won’t play with me.” By this time I had said to Irene to listen in. She was about 7 or 8 years old at that time. Irene started listening, and then when she sang it completely once through, Irene jumps in and says, “Lisa, that is not true. Scott plays with you.” And Lisa came right back and she said, “Yes, Mama, but that is only when he forgets who I am.” Isn’t that incredible? (laughs) The thing is this is part of the process. We allow ourselves to be called all kinds of names, just like colored, that were okay. If she didn’t have us as parents—and she may still—will accept that she will always be not Mexican, not Mexican-American, she will be an American. She will say, “I’m American.” And yet, she’s denying what her parents are. We certainly do not advocate that. Irene does not. She will never forget that. That will always be a guilt thing. I’m assuming if she was to go and say, “No, sir. I’m American.” It would gnaw at the deepness of her heart because her identity is tied in with who I am and who Irene is and who her parents were. And you can’t erase that. You can’t erase that.
AF: 1:15.5 We project ourselves into each other. Again, because of what I said earlier not because what I was alluding to—is that we are not private. My point for that matter is that blacks are not private and that Mexican-Americans are not private in the southwest. I think that we ought to talk more about the people of the southwest, rather than talk about black, browns, Indians. I’m not against talking about the individuals, but I’m saying when we talk about where do we find our ultimate self? My only argument is that we do not find it in being black or in being brown or in being Mexican-American or in being American black—that we ultimately find it in who we are, yes, but in who we are in relationship to—the rest of us—those that have informed us and make what we are today. That’s my ultimate goal in terms of our humanity. And so my feeling is that in this sense—you see—we’ve all gone through this, but this was the period of God is everything, sort of. You look at it theologically—that there is an absolute something and I am totally nothing—that I’m named whatever anybody names me—that there’s an absolute authority. This is the old colonial process. And then out of this emerge the Latin-American, and all that, to finally—I’m saying the Mexican-American. And now in the Mexican-American process there’s an awakening of at least getting postured up to the encounter. But at any given moment—social, political moment—this person can jump back over here to wherever he is or she was. It’s just that right now Mexican-American is a little more acceptable. So we jump now to what I’ve listed here as the Chicano experience. The Chicano experience—I’ve written some on the Chicano experience—to me is a social—this is a social political transaction. I’ve called it other things, so I may not be as careful in my use of terms, here. But I look at this more as a social political transaction in identity. And that’s why it’s negotiable. I call this a social, or psychosocial, transaction in identity, because it has to do with my individual self, with a coming to right in Chicano men. I don’t care anymore. I don’t care whether you like it or you don’t like it. You understand? It’s a kind of a—but it’s also in the social context. And then, my point is—what has happened is this—that meanwhile, Anglos have also gone through a similar kind of thing without really knowing it sometimes. They come from all kinds of ethnic heritages here. That’s how we say the Anglo-American. At least we do. You all would say whites, probably. The Anglo-American is what the Mexican-Americans say. I guess that’s mentioned—to say, “Well, if I’m Mexican, then you’re Anglo-American.” It’s to kind of equalize it. What I’m saying is they too—it’s really a social political designation of the Anglo, here. A lot of the fussing and feuding has been—at this level it’s very compatible. The conversations flow and the personal encounter flows. It’s superficial, but at least it’s peaceful. But if you move from over here, when we went into this phase into the ‘60s, we were shooting at them and—let me describe this. This I call the hippie and the subculture reaction.
FM: 1:20:20.9 Counterculture.
AF: The counter-culture group would be the ex-American. I don’t know what to call it right now, so I just call it the ex-experience for some Anglos. Now, even here, the Chicanos and these guys didn’t really get along that well. Right? So we know there’s no communication flow. My point is that as long as many Mexicans are still here. And the problem with that is that they can’t talk to them, they can’t talk to them, and they basically remain at a confrontative, judgmental, or prophetic kind of—you know—telling it like it is. It’s all telling it like it is. My point is that we have to move from this to this relationship, here. We are sooner or later going to have to recover the Mexican-Americaness, because that is our political identity. We are not Mexicans from Mexico. We are Mexican-Americans. But we’re Chicano Mexican-Americans. This person, now, can begin to negotiate and to talk and deal and understand processes. And I’m saying that the same thing with the Anglo—that he be human and all the people—that somehow we have to find ourselves in this section, here, and that’s only when true dialog can occur. As a matter of fact, from this perspective, this guy can talk here and can talk here. And they can talk and they don’t want to overreact because they have gone through this process. What I’d like to do is—I’m doing this also as part of the book to show the changing patterns of communication among the people. I think that this is something we need to do by way of training social workers and others, so that they’ll understand. A lot of them may be speaking from here, and I think that they ought to know that. They’ll be less disappointed with the responses they get, hopefully.
FM: 1:22:36 The final point about the final category had there, but I’ve read reports or heard reports from different people—I don’t know how true they are—that there is a hostility between—I don’t like the word aliens. It sounds like they’re Martians. Let’s say Mexicans who come here without the proper documentation the way the government defines it, and—
AF: Those who are illegally.
FM: Right. Let’s say those who are here illegally and those who are either here legally or were born here. Just this morning I heard on this radio with David Lopez, he said—the question I asked him was that there seemed to be some trouble in some of the schools that are predominantly Mexican between—Mr. Lopez said—between Mexicans and he just said newcomers. He didn’t specify legal or illegal, but is there really a lot of tension involved or is this overplayed? Is it just minor friction?
AF: Well, first off, I think that the amount of conflict between the illegal alien, the Mexican-American who was born here, and the recent naturalized Mexican-American is probably—in an urban setting—probably about the same. I don’t see any tremendous amount of difference. The problem is that there’s more of it, because there’s more of that kind of thing happening. That’s one part. It’s not, I think, proportionate. Probably we will always have some of that time period. Why? Well, because for one thing, when you have those who have been here trying to move towards identification with the majority, and then you have the extreme of this—the illegal alien who comes and presumably is here to take jobs and brings the old custom back, it’s a threat to some of the ones who are marginally Mexican-Americans in terms of security. Not the ones that are well-settled—I mean—the difference in what they make—but the marginals. You will always have that. That’s a social problem that will be true of any border areas in any countries that meet and there’s this kind of migration. The other is that the problem is also that many agencies are having more contact with Mexican and with illegals and under different classifications. Some of these agencies are becoming involved. And sometimes agencies make the point of the differences in order to justify their not having to deal with an X number of people. They’d rather deal with the ones they already have controlled and that were cooperating. When you discover in the process that there are a lot more people out there, then you consciously are going to find differences so that you make a big deal of this. I think this has been true of the whole issue of the illegal alien. Why is it that we make this major problem when we have always used cheap labor? Now it becomes a big problem because somebody’s got to be blamed for the messing up of big business and corporations. The multi-national corporations that have suffered, in some cases—I’m not sure how much they’ve suffered. I’ve read some statistics that indicate that profits were up across the board. I think it was from ’72-’73—48 percent or so. This is across the board for the big corporations, and yet they were claiming—and it was during a time, also, of high unemployment or increasing unemployment—and they’re claiming great losses, and yet their profits are sky high. So it’s another sign of the times, I guess. I don’t think it’s a major problem. But not to minimize it, I think it only says that we need to do what we should have done even before this. And that is how do we find ways to help in the educational—and using education in the sense of the old country style—education as Mexicans still may be saved in some cases. Una persona educada is a person that is ethically and all this kind of stuff.
FM: 1:28:45 Not just getting six degrees in math or something, saying, “Hi. I’m a math specialist.”
AF: So in that sense—you see—we need to spend more time in the public schools addressing the differences that exist, not as occasions for feuding or for misunderstanding. You see—that’s why we can’t communicate, or whatever. But as an occasion for enriching the relationships that exist here, because I think it is great that so many Mexicans come over here—that, recently, bringing in all kinds of traditions from Mexico, and that we ought to not be threatened by those kinds of things. They can teach us things, and we can help to teach them to accommodate themselves and to adjust themselves to the style here. But nobody seems to be doing a great deal of those things. I spoke with a consul recently—the Mexican Consul—he was on our television program we have a local station on channel two. I mentioned that to him. I said that at Lamar Elementary, here, they have that problem. Little kids talking about those Mexicans. And there are some conflicts. Marshal has had conflict. But some of that also has to do with the fact that a lot of our kids can’t speak English. I mean—yeah, those that come in—monolinguals. And then those that can’t speak Spanish, they’re threatened by the ones that can’t—you know—it’s the old communication barriers thing. So they just tend to group them. Any school, if it was all white, would have their groups.
FM: 1:30:44 I know I’ve seen parallels in other ethnic groups. When a new group comes in, you see this kind of trend with the old group that’s been settled, especially if it’s the middle-class that feels threatened. And then ironically enough treats some of the newcomers coming in as if they were treated by the majority group, making no sense at all. So I was wondering if this happens in all ethnic groups, when you have masses of people coming in to join people who are already there or at different points in history. I was wondering the same basic thing, although, there was something worse. It’s been played out to be—
AF: Well, numerically, it’s increasing. There’s a tremendous amount of people moving in. I think that we’re not addressing ourselves to that enough. I don’t know of any other human service agencies—if you look across—look at the CWPA social directory and you call across and find out how many have bilingual staff at some level to deal with people. Or look at their board composition. Yet our Mexican-Americans are going to continue to increase in—you know—nationally from the ’70 census to 1973 there’s an increase of about 15 percent on a survey that was done by the bureau of census. Some of that can be accounted by the way that their system of counting.
FM: Neglecting to count people.
AF: However, they are still neglecting the counting. It’s always hard to count minorities.
FM: For some reason, yeah. On the basis of that, I’ve heard forecasts, they’re saying by the year 2000 the largest minority group in the United States is going to be Spanish-speaking people, so they should be trying to expand this instead of just standing still.
AF: 1:33:07 I think that may be true. I have projected some figures for Houston about the same. I don’t know how true it is.
FM: That’s what I read. I don’t know how true it is. You can’t tell—
AF: I was multiplying recently, in fact, a couple of days ago trying to make some projections and they become unbelievable so I erased the page. You know—you can play with the statistics. I do know that there will be a lot more, constantly.
FM: Well, the same thing with blacks. I know these percentages seem to go up a great deal. What’s 9 percent all of a sudden becomes 14 percent. I think there are a lot of reasons why this happens, but I was just trying to get at what is really a big problem, just part of something that usually happens when you have a lot of people coming in and the outside society isn’t exactly—the majority group in this area, the Anglos aren’t exactly thrilled about seeing a lot more Mexicans coming in. It seemed to me it was a bit overblown in the press. I don’t know. That’s why I decided to ask that question. If you have—do you have anything else you can add?
AF: Oh, I don’t know.
FM: I think we’ve had a very good interview, and I want to thank you very much.
AF: I would say you might ask me what the future—what I see as the future of this ministry in this context is, or even its transferability. Well, first of all, I think that the Casa de Amigos is a product of the work and collaboration of a lot of different agencies and a lot of individuals—a lot of just beautiful people over the years. I think that this kind of work is happening throughout the United States, now, through, what we call, the urban ministries and what other denominations call special ministries. The difference in our style has always been that we started from the very beginning in the ‘60s with a community-based operation. We used this community-based operation for visibility. Some have said that that’s not a good style because it involves yourself in direct services and you can’t bring about change. Our argument is that if you organize and just become rabble rousers with nothing to show the people that you’re representing, you become enemies of the people that you’re representing.
FM: 1:36:09 Become alienated.
AF: Yeah, alienated from different points and your usefulness is good for a certain style. What I have attempted to do is develop a community base that involves itself in direct services, but also direct advocacy. And we have marched when we’ve had to march, but we’ve always tried to do it within the style that safeguards this. I think the future, basically, is one that—I don’t know. We have two other centers, and we hope to continue to operate and to be a change agent, collaborating with other agencies.
FM: On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives I’d like to thank you.
(End of tape 1:37:00)