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Interview with: Carmen Orta
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: March 18, 2008
DG: Today is March 18, 2008. We are in the home of Carmen Orta who we are interviewing for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today?
CO: Just fine.
DG: Great. Why don’t we begin with your beginnings? Tell us where you were born and your early family life and what your earliest memories are.
CO: My family was from Victoria, Texas. All of them were born at home. I was the only one born in a hospital. That was in 1941. My mother worked . . . we had a little grocery store and my mother would work the grocery store. So, she left there to go to the hospital and that is where I was born, in the hospital. In the early days, right where the post office is now, used to be a train station and that is where they would come in on the train from all the little surrounding cities. During that time, I had . . . there were 9 children - 3 boys and 6 girls, and during that time, my oldest brother would come from Victoria to come stay with my grandmother, but one of those times that she did not show up, he decided to walk home, walk to her house -- she had a little duplex -- and he was hit by a car, an old Model T that took off. He lived 7 years but he was paralyzed, he went blind and that was something that my mother, up to this date, remembers him. She would remember him even though she is not alive anymore. Even now, it is difficult for me to talk about it and I didn’t even meet him.
But in that area, there used to be nothing but families. We were right off of Preston Avenue, right where the . . . in the corner, there was a family. She was Helen Morales who was married to the mayor. Her family had a little restaurant. Next to that was the Salvation Army. Next to that was the farmer’s market and from there, there was . . . what else did we have there . . . an auto repair, a bar - a Latin bar – that was the name of it in those days. There were rough guys, there was a gang that controlled that area and my father just told them, “Don’t mess with my family. I don’t see anything, I don’t know anything. Just leave my family alone.” Well, right at the beginning there of Preston, you would have to go to the farmer’s market and then you would have to also get your dry goods and all that from little places like the ice house where we had to pick up the block of ice and put it in what we called our ______ or ice chest. And then, the auto repair was owned by the Solis family which was Olga Solis. They had an auto repair there.
My dad had the grocery store and he decided that he could . . . you know, the competition . . . Weingartens started to come in and so he felt that he needed to do something else, so he went along and started setting up like a little furniture store. He would sell little appliances, whatever he could sell. He was an entrepreneur from day 1, he really was. In that time, my mother was a seamstress. She made wedding dresses for the girls in the area. All the families knew each other. And so, we went ahead and in the meantime, before that, he was the first to do spices, had the spices in Houston. He had it in the garage.
Well, the gang respected him so much that one time, we forgot to lock the doors. They called us and said, “Mr. ______, you left your door open. We will go ahead and close them up for you." That is the respect he had. And so, dad knew that everything would be O.K. So then, from there, we moved to Navigation. The first little grocery store was on Reynolds over there by Guadalupe Church and that was the first little store. Well, he came to Houston in 1938. He came to Houston and he had the store there on Reynolds. Later on, he had the . . . let's see, what else did he have . . . oh, he also had . . . my mother was a seamstress so she started making the dresses and all at that particular area. So then, when he opened up the grocery store, he asked the owner, asked him what could he do in order to live there and be part of it? Well, the family that he talked to, was an Italian owner that were getting ready to retire so when he got ready to retire, he decided to let us be part of that store, which it does not exist anymore. And that is the way we started the wedding dresses. He went to . . . this part I am going to have to read. He bought the store and he asked the Italian if he had any rooms for us to live in. And so, the Italian told him yes, that he did and he said, “Well, I would to be a part of the store.” And so, at that time, we were on Navigation and he wanted to do whatever he could to make money. He would even cut your hair to make extra money, you know, and then he taught himself English and became a U.S. citizen. He loved the United States. He loved being American. And so, the store over there . . . I am trying to remember this part. It was at a time when Weingartens came in, it was over. There was no way. It was over for us, that we were not going to be able to survive. But the owner of that store, he asked him, "Can I live here?" . . . we had 2 rooms to live in and 8 children and the owner said yes, that he could stay there and be part of the business.
I was very close to him. I was the baby, the baby. He just spoiled me to no end. I was his baby girl. He loved broadcasting and he had a program called "La Hora Villarreal," and he would have professors call him and ask him about his program and how he spoke and how he understood. He was very poetic. Each one of us, if it was our birthday, he would dedicate a program to us. When he came, we lived in those 2 little rooms and, at the time, Houston was growing, growing a lot. It was 1938 when he came. This part here tells you about . . .
DG: You have some written notes? Would you like to just read those?
CO: Yes. His first house that he bought which was off of Houston Avenue, he bought it with dimes that he had saved. With dimes that he had saved. It had 2 bedrooms but since I was the baby, I had my own bedroom. My sister made that real clear. They had to add rooms in the back and the garage for the boys because we had boys. My mother would take in every child that would be left behind. She saw this little boy just there waiting for his mother to come out of the beer joint. He bought it with dimes. I am trying to remember what else we did there. In between, my father was one of the first _________ which I told you. He would sell this on the side and have a stand at the rodeo. He was the first to sell Mexican items from Mexico in 1939.
DG: So, you came from Victoria to Houston?
CO: Yes, they did.
DG: In 1938? Why did they come to Houston?
CO: It had gotten to the Depression and lack of money and he knew he could not support the family so he came to Houston to see if there was something here in Houston. My mother stayed behind with all the kids. They sold what they had. She did not hear from him very often but he finally wrote her a letter and told her, "I am ready for you to come and join me here in Houston." And so, she did. She came to Houston. He had a farm in Victoria and he would sell vegetables, he would go to Victoria and bring back goods to sell. He would cut hair, do whatever to make money. We used to call him Papa Pepe and Mama Tele. We never did call them Grandma or Grandpa. Most of the money for the church on Center Street, most of the money to build the church came from my father because my grandmother would say, I need this, I need that, for the church. And so, he would pay for whatever they needed for the church. So, later on, right where Crespo Funeral Home is, it belonged to his brother, Ernest, and there was Bellaire Funeral Home. Crespo bought it again and then Crespo . . . it was sold back and forth several times. It was left to my brother and after my brother passed, the furniture store still stands but there is a law firm there. This is what I found real interesting, was that the county increase was 56,671 between 1941 and 1948, more than 18,000 of those settled in the city in 1942 and 1943. Rapid population growth brought about forced integration because service facilities were not abundant enough to permit complete segregation. Housing shortages were severe and the races were forced to live closed-in. In this situation, they put them in a competition with white workers. Tensions separate, commuter transportation had been put into service to end racial violence and overcrowded buses. There were also shortages of food allotments and ration cards had been issued in 1941 in Beaumont. Although the population had drastically increased in 1943, wholesaler quotas were still based on 1941 population _______, a situation that caused severe shortages of meats and canned goods. Three days before the riot, J.H. Culkin (sp?), head of the Regional Food Administration wired Washington, D.C. with a message, that the food shortages in Beaumont were conducive to riot. In addition to these factors, a chapter of the KKK was active and the city was planning to host a regional convention of the Klan on June 29. They hoped to bring 15,000 to 20,000 Klansmen from all over the south to hear William Simmons, Imperial of the KKK, for the keynote address. The proposed meeting received an enormous amount of media attention and helped intensify racial tensions. At the same time, the black community was prepared for its annual Juneteenth celebration scheduled for Saturday, June 19, when hundreds of East Texas blacks were expected to come to Beaumont. Finally celebrating these problems, a rape was alleged to have occurred. A black man was accused of assaulting an 18-year-old Beaumont telephone operator, the daughter of a Louisiana shipyard worker, then working in a Beaumont plant. The black man was subsequently shot and killed by Beaumont police while resisting arrest. The incident had elevated racial tensions when a second alleged rape occurred on June 15 ________ violence. Beaumont then joined Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Mobile, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. as sites of the ______ riot. So then, it affected our food, housing, everything. I am trying to think of what else.
DG: How old were you when the Beaumont riot happened?
CO: I was just born.
DG: What do you remember of race relations in Houston when you were growing up?
CO: It existed. It always did. My daddy used to tell us a story that one time, it cost him a dollar to go to the restroom, so he had to pay someone a dollar to let him go to the restroom in Schulenberg. He was coming to Houston. It existed on the buses. It existed in the jobs. When I graduated from high school, he wanted me to go to college and I was not quite ready to do that. I had always helped him. You had to go and collect from your clients. You would have to go collect every week and we would be gone all day and he would tell me, "O.K., get off. You know what to do. Knock on the door. Tell them who you are and $2, whatever it was." And what helped him is that from generation to generation, they would bring them to the store. "Mr. Joe is going to let you buy furniture and you are going to pay him and you pay him on time." And so, I learned very early about being part of a business, you know. We would be gone and my mother would tell him, "Why do you have her out there? She could be doing something in the office." And he said, "Well, because I want her to learn that if anything ever happens to us, that she can take care of herself, be independent and be taking care of herself." And so, he did that. He would do that. I am trying to think, what else did he do? Oh, the segregation. We could not drink out of the same drinking water. We had to go with the black instead of the white. Like to sit on the bus, we had to sit in the back. Sometimes I think it was worse for us . . . nowadays, they call us Hispanic, Mexican-American, whatever it would be. Well, one of those days, he told me . . . he would take me downtown and say, "Hey, go down the street and get you a job." So, I would just go down the street and call on whoever and I would make a dollar an hour, 75 cents an hour, but he said, "But it is a job."
DG: What were you doing for a dollar an hour?
CO: Working in a clothing store taking payments and things like that. He used to say, "It is a job." He always would look at it as something that I had to learn to do. He also, when we had the store . . . and it was not just me, it was all of us. Each one of us had our job. When I was younger and when we had the furniture store, after it all happened, we had the furniture store open, we built the furniture store where the credit union is now there, that little building - it used to be ours. So, that is where we would handle whatever we had to do.
DG: Where did you go to high school?
CO: I went to St. Agnes. I was fortunate to do that because my father was doing very well. So, my sister went to Nasser (sp?) Academy in Victoria and I went to St. Agnes. I would take a bus. I had to take 2 buses to get there but he wanted me to go to a Catholic school and that is where I went to school, to St. Agnes. My friends do kid me a lot. "Oh, you went to St. Agnes?" you know. I tell them, "Yes, but we know about St. Agnes." Everybody thought I had gone to Davis, Jeff Davis, and I did not. It is just that I knew everybody from there. We just kind of knew each other. And so, he was real funny about certain things. One time, I wanted to show him . . . I had been married - I got married very young and I had my 2 sons and I wanted to show that I could do my own thing. I went down to get help and he got so upset but I just wanted him to understand that . . . and I told him, I said, "What am I going to do if something happens to you? What am I going to do? I have to learn to take care of my children and I have to learn to take care of myself." And so, that is where I get the business out of it. I never did want to work for anybody. I wanted to do it myself. And there are times, you know, like my business - I am in the telecommunications business - no one knows why. I went into it with no money and started it and we are going on 25 years or something already of having it. And we retired. So, my oldest son runs the company now.
DG: What does the company do?
CO: We are like project managers. We do projects like for HISD, companies. We oversee the project. We do cabling, a lot of cabling. So, for us to be in it that long and the type of business that it is, I have to say we have done very well. We have done very well.
DG: And how did you choose that as a business to start?
CO: I had a friend -- it was during the time when AT&T and Southwestern Bell were split up, and a friend of mine asked -- I was not working . . . while I stayed close because we moved out to Katy, and my husband wanted me to be close to the boys so I could be there with them for whatever they needed, and so I went by to see him and he says, "Well, do you know what? I need someone to help me, he said, "And you know a lot of people." And so, that is how I started to help him. We got into it and came back, and he did not want to do it anymore so he left it to Austin and kind of left me with it. I just continued doing it with no money! So, my brother . . . I went to him and I said, "Look, this is what I am doing. I need some help." I actually had gotten a big contract. I said, "I got this contract and I need help." He said, "I don't know what you are doing but I will take you to the bank. This is what you are going to do." It was Navigation Bank at that time. He took me over there and he said, "Lend her the money. If she misses one day, I will take care of it. She will be here for that day. She will be here." The banker said, "O.K." So, at the beginning, I was a gopher. I would do whatever. Sweeping, cleaning, lay out the phones and do whatever I could to help the guy. The oldest son had never installed one of these. We would contact somebody and the guy ends up calling us to tell us he was not going to be able to do it. So, my son is having to do it with the book and _______ during most of the night and day and it worked. It worked. He actually installed his first system on his own. It worked. My husband was an iron worker at the time and so he came in to help. Everybody came in to help with my nephews, everybody came in to help us. And so, that is how we got started with the business. Some worked for HISD, City of Houston at that time. And then, it just started growing. I would always tell him, "There is nothing better than your word. You give you word, then you have to do it. You have to do it." And that is the way I am. If you feel you can't, then you say you can't but don't promise anything that you can't do. And so, here we are with a story of what we did and the statistics of how we grew.
DG: How did you get involved in community service?
CO: Way back, my uncle, Ernest, decided to run for the school board in the early 1950s. During that time, ________ poor tax before you could vote. So, we did a mailout. It was the first time that I did a mailout. Actually, he did not win but anyway, he gave it a try. Community service . . . like I said, I enjoyed doing it, I love what we do, and helping people. I got involved with some organizations way back. I just continue being involved . . . I got real involved with the mayor when he ran.
DG: Which mayor?
CO: Mayor Bill. I've got his pictures all over the place. Andrea's birthday is the same date mine is so she sent me a little card. It is there somewhere. And then, he sent me one to wish me a happy birthday. And then, I believe in giving back. I just believe in helping, you know, that type of thing.
DG: In 1995, you were appointed by President Bill Clinton as a delegate to the White House Conference on Small Business. What was that like?
CO: That was the most exciting time. Went to it and it was just an exciting time for me to be one from Houston to be involved. There were only 2 from Houston. It was so exciting to be involved in that whole process of what you can do and what they can do, and while I was there, I got a call from my son and he said, "Oh, by the way, I got a call because we need to set up a phone system in the Palm Center," because Al Gore was coming in to town. And I said, "Well, don't do it unless you get the money up front." He said, "O.K., I will tell him." So, they did. I will never forget that we got the money up front. Then, the best one that I never forgot was when I was selected by Jimmy Carter to be part of . . . a delegate. Dukakis was the chair of the committee. You were sitting around the table with nothing but the top. When I got to Washington, they had someone meet me at the hotel and let me know that I was going to be a delegate. Well, it worked and in my office, the director fired me for going. And it was on my time. And so, I went in to tell Dukakis I had to leave, I was having problems over there at work. And he said, "Oh, no, you are not leaving." So, they called the mayor. Fred Hofheinz was mayor at the time. He said, "She is not going anywhere. She is staying here." So, I stayed. And it was just the excitement of the media and then I started to travel to different cities. I would get mail like this, stacks of mail. I think that was the most exciting event that I can say got me involved.
DG: You were appointed to the Metro board in 2004.
DG: How did that come about and what is that experience like?
CO: Bill White, he has 5 commissioners. The city has 5, the county has 2, and the municipalities have 2, so that is 9 of us that sit on the board. I was with Bill from day one when, what is his name that ran? The Hispanic guy? Everybody was upset because I went with Bill instead of Orlando, that how could I do that? I said, "Put their resumes next to each other and I will tell you why." I said, "This city need someone like him. That is the only way we are going to move forward. I believe in him," and I started to go everywhere he was at. And then, one day, he said, "You know, I noticed that everywhere I am at, you are listening." I said, "Yes, because I care about the city. I want to make sure that we have a good mayor." And so, that is how that came about. And I just love it. It is just an experience for me to do that. It is really a time to just . . . being part of something that is going to last forever. Forever. It is just not today but this is going to last forever, and to be part of something that is going to sit there forever. What more could you ask for, you know? I stayed with him all the way through and when I got sick, they did not touch that position because he kept telling them, "She will be back. She will be back. I know her, she will be back." So, they left it open for me until I came back. And I still have a little problem, you know, with my voice and my hands but they all take care of me, the staff, everybody takes care of me, you know. And it is just a time that, here it is, it is going to run down the street here, and I will be able to ride it all I want. And I told them, I said, "I am going to be on the other side of that podium and I am going to be telling you what I like and don't like." And they said, "Oh, she will," because the first day that I came back, my sister had passed away and I asked them if they could have a prayer and they did. It was just a wonderful feeling to know that he cared that much. I find him to be very sincere. I find him to be very sincere in everything that he does. He approaches projects just like this -- everything that you need, and studies it. He does not just think about it, he knows what he wants. I learned so much from that, I really have. So, it is good. It is good.
DG: How has the Hispanic community grown since you first became aware of it here in Houston? We know the numbers. We know there are more Hispanics here but with the sense of community, you said there was a time when all the families knew each other. Surely, the families don't know each other but when did you know that there was a community and what has that meant and how have you seen it develop?
CO: Well, now you have all these different groups. Like I told you, I do not know if we are Hispanic, Mexican-Americans, Latinos - I don't know what the newspapers or the records show the number growing which it has. It has changed but at the same time, we kept saying it was going to happen. For those that had an opportunity to sit around the table, we kept saying, "It is going to happen. What are we going to do with the schools? What are we going to do?" Every opportunity that I had, I would tell them, "What are we going to do because it is going to happen. It is going to come." You know, I am at the age where I have seen that. To be able to see what it has done here in the city, it is everywhere. It is everywhere. It is going to grow and grow and grow. It is going to be incredible the growth we are going to have.
DG: What do you think you would like people to know about the city that someone like yourself, who wanted to be involved, was allowed to be involved, was allowed to sit at the table -- in some cities it would be impossible to do some of the things you have done unless you came from an old family with a lot of money or people who have been here forever. Like a lot of people, you were new to Houston when all the growth happened. What kind of city is Houston that would allow that to happen?
CO: It was, well, just fortunate . . . there were organizations that kind of helped like American Leadership. I am a senior fellow of the 9th class. You do become very close to these individuals. My daddy used to say, "And you are light complected. That helps." It did. It did help. So, I belong to the organization and then once you are there, then your mental health . . . through my years, I think I have sat, and I am not exaggerating, on 30 something, 35 something boards through the years. American Diabetes Association is very dear to me because my father died from that. He had his legs amputated. That is very dear to me. Diabetes - we got Metro involved in it because it really is a very serious issue that we have among people, not any particular race. It affects us all.
DG: Of all those different things you have done, all the different things you have seen, what are you most proud of?
CO: Being my dad's daughter because I learned so much and I still remember him. He loved his family. There wasn't a weekend that we did not have a gathering, no matter if he had money or not. We always had Christmas. I am very proud to be his daughter.
DG: Well, Ms. Orta, you have been a valuable servant for LaRosa, the Boys and Girls Club, the United Way, the American Leadership Forum, the Houston Minority Business Council, Houston Housing Authority, the American Leadership Forum, the East End Chamber of Commerce. It is quite a list of accomplishments, plus the other 30 or so boards that you say that you have been on.
CO: Yes, I did, and the reason I would accept them - because you learn from each and every one of them and, to me, I could bring that out to our community -- how they did things -- and then I could bring it out to our community, and that way, I could show them fundraising, how to conduct meetings, just everything that had to do with the organizations. Larose is dear also because of domestic violence and I am a strong advocate for women. In fact, I am going to be honored at one of their events. It was because it was a way to, like Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, I was one of the first women that sat on the board and ________ because it enlightened women to be head of boards. But _________ and they were after that. Now, they call on me to help them out. It has brought so much. Our community was and is a way to learn, just learn, like United Way, you know - you learn every time you go to retreats and you go to whatever they may have. And I would participate. And people would say, "Why do you do it?" It is just me. They don't really get it, they don't, as to why.
DG: Well, I want to thank you for your time. I am sure your community is grateful and the city is grateful and I am sure your dad is very proud.
CO: Oh, yes. My dad was funny, too. He was a little character. I was just going to show you this. That is when I was little. See the little pictures? We were poor back then. Someone wrote a beautiful toast. Can I read it?
CO: She is an inspiration. She is dignity. She is courage. She is strength. She can teach by her wisdom and lead by her grace. She is a warrior. She is a goddess. She is everything in between. She is laughter. She is vibrant. She always radiates life. She is real. She is tenderness. She is hope. She is a wife, a mother, a daughter, an aunt, a sister, and a best friend. She is beautiful. She is amazing. She is you.
DG: Thank you, Ms. Orta.