The Houston Oral History Project is a repository for the stories, accounts, and memories of those who have chosen to share their experiences. The viewpoints expressed in the Houston Oral History Project do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the City of Houston, the Houston Public Library or any of its officers, agents, employees, or volunteers. The City of Houston and the Houston Public Library make no warranty as to the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in the interviews and expressly disclaim any liability therefore.
The Houston Oral History Project provides unedited versions of all interviews. Some parents may find material objectionable for minors. Parents are encouraged to interact with their children as they use the Houston Oral History Project Web site to complete research and homework activities.
The Houston Public Library retains the literary and publishing rights of its oral histories. No part of the interviews or transcripts may be published without the written permission of the Houston Oral History Project.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to:
The Houston Oral History Project.
Houston Public Library
Houston, Texas 77002
The Houston Oral History Project reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to decline to post any account received herein and specifically disclaims any liability for the failure to post an account or for errors or omissions that may occur in posting accounts to the Virtual Archive.
For more information email the Houston Oral History Project at email@example.com.
Interview with: Daniel Bustamante
Interviewed by: Megan Schneider
Date: April 30, 2008
MS: I am here with Daniel Bustamante, here at the Greater Houston Fair Housing Center, in the basement of the Mecca Center. My name is Megan Schneider. I am going to be interviewing him. Today is April 30, 2008. This is for the Houston Oral History Project. So, Mr. Bustamante, let's start at the beginning. When did you first come to Houston?
DB: I moved here after I graduated from community college, junior college, in Corpus Christi, Texas in June of 1969, about 39 years ago this summer.
MS: And what brought you to Houston?
DB: I was living in Corpus Christi and I was raised by my grandparents and I wanted to get a degree from a major university in Texas and because of the economy, you know, and our family was not wealthy, I had to find a city where I could work full-time basically. Choices in Texas to go to a city to work were somewhat limited - San Antonio, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston, so obviously Houston was an attraction. It was a big city. It had a major industrial manufacturing base. There were a lot of jobs. I had lots of friends already here going to the university and they were encouraging me and, as a matter of fact, we all kind of lived together for quite a number of years. It was quite an exciting period for me. I turned 21 and moved out of my grandparents' house and moved to Houston with all my stuff. So, school brought me here.
MS: And what sort of jobs were you working at first?
DB: Well, when I first got here, Houston was a boom town. Construction was going wildly all over the place. My first job was working as a carpenter's helper building apartments that are still standing on Richmond Avenue, lower Richmond and Montrose. I worked as a carpenter until I got hurt. After that, I took a job selling ladies shows which I did successfully for 1 year or so. And I did that until I discovered the community and once I discovered the community, I started working with community projects. Immediately after that, I went to work for the Boy Scouts of America, the Sam Houston Area Council off of Bagby. And for a couple of years, I ran the mobile scout project for them and I pulled the trailer throughout the inner-city. I had 2 pack meetings and 2 troop meetings daily at 5 schools. So, I was working with a lot of children, a lot of boys, elementary primarily, some middle school boys the first couple of years. So, that is what I did in addition to going to school. I was at school the whole time but I was also working full time.
MS: So, was that all in Houston?
DB: It was all in Houston. Since I moved to Houston in 1969, I have always stayed here, I have always worked here except my job nowadays, sometimes I travel, but I have always been based in Houston and have always worked in Houston.
MS: So, you worked with the Boy Scouts - was that all going from school to school in Houston?
DB: The Boy Scouts of America at that point in the late 1960s was primarily a white organization and they were trying to do outreach to the inner-city minority communities and because there was a lack of leaders, Boy Scout leaders, there were working class communities - I was a member of staff and I was hired to conduct meetings in the neighborhood settings, and the schools would cooperate and I would set up in parks sometimes with a trailer and I would have my meetings in a trailer and do the scouting activities outside, basically to teach young boys scout values and how to attempt to grow up in a big city like Houston and live a clean life. So, I did that for quite a while. It was a very rewarding period.
MS: So, you must have met hundreds . . .
DB: Oh, hundreds of kids, and my memories of that are just incredible because I see what has happened to Freesman Town now. That was one of my neighborhoods. I used to work with multiple groups of kids in Freesman Town, African American boys, scouts, and those neighborhoods are now gone. All the inner-city has changed so much, but these are old neighborhoods that existed in Houston back in the late 1960s/early 1970s - all the inner-city was very, very different, and there were actual working class neighborhoods. Like this neighborhood we are in now, the old historic Sixth Ward, was basically a blue collar mixed neighborhood. It is changing now because of the development.
Houston in the late 1960s/early 1970s was basically based in downtown. There was only 1 mall and that was Gulfgate Mall on the Gulf Freeway where I later went to work selling shoes. That was the mall. Hobby Airport was the only airport. So, people landed at Hobby and they came downtown, they saw Gulfgate Mall and they stopped. There was no Galleria at that point. It was all downtown.
MS: After working for the Boy Scouts, you also went on to be a union organizer.
DB: I graduated from the University of Houston in 1971. I started law school that fall. When I started law school, I was working that summer and worked kind of throughout law school for the Service Employees International Union, and we were working on a major campaign organizing food service and custodial employees at Houston Independent School District, and we were pretty much on track to be the only union there until the AFL-CIO allowed another union to also organize and we went to an election, we lost that election, you know, but that is just union politics and history. But this is in the early 1970s, there were major attempts to organize service workers. This was early 1970s. And there were a lot of things going on in the early 1970s in Houston. Houston was going through some major changes, political changes. There was a lot of political activism. I was a member of an organization called the Mexican American Youth Organization and that, in turn, became the third political party in Texas called the Raza Unida party and I am one of the founders of the Texas Raza Unida party. During that whole experience of organizing this political movement, I was living in Houston and organizing and working in Houston, so my political experience was here. I was a young Democrat. I was president of the Young Democrats at my college in Corpus Christi and I came to the university and became active with the Young Democrats with all those political efforts, but quickly joined my student activists and we left the Democratic party and tried to form a new movement in Texas because at that time, there was only one party in the state and the party was still very discriminatory in the way it did things. I come from south Texas so, you know, down there, there was only one political party back then. It has all changed now. So, it was very exciting to be in a big city and be involved in politics. We were involved in the communities doing all kinds of stuff: voter registration.
In the late 1970s, there was a boycott of schools here by Latinos, by Chicanos. Because of the desegregation of the schools, the School District saw fit to desegregate its schools by placing Chicanos, Latinos and African American schools as opposed to integrating with Anglos. And our community protested, boycotted the schools, we set out strike schools in churches. This all happened in 1970s, in 1971. So, Houston was a hot bed of activity in the late 1960s/early 1970s. When I got here in 1969, two very dear friends of mine - former Commissioner of Integration, Leonel Castillo, and City Controller Leonel Castillo and school board member, David T. Lopez, who were the first two Latino/Chicano elected officials in this community asked me to join with them on a great boycott effort of Houston for the United Farm Workers, and I was elected to chair that effort because they were very busy men. And so, I gladly did it. And so, from 1969, for a number of years, up to the early 1970s, I chaired the boycott efforts in the city for the United Farm Workers and worked closely with Cesar Chavez, took care of a lot of things for the union here because they had no staff. So, my early experience in Houston has a lot of union involvement and a lot of farm worker training. I worked with progressive church groups in this community, student groups and political groups, and we had quite an organization. Those were the early days of Houston. Houston grew and things changed.
The 1970s were a very, very difficult time for Houston. When I first came here, the Houston Police Department had a horrendous reputation. There were a lot of police homicides of prisoners. We quickly became involved in that issue, too, in communities with our black colleagues and picketing and protesting some incidents. Because of my political activism, I also became a victim of police issues. In the summer of 1975, we were having a party at the house I still live in on Leland for a professor colleague that was going to the University of Texas and moving, and one of our friends was drinking, arguing with his girlfriend, the police stopped, one thing led to another, the next thing he is handcuffed and he was being abusive verbally to the police but he was _______ and they started to beat him up in front of all of us. We protested and objected and the consequences were the 4 of us were arrested and taken to jail. We fought all those charges and successfully were not accused of anything against the police, but we filed a federal lawsuit the following year against the Houston Police Department and the City of Houston for police brutality in the summer of 1976 in federal court. We went to trial in the summer of 1979 before a 6 women jury and successfully won that case. It was the first case that was won by a jury against Houston Police Department.
It was subsequently settled. I say this because in between our being beat up and 1979 when we went to court to try the case, there were a lot of things that happened, the most significant of which was the murder of Jose Campos' daughter on May 7, 1977. That became a lightning rod for this community and we were very involved in the whole effort to not only protest what was happening but also to bring some kind of dignity to our community to ensure that we were respected. So, I was very involved in leading protest marches and just confronting the situation. We did a lot of work trying to make sure the communities were not scared, were able to successfully organize and protest without the element of fear because there was a lot of fear in our community and there was a lot of violence. There were riots on May 8, 1978 and I was right there watching this whole thing, just watching our neighborhood burn up. As a consequence of that, a lot of suffering to this day still exists. A lot of young people that I knew and worked with in the 1970s in drug treatment programs that I ran in that same neighborhood went to prison and some of them were hurt. A lot of innocent people were hurt. But this is one of the dark sides of our town. Houston has made a radical change in the way it treats citizens and just people on the streets. We still have issues but this is a whole different city. The police are different, politics is different. So, I am very excited about the future. The 1970s were a trying period that I see in our community. There were a lot of things going on.
The 1980s came about and the oil was booming. Houston was booming like an oil town. I went to work in 1980 for the AFL-CIO, kind of continuing my union tradition and worked for the Houston Organizing Project for 5 years. Mr. Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, when he inaugurated the campaign on the top of the Allied Bank Building which is downtown, which was, in 1980, the last structure that was union built - we topped it off and were taking photos and doing a press conference and he told the media that AFL-CIO was in Houston for the duration as long as it took to organize Houston and Texas; that it took 20 years to organize Houston and Texas, but it took 20 years to organize Los Angeles County and that they were going to remain in Houston Harris County 30 years if it took that. Well, 5 years later, the oil bust and they quietly left town and we all got laid off. A lot of my colleagues went to work for, organized in other unions in other states but I had always made a commitment to never leave the state of Texas because this is where I was from, my political work was here and I just thought it was critical to remain. And so, I have seen Houston kind of change. Houston used to be one of the biggest union towns in the south, great jobs, great industrial manufacturing unions, and they are all gone now. And part of the problems we have today in 2008 with people not having adequate incomes and wealth to build their homes or their families is this union busting that happened here in the 1980s. And consequently, we live in a right to work state, so it makes it very hard for unions to organize. But workers are always trying to improve themselves. That is one of my frustrations with my city. It is a wonderful city for working but the environment for organizing and for safety is still very critical. We still have refinery explosions, we still have unsafe conditions in manufacturing still going on. And so, Houston is a magnet for people that want to exploit our labor and because of our laws, and they can also exploit our environment. And because we have no land use laws, no zoning, they can exploit our communities and build wherever they want. So, these are all challenges to me and one reason I am doing what I do now with housing, fair housing and housing discrimination, is to try to contribute to combat some of these issues.
But kind of getting back to the 1970s, in the 1970s, I also worked for an organization called Casa D'Amigos Community Center which no longer exists. But out of Casa D'Amigos Community Center, I ran a drug treatment program and I worked with young people that were sniffers. They were inhalant abusers. These children in our big city of Houston were like children in all other big cities of the world. They were marginalized children - black, brown and white. And they were sniffing glue with paints and gasoline. It is the same frustration the children have trying to escape bad environments. But that is what I did for many, many years at Casa D'Amigos on the near north side. And when I left that, I went to work for the unions. So, Houston has always had this challenge of young people, this challenge of families trying to make a living and trying to improve themselves. Houston has always been a city of immigrants. Now, whether it is immigrants coming from the east coast, Anglo immigrants coming from the northeast or African American immigrants coming from the south, or Chicanos like myself, immigrating from south Texas - it is a city of immigrants. My people have been in Texas for 300+ years. They were the original settlers, Spanish settlers of Texas, so I am an immigrant and they were immigrants. But, you know, right now, our community is going through a lot of crisis and a lot of things are being said about our immigrant population but that is our future. I don't know what everybody is freaking out about. I mean, the children of all these immigrants are the ones that are going to continue to build and defend our city. Cultures are being brought here from all over the world. This is one of the most diverse cities in the world. You go to Washington, D.C. and LA to find something similar. It is just that we are so spread out. And when I travel, I always brag about our city. It is just so spread out. We just have not arrived. I just think we haven't arrived. My frustration is that I want to make sure that there is an infrastructure for grassroots people and organizations when we do arrive and that we are not swallowed up by a big massive structure of government and providers of services. It is frustrating in Houston because the majority of people in our city rent their homes. A minority of people own their homes.
The average nationally in most cities is just the opposite. In most American communities, families own their owns, majority of families own their homes, so there is some hope for building wealth for your families. In this city, it is kind of the reverse. So, we are in a different type of reality. Houston is growing by leaps and bounds and the inner-city has severe major challenges. Traditionally, ethnic communities are being changed a lot of times against their will because of the lack of zoning. Expensive homes are being put up next to historical family dwellings that are not going to be able to afford the taxes and the improvements and to be able to remain. But with Houston right now, this is a challenge that I see. Now, one reason I am doing housing work is because of that. But I still see so many challenges. I am very active in cultural affairs. That is also something that keeps me personally going. For my whole life in Houston, I have been doing cultural work. In the early days as a student at the University of Houston, I produced theater, touring theater groups that would come through here. I continued to do that in the 1970s when we were doing political organizing, we would do kind of guerilla concerts in parks without permits. We would just throw up a band and attract the crowd and preach political organizing, and we did this all throughout the 1970s. We would organize in the parks, register voters, put our band up, people would gather and we would talk politics and basically tell people, "You have to register to vote. You have to organize. You have to make demands on the system. Change." And this is how we would organize in communities.
That kind of led me to do cultural events in parks. And the last one I did was on Easter Sunday of 1977 in Moody Park. The city told me I could no longer do events at the park because there were no facilities, there were no restrooms, there was no parking. And I had like 7,000, 8,000 people at Moody Park at these huge concerts that I was doing because people were desperate for something. And as a consequence to that, I went to Miller Theater Advisory Board and asked to be allowed to produce at Miller Theater and they told me that my community was not . . . not that we weren't welcome but that my community would not attend a number sufficient enough to justify it. So, I repeatedly asked for 2 or 3 years and they denied me. And finally, they gave me a date for 1980, April 1980, and I had my very first Festival Chicano at Miller in April 1980. And we had so many people. It was the biggest crowd they had had for _______ and it was packed and it rained. A thunderstorm came in and nobody left. They all stayed. I had, at that time, the hottest Chicano performer on stage who was still performing - Little Joe Hernandez and La Familia - and as a result of that, I was so empowered because I had thousands of people in the rain staying and watching the show. I went back to the board, the Miller Theater Advisory Board, and demanded basically that they give me a better day because they had given me the worst day and they had given me $1,500, basically hoping that I would not succeed but it turned out to be a highly successful event. And the next year, they gave me an October date and my event, from then on, it has been in October for the last 28 years. I am just really, really blessed. I am one of the oldest events at Miller Theater. In 2008, I am celebrating the 29th annual and so, it is a free event but it is a celebration of culture. But, to me, it represents everything that I am about in this city. It is all about expressions of cultures, expressions of people and to me, it represents just the potential for our community.
I operate out of this building, the Mecca Cultural Center, because they are our colleagues and friends but most importantly, because they are one of the leading cultural entities in the city that is working with children and grassroots efforts to try to maintain cultures. And it is a multi-ethnic effort. So, this is kind of what I am really all about. I love culture, I love civil rights, I love to do all this stuff so I am trying to kind of do everything and it is kind of impossible sometimes but I keep trying.
Houston is a huge, huge challenge for me. I am chairman of the Casa D'Amigos Advisory Council clinic that belongs to the Harris County Hospital District. Harris County Hospital District is the largest provider of indigent healthcare in the country. It is a billion dollar operation. We have 12 clinics, 2 hospitals, and I have been chairing this advisory council for 30 years. We built this clinic on North Main and right now, I am working with the system to rebuild us a new clinic because Metro is coming through. And all these challenges . . . I have been involved through all this stuff with healthcare and cultural stuff, so I guess I have tried just to give you a good picture of all of Houston because I am very concerned about our future and I want to make sure that young people nowadays understand the wealth of history here, the wealth of cultural history, of political history, the wealth of development history that has happened in this town. Houston was founded supposedly by the Allen brothers in the 1830s but this part of Texas, it already had Spanish settlements 200 years before that almost, 150 years before that. So, there is a history here that is not known that I am trying to research and recover -- the Spanish Mexican history of this part of Texas. One of my frustrations is a lot of hatred, a lot of animosities towards Mexican immigrants and it is totally unnecessary and uncalled for because Mexican immigrants are, by treat, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 after the Mexican American wars, our culture is to be respected. Those of us who were descendants of people that were here before that Mexican American war, we were guaranteed certain things and all of my life growing up, it has been a life of deprivations of culture, deprivations of language and so going to the University and going to law school and learning my rights and being an activist in cultural affairs and civil rights and watching what is happening in America 2008, with the vehement anti-immigrant attitudes, especially in the south, and a lot of them in the state of Texas really irks me, really makes me upset because immigrant populations are what built this state, are the ones that are keeping this state working. And so, it is frustrating. It is frustrating. And right now, we have families, regardless of their backgrounds, concerned and scared to send their kids to school because they might be undocumented. There has been like a rage in our community. This month, they raided Shipleys Doughnuts, for example. And throughout the country that day, they were raiding chicken processing plants, but we don't have those sorts of things here. People are terrified. I go out in the community and now, like last night, this past week, restaurants are not as active with people going out because people are either scared or they are not working as much. We are a huge, huge community and this is probably being impacted all over the place. So, I know that what is going on with the fear factor in our community with the immigrant population is causing an economic impact on retail, on people that provide services. So, I know there is a better way to deal with this.
I guess my hope for Houston is that we figure out a way that we can all work together and respect each other's cultures and support each other's cultures and stop the violence that is going on because there is incredible violence in our community. Youth violence. The gangs are out there even though it is not talked about very much. And I would hate for Houston to go the route of other big cities like Chicago. Right now in Chicago, people are terrified for their children. There are so many deaths in schools this year of children. And that happens here, too. I mean, I guess my hope is that the school district here will work with the city, with the county, because politicians and leaders, they do what is convenient for them and what is politically feasible. And right now, young people sometimes get left out of the picture and only when it is a crisis and young people don't vote. So, I am very concerned about young people and seniors in this town because they don't speak and they don't organize. As a rule, most of Houston is not organized collectively and so, the so-called leadership basically does what they want and their constituency is the voter who is a very small percentage of the people out there. So, a very small group make decisions of who gets elected to office and as a political scientist and a political activist that I am, my frustration and one reason I don't do those things anymore is because of the failure, I guess, of our activism many times to really represent communities. I am hoping that the future will change somewhat. We have single member districts in the city of Houston but the body of politics is still not democratic. Our country government still has a long way to go. We still have a long way to go as a community at large in political democracy. We just need to grow a lot. It is 2008.
In the 1980s after the oil bust, jobs were hard to find. People were laid off. There were people that lost a lot. I am fearful for that happening now in 2008 when it is going to even be harder for young people to stand up and recover. The frustrating thing is I see families working 2 or 3 jobs, both mom and dad, just to pay the bills, just to keep the kids clothed, fed and do the things that they are accustomed to doing. It should not be happening. There is no leisure time. There is no time to really enjoy themselves. It is a world crisis obviously and it is a national crisis. But Houston, right now, we are the cutting edge I think of what the future looks like. This city is growing concentrically. If you look at the map, the little circles are just going out and eventually they are all going to be filled in and I think our population is over five million on the metropolitan basis. Out of those, 1-1/2 million are Latinos, so over 30% almost are Latinos. I am very concerned because of our population, we have very little voter registration, we have very little healthcare, prevention. We have very little home ownership. The education levels are low. So, I mean, I am looking like I just arrived, I am a young person to Houston and the challenges are just so incredible. I will be 60 next month and I wish I could start all over. It is not possible. Somebody has got to keep this work going on.
The 1990s have been a struggle for Houston but, you know, it came back from the oil bust. The wages dropped and everything and people are still hurting. People are still hurting. We have a presidential election this year in 2008. Texas was an exclusive democratic state until the Republicans built the Republican Party and that didn't not happen until the 1970s. So, this political structure in Texas is very, very young. It is barely 30+ years young. Texas is a very young state politically in the sense of political party development and the ability of communities to actually have a progressive competitive dichotomy of candidates discussing issues and the best one coming out. We still have a way to go to where good leadership comes out of our communities because a lot of times, we have bad leaders that are speaking for us and making bad decisions for us. And that is my frustration. Many times, we are forced to sue people in federal court or whatever it takes to get things corrected. I have had to do that in this city with the issues of police and I have had to do it with the issues of civil rights and housing. I think those of us in this kind of work are prepared at all times to do whatever it takes, to confront injustices - whether it is lawsuits or demonstrations or protests. And when I see people protesting now with different issues with immigration, different issues with schools, different issues with police, it hurts in a way, a big way, because we have been fighting those battles all of our lives. They are still there. So, there is still something wrong with the system. So, I am always trying to figure out how we could improve it.
This is a tremendous, tremendous city and the growth here is incredible and the opportunities here are incredible. I just hope and wish that the powers to be and the people that have the resources figure out a way how to help each other so we don't lose consistency of people. There are people that get burned out and they don't leave a track, they don't leave a torch that somebody could pick up and carry out to work. So consequently, many times, we lose the work, we lose all the effort that somebody has dedicated their lives to. I am so glad this project is happening because at least the message can be passed on to folks but I hope we figure out a way not only to pass the message but to pass the torch of some sort, and that is kind of what I keep hoping for in the next 10 years in our city -- that we figure out a way for all of these people in the past that have done tremendous work in our city, are able to document it and pass it on so it can continue and people don't have to reinvent the wheel and fight the same fights because I see a lot of the same fights being fought. But this is such a tremendous, tremendous opportunity in Houston right now with the changes that we are going through. And we are going to survive. I mean, no matter what. I am perfectly optimistic about that. It may look a little bit different than we'd like it to but we have just got to just keep trying to make it the way we want it. It is not a corporate city. If we allow it to become a corporate city, it will be a corporate city - the Enrons will rule - but the public has the ability and the right to get the right leadership into position to do the right things. And that is really what I see is the big crisis in our city right now. It is a question of leadership. We've got to get the right leaders in City Council and County Commissioner and the State House and the federal levels to make good decisions for us because a lot of times, we elect leaders that are just out to line their own pockets, increase their own wealth and those of their friends, and who really don't care about the future of our community, which we were very, very lucky. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina came, it could have been Houston that got hit, but it was New Orleans. We are very, very lucky that Houston didn't take a major, major blow. And then, Rita came right after that and we lucked out again. But this city is very vulnerable and we have to figure out a way to protect our communities. A lot of our poor, low income communities, if a disaster like that occurs, it won't be as horrendous with the flooding but it will be major flooding and major problems. So, we still have major infrastructure problems such as that. So, we have a long way to go. There are a lot of things to look forward to be doing and working on, I guess, if you are interested in organizing.
I grew up always wanting to be an organizer. When I got into college and the Vietnam War was going on, the Vietnam War protests were going on, I was an activist and I wanted to organize. I started reading Saul Alinsky, Ghandi and reading all this other stuff. I was just excited and wanted to be an organizer. I came to Houston looking to become a community organizer and that is what I essentially tried to do. And then, I was blessed with fantastic mentors - people that were great organizers that trained me and taught me and shared with me. A lot of these folks like, I mean, I knew Cesar Chavez from 1969 until he passed, and worked with him very quietly when he came to Texas. And more importantly, the organizers that he trained and sent to Texas were my mentors for my early years. So, I learned how to organize from professional union activists that had been doing this all their lives. And so, my activism kind of grew out of that. I was born in south Texas, I was born in Corpus Christi, I did not speak a word of English until I was forced to speak English. Back then, there were segregated schools in south Texas so I started public schools in 1954 in Mathis, Texas, in a county north of Corpus Christi. Because my last name was Bustamante, I was the only Bustamante in that little town. My grandparents were a different name because they were my mother's parents. And they did not recognize the name so they sent me to the little Mexican school where all the kids didn't speak English. And you were forced to go there when you started first grade because you didn't speak English. Well, the teacher was hitting all the kids with the yardstick because they weren't speaking English. So, when she came to hit me and my buddies, we jumped out the window, cussed her out, and ran away, hid all day, played hooky all day. So, I go home that evening and my grandpa was at the dinner table. He was the town barber. He was having dinner at the table real proud of his grandson, the first day of school.
"How did it go?" So, I started telling him it was great, it was this, it was that. And then, it fell apart that I was lying. He wanted to know why I ran away and I told him. He was so upset that he couldn't deal with it. He got his brother who was a member of the school board to go deal with it and the next day, they put me in the regular school with the white kids. My first grade teacher, my very first teacher, was a lady called Mrs. Weber. Mrs. Weber was a white lady, a real old lady. Years later, I am at a reception here in Houston for a retiring federal judge, Raul Deanda, and I went to pay my respects to the judge and I told him this little story. So, he pulls me aside and he says, "That woman was superintendent of schools in the most racist school district in south Texas and we removed her as a settlement to desegregate that school district and you just got her for your first teacher." She was my very first teacher. And so, I tell this story only because since I was 6 years old, I think I have had this drive to combat racism because I saw it growing up with my grandparents, I saw the racism in south Texas . . . there were railroad tracks . . . the Mexicans lived on this side, whites lived on this side. The whole thing. So, I tell you the story because I was raised by my grandparents and the way I deal with my personal life is that God has blessed me and put me in a position to do what I do. And that is how I survive. I had a major heart attack 3 years ago this coming August and I survived it. I had 5 bypasses. So, I am going like, I am here for a reason. God has rededicated and refocused me back to my original drive which is to organize, to teach, to promote culture, to bring good will to the world. There is enough violence and hostility and ugliness. And I just want to be part of that.
I grew up as an evangelical Southern Baptist. My wife is Roman Catholic. Today, I don't really attend church but I am very spiritual because I realize the spirituality of things. If we are going to make it as a community, we have to be encompassing of all faiths, all religions, all people, and put aside any prejudices because of color or wealth or education or our perceived superiorities because they are all here and the hatred is here, too. So, Houston is a real critical mass. The biggest city in the south. And I always tell my northern friends that we are in the biggest city in the south. It is not Atlanta, it is not Miami, it is not Dallas-Fort Worth - it is Houston, Texas. We are the biggest city in the south. So, as Houston goes, so goes the south. And I think so goes America. I mean, in my feeling. This is America's city of the future. What we built here is America for the future. I go to New York all the time, to D.C., to the northeast, to Chicago, to LA - I don't want to live in any of those places. I don't want to live in any of those places. They are not for me. They are not the city of the future. We still have opportunities here and it is going to require some fundamental infrastructure changes, some changes in the political process and the way things are done. We have to really indeed have a two party system of government. We can't have one party rule the courts in Harris County or the state. That is what I don't like. I mean, it can't be one party. It's got to be multiple . . . I am a political scientist so, I mean, I know in order to have a true democracy, you've got to have multiple players and to have a true democracy on the state level, you have to have multiple party systems. This state was traditionally a one party state until the 1970s. That is only 30 years ago. It is still ruled by one party essentially. Those guys in Austin make laws that are hurting people every day. They make laws for their friends and protect their corporate friends and so forth. That is what is frustrating because one day, I feel that Texas will arrive and will be a democratic run state with good laws, good leaders. And so, I am just trying to do what I can to work towards that. Houston is just an incredible, incredible city. We have to figure out how to keep lots of good talented young people from leaving our town. They graduate from college and they go on to other communities because the opportunities just aren't here. So, we are losing kids to the West Coast, the East Coast, to the north. They are going for the jobs.
One of my huge frustrations was the artists in our community, and artists of all ethnic groups - white, black, brown, Asian - all artists, dancers, actors, singers . . . they can't survive here. They wind up in LA, they wind up in New York, they wind up in D.C., they wind up in Florida. Other places, they just treat them better and we are losing a huge resource. My son is an engineer. A lot of young people like him, professional young people, 25, 26, and they are going where the jobs are. It is frustrating because we need them here. If they are going to stay here, there has to be a structure that wants them and is going to compensate them and treat them right. But I think one thing that we need to do as a community is to have a strong effort for our young people coming out of all the universities, and just like they recruit people to go to other cities and other states, but they need to recruit people to stay in Houston. I mean, I remember the old Peace Corps days, the old Vista days. We need something like that for our cities. New Orleans, Houston. There are certain cities right now that are in crisis. I don't say Houston is in crisis like New Orleans but I think we are in crisis. I think we are in a huge crisis in healthcare, in housing, and a lot of areas. People don't see it that way. They see New Orleans as a crisis because they saw the devastating effects and they are rebuilding it. And in some people's minds, they are rebuilding it in the eyes of the powerful - they are not rebuilding it the way the people want it rebuilt. And they are getting rid of poor people. They are abolishing public housing. There are all kinds of under, unseen things. In Houston, it is a little bit different. I mean, people are being moved out of communities because of the economy. They can't afford taxes. They can't afford to rebuild their homes because of the cost of doing so is so high. Now, with the mortgage lending crisis, I have friends that I know that . . . like one guy told me, a friend of mine, he said, "I am going to divorce my wife." I said, "Why?" He said, "Well, I have been giving her the mortgage payments for months and she has not paid it. Now, we are behind in the mortgage." I said, "What has she been doing with the mortgage?" He said, "She has been paying bills, buying groceries." So, I told him, "Don't go that way because it is only going to make it worse." But those are the kinds of issues that working people are having. So, we really need to, as a community, kind of figure out what are we going to do? Are we going to become another big northeastern city or are we going to do something radically different and progressive and just try to stop it somehow? Try to stop this process? And it is not easy. It is not easy at all because the economy is not strong and wages are not strong.
It is going to take efforts like this community center here, Mecca, all the other nonprofits in our community, the Shape Centers, the Tejano Centers, all the community centers because unfortunately right now, a lot of people cannot afford to pay for health and the only real health they are going to get is pro bono type health from community service organizations - whether it is health or whether it is educational support or whether it is housing support or legal support. I mean, people's incomes are very limited and they can't do everything that they need to do with their income. So, buying healthcare is not a choice many times or buying the luxuries other people take for granted. But that is what I see as our biggest challenges. How do we ensure that all Houstonians have a decent life, a decent home, a decent education, and their kids and communities are not subject to drugs and violence, which is a big challenge because drugs and violence are everywhere and gangs are everywhere. So, we are competing . . . the schools are competing with the gangs already at the middle school level, at the elementary school level. It is already at that level. It is a huge challenge. I know the authorities want to do something about it, the police and schools. I don't know what we've got to do but something has to be attempted a little bit differently.
MS: How did you first get involved, going way back to the drug prevention program? How did you first get involved with that?
DB: The drug prevention program? When I was working with the Boy Scouts of America, it exposed me to Houston's children, and kids are just kids. They wanted to go camping, they want to go play in the park, they wanted to run. They don't want to be doing drugs. But because of the way they were being raised by grandparents, because of some family problem, or a single parent, or, more than likely, mom and dad were both working and they had a bunch of kids, so the older kids kind of watch the little kids. When I left the Boy Scouts of America and I did that when I started law school and I was in law school for a while and I did many things when I was in law school -- one of them was organize for the service employees -- when I left law school, I went to work for Child Welfare, Harris County Child Welfare. I was a Protective Services worker for children at Burnett-Bayland Home in substitute care for 2 years, and there, I had, to them, the worst caseload. They gave me adolescent boys that were institutionalized. So, I had a caseload of all the problem boys - 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds that were in institutions all over the state. And working with those boys, realizing their problems - they all had full knowledge of drugs, had a full knowledge of the streets, they would run away from placements 500 miles away or 300 miles away and make it back to Montrose, back to Houston and hit the streets and I would have to find them and put them back in substitute care and then get them back to the institutions because they were already in our custody, they were our kids, they belonged to the state essentially and I was their case worker, I was their protector. And doing that, it kind of exposed me to this element of street life and drugs and so forth. And then, I got an opportunity to head an agency for sniffers for drug users on the near north side. So, I went from Child Welfare Protective Services to run that agency. But I discovered just really in the Montrose area and working with my boys, just seeing their stuff. They would be doing drugs all the time. They were like 9, 10, 11 - they were sniffing and doing all kinds of stuff. Then when I went to the near north side and worked with kids, I started working with priests and church leaders in various parts of the community.
There was a hidden population of kids, boys and girls, white, black and Latino, that were sniffing. And so, I was just blow away with this. Why would a child in elementary school sniff gas? Well, he was doing it because he saw older siblings do it. And it was that kind of thing. I started to travel and go to conferences in Seattle and Mexico City and Washington, D.C., and it was a worldwide problem. But it had to do with marginalized communities, marginalized children who see no hope for themselves. So, their only thing is get high and forget about all this. This was happening big time. And I did that for a while. And these kinds of jobs, the average lifespan of a Protective Services worker back then in the kind of work that I did was 18 months because you could not take it after a while - it would get to you. You couldn't have a girlfriend, you couldn't be married because it was like a 24 hour job. So, I did it 2 years and I took this job on and I stayed there until, well, about 4, 5 years. And then, when I left there, I just had to move on because it was frustrating, it was draining. And then, I was dealing with probably the worst case scenario for an activist-organizer in a community is to have a community-based organization that is not being run properly, when you know that people are hungry, kids are doing drugs, there are issues, and then to see a structure that is being abused. So, I had to leave that organization because of the way the whole big picture was, and moved on. And for a year or so, I consulted with youth programs and then I took the job with unions to organize. And that kind of got my sanity and focused me back on track. So, right now, in 2008, I am again at the crossroads where I am doing civil rights, I have been doing it 9 years, and I could do it forever but I don't have forever so I've got to figure out a way to kind of do more with less, you know, because I see the end of the line. Something has got to happen soon. And I am very concerned about it because the universities in our community are not teaching the history of our community. I haven't seen it. And I have friends that run the Mexican American studies programs and the other programs.
I can't speak for the other cultures but I am very concerned. The level of activism is not like it should be. Many times, people like myself who are Mexican Americans, Chicano, we are activists here forever and not taking up the cause, again, like we should for prejudices against immigrants, prejudices against religious groups. The war in Iraq has really hardened a lot of people and the sensitivities aren't there like they used to be. It is frustrating, and people are calloused about a lot of stuff. They are calloused of violence. You know, violence doesn't upset people as much as it used to. And that really bothers me because you see children being calloused of violence and committing violence. And that is kind of my concern because in Houston, we've got to get a handle on the kids, on the youth. People always say kids are the future but now more so than ever. They really are the future. The gang warfare that is going on in Chicago, that is going on in LA, that is going on in New York, it is coming this way, and we can still have an ability to change some of this. But it is going to have to be . . . I don't know what . . . it is going to have to be taken on just like they take on all the other big stuff. Seriously taken on. And not just lip service by politicians. And, like, when I do what I do with civil rights . . . sometimes I go speak before public bodies and try to ask for funds . . . I am standing up there with people asking for money for little old ladies who need weatherizations because their roof leaks. I am standing up there with the people asking for money for kids programs after school because they want to keep them off the streets. So, I am standing up there with people asking for money for food for the homeless. This is America. We are the wealthiest country in the world. And we are in a huge crisis right now. It just doesn't make any sense. And I think the solution is in our hands. We just have to come up with some resolutions.
We have to understand where we have come from and Houston has this history and it has got to look back at its history. The 1960s were a period that was very different. The 1970s were a period that started to change. The 1980s, the oil bust. And the 1990s. And it brings us to this era now. We have seen Enron come and go and people lose everything because of Enron. Enron came after the mid 1980s oil bust. So, I am cringing now - what is going to hit next after the mortgage crisis? But I just know better, that with a secular economy, we are going to bottom out, it is going to come back and it is going to bottom out and it is going to come back. That is just the way our society works. But we have got to figure out a way to protect communities and protect families. It is frustrating. It is frustrating but we don't give up. I guess that is the big thing - don't give up. And, as I am talking to you, I kind of think we all should be doing the same thing - talking to leaders, decision makers of all kinds. The Roman Catholic Church just built a brand new cathedral in downtown Houston -- it is a big, big deal -- because of the Roman Catholic population growing and it is growing mostly by the Latino influx and a lot of Vietnamese influx. But I see that approach and I absorb that approach because they see the future. Now, why can't the rest of our society see the future? No laws are going to stop the flow of immigration. No law is going to stop it. History will tell you that. Those kids that are already citizens are going to be voters and it is going to change. So, I am just thinking why don't we start building for the future just like some of the faith-based organizations do? Their calling is different, right, but I think most of the faith-based groups would agree on that - that we have to plan for the future. So, why can't society, our city society, plan for the future in the same way? But, I know, it is the political climate right now. It is the political climate. People are trying to get elected to office and they are going to say what they've got to say. But, you know, I don't like politics that way because it is kind of deceitful. But for Houston, I think, you know, the mayor and Council, the county judge, county commissioners, the congressional delegation, the state legislative delegation - all those brothers and sisters that we elect to office need to come together and put partisan politics aside and figure out what is best for our city come hell or high water and just do it.
We have one of the biggest school districts in the country. Teachers are struggling. A lot of frustration. We can't afford to cut back on anything. We just need more or everything. But I think part of it is this dichotomy of politics that we have. People get paid millions of dollars to elect people to office. I don't know if my vote is worth that much but to some power brokers, it is all about money. It is always about money. It is either the money they are going to get to make to elect somebody to office for their expertise or the money they are going to be able to generate for their colleagues or for their supporters once they get into office because all they've got to do is study politics. And if we do it by appropriations, if Congress is going to appropriate money into communities, it always goes back to the political leadership. I mean, the City of Houston gets hundreds of millions of dollars of federal appropriations for our city to do housing and community development and so forth and so forth. Very little of that is dedicated to nondiscrimination or to civil rights or to some of these areas to guarantee that everybody gets a fair share. So, that is part of the thing that I need to say because our city needs to be cognizant of that.
MS: Talking about the Festival Chicano, you must be in the process of planning that.
DB: I am working on the 29th annual Festival Chicano and it is going to be October 2, 3, 4 at Miller Outdoor Theater. It is a 3 night event. It is free. It is a very exciting time for me. Last year, we did something radically different. I had a 21-piece orchestra that we put together. It was called the Festival Chicano Orchestra. We did opening night with the orchestra with 3 legendary voices of our community. We had one of the best crowds ever, over 8,000 people and it was a full house and a family crowd. So, I am working on it again. And the celebration happens in October which is a nice time of the year and we always have great, great crowds. So, it is exciting to me because it gives me an opportunity to kind of give back at least a professionally produced with professional talent and a very, very professional venue show. And it is an institution now in the community. People just show up early and stay late Friday. It goes on for 3 days. And I am trying to grow it more to include more young people, which means I've got to work a lot harder on my selection of talent. I mean, I love my music at my age and if I would, I wouldn't just produce music for people my age but it is an exciting thing to be doing, to be able to have a production budget in a beautiful venue like Miller Theater and then bring in artists and then work with the community and the media to promote them and just see the joy in people's faces. But I am trying to also reach people and give a message. So, artist selection to me means a lot and I always try to find artists that are, number one, grounded in their communities, culturally viable spokespeople for our community, and somebody that people can look up to. I don't want anybody on my stage that is not a good role model - put it that way - because that is the most critical thing right now. Kids and people, adult families, they have role models and they look up to certain people, and if certain people will say the right things, people are prone to do good things. So, yes, it is a lot of fun for me. I really am having a good time. I am trying to do more with it. In the past, I was able to do, like I told you earlier, a film festival and some theater and some other stuff and I am trying to get back into that vein where I can do more than just the stage at Miller with music. I used to do ancillary events at the media center at museums and so forth and I want to get back into it. So, I am kind of working that for this fall.
MS: Just a few sort of wrap-up questions. How would you describe the spirit of the city of Houston?
DB: The spirit? The spirit of Houston, I think, is a real hard, optimistic spirit that I see working, and I guess the best example I can give you and I will give you this one - to me, the spirit of Houston is epitomized by the young waitresses I see that are between 20 and 30 years old, that are raising a kid and usually a single mom raising a child and they are working 2 jobs, 2 waiting jobs to raise that kid. And, to me, that kind of epitomizes the spirit of Houston because that kid is in school and he is going to graduate from high school and his mom is kind of going to do whatever it takes to get that kid out of high school and to a better job than a waiting job. So, that is what I see happening. That is what I see happening. The future of the city. I see in this community center and all the other community centers, all the activists that are out there doing working communities - the reward is going to be these children are going to wind up being the leaders with some kind of cultural dignity, value, a sense of democracy and that, to me, epitomizes . . . and this waitress I am talking about is not a citizen but the kid is, and that is how I see the future and that is how I see Houston. They are not going to be able to deport the mom because if they do deport her, she will be back in 24 hours because I have seen this happen over and over again, where moms get deported - they are back in 24 hours. That is how tied they are to their families. This has been going on - I have seen this for 10 years in this city. So, that is the future. And regardless of what anybody else says or what they do, I mean, the future of this city is the immigrant community, the kids that they are raising and people have to just take stock of that. Just like the churches are taking stock of it because, to me, the churches represent us in a spiritual sense, not a government sense, and we have to listen to that side. That is how I see it and that is how it has to proceed. And I hope I am around 10 years from now to see this change because I think in 10 years, there are going to be some radical changes.
MS: Great. Thank you very much.
DB: Thank you.