Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politicsby Mary Beth Rogers
"Cold Anger is an important book about the empowerment of working-class communities through church-based social activism. Such activism is certainly not new, but the conscious merger of community organizing tactics with religious beliefs may be. The organizing approach comes from Aul Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundations (IAF). . . . The book is structured around the political life of Ernesto Cortes, Jr., the lead IAF organizer who has earned recognition as one of the most powerful individuals in Texas (and who has been featured on Bill Moyers' "World of Ideas"). . . . Cortes fashioned a hard-ball Alinsky approach onto the natural organizing ground of church-based communities. The experiment began in San Antonio . . . and was successful in the transformation of San Antonio politics. Such dramatic success . . . led to similar efforts in Houston, Fort Worth, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and New York, to mention only a few sites. Expansion beyond San Antonio meant organizing among Protestant churches, among African American and white, and among middle-class communities. In short, these organizing efforts have transcended the particularistic limits of religion, ethnicity, and class while maintaining a church base and sense of spiritual mission. . . . Rogers's clearly written book will be of great value to the scholar, student, and layperson interested in urban politics, ethnic relations, social movements, or church activism." Southwestern Historical Quarterly
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A Story of Faith and Power Politics
By Mary Beth Rogers
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 1990 Mary Beth Rogers
All rights reserved.
Moses and Paul: The World's Greatest Organizers
"Anybody remember Moses?" Ernesto Cortes Jr. asks a group of farmers and farm activists from 40 states who have come to Dallas to discuss their problems and hear Cortes speak at a Farm Crisis Workers Conference. A few members of the audience nod and look at each other as if to say, "Who the hell is this and what have we gotten ourselves into?"
Cortes is the coordinator of a dozen or so Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizations in Texas, such as San Antonio's COPS and the Rio Grande Valley Interfaith. Because of his 20-year community organizing career in Texas and around the nation, Cortes has become a legend among American political activists and a source on Hispanic politics for journalists from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a slew of other publications. The prestigious MacArthur Foundation gave him one of its "genius" grants and $204,000 to do with as he saw fit. Esquire identified him as one of the people who represented America "at its best." Texas Business magazine called Cortes one of the most powerful people in Texas—along with Ross Perot and corporate raider extraordinaire T. Boone Pickens. Somehow, with all of this, you don't expect him to be talking about Moses.
"The two greatest organizers historically were Moses and Paul," Cortes begins his remarks to the farmers. "Both men knew how to build networks and build broad-based organizations. Both understood the politics of organization. But Moses had a crisis on his hands when he brought the chosen people out of Egypt and they spent all those years just wandering around in the desert. He's got all these folks coming at him saying, 'You know, things were a lot better in Egypt. We had a lot of good times—what are you offering us here? Nothing but crummy food. We want some chitlins ... we want some tamales ...'"
People in the audience begin to laugh. Obviously, this is to be no ordinary Bible lesson. Cortes also loosens up. With eyes shining like black marbles, he becomes almost impish as he paces in front of the group in his ambling professorial manner. His smile breaks the heavy spell cast by his weighty bulk and bearing; he looks like a freight train about to sprout wings and leave the fast track for more fanciful ventures. He leans into the crowd.
"So what's Moses' reaction to this crisis?" he asks as he peers over his glasses and waits a moment before answering his own question. "Well, old Moses says, 'It's too heavy for me, but it's my burden. It's my problem.'"
Cortes waits for the farmers to work through this thought with him, to participate in the moment. "Why is it his burden and why is it his problem?" he asks.
But the audience is still unsure what Cortes expects of them, and they are silent. So Cortes answers his own question again. "Because he's allowed people to dump all of their problems on him. Everybody comes to Moses and says, 'Okay, now you solve it, Moses. Listen, you're our big leader, you're our big organizer, you're the guy who led us out, you've got the business, you've got all this relationship with Yahweh, so you're the guy who's got to solve this particular problem. You've solved every other problem."
Cortes again tries to entice his audience to respond. "But what else is going on here?"
"They were all lazy," a farmer finally responds.
Someone else shouts, "They were depending on Moses more than they should have done and they should have been depending more on themselves."
Cortes almost leaps at the response, "Yeah! that's right!" With excitement in his voice, he begins to enunciate his words very slowly and deliberately. "You see, there's an Iron Rule in organizing. It is a little different from the Golden Rule. The Iron Rule says: Never, ever, do for people what they can do for themselves. And it's a very difficult rule to follow. Moses had been historically violating the Iron Rule. He was doing for people. He was solving their problems. He was servicing and maintaining them. He was meeting their every need. He was doing all their thinking for them." Cortes pauses and looks around to make sure the farmers are still with him.
"When people have a charismatic leader who does all their thinking, they become dependent," Cortes says. "They become passive. They lack initiative. Their anger turns in on themselves and it's no use to them. So in this situation what did God say to Moses?"
"You haven't got a choice," an audience member shouts.
"Well, he didn't say just that, but you're perceptive anyway. No, the Lord said unto Moses," Cortes reads from a Bible he had placed on the table beside him, "'Gather unto me seventy men who thou knowest to be the elders of the people ... and I will come down and ... take of the spirit which is upon thee and will put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou shall not bear it by thyself alone.'"
"Now what did old Moses say to this?" Cortes asks. "Did he say 'Great idea God, you got it.' Right? No. He resists, like we would do. But this time the Lord gets a little angry. He says, 'Moses, you're a jerk.'"
"Did God say that?" someone shouts amid crowd laughter.
"Well, no. That's just my exegesis of what he said," Cortes laughs with the crowd. "But Moses finally obeys, and the Lord 'took of the spirit and gave it to the seventy.' And they go off and organize a hunting party for quail or something and Moses doesn't have to do all the work. Now, the times were not unique, the people were not unique. They were just like you and me. So what's the point of the story for us today in the United States?"
"We need to organize a hunting party?" an audience member responds.
"Well maybe ... but you farmers have a crisis—I don't have a crisis—you've got a crisis. Go back and read the Bible, read about how Moses felt, with the world on his shoulders, losing his sense of humor, not seeing that this crisis was an opportunity to test out his organizations, to develop leadership. The Chinese symbol for crisis is what? Danger and opportunity. We can see this crisis as an opportunity to do some strategic planning or thinking and ask some fundamental questions about the nature of the real crisis."
Then, Cortes becomes more deliberate. The freight train returns to the fast track of his destination. "For me, the crisis is a misunderstanding of power, a naiveté about power and a total unwillingness of people to appreciate the importance of politics. Politics, not in the electoral sense, not in the sense of electing men and women to public office, not the kind of politics that we have in this country which is not really politics. Every four years we have an electronic plebiscite, which does not have anything at all to do with politics."
The audience is rapt. Cortes continues, his tone more serious, his voice dropping in range. "Aristotle sees politics as discussion and decision-making about family, about property, and about education. Aristotle talks about politics as public discourse which enables and ennobles a spirit because it allows you to cross the boundary between public and private and move beyond self-centeredness into relationship with other people and engage them and bargain with them, fight and ultimately compromise with them. That's politics. What we have every four years are these plebiscites which are about media, ad men, marketing techniques, pollsters. So we've totally trivialized our politics, made them superficial and somewhat distorted and deformed. As a result, people are in revolt against politics. They think all politicians are phonies. They think of all politicians as lacking in substance. They see politicians as being self-centered and egotistical. And unfortunately, in eight out of 10 cases they're right.
"Well, I'd like to suggest that the real opportunity that comes out of this crisis is for us to begin now to develop an appreciation for what real politics offers. Real politics offers an opportunity to engage people at the core of their values, their vision, their imagination. It begins to offer them some possibilities for change, for transformation of self and of community by beginning to deal with some fundamental issues which affect families.
"Real politics requires understanding of some other values, values like pluralism, compromise, discourse, quid pro quo, and most importantly, relationships—how you begin to build relationships.
"Organizing is a fancy word for relationship building. No organizer ever organizes a community. What an organizer does is identify, test out, and develop leadership. And the leadership builds the relationships and the networks and following that does the organizing.
"If I want to organize you, I don't sell you an idea. What I do, if I'm smart, is try to find out what's your interest. What are your dreams? I try to kindle your imagination, stir the possibilities, and then propose some ways in which you can act on those dreams and act on those values and act on your own visions. You've got to be the owner. Otherwise, it's my cause, my organization. You've got nothing!"CHAPTER 2
We Are Willing to Sacrifice
La Meza, 1988
Five hundred miles south of Dallas is La Meza, Texas. A desolate little stop on a back road, La Meza is a Rio Grande Valley colonia, a neighborhood of 65 Hispanic families, perhaps 400 people in all. It is just outside of Mercedes, which has a population of 12,000 in the county of Hidalgo at the southern tip of Texas where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the world seems to dwindle. Even the low, wide horizon, the orange groves, and the patchwork fields of onions, cabbage, or carrots cannot stop the feeling that you are in a land that shrinks its people, forcing them inward, isolating them from their nearest neighbors, from the rest of America, and perhaps even from themselves.
La Meza is directly across the road from the Sunrise Hill Park, a public park with picnic tables, playground equipment, and a sweeping sprinkler system to keep the grass a bright winter green. But unlike the park, La Meza's people, mostly migrant farmworkers, have no green grass. They have no water. Or sewers. Or paved streets. To drink, they must take a water jug to the Sunset Drive-In Grocery where the paved road by the park begins. At the grocery store, they pay the owner 25 cents to use an ordinary outdoor spigot to fill their water jugs. To wash their clothes or dishes or faces, they cannot afford the tap water and so they fill their barrels from pools of water in the irrigation drainage ditches that hold the runoff from nearby vegetable fields. The ditches are full of pesticides and herbicides, and the people of La Meza know that water in the ditches is bad for them, but what else can they do? Water is water. And, sometimes, life itself.
Elida Bocanegra and 20 La Meza residents meet the van pulling into the parking lot of the Sunset Drive-In Grocery. Young couples with sniffling children are waiting. One woman holds a little girl of about 2 whose left eye is encrusted with a blackened tumor the size of a lemon. Several older men and women are in the crowd, the men in work clothes standing back and a little apart from the group, their wrinkles and calluses granting them rights to a certain skepticism that they wear on their faces like translucent masks. A boy of 6 holds a small sign, its message hand-lettered in red paint: "Help us Ann Richards. We need water to drink."
On this warm day in February, Texas Treasurer Ann Richards and a small group of state officials come to La Meza on a "fact-finding" mission. Richards, the witty and attractive grandmother who had made her mark both in Texas and nationally, had been invited to tour the colonias by Valley Interfaith, a coalition of 40 Rio Grande Valley churches representing about 55,000 people who were waging a campaign to call national attention to the plight of people in the colonias. Perhaps Richards' ties to the financial networks in Texas and New York could help. But first, she wanted the facts.
Statistically, the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley contain the poorest people in the United States—the highest unemployment and the lowest per capita income in the nation. Almost 100,000 people live in the Valley colonias, the 400-plus unincorporated rural communities unique to the 900-mile Texas-Mexican border. Colonia is a Spanish word for neighborhood, and along the Texas border, the colonias have come to signify a particular kind of rural slum with conditions more akin to Nicaragua or Honduras than the United States of America.
More facts: open sewer ditches, unpaved streets, no running water, and in some cases, no electricity. Clapboard houses often have dirt floors and wall-to-wall beds for growing families. Children have chronic dysentery, skin rashes, lice, and hepatitis; dark yellow stains mark their teeth from the chemical-laden drinking water. The Valley has the highest incidence of parasitic intestinal diseases outside of the Third World. Shallow water wells are frequently polluted by overflowing septic tanks. After heavy rains, people in the colonias literally drink their own sewage. It is a public health nightmare. But because fly-by-night developers established these unregulated subdivisions in rural areas outside of any Texas governmental jurisdiction, the water and sewer problems are suspended in a bureaucratic swamp that most politicians hesitate to enter.
Mrs. Bocanegra, 60ish, small, and serious in her turquoise cotton pants suit, calls the group together, makes polite introductions, and tells the state officials about the problems of La Meza. She has the facts they want. There is a water main along the county road a few hundred yards from the homes of La Meza. She has the figures they need. It would take only $29,000 to extend a line from the main water pipe to provide hookups for the residents of La Meza. She has questions. "How is it possible to go without water in the richest nation in the world?" she asks.
Mrs. Bocanegra's words are echoed by old Father José Mateus, whose mismatched clothes, scuffed shoes, and kindly smile indicate that he might be a true Christian of the Roman and Rio Grande Valley Catholic church. The church was joining with Valley Interfaith in this quest for water and good sense. A powerful endorsement. But whereas it may have been Father Mateus and the Catholic church that supported her, it was Ernesto Cortes and Valley Interfaith that had given Mrs. Bocanegra and the residents of La Meza the tools to act. Tools that allow Mrs. Bocanegra to confront the officials before her. She does not shrink from the encounter. In fact, Mrs. Bocanegra seems to expand as she speaks. Her voice gains strength. Her shoulders rise and arch with her composure. Her black eyes fix on the group with determination. She is like a fourth-grade teacher patiently explaining the logic of the multiplication tables. It is simply illogical for the people of La Meza to have no water.
"We are willing to pay whatever we can," Mrs. Bocanegra says. "We are willing to sacrifice, if we just have the chance."
The group listens to Mrs. Bocanegra. They ask questions.
They look at the spigot, the houses, the road. They commiserate with the residents. They shake hands, and they leave.
In the old days in Texas, a trip like this would soon be forgotten; after all, what could you do with such bureaucracy, such poverty! But the state officials cannot forget. For one thing, their hearts are touched, and their consciences pricked. For another, Valley Interfaith was developed by the Industrial Areas Foundation, and its organizations in Texas are not to be trifled with. The Valley Interfaith invitation to see and help the colonias is not extended or accepted casually. When Valley Interfaith issues an invitation like this and when a politician accepts it, it means that each agrees to be held accountable for both words and deeds, to strip away the public show that often passes for politics, and to get down to public business. Which, in this case, is to find a way to deal with the public health needs of thousands of Texans in the Rio Grande Valley. Ann Richards is a wise enough politician to understand the unwritten contract.
"I'm not going to promise you anything I can't deliver," she tells the La Meza residents. "But I will stand by you and work with you to do what we can together."CHAPTER 3
We Need Power to Protect What We Value
Charles "Lefty" Morris and I spot Ernie Cortes walking ahead of us into the Texas French Bread Bakery and Deli. We are going to meet him for a late lunch. Morris is a successful attorney and former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association who has recently grown disenchanted with the gritty little skirmishes of political combat and has been seeking ideas about how to change the structure of the war itself. He had heard about Cortes and wanted to know more about him.
Cortes has just come from a doctor's appointment, where he was warned one more time to shed a few pounds. Only about 5 feet 7 inches tall, Cortes' genetic tendency to be overweight worries his wife Oralia, but his obvious comfort with his teddy-bear body belies worry and lends a surprisingly sensual air to him. It is hard not to be drawn to his dark eyes, which compete with a bushy, graying mustache to dominate his face. Physically, he is almost oblivious of himself. His attire is conservative, but he is as mindful of his clothes as a 3-year- old. During the day, his shirttail might work its way out of his trousers, his tie might be witness to his meals, or the unnoticed string of a price tag might dangle from his sleeve. No matter—to him or to anyone else. Cortes clearly does not dress to be the center of attention. In fact, throughout his career, he has tried to deflect the spotlight from himself to the people who hold his organizations together. With each of his successes, however, that has been harder to do.
Excerpted from Cold Anger by Mary Beth Rogers. Copyright © 1990 Mary Beth Rogers. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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