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Interview with: Esther Campos
Interviewed by: Frank Michel
Date: December 19, 2007
FM: We are here with Esther Campos this morning on December 19, 2007, and we are talking about her recollections of Houston and the things she has accomplished in the city. We were just chatting about the city itself. Tell me what you remember about the Houston of your youth?
EC: The 1930s, 1940s, 1950s - take your pick.
FM: Maybe how it is different from today.
EC: Oh, it is an entirely different place. We were at a function over the weekend end and I was sitting with some friends and I said, "You know, it used to be we would go someplace and we knew everybody. Everybody knew everybody. It didn't matter whether you grew up on the north side or in Magnolia Park or maybe even First or Sixth Ward. We always knew all the other Hispanic families in the area. That is no longer true." I sat there at my table, there were 10 people and I knew 2 of them. So, it has changed quite a bit from where we used to be a very cohesive group that knew everyone . . . I can recall only 1 or 2 professionals that I knew that were leaders in the community, have been leaders in the community - JuFMe Hernandez and the attorney, John J. Herrera. And everybody felt like they were really the most prominent Hispanics at that time that we knew and we could remember that. But we were like a small microcosm within the bigger city and as I mentioned before, the Hispanic community lived primarily in Magnolia which used to be the old Harrisburg, in the, well, we called it Fifth Ward but it wasn't the Fifth Ward that everybody talks about now. It was near downtown off of North San Jacinto. They had Second Ward which is still Second Ward now in the Navigation Canal area. And then, there were some families in the historical Sixth Ward area around St. Steven's Church. But we somehow knew each other. We went to two high schools - it was either Jeff Davis; a few of us went to the old Sam Houston that was downtown. I went to high school at Jeff Davis High School. One of my peers was, interestingly enough, Felix Fraga who later was a groomsman at our wedding and who later I followed on the school board. So, it has been a friendship since I guess junior high.
FM: We interviewed Felix a couple of weeks ago. He was talking about it. Tell us what life was like growing up in Houston and what did you do daily and activities? Do you have a favorite theater or church?
EC: Well, I think, from my perspective, it was different from I think the other families and some of my peers because I was an only child. I did not come from a big family. We were a small family. We were very close. We still are. But being an only child, I really did not get out much. My mother was very protective. Even in high school, it was very difficult. I remember I was on the drill team but the drill team got to go to Dallas for the state fair. Of course, Esther Campos had to stay and I had to spend my time in the library because the girls squad had all gone to the state fair and my mother did not let me go. So, it was those kinds of things that I missed out really on a lot. My entertainment was every week, there was a movie outside, like a drive-in but it wasn't a drive-in, at Hennessy Park. And my aunt was in charge of taking the 3 of us. We were 2 cousins and myself, taking us to the movie. And we took our blanket like you do in Hermann Park, in the neighborhood park. They would bring a movie. I don't remember any of the movies but I do remember that that was like our family outing. My aunt liked to come to the theater down on Congress, the old Azteca Theater, and there about maybe twice a month, we would walk from Hardy Street or McKee, we would walk over the viaduct there on McKee, McKee Street briFMe, and come to the movies at the Azteca. That should have been saved as an historical spot but somehow, it just got away.
That was our other entertainment. That was fun. They would bring live performers and they would have a ______ night. That was a lot of fun. Once in a while, we would get out to Hermann Park but as I said, again, because I was an only child, I didn't really get out a lot. It was my mother and that was it. It was just the 2 of us. She remarried when I was in high school at 17 but those early years, I was learning to do, I guess, what girls did at that time: learning to sew, learning to do hand work, crochet and do those kinds of things. So, everybody else would be going to Galveston and doing all these different things that I just heard about but I didn't participate.
My very first job was with the telephone company. I was only 17. I had to get a waiver to work long distance. So, I have been in communications since I was 17. And after that, high school was a good experience but it was kind of guarded because there weren't very many of us, very many Hispanics in my senior class. However, I did graduate in the top 10%. But really, that didn't mean anything to me at the time. I had no plans to go to college although I had taken the college requirements. There was no way. My stepfather was a World War II veteran and he went to college on the GI Bill. And only one of us could go to school, so he was the one to go to school at the time. He received his degree and he began teaching, but it was years later when I was able to enroll. And even at that time at the University of Houston, at the orientation, I looked around and there were all these 18-year-old, 19-year-old kids going to orientation. I was 29 and I was in freshman orientation. If you don't think that is awkward. Oh my God, what am I doing here? I've got 3 children at home. What am I doing here? But I knew it was something that I always wanted.
FM: Did you know you wanted to be a teacher at that time?
EC: Well, actually, no. I wanted to write but I knew that wasn't going to help my husband pay bills. And so, I took the required program for teaching. There was one other young man in that same orientation class, Emilio Gill, and the interesting thing about Emilio - he went into graphic arts. I don't know if he ever worked for a newspaper or not but he is 1 year younger. We share birthdays. I saw him Sunday. He looks well for his age. He is 1 year younger than I am. We were the 2 older people in that whole orientation class.
I had always great dreams about my classes at the University and I enjoyed them but I did not enjoy them like the other students because I was a mature person, I had children at home. So, I couldn't tell you much about student life at that time. I went to class, got my assignment, came home, picked up the children from the sitters. The sad experience that I had was picking up my children at the daycare and my little girl was sitting all by herself in the nursery and I said, "What's the matter mija? Why aren't you playing with the other children?" She said, "Mother, they don't want to play with me." I said, "Why not?" "They say I am a Mexican." And, at that moment, I felt like discarding my books, taking my child, hugging her and going home and never going back to the University. It is so ironic because now, my whole neighborhood is Hispanic. The daycare is not even there anymore. The school is still there. I felt like who knew in 1959 that I would one day sit on the school board and that would be one of the schools in the area that I represented? And had I taken that step to just say forget it, my children are more important, and they were very important to me, but I had to look beyond that one incident. But, as a mother, it just really did hit me, you know, where it hurts the most.
FM: You had mentioned earlier that you were one of few Hispanics in your high school so is this incident with your children the first time you felt . . .
EC: No, I think even in high school, we had to have taquitos and eat them off to a table by ourselves. Even now, I understand why, in some schools, all the kids congregate under one tree or the other group stays at certain tables in the lunch room. They don't really mix as we would . . . well, many people thought they would with integration. It doesn't happen that way. We have more things in common with some of our own cultural in our language and everything. So, we kind of stayed together. I can almost name the few people that graduated in my graduating class because there were so few, but I am also happy to say that many of them have gone on to make a contribution to our community. So, we had some of that just-stay-with-it that kept us together then and still keeps us together and contributing to our community.
I remember going downtown shopping. There were some stores we kind of hesitated to go in. One incident that I recall. My mother had some friends visiting from Mexico, a very distinguished architect and his wife and 2 children. She was going to take them to a party, a ballroom. They would not let us in. Well, I did not go because I was a kid but they did not let my mother and her guest in. My mother was so embarrassed. I think that family went away really with a wrong impression. Well, it was the right impression at the time but it has changed.
FM: Did you speak Spanish at home?
EC: We spoke Spanish at home, yes, but when I was at the University, I decided to go ahead and take Spanish just to be sure that I understood the grammar, that I enlarged my vocabulary and those kinds of things. My master's is in Spanish. But we still speak mostly English at home. And my children, 2 of them, speak some Spanish and the other 2 mostly are monolingual English unfortunately. But they seem to understand everything we say and when Grandma talks to them, they know what it is she wants. So, it is not as if they do need to understand it.
FM: So then, you went through the University and you started teaching?
EC: Yes, my first school is just right down the street. My first assignment was at Edison Middle School. I kept going at night working on my masters but I thought, this is going to take forever. I could only do like 6 hours a semester and it is just going to take a long time. So, I did take 1 year off to complete the masters program that I was following and I still kept going. It seems like the community was saying we don't have enough Hispanic counselors. O.K., so then I started a counseling program in the community. There was an outcry. We do not have enough Hispanic administrators so I want the administrative program and completed the requirements for that. And, of course, I enjoyed the classes and I enjoyed moving on in my career. But also, kind of responding to what I would hear in the community. And because I had this experience at the University and my husband didn't, it was beginning to cause some friction and some . . . I was limited in many ways; first because I was an only child and a woman, and then later because I was married. And so, it just kind of put a perimeter that was really difficult for me. So, I found a key, I think, to bring this back together again and that was our involvement in politics. There, it is one man, one vote. So, my husband and I became involved with Ben Reyes' campaign and his bid, I think it was for state rep at the time. It turned out to be a lifesaver, so to speak because that activity has been a part of our family for many, many years now.
FM: And then Ben was elected the first Hispanic city councilman. Were you involved in that?
EC: Oh, yes. We just went all through the whole deal with him. I remember sitting at a table with all men, you know, ______ and Ben and Hector Garcia and Frumencio Reyes and all these male leaders in our community, and I would be the only woman. But we would be planning a campaign or planning a fundraiser or planning something. I was glad to be in at that level. However, in the broader community, we were asked, some of us were asked to participate in the women's movement at the time and I forgot what date it was that the women’s conference was held here in Houston. 1968? I forgot what year it was. I did not feel comfortable at all. I did not feel comfortable at all because after the conference, we would meet again in small group but, O.K., we were asked to volunteer to go to the airport and welcome visitors and see what they needed and I don't know what they call that group, but they were seeking volunteers. I said, this is not what I want. I want to be at the table making decisions along with the others. Don't ask me to volunteer ______ maybe my ego gets in the way. But I said, "No. If you want volunteers, there are a lot of people out there to volunteer. I think I have more to give." And so, we did not continue to work with some of the leading women in the community. And right now, I can't think of the woman who was kind of heading that program.
It wasn't Popi. It was somebody else with a name like that. And so, to me, I was not involved in the women's movement at the time because what was really important to me was to give our Hispanic males an opportunity to really open up for them because they were the head of the households, for the most part, because they are the ones that have to take care of families and because the opportunities had not been there. So, when they could come in to the broader community and look for jobs and make their way through, to me, it would follow that women would benefit as well, whether they were homemakers or career women, and I like to think that it happened that way. And even with the school district when I was there, I would look at the statistics on employment and it was always the white male at the top of the earning salary ranges, and then the white female and so on and so on. And the Hispanic males were next to the bottom. And, of course, the Hispanic females were down at the bottom. I hated to see those statistics because I was living them. And yet, I felt like I needed to make some changes and I am so proud of what some of our young people have accomplished in so many areas. I could tell you just for example, with mine, they didn't want to go into teaching. They just felt like that they could do something else; not that they don't feel teaching is important - they had some very good teachers along the way but I think a lot of it does begin at home and caring about education and making a contribution. And so, I felt like if the door is open for Hispanic males, we were going to go through. We were going to help kick down that door or whatever it is that you are supposed to do. Or break the ceiling, all those . . .
FM: I do not want to skip over your teaching career and your years at Patrick Henry but just for a moment, around 1970, there was a controversy within HISD about classifying Hispanics as whites and you remember a group called Mayo?
EC: Yes, I remember Mayo.
FM: What do you remember about that time?
EC: I remember Travis Morales. I remember this other woman, Birdwell. Yolanda Birdwell, who confronted the school board. But, you know, I had I guess my own plan. I did not want to get involved in those controversies although I supported them because I had an ulterior motive and that was to keep my job and to help my husband in rearing my children and providing for them. So that I guess I was a coward because although I did support their efforts, I myself did not get involved directly with them. I do remember though that in the 1970s with the crossover, I was at Milby High School and I hated it. And the reason I hated it - I was a counselor, it was my first assignment as a counselor - it really wasn't counseling. It was programming. It was putting kids in classes and that is all. I don't remember ever listening to a kid come about a problem they were having. We had kids whose name was Jimenez but they said JIMINEZ. And I thought this is the wrong place for me. I am not needed here. These kids are going to be all right. They are trying to work with the system so if they want to be called Jimenez, O.K. for them, but I think I can do better somewhere else. And as I said with the Mayo organization and then my involvement in politics and with Organizacion Paso, we were making some decisions about selecting candidates and grooming young people to move into some of these other positions. Every once in a while, there was somebody who was a maverick and wanted to go their own way and not stay with our organization, but they soon found out that you still have to have some kind of organization behind you in order to be successful. And so, I remember the Lauro Cruz, who was the first Hispanic representative from this area in the State Capitol and later, we felt like he really wasn't representing us so we needed to get somebody else. And so, that is where Ben came in.
It has been a good ride. Some ups and downs. There was an editor in The Chronicle in the garden section, and right now, I cannot remember his name - a good Democrat. I called the party office. This was in 1968 maybe. I said, "I have 4 children at home and I need to go vote." So, he came to babysit my children while I went across the street to the junior high to vote. And I never will forget that because to me, that is a real commitment. I would have lost my vote. I guess it was Humphrey. I forgot who the candidates were at that time but I always remember that that is the kind of thing that people do for other people. He did not know whether I was going to . . . well, I guess he did know since I did call the party office, but it is the kind of thing that sometimes these candidates are not doing and we have to keep reminding them that there are other people out there. But it has been a good journey.
FM: Then you ran for the school board but before we go into that, I want to take you back to your teaching and tell me a little bit about that. What schools did you teach at? What subjects? What were your experiences?
EC: My first assignment was here at Patrick Henry. I was 3/4 of a teacher because I taught like 4 classes and then I was doing my student teaching at the same time. But they needed someone. I was teaching reading and English, I think. It was for children who were having . . . there was a program called Talent Preservation, TPs, because they were not the average kid or the exception but they were really . . . and they weren't special ed. It was kind of like a little category all to itself. And there was some extra funding for that, so maybe that is why they hired me as 3/4 of a teacher. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed that because you would see all these little faces and the potential that is there. However, because they were below average, it was very frustrating. These kids did not know the parts of speech and that just really bothered me, that we had to really come down to bring them up to their level. But we had some technology, we had some reading machines, we had some other aids that would help us. The telephone company, too, had little learning cases with telephones that we could do telephone etiquette and they liked that. They really enjoyed using the telephones and working with each other. I remember one day, one girl, at the end of the class said, "We really learned something today, Mrs. Campos," and I thought to myself, well, I guess maybe I did plan a good lesson. It was introductions. Everybody had a role to play. Somebody was a principal, somebody was a teacher, the parent. And then, when you were playing the role, you had to introduce the younger child to the older one and so forth. And so, we were role playing. They really enjoyed that and they enjoyed the telephones.
But I had a little girl . . . no, she was kind of big like me now, she would come to school late every day. At first period class, she was always late. They would have to sign on the board whoever was late because they had to make up that time in detention and her name was constantly up there. And so, one day, I decided, the lesson had already started, everybody was working, she came in and I went to the door to greet her and I said . . . I don't want to use her real name but I remember it . . . I said, "Why are you late again?" She just looked and, of course, she looked down and she hesitated. I went on and said, "Look, your shirt, your dress is all dirty. It seems like you could have found something yesterday, something clean to wear this morning to school." It just still hurts me to talk about it because she said, "Mrs. Campos, I get up at 5 o'clock in the morning to go work in the tortilla factory." And, of course, all the masa and things just splattered on her front. That is why she was late, because they had to do so many of the tortillas, so many dozens going out. They had to finish their job before she could come to school. And that just tore me apart, you know. I just wasn't prepared for that. As an only child, I may not have had much because my mother worked in a tailor shop but we were clean, we were honest, we were organized, my shoes were polished, my tennis shoes were all clean every Monday morning to go to school. I couldn't see somebody coming to school dirty. But when she told me her story, it just hurt so much. How many Ramonas are there out there? And if I can make a difference, I want to, because I know my children are well cared for, they have food to eat, they have clean clothes, they have somebody to care for them after school, but how many other children are out there that don't? And then, one day this appointment going to the mayor's office for some meeting or other, I had to park downtown and I hated to do that but anyway, I went into a parking garage and there was one of my former students from Edison who was parking cars.
It seems like those things just really do bother me. It was another one that we missed, another one that fell through the cracks. And just recently, I had to go to the Medical Center and a little girl came up to me and she said, "Oh, Ms. Garcia," and I said, "No, it's Mrs. Campos." She said, "Well, I remember you. You were my principal at Patrick Henry." I said, "I am so glad to see you." She said, "Oh, you look good." And we talked and chatted a little. She had a bucket and some rags or something, some cleaning things and she was cleaning the windows at the door of the building that I was going to. I guess I am just a softie in that respect because I feel like these are kids that we missed somewhere along the way. Of course, I know somebody has to clean those windows, I know that, but does it have to be our kids or anybody's kids as far as that goes? However, I just wonder if something along the way could not have changed so that these kids would not be parking cars or cleaning somebody else's house or cleaning the glass doors.
From Edison, I went to San Jacinto which was a great experience because at that time, it was a technical institute, it was already integrated, people went there, the students went there because they had a certain program that they wanted to follow. And so, it didn't matter their race. It mattered because they were accepted on their interest. I thought this is what should happen at all schools. So, with the Magnet program the district developed, I would say that it was patterned pretty much after the technical institute that we had going even before the courts called for an integration plan. The one outstanding thing that I feel about my experience there or that I can gather from that is that I had a senior class that was graduating and there was one young man there, his last name was Herrera, he had followed a drafting program. Every summer, he would work for Gulf Oil in their drafting program, then come back to school in the fall. He graduated top of his class. He finished his drafting program. That drafting program and his job during the summer helped him stay in school, and he went on to college and became an architect, so that why can't we have programs like that that can provide children with a way of making a living? See, Daniel didn't have to go all the way through to college but he had a skill, a marketable skill, that would be able to provide for his family. I am so proud that he did go on to college. But what about the other kids that do not have a skill to market and they follow a college program that is going to take them nowhere? I just feel like it is possible to do both. That was the year that was - the black teachers did not want to be there, the white teachers did not want the black teachers there, the black kids did not want to be there, the Hispanic kids, well, they did not know which way to go because there weren't very many of them. The principal was more or less a laissez faire kind of thing - just hoping it would work out without doing too much about it. As I said, counseling was not really counseling - it was programming. And so, I was not finished with my administrative work but I had an opportunity to go to Marshall. That was a good calling because I had gone to junior high at Marshall. And so, I felt like this was good. I wanted to go back to my old school. Of course, it was completely changed but still, it was my old school.
FM: How had it changed?
EC: Well, it had changed physically. They had redone the school. They had added some classrooms. It no longer had the twin staircase that it had when I was there except 2 staircases going up in the front. I had pictures when I was 5 years old in front of the school so I remember what the architecture was. And now, it was different. Also, it was mostly Hispanic and when I was there, it was mostly Anglos. I was the first female assistant principal that they had at Marshall and the principal told me, he said, "This was not my choice but I was asked to do this." Oh God, yes, that makes you feel like O.K., I am here but you don't want me. I recall speaking to him and saying, from my point of view, I said, "I am a mother and a wife first and then I am a professional but if my children need me, they are going to come first because this is a job and my family, and I was a mother and a wife before I went to college. It is not like I had a choice. They come first." So, we finally came to an understanding that we were going to work together. He pretty much left me alone because he had never had two assistant principals. He always had a male. And he pretty much left me alone but it was kind of difficult to set a new agenda because I did not have anything to pattern that after. I had theory from the University but it is not like dealing with the kid who is chewing gum and gets sent to the office for chewing gum. Well, there is a wastebasket there. It is no big deal. I enjoyed my time at Marshall because it was like a brand new world, just really cutting through the jungle there trying to find my way through. It was very interesting and it was good. I knew so many of the families because now, it was parents that had their children there and I knew them or went to school with them. I knew sometimes the grandparents because I had lived in that area for a long time. And so, it was like a good homecoming. And then, I felt that I was really reaching some of the parents about how important it was for them to come to school. But it got to be really heavy. After 5 years, the problems were just more than the school could handle because the problems are all over. I mean, they were economic, they were housing problems because we had all the children from the Irvington Courts, and it was just insurmountable. One person like me could not do it all. Well, I wasn't alone but I just felt like I wasn't accomplishing a whole lot. I was just kind of like in quicksand.
FM: You did not feel like the district or the school was making progress?
EC: We would make a step forwards and a couple of steps backwards. The bilingual teacher would come and say, "Oh, Mrs. Campos, don't you know that we need" dah, dah, dah. And I kept saying, "But don't forget, you are only one program. We have all these other programs to run also." I said, "Besides, the bilingual program is funded differently so once your money is out, it is out." But the others continued to share in whatever other monies there were. It was so hard for them and I can understand that they wanted the resources that they needed to teach their classes and they weren't there. So, it was not only from the administration but also the problems at school and personal and family and just everything else.
FM: It must have been very frustrating.
EC: It was extremely frustrating. I was still hanging on to my . . . my doctoral program was still in progress, so I decided to take a leave of absence. There is no sabbatical, you know. Nobody pays you for this. So, I took 2 years off to work on my doctorate. I did not finish. It was kind of difficult with 3 teenagers in the house it seems like and I said my commitment to them comes first. And so, when my 2 years were over, I had to go back and I left that doctoral program in progress. It is still there. It is stamped on my record.
I took those 2 years off from Marshall. In coming back, I think it was . . . the superintendent was somebody who came from Michigan and right now, I cannot think of his name. He said he needed someone at Patrick Henry. And so, I said, well, O.K. I will try it and see how it goes. And then, I was there for a long time.
FM: 14 years.
EC: Yes, and I finished out my career there. That school changed quite a bit. At the beginning, it was almost white in that kind of rural area. I never saw any but I heard where they had belt buckle issues of the "kickers" in the area. Pretty soon, they were all Hispanic so they didn't have any . . . if they had gang jump-ins, I don't know, or whatever they called those - whenever they'd initiate a gang member. But no, I never experienced that. The whole area changed. The students from Patrick Henry went to Sam Houston High School. I regret the fact that Sam Houston has had so many problems in their leadership and in their academic ratings. They have had years and years where they have been low grading. That affects the image of not only the community but also of each individual child that they are not going to a school that succeeds. When I have grandchildren going to Westwood and Austin, you know, one of the top 100 schools in the nation, and then I think about these other children that are going to some of these schools that never meet the state guidelines and the requirements, and they really are the basics. They are not even meeting those. That is what so sad. It makes me want to go back on the school board like Carol Galloway. I said, no, I don't want that much punishment.
FM: Do you have recollections of some of the various superintendents you dealt with over the years as a teacher?
EC: Well, actually, I did not deal with them because, as I said, I guarded my job and I knew where to cross the line. I knew I could not confront Billy Reagan personally. But I could do it by picking up the phone and calling Al Luna in the State Capitol and telling him, "Al, what about" such and such? And I found that that was the most effective way to go about it. Even now, instead of going to Abe Savedra, I will pick up the phone and say, "Rick, how are you going to help me with this?" I can go around him some way. I don't need to confront them or just get along with them because actually, as an assistant principal, we don't get to go anywhere. We have to be in charge of building. The principal is the one that goes to all the meetings and all the seminars and everything else and we are the work horses. We have to stay and take care of things at home. Conduct the fire drills. Supervise the lunch room. Do all the extracurricular activities. And so, no, I don't know that I was ever in a meeting with Billy Reagan. I did more with Kay Able because I was on the school board then, and some with Dr. Page. We had some good, good rounds with him, but I think he was fair and in spite of the controversies during his administration about how he got to be the superintendent coming from the board and, in part, that was a time that I became a member of the board, he and I had a good rapport. There were some things we will never agree on but there were others where we would sit down and talk and he would see things my way. And then, there were times when I would tell him, yes, I could support you. I could not support him on the Aramark contract. I think I was asked, "Are you going to be an obstructionist?" I remember one of the other _________ and when that vote came around for Aramark, I thought, am I being an obstructionist in this case? But my feeling was why don't you let 2 of the companies share the contract and whichever one does better, then pick the other. This is a very big contract for a very long time and it is important that our children have the best program, their meal program and nutrition program, the best possible. You can't just give it away to 1 person the first time around. Well, it didn't work and I didn't agree with it but, you know, it had to be tweaked and refined any number of times. There were some other times when I didn't agree with him but there were other times when I could feel, O.K., the first bond did not pass because we did not support the district and I meant the whole community, from the precinct juFMe in this area to, well, there were a lot of us who didn't support it. And so, it failed for lack of trust, I would say. The second one passed. By that time, they had time to bend and refine the program, set up an oversight committee, do some of the things that needed to be done, and for the most part, I would say, yes, that bond went well. The second one . . . [end of tape 1, side 1]
EC: . . . I have had problems with because some of the jobs were not completed. Of course, since then, I had left the board. But there are still schools in this area where the work that was supposed to have been done wasn't done. So, this last bond, I did not support it. And, of course, I was no longer on the board but I could see where there were some things that were mismanaged.
FM: Go back to the first bond where you said there was a lack of trust in the community and elaborate on that a little bit if you will.
EC: Well, we met a number of times with the leaders from the administration and their plan was a little shaky in terms of providing for the physical needs of the different areas. I think that we did not trust them to do . . . for example, Edison Middle School had been redone some time in the 1970s. Well, it was such a bad job that we had a big storm and the whole ceiling, the whole roof fell off on part of the school. And people remembered that. Their children had to go to school there and it was raining in. So, it wasn't done well. We needed some assurance that these contractors were going to do just what they said they were going to do and that, for example, I believe there were some changes made in some of the contracts. Instead of doing one school, they switched and did something else. We wanted them to stay with the program as they presented it. We wanted it to be a valid and an enforceable plan of action rather than just, well, if we can't do this, we'll do that between the school board members to make deals among themselves. I remember Paula Arnold saying, "Well, my district didn't get anything." Well, maybe her district didn't need anything to be done. And so, I can live with that. If one district needed more, then that is where it should be. You can't be equitable. I felt that way because of my experience as a mother. Not all 4 children need bicycles. Besides, I can't afford 4 new bicycles. But if my son has a paper route, he is the one that needs the bicycle. And I applied that principal to the school board. O.K., not all areas need the same. The needs are different for each one, for each area. And I still feel that way, that some areas . . . I think the leadership is so important because you can see that little old school right here, J.P. Henderson, and the principal, Erlina Garcia, she just keeps that school immaculate and little children are so orderly and they are so . . . it is just a joy to visit a school like that. And then, you go to others where it is just chaotic. You just would not believe that it is the same district. And I think the leadership has a lot to do in modeling good behavior, in modeling the behavior of each individual child and the teachers and everyone if they really care about their children.
FM: Well, speaking in leadership, back up a step: You decided to run for the school board. What led to that decision?
EC: Because I saw and I had a history of learning what was wrong in many instances in the school. And I felt that I could make a difference. Even if I registered a no vote against an _____ vote. I still felt like some things needed to be, and I wasn't going to get out there like the Mayo group and stomp and holler but I was at least going to use my vote to make a statement of some of the things that needed to be done. And so, that is one of the reasons why I decided to run and because I felt that I had had enough experience working in the community as a precinct juFMe, on the state executive committee, that I felt I knew how the electoral system worked, not just from reading it in my history class or something but in actually walking my blocks, knowing the people and knowing their needs and walking blocks for all other candidates at so many elections, that I thought I think I can do this, I think that there is enough support here that I can do this. Sometimes I wonder, how did I do this? I was a pretty shy person. I don't get out too much. And yet, I was able to . . . I must have lost 10 pounds walking those blocks but just meeting my neighbors and going to all these interviews and everything, it was good. It gave me a feeling that yes, I can do this. And, you know, _________. This is something I can do. And I had the support of all my compadres, so to speak. I don't know of anybody that really opposed my . . . by that time, you know, Ben's son was running but Ben was no longer a positive influence. He was more of a negative on that ______. And then, Diane Olmos, who is now on the board of the community college, she was also an opponent. What I was the most proud about is that Richard Farias also threw his hat in the ring and Gail Falen and the teachers union did not support me. They supported Richard. I felt like that was not fair because I met people from the AFT that were from Austin and San Antonio. They came to work on the campaign for Richard. And I felt like I don't even know that many people in Austin or San Antonio and they are bringing in some of their campaign workers from over there. And yet, I was able to overcome that.
FM: You had your share of supporters. Felix Fraga and Jose Salazar.
EC: Oh, yes, and Jose is still writing editorials. Letters to the editor. And yes, I think that I had a good share of supporters and I had two daughters that were campaigning relentlessly. So, I had a lot of help.
FM: Do you have any other recollections from the campaign like what some of the issues were?
EC: Well, I think the issues that are and have been the same because even now, I feel like that some of the issues are still there. The equity, the dropouts, the failure to represent, to have representation on the different committees and that. And then, on the outside, there is also some failure to work together with some of the Hispanic business community and the actual grass roots who do the campaigning and have their candidates - can't seem to work together. And that gets to be a controversy that I don't know when it is going to be solved or how it is going to be solved. You get labeled the candidate of the business, then the community will just turn their backs on them, on that candidate. I can think of Gabriel Vasquez. He was the darling of the elite, so to speak, and he was elected but the grass roots community just did not endorse him. After a while, they realized they really made a big mistake. He did not support the bilingual education program that we had in place, along with the other member of the board - the attorney whose wife is now a juFMe. And they redid the bilingual policy and I asked when I met because they did meet with each one of us to provide some input, and I said, "Gabe, did you put on here that this policy has to agree with any other federal or state regulation? You can't just make a policy of your own because it does not supersede what is already there." Well, they had not even thought about it. They were just going to set up their own policy the way they wanted it regardless of what was already there. And so, they had to back up. _______ had done some research on it and so had the _______. The ______ came in. They had to make some changes. The policy still is a little . . . it is lacking but it is better than it was when they first proposed it. It had to because it had to conform with the other 2 state and federal regulations if it wanted the money, if they wanted those dollars coming from the federal government. So, I remember some of those issues still are in place. I think that at the time, we didn't have the issue of whether or not the undocumented children could come to school. They just all came to school. Well, the state had ruled that they could be educated but there wasn't as much opposition as there is now about the children in school. I see a child, I think they ought to be in school. I don't think about whether they are documented or not. They are just school age, they should be in school. But that seems to be rising its ugly head again, you know, in many areas. I was most proud of Rick Norriega for proposing a bill in the Legislature that would allow the children of undocumented people to go on to college. And yet, now that he is running for senator, it may bite him in the back because so many people oppose that. I do not know how I feel in terms of national policy but we in Texas have done this for years and years. So, we think nothing of it. But then, we knew here, Houston referred to as a sanctuary city. You know, it kind of hurts because I think instead of being criticized, that we should be ______ for doing this. Not to the extent that we should not break the law, to begin with, but I could see where enforcing it is a monumental task and I can see the impact that it does like in the border towns where they have all their children coming across to go to school and the taxes are not sufficient to support all those programs. So, I could see where there is a dilemma. I am not all pro undocumented. It is just, beyond that, I am pro children. That is what it is.
FM: I am going to ask you a little bit more about your time on the school board but before I do that, you had a runoff election and then your opponent said something about coin toss. Explain that for people watching this.
EC: Well, a number of things. Michael Reyes comes from a family that was politically involved. And so, he is young, a young person. The dynasties like the Bush and the Clinton and the Kennedy, that doesn't bother me because I know that even my children when they were little, they were stuffing envelopes for Leonel Castillo running for controller. It is part of our life. So, I could see where Ben's son would want to become involved and participate and then become an elected official because his father was one. But to suggest that selecting a person to sit on the school board at the toss of a coin, to me, is just frivolous and it is not something to be taken lightly; at least I felt that my place on the school board was a very serious responsibility and I could not leave it to a coin toss. I know they do it for ballgames - who is going to kick off and all that - but this is not a ballgame. Yes, it is a contest but it is not a game. It is the lives of our children at stake. So, I did take it seriously and I felt like this is what happens when you have someone who does not have enough experience, that is interested but not serious enough about the issues involved.
FM: And so, you won the runoff and got to the school board. Was it anything like you expected?
EC: It was all I expected and more because some of the school board members invited me for lunch, kind of to get my feet in, to get to know me and for breakfast. I remember meeting with Franklin who was on the board then. I knew Paula pretty much because of my nephew, Mark. I did know Carol Galloway and I did know Mr. Gaines, another member. I got the feeling that because I was following Felix and Felix was such a good guy - he just does not make waves or any wrinkles and he is a good person, but he tries to get along with everybody and I like to think that I worked well with everyone. I don't always agree with everything but I don't think I am that difficult to get along with. It is just I have differences. And following Felix and then a really very short period where Jose Salazar sat on the board and if that wasn't long enough for Jose to really show what he is able to do, I felt like it was kind of a disservice to him because it was such a short period. But that is what he accepted to do only until they found a regular candidate. So, I would not have liked to have been in his place. It takes a while to really get adjusted to working with the other 8 board members and the superintendent. So, the issues that were coming were just fast and furious. And then, trying to address them. And trying to work well with the superintendent, with Dr. Page. And yet, like I said earlier, Dr. Page was a good person to work with. He listened. We did not always agree but I felt that he gave me the respect and I, too, respected him, but I was coming from a constituency who expected more me than I was able to do with one vote. But I wasn't going to let them down because they are the ones that elected me, they are the ones I represented, but I also had my training as an educator, my background and my experience as an educator to know that some of the things that Dr. Page proposed were solid, they were good, they were good for the district. So, it kind of put me in the middle sometimes about do I lean towards what my constituents want or do I go with what I feel is good for the district, and that is what I chose to do. In many instances, they were both good and I could justify it and I knew that we were going in the right direction. And I think that that really did help when it came to the bonds because I could point to the things that had been done with the first bond election that were good and that the new schools that were built, that it was there, that they could see it and that the oversight committee - I had appointed a person to sit on that oversight committee. So, that gave me an opportunity to say, well, we have some representation here. It is not as if someone is coming to our community and telling us what we want or what we need but it is coming up the line rather than just from on the top. And that is always a good feeling.
FM: There was a document that was, for people hearing this, kind of a guiding set of principles that many on the board followed called "Visions and Belief."
FM: Talk about that, if you will.
EC: Well, I was not involved in the development of it. It was developed prior to my coming on the board. But I totally support it. I think that it gave us a basis for everything that the district was doing because, first of all, it was safety. Our busses had to be safe. Our schools had to be safe. And once the children were safe, then we could go on with our real mission of teaching. And I still have problems with the lockdowns of the schools in this area because of the chemical plants, and that is still an issue. When they built Cesar Chavez, I knew that the soil had been tested and that there was no contamination of the soil in that area up to whatever feet needs to be cleaned up, but my concern was that you could see the flames from the chemical industry. And time and time again, the school is on lockdown because of the blowouts they have. So, are we really dealing with safety first? And another concern that I had was that the district gave not bonuses but waivers for the chemical industries to pay their taxes. I went to John Castillo. "O.K., John, what is this about the taxes that the chemical industry pays the district?" He said, "Well, let me tell you, they are supposed to use that money to include their safety. So, in a way, the district only has a few that industries within the district and Pasadena and some of the other districts. If they approve it, then we cannot do anything but go along and approve it, too, because there are not that many plants in the district." Well, that really bothered me. It still bothers me, that we give them the tax waivers and they are supposed to improve their safety and yet, our schools are in the middle of the lockdown. This is the kind of . . . number one beliefs is safety and we are still not meeting those guidelines. Some of the others like the lead in the schools that I made a big thing of that, too, we are still dealing with lead. I would go to the school because that is one thing that I like to pride myself on saying. It was not micromanaging - I just love to visit schools. After spending 29 years in school, I like visiting schools. And so, I would visit the schools in Denver Harbor including McReynolds and some of the others and here, the kids were peeling the paint off the windows. Well, that paint is full of lead. And then I had to spend time with some attorneys on depositions about the lead paint that was used there. I opened a hornet's nest. So then, the district had to file a lawsuit against the contractors and the paint company. I never knew how it ended up because it just goes on forever. And then, there are those children sitting in those lead . . . even River Oaks was one of the schools that had lead paint, not only the ones here in this area but even River Oaks Elementary School had lead paint. So, some of the issues are still going on, we are still fighting them, but the instrument itself I think is very good. I think it gives us something to refer to. If we are not meeting one of those Visions of Beliefs, then there is something wrong. We have lost our way. Because, to me, it is like a map. They are guidelines to show us where we are going and if we are not going in that direction, then we need to rethink our policies. For instance, there was a policy where family members could not work at the same worksite and I find that valid. They could work for the district, they just could not work at the same job site. Dr. Savedra changed that. And so, you know, now husband and wife, mother and daughter or relatives can work at the same job site. I don't know - I have seen that happen and I just don't feel like that is the right way to go about it.
FM: You spoke about issues. There are 2 or 3 controversial ones I want to ask you about. One of them, HISD's code of student conduct which prohibits harassment based on race, religion, national origin, disability.
EC: You did your homework.
FM: You spoke up for the inclusion of sexual orientation as part of that. Talk about that. Did you get criticized for that?
EC: Yes, I did, but on the other hand, I have notes and I remember phone calls from different people who were glad that I had included that. And the reason that I did is that we needed to be consistent. If, in our other governance areas they have the harassment addressed in terms of all these differences, then I think the district should also include sexual orientation in that because it was also my experience as a teacher and I think I was an assistant principal then, where I had occasion to deal with some children whose sexual orientation was different and they were being harassed, they were being battered, they were being attacked and brutalized by their classmates, and there wasn't anything that would actually protect them. Of course, if it happened off the school site, there was not a lot we could do about it but if it happened in school, then I think we could. Now, they were addressing the racial issue but nobody addressed the other and I had to deal with them, and 2 cases in particular; one a little girl's girlfriend had burned their house down. I mean, it came to that extent where their family was trying to protect her and the other young lady was so adamant about claiming her, claiming this little girl, that she burned the family house down. And, at school, the other girl must have been a dropout because she would come and wait for her after school and try to abduct her. I tried to talk to her, I said, "You need to leave her alone." I said, "What happens outside of school, I won't have anything to say but here on campus, you need to be gone." And I don't know what happened to them. But then, later at Patrick Henry, I had a young man and he was being harassed by the others in gym and in other places. He was a darling little boy but I guess somebody picked up on the fact that his sexual orientation leaned towards the other side. And so, they just made life miserable for him. He had already been in several schools. That is another sign that there is a problem. So, on the school board, I thought, this is a fine opportunity to make some change here and added . . . some people seemed to think that, well, it isn't necessary but it is necessary because people have to be aware that this is going on. And from my experience and just from my dealing with other policies, I felt that it needed to be consistent.
FM: There was also a controversy about letting students out for a day to attend work with their parents. Do you remember that?
EC: Oh, yes, I remember that, and I remembered Laura Bricker and I went around and around with this because she felt like why don't they do it during the summer so they don't have to miss school, which is fine but then we would not be involved in that. That would actually have to be outside of the school district. I think that in trying to provide role models for children, I think it is a good idea - I think earlier I mentioned that - when the family is involved, when the father is involved in a certain career profession, that sometimes the children follow because that is what they know. But because we have added so much to the curriculum, so many things are demanded of the children and of the teachers, that there isn't enough time. We would have to extend the school year, we would have to extend the school week and the day in order to accommodate all of the things that need to be done. Now, I personally tell you that there were times when we would forget to have a monthly fire drill because the calendar was just so crowded. You just can't accomplish everything. And now that the teachers and the administration are held under the TAAS and the TAKS and all the other tests and everything is geared towards addressing that and preparing the children for those tests, that there really is not time for Take Your Child To School day. And so, somebody is going to have to come up with something in terms of vocation. Well, we have career days and I think that helps a little bit, to let the children know that there are some other possibilities of careers, and that is good. But to take a whole day, and it is kind of loose because how can you really know whether that child stays home to sleep or really goes with a parent to work?
FM: Maybe the last school board question, in 1996, you met with Minister Louis Farrakhan? What was that like and was there any fallout from that?
EC: Other than something in the newspaper. I believe it mentioned our names. I think John Castillo was with me. There were a few other leaders that we went at his invitation because what he proposed was a combined effort to register voters and to get out the vote. And in that sense, it didn't matter who it was, you know, as far as calling together 2 large constituencies for voter education, to get out to vote and to register voters or nonpartisan civic issues and I did not have any problems with attending that session. I was a little fascinated by their accommodations and by their security because we had to be scanned before we were allowed in the elevator to go up to the suite. And I thought, oh my God, what is this? What did I get myself into? But no, the talk was along the lines of voter education. And then, nothing came of it because nobody followed up on trying to organize the groups together, to work together. But I do recall there was a little article in the newspaper that mentioned our names and our going there. I did not have really any fallouts about that.
FM: There was one final thing - there was an incident where one of your fellow board members referred to the citizens of Mexico as parasites. Do you recall that?
EC: Oh, yes. I do recall that.
FM: What happened with that?
EC: Well, what happened is I had a lot of resentment towards my fellow board member and it just . . . I tried not to let it cloud my mind in terms of the issues that we had to work on and the policies that we had to deal with, but more than anything, what bothered me the most was the lack of support from the president and from the other board members. That bothered me because I knew in other areas, people were being asked to resign when they made comments like that, people were being censored, and nothing happened to Lawrence Marshall. I remember even a school board meeting where some of the legislators came up in his support and spoke and I think Rick Norriega was there and he spoke in support of me. But then, nothing happened. That just kind of sealed it for me, that this is the way of the school board; that I had to be another martyr in a group that is supposed to be integrated, working together, and diverse, yes, we know, but not accepting of one another. That really bothered me; that I had spent 9 years - what year was that, 1994? No, it would have had to have been 2002 maybe, whenever that was, that I had spent 8 years on that board, volunteered and taken a lot of abuse and that, you know, here we are again, from a fellow board member to make such an asinine statement, and for the board leadership not to say anything about it. In all fairness to the president then, he did call us together and we met for breakfast and we talked. He said, "For the sake of the board, we need to bring this issue up and discuss it and see if we can't arrive at something." Well, I think he even just kind of gave up because Larry Marshall would not relent. He would not even apologize. He would not even say that what he said was wrong, nothing. So finally, Mr. Chadwick just got up and said, "Well, O.K., this is as much time as I can give to this," and that was it. As I said, I took it hard, not so much for myself because I have been in situations like that before -- it is the fact that the leadership of the board did not do anything. I think that hurt more than anything. If they can do it to me and I am supposed to be one of their equals, how many times does this happen in the school room with the children? I think that that is what really hurts the most, and I can't be here to defend all that.
FM: I just have a few more questions but I want to ask you about Houston in general a little bit. You told me off camera a moment ago about your husband looking to buy a house. Can you tell us that story?
EC: Well, yes. We had saved for a couple of years. We had been married for a couple of years and we saved some money. We lived in a little duplex on the north side of town. I said I think we have enough money for a down payment. So, he started looking in the want ads and started checking different areas and driving out to look at neighborhoods and talked to realtors. The realtor said, "I am sorry but I can't show you a house in Pecan Park," which is not too far from here. It is over by the freeway. I looked at the houses and they were little square boxes but, you know, they had a nice yard and I thought this would be good for the kids. They could not show me a house in that area. We kept looking, something that we could afford. We finally found . . . they just wouldn't even show us a house. There would be one that we would see, we would go by and look at it and I knew that we had the money saved enough for a down payment and they still wouldn't even show us a house. Some of my friends, Rick's parents, had rented a house somewhere near here, his wife did. She is fair, very attractive lady, and she had gone in and rented the house and given the deposit. Well, when they moved in, her relatives, her brothers were helping them move and bring the things in and her mother was there helping and they were . . . all this, and you could tell they were Mexicans. Well, the landlord said, "I am sorry but I made a mistake in renting you the house." We wanted to avoid things like that so there were some houses I would not even attempt to look at because I knew that probably we wouldn't even have a chance to look at them, much less buy them. And as it was, where we bought the house, we are still living there now 50 years - we were the first Hispanics on that block. Blockbusters, that's what we were. Years later when my children were in school, there were these 2 young white guys that came to the door and they said, "We are looking for," whatever the girl's name was. I said, "No, there are some girls that live on the next street. How did you end up here?" My girls were little. They said, "Oh, we just asked where the Mexicans lived and they pointed us to your house." And strangely enough, there are only 2 white families on our block now, because everybody worked for Hughes Tools in that area and so that is where they lived. They have since moved and some of them have retired and died and so now it is all Hispanic, pretty much. But that was so funny because they had pointed to our house and said, "Oh, there are some Mexicans that live over here," and the Salidas lived on the next street. It just got to be funny.
The irony that I like to think about now is that 2 of my daughters have married Anglos and they have beautiful homes. And I thought, just think of what we had to go through, you know, even from the nursery school to buying our house and I said, no, we moved around so much when I was young with my mother being just she and I, we moved a number of times and I went to a number of schools in the district. That was another thing. I said once we move, one place. We already have our property at Forest Park so we don't have far to go. It is experiences like that that make you happy when you see change and when you begin to reminisce that there were movie theaters that we could not go to and stores that we just kind of looked in the windows but we didn't go in, it is kind of sad. But it is also good to see so many of the changes.
FM: So, you conclude that Houston is a pretty good place to live?
EC: Yes, I do, and I tell you one of the things - when I have visited and with the school board, when I traveled to different cities and talked to different people, from Detroit to Los Angeles and different places, that they wondered why we didn't have the riots that we did during the desegregation moments, and I think that other people have addressed this but my feeling was that the majority of the folks . . . there may have been incidents but the majority, we got along a lot better than I think they did in other places. I think that we had more respect for one another at the time and, at least for the Hispanics, we didn't have this combative kind of attitude. Maybe that was wrong. Maybe we should have started some real action then. But I think that for the most part, I know my dad worked for a number of leaders in the community like the Cullens and he was always treated with respect. He was a tradesman. He had cement trucks. He would do jobs for them. He was paid well. And he felt like his work was respected. And I think that that makes a lot of difference, when you live in a city where you feel that you are a part of it. There may have been some incidents in my life but for the most part, we didn't have the kind of discord that other cities showed, maybe on the part of inactivity on our part, but I don't think so. I think we were just too busy trying to get a living to get involved in something that was destructive and negative; that we were still trying to make a way for ourselves.
FM: I just have 2 more questions: one, if you travel around, you meet people and somebody asks you, "I am thinking about moving to Houston. What do you think about that? Can you give me some good reasons why I should?" What would you tell them?
EC: I would tell them that they could do worse. No, I would really sell my city because I am a native Houstonian, I was born here, I have watched the development of a downtown, I have seen the progress in our different communities. I think we have had some visionary leadership. We have had some that haven't been all that great but I was very proud that we had a good female mayor at one time when there weren't very many around. I was proud that we had also the first black mayor as well in my lifetime. And so, I just really feel like the leadership has made some wise decisions. I don't know about Mayor Lanier but everybody liked him and I think that he made a good . . . I don't know if you could say just kind of like a keeper . . . [end of tape 1, side 2]
EC: Our rail system could have been in place a long time before now because mass transportation is almost a must with a city of this size and area. And I think that probably we could have been far ahead of the game had we started this a long time ago. But as far as job opportunities, as education because there are some good schools and we know that we have some very good schools; we have others that still need a lot, but I think that that is up to us to help improve them. I think that it would be a good move for some people. Not, I've got 2 children that live out of the city but I think that in the long run, I know 1 of them is planning to come back. Whenever they are ready to retire, they will be coming back. There are a lot of good things about our city.
FM: Think about this if you will. Somebody watching this tape 10 or 20 years from now or more - what is it you would want them to know about your time here in Houston?
EC: Well, I think in my lifetime, the city has gone through a big transition and I am just glad to have been here at this time, to watch our city grow, not only in size but in the mentality, in the arts. When I am called in to sit on a plan to include Hispanic art in our theater and that, I think that is so important for our city as a whole. The museum area has expanded. There are just so many opportunities. I understand what they are going to do now with the bayou and doing all the beautification there and trying to save the green spaces in our community. I am a big one for recycling. And so, I really feel like our city has come a long way from when I remember walking downtown or just everybody knowing everyone. Now, our city is so diverse that I just happened to drive around not too far from my house and there was this beautiful temple that I did not even know was there. It seemed to have been hidden by some trees. And just the diversity of our community. So, that means that other people find it a welcoming place to live and raise their children. And for a big city, I think that we are doing quite well.
FM: And finally, is there anything that I did not ask you about that you would want to say?
EC: Not really. I think we have covered pretty much all my life experiences in Houston. It still bothers me that somebody would pronounce it any other way. No, I cannot think of anything except that I am proud to be a Houstonian and I am also very proud that I went to Salt Lake City a couple of years back and in the library, the genealogical library, I looked up my family, the Estradas because I used to be an Estrada, and they were in the files there, and I was just extremely proud to say, I don't care if they call me a wetback or not, I know that I have been here for generations and it is in the files at the library. So, I just really feel good about being part of being an American and being a part of the development of our city.
FM: Well, thank you very much.