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Interview with: Estella Reyes
Date: June 15th, 1979
Archive Number: OH 261.1a
ER: 00:02 When I want to say something—it wasn’t supposed to go to the subject you think?
I: Oh, that’s quite all right. Talk about anything you want to when we get—this is a June 15th, 1979 oral history interview with Mrs. Estella Reyes. (00:21 tape stops and restarts)
ER: Can’t you see (unintelligible).
I: Let me ask you to speak up a little bit Ms. Reyes. That’s the only thing. I think that’s the only thing we need to do, just speak up a little bit. But that’s all right.
ER: Let me finish wording this.
I: Okay. Pardon me. (00:46 tape stops and restarts) Let me ask you this Ms. Reyes. Who was this—who was Miss Leona Hendricks and why did you all address—who is the B&P Council, the National B&P Council?
ER: The National B&P Council is the council of the Business and Professional Women of the YWCA, business and professional. That’s including groups of say, lawyers, architects and things like that. See, those two—that department was combined. B for business girls, secretarial or bookkeepers, the other part, professional, was another group in the same department consisting of maybe teachers, lawyers, architects and so forth. See, that was a different group for professionals, but in the same department. We were all in the same department, so that’s what it was, B&P.
I: There was a part here. I was noticing some of these—trying to get specifics—specific explanations. There were ten observations that you all made of ten problems, ten general problems. This business about the Chamber of Commerce—did the Houston Chamber of Commerce foster that kind of attitude that you all remember or what were you all thinking of just exactly there when you all—?
ER: 02:50 What did I say here?
I: You said—
ER: Let me read it.
ER: Oh, because I believe it was written in history, and the Chamber of Commerce in the city always tries to impress, I guess, people by the historical things that happened in the city or around it or in the state. I believe that’s what we referred because the Chamber of Commerce always tries to impress, for example, say, the Alamo in San Antonio, doesn’t let other people forget those things. That’s what we really meant. Forget those—the hatred. Forget it. But you cannot if you have a Chamber of Commerce advertising certain historical sections where people always remember here we had a fight, we had a war with Mexican-Americans. Those things, we thought it should be not remembered so much.
I: I noticed on this number six, it says “playgrounds and parks show distinct distaste to the Mexican presence.” Were there any parks that you remember that were forbidden to Mexican people to—I know it was a long time ago—you know—the 30’s.
ER: I remember. I usually—we and some of the other families—we usually went to Sam Houston Park. At that time, Sam Houston Park was the best. It had beautiful musical programs and even had grass. It had a playground for the children and all. At that time, wherever we went, we did not notice any discrimination there at that park. Now, there were other places, smaller parks, that children were not allowed to go and play, say, pennies or go swimming. Say, like this park over there by Houston Avenue where they have the swimming pool all the time, for many years Mexican children could not go swimming there. That’s one. I think it’s called the Woodland Park or something like that. That had a big swimming pool, and children had a hard time getting in it because if they went in they had to fight with other children, and they were not allowed. So, they quit going, and other smaller parks, say—I cannot say, but Sam Houston Park, because that was the only one that I used to go.
I: And they allowed—you all went in there with no problem?
ER: There, yes, yes, yes, and everybody there knew families with all children that used to go together. They’d sit right up with the rest of the people. They had chairs. They’d sit on the ground or swing or whatever play—things they had for the children. They did not have a swimming pool, though, so maybe that was the difference. I just don’t know, but I didn’t see anything in that beautiful Sam Houston Park. Now in the other one, yes.
I: 07:07 Woodland Park.
ER: Yes, they did. They even had fights with children and all that—you cannot come in and other smaller parks. I cannot recall the name. We were not allowed.
I: I noticed number seven. It said falsely accused of many crimes in the city because of some difficulty within—do you remember that there were people who were accused of crimes when in fact they—
ER: Not any certain cases or—in that time, I think we knew persons that were accused. I say—well, if they do not—couldn’t understand. Probably they asked them “Are you guilty?” or “Did you do this?” and maybe they just moved their head and said yes without understanding what they were saying. I believe the language problem was there. Uh-hunh (affirmative), yes, it was there, and in that case I believe there were many people that accepted being guilty of whatever they were charged without any—too much explanation or questions that they could understand. I believe there was.
I: Do you remember any particular—I notice also that it said something about being able to rent or buy in a decent section of town. Were there any sections of town that you remember—it was pretty common knowledge that obviously, there were places—you remember any specific areas though?
ER: Yes. Some of the girls that we knew, that I knew, tried to rent—after they married—tried to rent apartments and—furnished apartments to start homemaking, and they were not allowed to—not even to discuss about how much rent they charge or anything. They just saw them and said “I’m sorry, we don’t rent to Mexicans” and that happened to one of my nieces too, and it touched the family at this time.
I: Was that around the time that you all—
ER: Yes. No, it was in 1952. That happened to Gloria, my niece that married this boy from Mexico. She wanted to rent a furnished apartment, and she was working for the Chamber of Commerce. She had a good job and representable and still, they saw her face and said “No, sorry. We don’t rent to Mexicans.”
I: So, these ten problem areas that you all addressed were areas that you all knew had—
ER: 10:19 We knew that happened or what happened at that time, yes.
I: Was this opinion pretty much supported—I noticed “p.s. The statements are verified by”—did the people in the community pretty much know that that was the situation at the time?
ER: Oh, yes. Yes, they knew. Everybody knew, yes. Both sides knew. The Mexican community knew, the Anglo-Americans that did those things, well, they knew what they were doing, and it was accepted because there was not—we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know if we should—well, there was not a law like there is now if you refuse to rent—some landlord refused to rent you an apartment because you were this nationality. You can go to the government now and charge that person. We did not have any law to protect us for that infraction of people’s rights, I guess.
I: What were the older people’s attitudes? Say your parents and their friends, what were their attitudes toward this kind of thing?
ER: Not very much—just accept it as it was. People were basically getting settled and working, and they were not thinking of going to do something. Well, they would say, “Let’s get organized and go and put our case to a court” or something because people at that time were not even quite settled where they wanted to be. So, they kept on working and just accepted things as they were and just tried to live in the place they found.
I: Do you think—do you think their experiences in Mexico had anything to do with not complaining too much in the United States? You know what I mean? The old people that had been involved in the revolution and—
ER: It could have. Yes, it could have because a lot of our people, they came here to live peacefully without having to go and complain or make a revolution about something, and I think that kind of, say, well, we would rather live in peace as we are and let things go by maybe when other people can do something. I think that was the attitude at that time. (13:21 tape stops and restarts)
I: Who were these—okay, that’s you.
ER: That’s me, yes.
I: And you were married at that time?
ER: Yes, I was married at that time, yes, in ’37.
I: 13:32 Who are these two people?
ER: Carmen Cortez. She was one of the members of the club, one of the first members, also, and Olivia Louise was our—I call it a sponsor because she was with our group, and we would tell her want we want to do and all. She would get our rooms ready and also—well, she would say “Girls, don’t you think this is better this way?” or “Would you rather do that if I cannot get this speaker?” or “I cannot get that room for your banquet, would you rather have the other room?” She was like a sponsor.
I: She worked for the YWCA?
ER: Oh, yes. The YWCA paid her salary that she—they used to have one sponsor for each group, like a sponsor or a teacher. You would come to discuss things. She was the first one we had, Miss Olivia Louise, and then we had—the last girl we had—
I: She wanted to sign that letter? She wanted to sign—
ER: Oh, yes. She agreed to sign it. Yes, she agreed to sign it. She knew it was true. Everything there is—
I: Everybody down—everybody down at the research center was interested in which movies you were talking about here portraying the Mexicans looking bad. I mean, there were a lot of them, but do you remember any of them offhand? Do you remember the names of any of them at that time?
ER: I didn’t understand your question.
I: It said this letter’s going to be—at the same time, sending a letter to the American Youth Congress protesting certain movies which have been shown in Texas portraying the Mexicans in a very bad light.
ER: At that time, maybe it was Pancho Villa. They had one—I don’t know how long, but in every movie at that time, they portrayed—whenever they needed a Mexican in that movie, they were lazy, sleeping, or drinking or fighting. You see that, that was—
I: Never working or—
I: Or with a tie on or anything.
ER: 15:54 No, no. And that’s what we think. Not any specific one, but in almost all of the movies that you saw at that time that they needed a character, a Mexican character in there, they always put a fighter or a drunk or a lazy one or one that showed the majority of the people. That was just one kind of people they were showing, not all different kinds.
I: In the 30’s especially that was bad.
ER: Yes, in the 30’s and 40’s.
I: And 50’s and 60’s.
ER: Well, after the war, second war, everything started changing.
I: How do you mean? What do you mean by that?
ER: Changing from day to light. I mean, from night to day. Everything, only people that saw conditions before can really see it change. Right now, what is the problem? There are so many problems I read in the paper about. It’s not too much considering way back. Those are all important things we want to do with the help of the government. Teachers for any special thing that you want, almost any job that you want, if you prepare yourself for it. There are hardly any problems that I see now compared to the (s/l back). These people are lucky, and whenever I see a young boy or girl that’s not taking advantage of what they have, it kind of hurts me. I say, what’s the matter with you? Can’t they see they have it all in their hands? I don’t see much of—naturally, you will always find some kind of difference because human beings have to be human. If I had a business, big business, and I was the boss and here comes, say, three girls to apply for secretary, my secretary, here comes a Mexican girl all dressed nice and pretty and all that, here comes a black girl, dressed nice and pretty and all, here comes an Anglo-American girl and all dressed nice and pretty, you need to view each one of those three girls. If you’re thinking for your business you’re not going to let that Mexican girl go and not hire her just because she’s Mexican, and you’re not going to hire the Anglo girl to be your secretary because she is Anglo. Well, you could do it on the individuality, personality, see, the person, the individual. There you still find that—you are going to find all the rest of it all over is just personalities, even those—if I say an example—those girls who could be perfect secretaries but if the person that is looking at them has personality discrimination or so, he’s not going to hire any of them. He’s going to get some more and see—or else he’s going to choose one of the two.
I: Let me ask you this again Ms. Reyes. We talked about this a little bit before, but did anybody ask you all for this letter? You all—
ER: 20:35 Yes, somebody asked us. It was the department, and the colored section of the YWCA.
I: But as far as sitting down and writing the letter up and thinking about it—thinking it up, you all did this on your own?
ER: Oh, yes, yes. We studied each one and discussed each one of those points with the group, and then as we were discussing we’re writing down, jotting down things. Carmen herself later on said “Well, somebody is close. We hear you’re doing something—the problems that you have, your minority group has, we would like to have a copy if you allow us and the department allows us to have it” so we wrote it down.
I: Were there any—was there an incident that made you all sit down and think about this or was it just—
ER: No. No incident at that time. We had already established ourselves as a group, and we were doing things for ourselves already. We had established our programs, like we wanted to have recreational things, educational things in the Y and later on we thought about what else we can do for our community. So, we said, well, we find so much around our community. Let’s study about that, and we did. That’s what we started, and somebody said, well, if you go and apply to a job in these days you just don’t get—not even an application and sometimes you face the boss, and he looks at you and knows that you’re not a blond. He won’t hire you and things like that, and that’s why we wrote all those things down, and we studied before we wrote it down. Nobody told us study this or write it down or put it in a letter or number it. No.
I: You all—it just all came—well, let’s move on a little bit. I wanted to—we covered that letter pretty thoroughly. What I thought we’d do for the rest of the day is begin—maybe we won’t finish it all this time, but we can begin that interview that we wanted to have on your mother and father. Okay? And the first question I’d like to ask you is to tell us about how you all came to Houston. What was the story behind you all coming to Houston?
ER: We lived in Mexico in a small hacienda, they called it, at that time near the city of San Luis Potosi in the state of San Luis Potosi. That little town was very pretty, I thought, and we were well established there. My father grew up there. My mother grew up there. They married there, and almost everybody in that little town is related to one another. So, everybody had a happy life, although some of them—most of the people work in the fields for the owner of the hacienda. And that hacienda was a building, huge building, like a—what it is, a hacienda with a lot of rooms that I do not remember going in there, although I saw the outside, and that has a history in it which I have not been able to get together. But everybody there lived happily, although most of the men work in the field. Working in the field, some gathered the century plant leaf and sold it to the owners of this hacienda, and they used it to make rope, other plants that I cannot recall. Most of the people worked there doing that, and they were paid with tickets. The little money they gave them were tickets, or they were paid with goods, have their own crops or with materials for clothing and very little money. That was the—what the most part of the people did there. When my father was young and he kept on working until he grew up and he—(26:44 tape stops and restarts) life of the people there besides a school for children paid by those people of the hacienda and a school for young men to be learning a trade like carpentry, which was the most useful at that time, and since everybody loved music, there was also a studio there established there for music and they gathered all the young men to study and learn music, and they used to get together there. Well, those young men were growing up, getting out of that same work where their parents, fathers, used to work in the fields. They learned a little trade. They started making a better life. Anyway, they even organized a band, and they used to play for the fiestas. They used to play for birthdays and all that. The teachers were uncles, my uncles. My uncle Jesus Navarron (?) and my uncle Matilde Navarron (?). My uncle Matilda Navarron was a doctor there. I say doctor because that was his title because he studied by himself. He had a library as far as I can remember, walls this high, higher than this room, with all kinds of books that he learned by himself, and he used to be called the little town’s doctor. Whenever somebody was sick, he would go. Well, nobody studied with him to learn. That was too hard but he did go—he was the little town’s doctor. Well, Matilde—Jesus Navarron was the teacher for the music and was the teacher for the carpentry work, and he taught almost all the young men that profession, also music. They learned—they had a band and my father—that’s where my father learned carpentry and music, from him. During the—‘13,’14, ‘15, ‘16 or so many years, up until about, I think, ‘13 or ‘14, the revolution had started. Everything changed. By that time, naturally, my father was married. He married in 19—I think 1907, 1908. Anyway, he had established his home. He was working as a carpenter making only the few things necessary in the families which were chairs, tables and beds and maybe a coffin or so. He had always tried to learn something to have to—to make a better life. So, when my mother and father married in 19—either ’07 or ’08, we had—they bought a big piece of land there, in the little town there, and my father built—not elegant, by any means, but a good little house and a store right in front near to the street to have a grocery store. So, we had a grocery store when we were little. My mother and my father helped when he was not doing any carpentry work. He started from there on. He worked on that property, improved the property. He built an irrigation well, which nobody else had, but that was of his own mind because he was going to use that little land near there that we had to harvest mostly fruits and vegetables. (tape stops 31:39)