Thursday, December 29, 2011

Long live Hector P. Garcia

I heard with interest that a new statue of Mexican-American civil rights leader Dr. Hector P. Garcia was to be unveiled Jan. 26, 2012, in front of the Mercedes Public Library in the Rio Grande Valley. The library will be renamed in honor of Garcia who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley town and went on to greatness after founding the civil rights organization The American G.I. Forum.

Today (Dec. 29, 2011), I also read that former Corpus Christi Caller-Times reporter Armando Ibanez was filming a documentary about Dr. Garcia.

It's welcomed news to this college professor who has noticed how the name and legacy of this South Texas and American civil rights giant has slowly disappeared both from the faces of history pages and the minds of thousands (millions) of young people, especially young Mexican Americans. It saddens me to see that this hero is being forgotten, and that's why the news of the new statue honoring Garcia and the filming of this documentary are so welcomed. Perhaps these humble offerings to the memory of Dr. Hector P. Garcia will inspire others to do the same - remember his legacy.

But, I doubt it. Politics being what it is in Texas, chances are the name of a Mexican American hero will continue to be absent from our history books. Chances are, politics and racism being what it is in Texas and parts of the nation, the work of Dr. Hector P. Garcia will be scoffed at and not remembered. Chances are, Mexican American teachers, ashamed of their roots and culture, will decide to talk about other American heroes and abstain from talking about Garcia for fear they will be called radical or, even worse, un-American. Chances are children who will be asked about Dr. Garcia's legacy will ask, "Whose legacy? Who was he?" Some will even say, "Oh, that was a long time ago. We don't have those problems now. We don't need to bring back the past." But, the same teachers and children will relish their instruction and information on Martin Luther King, Anne Frank and her diary during the Holocaust and talk about slavery as if it was yesterday, and not a long time ago.

Chances are these same Mexican American children will go to college where few professors will talk about the contributions of Mexican Americans to the success of our region, state, nation and the world. Chances are many of these Mexican American children will be ashamed to talk about their heritage and say, "I can't speak Spanish" and listen more to "Rhiana" and "Kanye"or some "Li'L Wayne" then hear a classical mariachi tune or a Tejano song.

Chances are these same children will forget who Dr. Hector P. Garcia and his struggle to ensure equal rights for Mexican Americans and all people of our great country. Chances are few people will show up for the dedication of this memorial and even fewer will say, "It's a good thing."

Well, it is a good thing.

Love live Dr. Hector P. Garcia.

Que viva el Dr. Hector Garcia


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

At the time of death . . .

"No one wants to die, and yet death is the destination we all share."

Steve Jobs, 2005

"En nombre sea de dios."

Manuel Flores, Sr.

circa 1957

Watching "End of Year" TV programs can be depressing.

Most every network, including ESPN and Fox Sports, seems to have a list of those "great" and "important" people who passed away during the past year. USA Today has a special edition it calls "Passages" to review the deaths of the year. This year there has been much ado about the death of Apple founder and genius Steve Jobs. Reportedly, on his death bed, his last words were, "Wow! Oh Wow!" It was Jobs who said at a commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, "No one wants to die, and yet death is the destination we all share."

But, "Oh Wow!" What did he see?

It must have been amazing, soothing and calm. It must have been something that verified his life as a great contributor to human progress and a vision that validated his life on Earth. Was he making his way toward heaven?

"Wow! Oh Wow!"

His vision must have been ecstatic. After all, he did change the world. President Obama summarized it all by saying Jobs was "brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world and talented enough to do it."

"Wow! Oh Wow!"

Perhaps, Jobs had seen "the light" which those who have come back from near-death experiences claim. For we Christians, "The Light" is symbolic of our religion and is like a stairway, or the very least, a big lit-up funnel toward heaven. Its religious significance is full of saint or sinner implications and salvation from damnation. But, do we all see the light?

My personal experiences with death have been, to say the least, sobering. I have witnessed many deaths - mainly of close ones and relatives - in my life. I don't believe anyone had as near a pleasant an experience as Steve Jobs did. Death, even that of Jesus Christ's, is generally not a pleasant experience. As the Kenny Rogers' song says, "The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."

Life is, indeed, a gamble.

My first "death" experience was that of my great uncle Jose Angel Flores. I used to call him 'buelo (grandpa) 'cause that's what I was told to call him. I was 5 0r 6. For some reason, we needed firewood. We went to the ranch where Tío Juan Ramos worked, about 10 miles south of my hometown of Hebbronville. Jose Angel always wore khaki pants and shirts. It was a hot South Texas day, too hot to be walking in the Chaparral looking for pieces of firewood while wearing heavy cotton clothing. But, that's what he did. Jose Angel was a strong man, big and solid. He really had never been sick and now, approaching his 80s, was the face of good health. He didn't smoke and drink and had led a very healthy life, with maybe the exception of a very Mexicano diet that included chicharrones (pork rinds), tripas (tripe) and cow head and pork barbacoa. We had been out on the ranch brush country for about 10 minutes, not too far away from a ranch road. Suddenly, Jose Angel grabbed his chest. His face was that of disbelief. He slowly sunk into the ground, saliva pouring out of one side of his mouth as he hit the dirt in front of us. His eyes were dilated as if asking "Why?" He truly was not ready to go and had planned, I believe, some sort of family feast that night. He had been fattening up a hog near the homestead close to town. Tío Juan Ramos looked at me and said, "Go for help (in Spanish)". But where? I ran to the dirt road and it just happened that the family was making its way back to the rancho in a older model car. We rushed Jose Angel into the car and rushed to town. We took him home and, on the way, had stopped to let Dr. Zack know of our dilemma. Jose Angel was alive in the car. When at the house, we lay him on his bed. His breath was measured and he had peed on his pants, something a proud man would not have done, even in his old age. He looked perplexed. Then, he looked at the family one more time....he never spoke...and closed his eyes. By the time Dr. Zack arrived, he was gone. He was an old man, but I'm sure he thought it was too soon. He had much to live for and much yet to teach us. We would miss him dearly for years, and still do. There were no "Oh wows" when he left us, but as we Christians believe, it was his time.

I remember my father's death as if it were yesterday. He died in a car accident. I remember his last facial expression - it was one both of horror and determination. Manuel Flores Sr. died trying to save his wife, my mom Maria, from dying. We were in Oilton, Texas, when a car hit us from behind on U.S. 359 right around downtown. His last words, less than a few seconds before, had been "En nombre sea de dios (roughly, in God's name we go)." As the crash from behind us drowned the silence of the brush country surrounding the quaint oil hamlet between Hebbronville and Laredo, the car doors (we did not wear seat belts in those days) swung open and my mom, seating on the passenger side, almost flew out the windows. My dad flew through the air, grabbing her arm and pulling her back in as the car made three turns in the air. He was flung out the passenger side door, his body passing me in a blur. Still, the car door crushed my mom's leg as my dad fell out into the nearby gravel on the side of the road. The car fell on his upper torso, crushing him and killing him instantly. Miraculously, I was fine. Seating in the middle of the back seat with some baseball cards in my hand, what I witnessed seemed surreal. I knew dad had been thrown out of the car. As the car came to rest, I ran out of back window yelling " 'apa, 'apa (Dad, Dad)." I saw his legs up in the air and figured the rest of his body was trapped inside the car. I touched the legs and they fell down with a thud I can still hear. He was crushed. There was no room between his body and the car. None. In shock for a while, I knew he was gone. I had seen death before. I was 9. I then ran around to help my mom and the other two passengers in the car. I don't believe my father saw any lights. There was no time for it. But, later, my other abuleo, Pedro Chapa, told me my dad's soul was taking care of me now. So, perhaps, his soul did see the light. I know one thing, his last second on Earth was not pretty. And, for the record, every now and then when I'm sleeping at night I look around my bedroom and in the corner of the room, I see him standing there. I look older than he does now. He just stands there, hands crossed in front of him, smiling, as if saying, "You're going to be okay. It's not your time yet." Why are there violent deaths? It makes no sense.

I lost my grandmother, Nana (Julia Flores, my dad's Manuel Flores' mother) during the height of a hurricane on the Texas Gulf coast. She had been having cholesterol problems and her body was worn down due to the hard work as a young woman. She was frail, but very strong of mind and heart. Finally, her heart gave out. Nearing 80, she was hospitalized at Spohn Hospital on Corpus Christi Bay. Almost immediately, in the hospital, they told us she was dying and was only a matter of days. She had been in a nursing home for her last five years, except for weekends when I took her to my house. Her dying wish was that she could die at my home. Oh, wow. There, in the hospital, we all knew that she would not get that wish. The doctors told us she would not make it. As her veins constricted she would cringe in pain. I hated to see her suffer. I asked the doctors and nurses to give her something for the pain. They said it didn't matter 'cause she was dying any way. It's one of the few times I lost my temper. "At least let her die in peace and not pain," I yelled at them loud enough that my voice echoed down the near empty hallways and startled a skeleton staff due to many evacuations because of the approaching storm. They felt they didn't need to move Nana, she was going to die any way. I still remember her eyes, the last time she looked at me. They were the epitome of sadness. Perhaps it was my imagination, but there was a sense of disappointment in her stare at me. It was as if she was saying, "Take me home. Take me home now. I don't have long for this earth. I want to die in a house your home." I thought I heard her whisper "Junior" - her name for me as I got older. I said, "Si Nana. Mande (Yes, what do you need, basically)." But she turned away from me without saying a word. I looked for a priest, but they too had evacuated. Sadness and darkness filled her room. Close family members could not come to see her 'cause of the approaching storm. The light from the hallway and the dark clouds we could see from the window certainly had a deathly fluorescent, greenish glow. Sadness engulfed the room. My Nana was dying and she did not get her dying wish. She died peacefully in her sleep, but she was drugged out of her mind thanks to my screaming command at the understaffed nursing center. Did Nana see lights? Did she say, "Oh wow," or the equivalent. I think her last thoughts were that of disappointment in me and of not having her wish fulfilled. I also still see her in my dreams. At least she's happy, now. At least she's in heaven. I wonder if she is still disappointed. I can't tell. I can't tell.

My mom's death was expected. Cancer and other maladies had eaten away at this once bubbly and vivacious woman. In the end, she was drugged and not at all cognizant of her surroundings. It was devastating for my sisters, my uncle Pete (her brother) and my step-dad Amando. We all knew Mom had a rough life, losing her mom at childbirth and then going from home-to-home as a young girl and teen-ager. Still, she was a fighter, a survivor. She had fought a good fight and now it was her last round at life. We watched her slip away from us in a hospital room, too. Deeply religious, perhaps she saw the light. Perhaps. Death took her away before she would see her great-grand kids grow up - the one last thing she longed for. So now, all we have is photos of her to show. Oh wow, if they only had met her. They would be impressed at this feisty lady with the quick-witted mind and somewhat athletic tendency. We remember the good times. We remember she was a Notre Dame fan and believed in "Touchdown Jesus" even when they were playing a Texas team. We laugh now, but I wonder. Perhaps her death vision was that of Jesus with his hands up in the air signalling touchdown and welcoming her to heaven. Perhaps. I don't see her as much in my dreams or visions. Perhaps it's because she suffered too much in this Earth and is busy enjoy the fruits of heaven now. Perhaps.

Oh Wow. Steve Jobs had the best death ever reported in modern history. Oh wow, I wonder of my own mortality. I'm not ready to go, I know that. But, I will accept death, if I have the time. But, like the Gambler in Kenny Rogers' western ballad said, "The best that we can hope for is to die in your sleep."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The day JFK died - Nov. 22, 1963

Nov. 22, 1963 . . . was a day that changed my life and that of millions of other Americans and citizens around the world.

That was the day a young, vibrant and energetic young president – John Fitzgerald Kennedy – was shot and killed, allegedly by bullets from a lone assassin in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
Within minutes, the shots allegedly fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled little man with communist party ties and a penchant for the dramatic were heard round the world.

I was at home that Thursday afternoon, having lunch prepared by my abuela (grandma) Nana. I didn’t bother to check the news. The sopa de fideo (vermicelli soup), refried beans and warm tortillas I was eating while Nana listened to Mexican music in the kitchen belied that anything had changed. I ate at home for lunch to visit Nana, mostly. My house was six blocks away from the high school. Most of my friends had their lunch at the school cafeteria at Hebbronville High School. Walking back to the high school, I felt as if something strange had happened. It was a cloudy and dreary November day with just a slight chill in the air to let us in Texas knows that your high school football team was in the state playoffs and had a big game that Friday. My walk was brisk. I seemed to have taken only five minutes for the regular 10-minute walk. I looked across the street toward the band hall and I saw several of my friends milling around on the lawn in front of the South Wing of the high school. There was an eerie silence to the scene. The usual exuberance of youth was missing. No one was clowning around. Muted whispers seemed to fill the air. Every now and then, a whisper would be picked up by the wind and travel freely and openly for all to hear.

“He’s dead,” I heard one of my friends tell another student.

“Who?” came the obvious question.

“Kennedy!, “he answered. “The president is dead!”

I thought it was a devious prank someone was trying to pull. I smiled as I walked toward the group just outside the band hall. I slowed my pace and could not quite decide whom to greet. My friend Rene Ovidio Garcia solved that problem. He walked hurriedly toward me with anxious eyes, his chest pounding. He was breathing heavily when he blurted out, “They killed JFK!”
I stopped in my tracks. The overgrown grass on the school lawn tickled my ankles and I felt the sudden buzz of a wasp flying by. I was in shock. I was in a daze a dream, half-awake and half-cognizant of only my immediate surroundings.

“You hadn’t heard?” Rene asked.

“Who did it?” I asked.

“It’s on TV now. Walter Cronkite just announced he had died in a hospital in Dallas. It’s for reals, Manuel,” he said.

I uttered a few choice cuss words in Spanish and grabbed my forehead with my right hand as if trying to rub away the words I had just heard.

The bell rang. On cue, we shuffled into the hallways of the school and made our way toward our classes. We were like zombies walking, no shuffling, to our rooms. Some of us stopped at our lockers to pick up textbooks. Most students just walked to their classrooms. We all knew there would be no lessons today from the teachers for reality had just given us the biggest lesson of all – life can change in an instant.

Inside the classrooms, there was a unusual silence. Teachers greeted us and asked us to sit down and be quiet in honor of the president. Some of the history teachers wanted to have a discussion, but the students just wanted to stay in their seats and, I believe, mourn silently. Many were crying. I could see from my classroom to the other wing where one of our male teachers, a coach whom we all admired, was at his desk just rubbing his eyes and crying. Finally, one of our star athletes went to him and consoled him, putting his arm around him. Suddenly, the 17-year-old was consoling his mentor, a coach who was about the age of the young president, 43.
In my classroom, one of the girls seemed unaffected by the tragedy. While most of us had sullen faces and were even praying silently, she was smiling from ear-to-ear, her eyes beaming with a sense of accomplishment. She was reading a book and would look up every now and then almost scoff or condemn those of us who were mourning.
“I am glad he’s dead,” she blurted out.

No one said a thing.

“He was no good for our country,” she said. “He got what he deserved.

Most of the boys just smiled and said nothing. I could not hold back and asked her, respectfully, to stay quiet and show respect for the president of the United States and our feelings that afternoon.

“I don’t know why you all are upset?” she asked. “He was not a good man, and he certainly was not a good president. He wasn’t my president.”

I remembered how close the election between JFK and Richard Nixon was – too close. Some said he stole the election. Others said that the popular vote was for Nixon and he should have been president. Then, we had all those inexplicable events – the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the rumors of JFK and Marilyn Monroe. They seemed to weaken the perception of whom some of us as saw as a brilliant young man who was going to lead us, finally, into prosperity and honor in the 20th century. The words, “He wasn’t my president” stung like a wet whip with thorns crawling of my skin. As a Mexicano, I knew what it was like to be dismissed simply by someone saying, “He’s not one of us.” I knew the sting of not been accepted. Kennedy was a Catholic. I thought, perhaps this why this girl did not like him.

I started to get up to talk to the girl when I got the look of disapproval from my teacher, urging me to stay seated. Out of respect for her, I did. The girl continued her verbal onslaught.
“Like I said, I’m glad he’s dead. . .” she said and seemed to smile even more brightly.
One of the girls in my class, Florinda Davila, could not stay quiet. Strongly and confidently, she challenged the statements by her classmates.

“You shouldn’t be saying that,” she told her. “This is a national tragedy. A man has died, a very import man has died, and we have to show respect.”

A verbal argument ensued. Florinda essentially told her she was not a good person because of her feelings.

“This is America,” she answered. “I can feel any way I want.”

Florinda said, “Feel it, but keep it to yourself. We’re embarrassed by you and what you have said.”

The boys in the class just sat and watched now. Florinda and other girls were showing much courage to speak up. Ironically, the teacher, also a woman, let the discussion progress. Later, she would say it was one of the best classes she had taught.

The questioning had now turned to glares toward the offending student. The other girls had moved their torso forward as if challenging the offending student to say more derogatory statements about our dead president, a hero to many. Most of us were Catholic and having a Catholic elected president was like a blessing from God. Most of our families had pictures of the young president right up there with the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Virgen de Guadalupe. A photo of President Kennedy, it is safe to say, was in almost 90 percent of the homes of Catholic or Mexicano homes in my hometown. He was in our living rooms and dining rooms. He was part of the family. Now, he was dead. I understood why we, and especially the girls, were offended by the derogatory statements about Kennedy and the vile disrespect for our dead president. It had been about 20 minutes now and the discussion ensued.

Then, there was silence. David Alamaraz, my friend and one of the leaders of the school, breathed a sigh of relief and looked at me. He, too, like me, had wanted to get involved, but decided to say silent. The silence was eerie. The disgruntled student face started to change. She turned red, as red as the fruit at the Poteet Strawberry Festival just north of our town.
Suddenly, she burst out and said. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and fell to her knees, pleading for forgiveness.

Florinda had her now and answered, “How can we forgive you for what you said. You hurt all of us.”

David and I looked at each other, stunned at the candor of Florinda and the other girls who were agreeing with her.

The disgruntled young woman had one more, “I’m sorry!” in her before getting up and sprinting into the hallway toward the girls’ restroom, letting out sobs reminiscent of those of the legendary “La Llorona (Crying Woman)” of South Texas lore.

Without hesitation, Florinda and all the girls in the class ran after her.

At that point, we (the boys and the teacher) did not know what was going to happen. They never returned. We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to radio broadcast updates on the assassination. We learned a Texan, vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, was our new president. Some of us had portable black-and-white TVs in the class, and saw First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy sobbing, her dress stained with her husband’s blood.

We went home in a daze, when the final bell rang. A period of mourning had started for us and the nation and we would never be the same again – never. For the next week, there was no music, no parties, no fiestas and if you had a backyard barbecue, it was in the most modest of ways, even in deep South Texas.

As of the girls who fled after the disgruntled one in our classroom, I did not see them until the football game that Friday. The disgruntled girls was in the band, and seemed okay. Florinda was in the band, too, and they were talking. Life went on and, in Texas, so did football….but that’s another story.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

RIP Tío Juan Rocha - 1937/2011

A death in the family is something that is not easy to deal with.

Memories of the lost loved one flow through the memories of the surviving relatives like the water of the Nueces River heading toward the Gulf of Mexico. Like the rapid rush on that water, the memories feel one's consciousness like an overflowing bank at the edge of the bay and resonate into one's being with the fact that there is no stopping the obvious - the water will rush over the bank and into the

Gulf and your relative will not be around any more. But that doesn't negate the feelings one has about that lost relative. No rushing water can erase memories.

Tía Clelia Chapa Rocha (pictured above) certainly has wonderful feelings about the relationship she had with her husband, Juan Rocha, my Tío Juan (a.k.a. Johnny). More than 50 years of marriage and sharing a wonderful memory have solidified those memories into family icons that will last generations.

Juan Rocha passed away Oct. 24, 2011, after a courageous battle with several illnesses. To the end, he was Juan Rocha - brilliant, vibrant and alive. Juan Rocha was and continues to be one of the most important persons of the 20th century in South Texas, Kingsville, Texas A&I, San Antonio, the state and nation. He had a brilliant mind and wrote a book of poetry titled "Sin Nombre...Sin Cara (Without a name or a face) that chronicled his experiences and those of the Mexican American in South Texas. He loved reading books of all kinds - from philosophy to novels - and was as knowledgeable person on the art of South Texas, Texas and national politics as there was in the nation. The friendships he forged during a political and legal career that spanned half a century were lasting and enduring and served as a beacon for his loving and caring character.

Juan Rocha, a.k.a. Johnny, was a legend at Texas A&I (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville). He was involved in everything from student government to helping with the distribution of the South Texan student newspaper as its circulation manager. At A&I, he participated in the Little United Nations summit in Dallas. He was a member of the Alpha Chi national honor society, the Spanish Club, was named to Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities and was an officer in both his freshmen and senior classes.

Yet, all those accomplishments - like the water rushing toward the Gulf - may seem to be gone and, forgotten.

That's the feeling I got when I heard that my Tío Juan Rocha had passed away in the Rio Grande Valley. He was 74. Let me assure you, his legacy at Texas A&I, as a qualified and skilled attorney, as an advocate for civil rights for all and as a friend and family man will never be forgotten.

Tío Juan was an intellectual gentleman, un caballero de primera clase, who always seemed to be there with the wit and knowledge elders always bring to a conversation or a dinner table. Thing is, he had this wit and knowledge even as a young man and his academic and Socratic way of thinking always had a way of making you think twice before you spoke. If there was a riddle or a problem to be solved, no matter what the situation, Tío Juan was there and back with an answer before any one got his or her cognitive motors (thinking caps) going.

Yes, Tío Juan Rocha was unique. He was an honest and God-fearing man who never once had an ill-thought about people and always took the high road. Please, forgive me, but this is fact and not just lip service.

His career as a civil rights advocate and attorney would be as pristine as the fresh water streaming down from the Rocky Mountains and his valor reached heights few could imagine. He was a true advocate for civil liberties throughout his life. He participated in the Missouri civil rights movement, the Chicano Movement in Texas and in multiple marches in support of the rights for migrant workers. He loved politics and held several office in student government both in high school and college. While living in San Antonio in the 1960s, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Bexar County Commissioner. There is an iconic campaign photo of him standing on top of a Pearl Beer case of beer placed on top of a pool table as he rallied for votes. He might not have won, but the message was not lost. Juan Rocha could communicate with any segment of the community and he was a true representative of the Mexican American people. He was - he always was - ready to lead.

Tío Juan was married to my aunt, Clelia, my mom's sister. I first met him in the 1950s when he was a student at Texas A&I in Kingsville and he was dating my aunt. My grandfather, Pedro G. Chapa, and I went to Kingsville to visit them and also to catch a Javelina football game. On the way from Hebbronville to Kingsville, my grandfather told me to not be surprised at the way I would be treated by the people in Kingsville. He warned me I could experience racism and discrimination from some. And then he told me, "But there are good people in Kingsville." I didn't know quite what to expect and said, "Esta bien (Well, okay), 'buelo."

Growing up in Hebbronville, experiencing discrimination and racism was rare. Hispanics and Anglos got along fine, 'cause we all had to work for a living. I can only remember three instances of true discrimination in my lifetime in Hebbronville and one was against an Anglo kid who felt he didn't make the Little League All-Star team 'cause the coach wanted more Mexicanos.

I asked my grandfather why he was so hesitant about visiting A&I and he revealed an incident that happened to Tío Juan which has now become part of family lore and somewhat of an urban legend. But, it's true and well-documented.

It seems that Tío Juan loved politics. The politics of the time were rife with word of civil rights. Several lawsuits had been filed in nearby Driscoll, Mathis and Bishop and in Del Rio asking for civil rights and equal education and opportunity for Mexican Americans. In Corpus Christi, the headquarters for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a new civil rights organization titled the American G.I. Forum and headed by a dynamic young doctor named Hector P. Garcia was making rumblings of protests demanding equal rights, especially for veterans. Emotions on civil rights and equal opportunities for Mexican Americans were reaching a fever pitch. It was in this atmosphere that a young Juan Rocha decided to run for Student Government president at then Texas A&I. Things went well for a while, but when some of the Anglo students saw he had a chance to win, things got ugly. Name-calling, rude and crude signs demeaning Juan Rocha's ethnicity started to appear on campus. Some of the signs asked that he and his "witch" of a girlfriend drop out of college and go home (perhaps to Mexico?). Most of the signs were taken down by college officials, but the insults persisted as the election drew closer. The ultimate insult came when Tío Juan Rocha was hung in effigy from one of the women's dorms. It had all the makings of a KKK activity. Yet, it was dismissed as a prank by co-eds. Juan lost that election, but he did not lose in life or dignity or his desire to fight for civil and human rights for all Americans.

He graduated from Texas A&I in 1959,did graduate work at the Unversity of Missouri, and went on to get his law degree, graduating Magna Cum Laude from St. Mary's University in 1969. His law career would take him all over the nation. He would hold offices in Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and McAllen in Texas. He would also have offices in Virginia, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Iowa. He would serve in both private practice and as a lobbyist. He would make his mark as a civil rights lawyer and worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) for several years.

When MALDEF opened the Washington D.C. office in 1972 to keep abreast of federal policies, programs and grant funds, and be visible to federal policymakers, Juan Rocha was there. He was the organization's first associate counsel in Washington, D.C. Prior to that he had served as a staff attorney for the San Antonio office since 1968. Ironically, it was Tío Juan who defended the protesters in Kignsville in 1969 when A&I students (and some from Gillette Middle School) called for equal housing opportunities and better education for university and public school students in Kleberg County. He would advise the protesters not only on their civil rights, but on how to peaceably conduct their protests within the law. One of the ironices of the protests of that day was that, after he helped the students bond of jail, he was physically assaulted on the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. No one found out who did it, but it was a message to not mess with the politicsof his hometown of Kingsville. He wasn't hurt. He came back stronger than ever and soon helped the student organizations ask for open housing ordinances for the university and the city of Kingsville.

While Juan Rocha took on many cases during his 50-year career as an attorney, it was his early work with MALDEF that he was most proud of, he revealed to me last Christmas. He felt he had a role in developing the philosophy and agenda for MALDEF. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is a national non-profit civil rights organization formed in 1968 to protect the rights of Latinos in the United States. It was founded in San Antonio with the help of LULAC and funded by the Ford Foundation. It is now headquartered in Los Angeles, California and maintains regional offices in Sacramento, San Antonio, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C.

In its first few years, the time when Juan Rocha was a lead attorney in San Antonio, MALDEF handled mostly legal-aid cases. Then MALDEF took part in employment discrimination and school funding cases, including Supreme Court cases through friend-of-the-court briefs. Demetrio Rodriguez et al. v. San Antonio Independent School District was a defeat, with the court ruling against equal financing of education. White, et al. v. Regester, et al. was an important victory. The case created single-member districts for Texas county, city council, and school board districts, ending at-large voting that had weakened minority voting power. In 1989 MALDEF won in Edgewood Independent School District v. State of Texas. The Texas Supreme Court found the state's financing of education unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to change it. This led to the “Robin Hood” funding system, where wealthier school districts had to give to a fund for poorer districts. This did not lead to educational equality, though, since wealthy districts could choose to spend even more on themselves. We are still fighting this issue in public education and, although it is not resolved, it was attorneys like Juan Rocha who brought it to light.

MALDEF also set up an education-litigation project, filed on behalf of undocumented parents’ children barred from public schools. In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court held these children protected by the due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ironically, that Supreme Court decision is now being challenged by the Alabama anti-Hispanic immigrant laws.

Then, in LULAC et al. v. Richards et al., a 1987 class-action lawsuit charged the State of Texas with discrimination against Mexican Americans in South Texas because of inadequate funding of colleges. In the University of Texas system, the UT campus in Austin (historically the campus attended by more children of the state’s elites) actually received more funding than all other campuses combined, at the time. The jury did not find the state guilty of discrimination, but did find the legislature failed to establish "first-class" colleges and universities elsewhere in the state. Looking to avoid further embarrassing suits, the legislature passed the South Texas Initiative to improve University of Texas System schools in Brownsville, Edinburg, San Antonio and El Paso and Texas A&M University System branches in Corpus Christi, Laredo and Kingsville. The Border Region Higher Education Council helped pass the legislation and monitored the program's progress. Those discussions, Tío Juan told me, had started as early as 1970, but it took courage, organization and foresight to file them at the right time. Of course, we are still waiting for that "first-class" education....

MALDEF's early years were significant, and Juan Rocha was there. He was one of the "militant" young lawyers the Ford Foundation donors did not like. In fact, they disliked the Texas "militants" so much they would move the headquarters from San Antonio to California before the organization's 10th anniversary. As they say, "con dinero baila el chango, (the monkey will dance for money)," but not Tío Juan. His last years with the organization were spent with him fighting for equal opportunity for higher education in South Texas.

One of the highlights of his stay in Washington was getting an invitation and attending the 1977 Inauguration Ball for Jimmy Carter. He and his son, Mark Rocha, attended the ball that also was attended by John Lennon and his wife Yoko.


Yes, imagine the life a young attorney from South Texas traveling the country in search of the truth and fighting for civil rights for all people of this great country. Imagine Tío Juan in the shadows of all the wonderful monuments in Washington, D.C., looking up at the capitol or Lincoln's Memorial and saying "I too can make a difference."

Imagine Tío Juan coming back to his South Texas roots and settling into a law career in the Rio Grande Valley where he could again serve his people with dignity and respect and continue to serve as an example of a life well-lived and a role model for all.

Imagine an elderly gentleman - 74, but with a wise and brilliant mind - reviewing the memories of a long and distinguished career and saying simply, "Es tiempo (It's time)." In the end, his illnesses may have betrayed his brilliant mind, but not his brilliant heart and soul. I still believe that, even at the end, he could have outwitted us all. That sly smile he had would make you think twice about his life and yours as if to ask, "So you think this is the end?"

Imagine a life without Juan Rocha.

I can't.

He was always there for our family, an iconic figure that would attend family gatherings with the wit and charm of a Greek philosopher and the wisdom of a true older Mexicano - proud, orgulloso y con mucha dignidad (proud and with a lot of dignity). That's why the memories of his impact on me, our family, South Texas, the state and nation will continue to flow through my mind, and those of other family members, like a thunderous wall of water heading toward the Gulf of Mexico - energized, powerful and full of life. And, no drought can put an end to that flow....the memories are unique, lasting and powerful. Like Tío Juan, they are full of life.

Descansa en paz (Rest in peace), Tío Juan.

And, just imagine the difference you made in our lives.

Imagine. . . .


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Javelina Football Memory Lane

Note: Some of the Javelina football greats include Gene Upshaw, Sid Blanks, Randy Johnson, Johnny Bailey, Dwayne Nix, Heath Sherman and Karl Douglas. They are pictured here.

For the South Texas football fan, a visit to Javelina Stadium on the campus of Texas A&M University-Kingsville during a football Saturday is not one that will soon be forgotten.

Every year and every game there seems to be some hero or standout player who rises above the green gridiron turf and sparkles with greatness that transcends generations and eras.

For me, those memories started in 1957 when my aunt Clelia Chapa was attending college at then Texas A&I. My grandfather, Pedro G. Chapa, would bring me to football games. It was here where I first heard the Javelina Marching Band trumpets blaring the Jalisco fight song inspiring the team to greatness on the field.

I still, sometimes, get goose bumps when I hear Jalisco echoing off the stands in Javelina Stadium.

My first visit to Javelina Stadiium was in 1957 and I saw Joe Holcomb, a prep star from nearby Freer, rip apart opponent defenses while soaring for yardage up and down the field on punt returns. He was unstoppable as he blew past the yard markers with the ease of South Texas bred mustang rolling down the prickly pear studded terrain. Holcomb, in the three years he played for the Javelinas, would become the all-time leader in punt return average for a career, averaging more than 19 yards per punt return and scoring numerous touchdowns. He still holds that mark. Remarkable.

That visit got me hooked. From that point on I would ask my grandfather if he was going to Kingsville to the game. We continued the tradition long after my aunt graduated. It was during that time I decided I would come to Texas A&I and, ironically, because I read the headlines and stories on the Sunday Corpus Christi Caller-Times the day after the game, to become a sports writer and follow the Javelinas. I was lucky I realized that dream and much more here on what I will always call my home campus - now Texas A&M-Kingsville. I have had wonderful times on campus, but the football memories are the ones that linger because they border on legend and greatness. Yes, Javelina football and Javelina Stadium will always be equated with greatness.

Simply put, the memories are wonderful and the players great. I can’t begin to name all of the players, but I will give a chronological listing of the players whom I fell stood out and whom made an impact that lasted – as I said earlier – beyond generations and eras.

Sid Blanks, an African-American running back from Del Rio, had to be one of the best to ever don the blue-and-gold of A&I. He was a first-class scatback that revolutionized offensive play in the Lone Star Conference. He was the first black football player in the LSC. He was All-American twice and made the all-conference four times. He set numerous records while with the Javelinas, both conference and school marks, and led the team in rushing in 1960, 1961 and 1963; in scoring in 1960, 1961 and 1963, led the team in receiving in 1961 and 1963. 
He led the LSC in rushing in 1960 and 1961 and was the top scorer in 1960. Blanks was an unbelievable player, one with character and courage who overcame many cases of discrimination just so he could help the Javelinas win. Under Coach Gil Steinke, the Javelinas won the LSC title in 1960 and 1962, During Blanks tenure with the Hogs, A&I was 29-7-2. Blanks went to a stellar career for several pro football teams.

There were others just as valiant and exciting to watch.

One was Randy Johnson, from San Antonio, the first great quarterback I saw at Javelina Stadium. He had a sling shot for an arm. The football would come out of his hand like a whip and zing across the field in a blur. It was hard for the receivers to hold on to the ball. Often it went right through their hands and hit them on the shoulder pads or helmet. When Johnson was off target, the ball would hit the Javelina Stadium turf and leave a divot on the ground. I still remember the managers going back at halftime to replace the grass that had popped out after an errant Johnson pass. Johnson died a horribly in 2009, alone and broke, but his legacy as a Javelina standout will live on forever. In a run-oriented era (1962-1965), he passed for 4,350 yards and 34 touchdowns and ranks in the top 10 in both categories for the Javelinas. He was the first quarterback for the then expansion Atlanta Falcons and helped that franchise gain stability in the NFL.

The 1960s were full of standout Javelina football players. One that definitely stood out was Eugene Upshaw, from nearby Robstown. Upshaw was a giant of a man destined for greatness in the college and pro ranks. He was immovable as an offensive lineman and the Javelina running backs would gladly tuck in behind him and ramble for yardage during those mid-1960s when Javelina football was king in South Texas. Upshaw was an All-America and All-Conference and went to become All-Pro and served as executive director of the National Football League Players Association. He had a couple of nickname at the time “Thud" and "Tut." Few remember them, but "thud" was the sound that was made when he led the Javelinas on a power sweep and he took out the opponent defensive end or linebacker. “Thud” would be heard and the stands would go "ooooh" as “Big Gene” motored around Javelina Stadium. "Tut" was more of a reference to King Tut, and Gene certainly was the King of Javelina Stadium during his tenure here.

The mid-1960s also produced one of the all-time great receivers in Javelina football history – Dwayne Nix. Nix, from nearby Ricardo, was neiher big nor quick. All he did was catch the football. He was the ultimate “possession receiver,” snaring 127 passes for 1,676 yards during his four years as a Javelina. He was a three-time Associated Press Little All-America and twice All-Lone Star Conference player. He concluded his career as the record holder of most of the school's receiving marks. He was elected to the All-Lone Star Conference team of the 1960s, was named a member of the Texas A&I 50th Anniversary team, and was elected to the Javelina Hall of Fame. After he left Texas A&I, he began a military career in the Marine Corps.

Around that same era came two great quarterbacks.

One was Karl Douglas, the first African-American quarterback for the Javelinas. Simply put, there were no other Black quarterbacks round in the South. Between 1967 and 1970, Douglas led the Javelinas to four Lone Star Conference championships and two national titles while posting a remarkable 41-4-0 record. Douglas is still the all-time career passing and touchdown passing leader for the Javelinas. During his All-America career, he completed 401 of 759 passes for 5,996 yards and 54 touchdowns. Douglas, from Houston, went on to a stellar career in the Canadian Football League.
Then, there was the irrepressible Richard Ritchie, the little engine that could. Between 1973 to 1976, he took the Javelinas on an unbelievable journey. As a quarterback, Ritchie had a record of 39-0. After winning in his only start during his freshman year of 1973, he would lead Texas A&I to three consecutive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division I national championships. Between passing and running, he scored 60 touchdowns in his career. He is third all-time in total yards with 6,884 yards.

Then came the running back era for the Javelinas. Whoa! You talk about excitement. These were great.

Larry Collins was the first great running back of the modern era (past 40 years). Between 1974 and 1977, he rushed for 5,300 yards and 54 touchdowns, good for second all-time on the Javelina leader list. He would team with fullback Don Hardeman to terrorize defenses. Collins had 27 games of 100 yards or more rushing while Hardeman had 10. Together, they were “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and they led the Hogs to a 37-0 record. Both went to pro football careers. Hardeman would crash the defense inside and Collins would ramble outside. Together, they were unstoppable. Both went on to successful pro football careers.

If they were great, the next dynamic duo were simply fabulous – Johnny Bailey and Heath Sherman. Between 1985 and 1988, they were simply the best in the nation. Bailey was a three-time Harlon Hill winner and rushed for 6,900 yards, 72 touchdowns and averaged 164.3 yards per carry. Sherman averaged 114.2 yards per carry and rushed for 5,140 yards and 69 touchdowns. Bailey had 36 100-plus rushing games and Sherman 26. They were simply unstoppable.

Another running back who would follow the footsteps of greatness was Larry Williams between 2001 and 2004. Williams would rush for 4,060 yards and 44 touchdowns.

Great receivers were also plentiful. The most outstanding came between 1966 and 1976 when the likes of Nix, Dwight Harrison, Eldridge Small, David Hill and Glenn Starks rambled up and down Javelina Stadium like a flock of gazelles in the African savannah. Starks and Harrison are still the career touchdown leaders with 30 each. Just this year, Ryan Lincoln, who signed with the New York Giants briefly this season, broke Starks' reception record. Lincoln has 210 catches after Starks held the record for more than 40 years. Starks still holds the single-season touchdown-reception record with 14.

The defense definitely had its stars, too. Who can forget John Randle, who joined Gene Upshaw in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his days as Javelina. Randle was ferocious and still holds the quarterback sack career mark with 36 and in 1988 he had 22. He was great and destined for greatness. This past season, a young man named Matt Romig reminded me of Randle's play. Romig, who fell ill at mid-season and did not return, had 12 sacks in two years. Too bad, he too had greatness written all over him. Other great ones, in my book, include Robert Young (1969), David Palmore (1977), Andy Hawkins (1979), Jimmy Rivera (1982), Chris Hensely (1995), and Deandre Fillmore (2005).

Others who played defensive backs and linebackers cannot be ignored. Perhaps the greatest athlete to play for the Javelinas was Levi Johnson (1969-1972), who went on to star for the Detroit Lions. Johnson still holds the Javelinas interception mark with 22 and he still holds the return yardage record as well. Other greats in this area were Ed Scott (1967-1970), whose spinal cord injury ended perhaps a great pro career as well, Durwood Ruquemore (1978-1981), Leonard Avery (1973-1976), and Maurice Smith (1987-1989)

Then, there were the punt returners. What a crew that was. Some will say, and without argument here, that Darrell Green (1978-1982) , who went on to Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Washington Redskins, was the best and most exciting. Agreed. Green was sensational. At any time he had the ball he could score and just soar past potential tacklers. However, between 1965 and 1968 a diminutive defensive back named Larry Pullin energized the Javelina fans with his consistent work at punt returns. Pullin leads, confortably, in career punt return yardage. Statistically, and in many ways, Pullin was the best. Now, this season, we have Jonathan Woodson who is threatening to become the best.

More recently, the quarterbacks have taken the sportling.

Abel Gonzalez (1999-2002) became the second all-time leading passer with 5,905 yards and 51 touchdowns. Gonzalez simply was an expert field general and a leader off the spread or pro set formations.
Billy Garza was the last great gunner. In a scant two years, became the third all-time passing leader with 5,498 yards and 40 touchdowns. Seeing Billy fling the ball was reminescent of Randy Johnson.

And, that's as it should be. That’s the beauty of Javelina football. The great players of the past are more than memories, they are idols and figures to be emmulated and aiming for their records is part of the greatness of Javelina football.

Greatness has always been associated with Javelina football.The memories run long and deep. When you see this year’s star, it will rekindle memories of years past. Or, if you’re new to Javelina football, you will start making your own memories.
And, in years to come you will say, Javelina Football is a true South Texas legend and stories of greatness abound.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Battle of Medina - A True Tejano Revolution Celebrated its anniversary Aug. 18

Note: Pictured here are Dan Arrellano in a 19th century Tejano costume with replica of the Emerald Green flag of the Tejano Republican Army of the North who died valiantly in the Battle of Medina, the reenactors from this year's remembrance of the battle and the state historical marker.

How long have Tejanos been fighting for liberty and freedom in this land we call Texas?

Most of us are familiar with the battles at the Alamo and Goliad when thousands of Tejanos joined ranks with Gen. Sam Houston, William Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett to help oust the treacherous Mexican government of Gen. Santa Anna. That was in 1836. Few of us, however, are familiar with our battle for freedom against Spain, the country that controlled Texas and much of the American Southwest for several centuries. That struggle started in the late 18th century and reached its peak in the early 19th century. Tejanos - the first European settlers of Texas and the first to "mingle" with the indigenous population of the American southwest and what is now Mexico - wanted independence from Spanish tyranny.

Author and Tejano historian Dan Arrellano from San Antonio, has done an admirable job of reminding us that the Tejanos' quest for liberty and justice from oppression predates the Battle of the Alamo and the soverigninty of Mexico in Texas. Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. There were battles for freedom here in this land well before that date.

For a brief shining moment, Texas was a "republica" pre-dating the Republic of Texas of Gen. Sam Houston. In 1812, Tejanos fed up with Spanish (not Mexican) rule rebelled. Arrellano's research reveals that on April 7, 1812 the Republican Army of the North crossed the Sabine River into Spanish Texas. Flying the Emerald Green Flag of Liberty, these Tejanos ensued in a journey across Texas that would see them claim victories over Spain in several key battles. Don José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara and William Augustus Magee, supported by 142 American and 158 Tejano volunteers, invaded Spanish territory with the aim of forming a new government. The rag tag army would be successful in every battle and every skirmish against Spain, beginning with the capture of Nacogdoches, Trinidad, the four-month siege of the presidio in Goliad, the Battle of Rosillio, the capture of San Antonio and the Battle of Alazan. After victory in San Antonio, there was a declaration of independence for the State of Texas under the Republic of Mexico on April 6, 1813.

But Arrellano reminds us that, unfortunately, Spain was still a super power in the early 19th century and it would only be a matter of time before it squahed the upstart rebellion. Spain would send an army of its best to take on the Tejano rebels. Gen. Joaquín de Arredondo, commandant-general of the Provincias Internas (Internal Provices of Spain) of the Spanish government, organized an army of 1,838 men and marched them early in August from Laredo toward San Antonio to quell the rebellion.

On August 18, 1813, the Tejano Republicans Army of the North set out to fight in what would become the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on Texas soil - “The Battle of Medina.”

The upstart army, consisting of approximately 300 Americans, one to two hundred Native Americans and eight to nine hundred Tejanos were tired from the continuos skirmishes agaisnt the Spanish, but willing to stand up and fight for freedom. The Tejanos - in particular - were determined.

They would encounter a well-trained and disciplined Spanish Royalist Army. The Tejano Republicans were ambushed and out of the 1,400 only one hundred would survive. The bodies of soldiers killed in battle were left where they fell. It would be nine years before their bones were gathered and buried in a communal grave.

Ninety of the survivors would be Americans, which proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the ones with the most to lose would fight the hardest for freedom were the Tejanos and their Native American allies. The Tejanos and their indigenous brothers stood and fought to the last man. "This battle raged on for about four hours with our Tejanos, like Leonidas at Thermopylae, determined to achieve victory or die trying," Arrellano writes on the research of the account of the battle. Little did any one realize the sacrifice these men would pay would be the ultimate.

After the battle, the victorious Spanish Army marched into San Antonio where 500 additional Tejanos would be arrested and crammed into a make shift prison. The Spanish were furious and wanted to not only quell the revolt, but send a message to the residents of Texas that Spanish rule was supreme. Spanish military records show that 17 of those jailed, suffocated in the scorching heat of night. The next day several would be released, as a show of leniency from the Spanish crown, but to also spread the word that there would be consequences. Soon, 327 Tejanos who remained in jail would be executed. Three a day would from be taken out and shot, beheaded then their heads were placed on spikes and displayed around the square (what is now Market Square in San Antoino) for all to see as a lesson to those who dared rise up against Spanish rule.

Arrellano writes that no one would be spared the wrath of General Arredondo, not even the women and children. Ironically, one of the Spanish Royalist officers was a young lieutenant named Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Of course, he would return to San Antonio in 1836 with his Mexican Army to quell yet another rebellion by Texans and Tejanos.

Spanish military records show, according to Arrellano, that approximately 300 of the wives, mothers and daughters of the Tejanos would be imprisoned. He reports that many of them would be brutally and repeatedly raped, several dying as a result of the brutality. The women were forced on their knees from 4 in the morning till 10 at night to grind the corn to make the tortillas to feed the despised Spanish Army. And through the windows of their make shift prison the mothers could see their children searching for food and shelter on the street which became Dolorosa St.

The Battle of Medina is historic.

It showed that these new settlers of Texas were people of courage, foresight and discipline. They were a special breed, whose descendants would survive this and other atrocities the world would throw at them in the 19th and 20th centuries. It showed that this new breed of settler - The Tejano - would not stand still and allow to be ruled by despots and cowards who did not value human life or freedom. In short, their sacrifice - both men and women - in the Battle of Medina and in the streets of San Antonio would foreshadow the downfall of Spain in the new world and eventually lead to the formation of Texas. Their courage foreshawdowed the fight for equality that would lead to the the Catarino Garza rebellion in the late 19th century, the Plan de San Diego revolt in the early 20th century, the formation of organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American G.I. Forum in 1917 and 1948, respectivley, and the Chicano Youth Movement and revolution of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. It foreshawdowed the descendants of Tejanos finally been able to seek justice, freedom and educatioin in the state their forefathers helped find and hone and it signalled to all that we can never let our guard down. We must always find for our freedom, dignity and respect.

Arrellano writes, "Short-lived as it may have been, this Republic was a real Republic and this was a real revolution, a revolution of the people, by the people, and for the people and these were our ancestors, and to this day they have remained unknown and unrecognized for their ultimate sacrifice."

In the San Antonio area, several associations celebrate the Battle of Medina. The celbration is usually around what is now the community of Medina Valley, south of San Antonio. Re-enactments of the battle are common. Words are spoking about valor and roots. This is wonderful, but we should do more.

This battle is an important part of Texas history and should be taught to our children. It cannot be found in the history books. It is the "bloodiest battle" ever fought on Texas soil. It represented a struggle for freedom that is still with us today. It's time we recognize this battle and make it part of our every day conversations about the Lone Star State.

Texas history did not start with Davy Crockett (John Wayne) and the Alamo. It started with the indigenous who were here, the Tejanos who helped tame the land and their ancestors who survived atrocity after atrocity to make sure they could stay and live in the land we call Texas.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Air Accordion - or Acordion al aire

Note: Performances from greats (pictured here) like Ramon Ayala, Raulito, Estevan Jordan and Flaco Jimenez have helped make the accordion part of Tejano, Mexicano, Chicano culture. It's part of our roots and an instrument which we have learned to dominate and enjoy. Is it little wonder some of us break out in air accordion routines? It's part of our roots, raices, and we are proud of our link with this instrument.
I have often marvelled at the fun people have "playing" air guitar.

This activity mimics dance and rock 'n' roll as a person - usually a guy - pretends to play a guitar while heavy-metal-style electric guitar music is heard in the background. The person gyrates wildly on the stage (floor?) as his fingers and hands strum through imaginary parts of the song - including riffs and solos. The performance usually involves exaggerated strumming and guitar-picking motions at times coupled with lip-synching.

I can relate to air guitar, having been around for the birth of rock 'n' roll and enjoyed the heavy metal and punk rock era. I understand the energy rock music generates. I can see where a person can just be taken away by the sound electric guitar and how a person would want to be able to play that instrument with the efficiency professional rock musicians do every day. And, so, air guitar was born.

Growing up Mexicano, Tejano, Chicano, air guitar didn't really make the rounds at our parties until the late 20th century. We Mexicanos, Tejanos, Chicanos were way ahead on that simulated playing an instrument notion, ese (dude). I mean, don't get me wrong, we love rock 'n' roll and heavy metal and can jam to Jimi Hendrix as well as Santana, but our raices (roots) are too strong to just settle for that.

In the 1960s and to this date, most Mexicanos, Tejanos, Chicanos grew up with the sound of the accordion accompanying a conjunto or banda. The sounds of Tony de la Rosa, Estevan Jordan, Los Relampagos del Norte, El Indio, Flaco Jimenez coming from our radios graced our automobiles, living rooms, backyards and patios, and dance halls more frequently than any other sound.

The songs these and other bands played were as electrifying to us as any punk rock tune or classic Santana ballad. This music was ours, combined from the meshing of cultures that settled our beloved Texas and refined in the farm fields of our nation and in neighborhood cantinas and dance halls. The sound took the Mexican corrido (ballad) and the European (mainly German) guitar instrument the accordion to interpret the melody that accompanied the legendary lyrics that were an integral part of communication within our culture.

So, it was not unusual at pachangas (parties, gatherings)for some of us, as we were listening to a tune by Tony de la Rosa, Paulio Bernal or any other top conjunto to break out in our own air accordion (el acordion del aire) routine. We'd be sitting there, drinking beer or other beverages, eating barbacoa (barbecue) and charleando (chatting) with our families and friends when one of us just couldn't take it any more and we had to break out into a air accordion routine.

Granted, this air accordion routine is not a pretty site, but no one seems to mind. It involves (usually a man) standing up and starting to strut around the floor (dirt or otherwise, his arms shoulder length, his hands facing toward his body at about chest level and his fingers moving wildly as he hits the keys of an imaginary accordion hanging from his neck. The routine also involves lifting the heels of your boots or Los Chucks (old-style black Converse tennis shoes)up in the air while you prance around on your toes and do a little dance a la Raulito fame (Emilio Naivara's brother) and slowly making a circle (a la washing machine like in the Selena movie) while those around you whoop and holler and sing the song you are trying to perform on your air accordion. Raulito's famous air accordion routine now includes a shuffle that he performed during George W. Bush's fund raiser for his presidential bid. Ese (That) Raulito. Wow.

So, I've been thinking. They have national air guitar festivals and competitions. What would it take to have an air accordion competition? I know, I know, we Mexicano, Tejanos, Chicanos think that contest stuff is below us. When we perform we do it spontaneously and with gusto. We do it because it's natural and we don't want to perform for anyone but ourselves and our families. It's kind of like the grito. It just comes out - naturally - when we hear a song by Vicente Fernandez, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Michael Salgado or Ramon Ayala or from a group like Intocable or Solido.


That reminds me of one time when I heard the grito and saw the air accordion routine performed together by more than 2,000 people. It was at Fairgronds Field in Robstown, Texas. The Coastal Bend Aviators were playng a baseball game against another minor league team when the PA announcer started playing Ramon Ayala's "Tragos de Amargo Licor (Drinks of Bitter Liquor - I know, it's not the same in the translation). Almost instantaneously, the mostly Tejano crowd of men on a Thirsty Thursday promotion rose to its feet, joined in the chorus of the song as others let out a grito and some did their air accordion routine. Here's the chorus:

Tragos de amargo licor (drinks of bitter liquor)
Que no me hacen olvidar (don't help me forget)
Y me siento como un cobarde (and I feel like a coward)
Que hasta me pongo a llorar
(and I break down and cry)

Truly, it's a moving song. The air accordion routine, the gritos and the community chorus that night were inspiring. It touched to the nerve of what it is to be a Tejano, Mexicano, Chicano in America. We have our own music and we use the accordion. It's unique and it's ours. We don't need no pinche (sorry) contest to let us know we're good at it. We're Tejano, Mexicano and Chicano and we have the American right to party like we want to...(simulate air accordion routine here accompanied by a chorus of gritos).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Memorable Storms while a student at Texas A&I - Revisitng Hurricanes Beulah and Celia and the night the Javelina Stadium Lights were blown down

With Hurricane season in full swing, one can't help but reminisce about storms that made their way into South Texas and, in particular, the Kingsville-Corpus Christi area. Many people were disappointed with the impact of Tropical Storm Don this past July. Don simply fizzled (evaporated?) under the Texas heat. Wow. But I venture to say, we were fortunate. When conditions are right, a storm churning in the Gulf of Mexico can mean death and destruction. We should count our blessings and look toward the Gulf warily as the Hurricane Season pushes on.

Many storms have hit the Kingsville-Corpus Christi area. Two in particular, left their mark - Hurricanes Beulah and Celia. Beaulah struck in 1967 and Celia in 1970. They were devastating killer storms, each with its own characteristic that left marks on South Texas for generations. Both times, I spent the eve of the storm in Kingsvile at then Texas A&I University, and both times I was surprised to what I heard or found when I woke up in the morning.

Both times, I felt lucky to have survived and realized that the fury of nature has no equal and must be respected.

Hurricane Beulah was a massive rain storm that caused unprecedented flooding in South Texas, forming lakes that lasted 20 years or more and impacting the area for weeks and months before things returned to normal.

It tracked through the Caribbean, struck the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico as a major hurricane, and moved west-northwest into the Gulf of Mexico, briefly gaining Category 5 intensity. It was the strongest hurricane during the 1967 Atlantic hurricane season. The hurricane made landfall in northeastern Mexico with winds near 160 mph.

The storm then weakened before moving into Texas as a major hurricane. Hurricane Beulah made landfall south of the mouth of the Rio Grande as a Category 5 storm. It then meandered over land with Category 3 conditions until it fizzled out Sept. 22. It spawned 115 twisters across Texas, which established a new record for the highest amount of tornadoes produced by a hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast. Due to its slow movement over Texas, Beulah led to significant flooding and caused more than $1 billion in damages. There were 58 fatalities. Three fatalities could be attributed to flooding in Corpus Christi. There were deaths reported from Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley, Corpus Christi and the deep Brush Country of South Texas.

Beulah was strange and refused to die. I remember pelting rain for more than 24 hours, non-stop. I mean RAIN. Big drops constantly splashing into the streets at a steady consistent pace that was unusual for this area. It rained all over South Texas for five consecutive days as Beulah moved at a snail's pace up the area. We wondered, "Is it ever going to stop?" Refugees from the Rio Grande Valley somehow made their way up to Kingsville, where hundreds found refuge in the university's dorms and buildings. Classes were cancelled for days. Of course, the students who stayed behind found ways to entertain themselves and for days played touch football in the standing water in front of Nierman Hall.

But, the university was not spared from Beulah's wrath. The A & I Citrus Center at Weslaco lost 80 to 95 per cent of the fruit crop with damage estimated at $29,000. The most notable damages on campus were uprooted trees and shrubbery. The Javelina Stadium lights were blown down to about a 30-degree angle and had to be removed within the week. Due to the extensive cost of replacing the lights during the semester, all home football games were held in the afternoon. That year the Javelinas won the Lone Star Conference championship with a thrilling come-from-behind 23-21 win over rival Southwest Texas State before more than 15,000 fans at sun-lit Javelina Stadium. John Kardow kicked a 28-yard field goal with 1:18 left to play to seal the victory. The Hogs finished 9-0 that year, which will forever be known as The Year Hurricane Beulah Blew the Javelina Stadium Lights Down.

Beulah was indeed memorable for me and my friends. The night before Beulah hit the Kingsville area, my cousin Adan and I spent the night in my dorm room in Cousins Hall. By now it was a category 3 storm. We had volunteered to stay behind to help the Army ROTC unit feed the refugees who were fleeing from major flooding the Rio Grande Valley. We played it as safe as we could, taping windows and moving away from any doors. That night we could hear the wind howl through the university and the rain, the rain, constantly falling on campus. We woke up in the morning, about 5, and the tree outside was down. We saw the water rising to the steps and just wondered when it would stop. Meanwhile, the cafeteria - now the Conner Museum - had become a temporary refuge. Sandbags had been packed around it to avoid the flooding. We were assigned to kitchen duty and informed to make chicken salad sandwiches. Someone had stayed up all night preparing the meal. There was no way out any more. All of Kingsville was flooded. Outside, we could hear helicopters and trucks scurrying around the area. We heard that Dr. Manning was outside Manning Hall, protecting it, making sure no one could get in. There were reports he had a rifle with him and he was looking for looters. We also heard he was letting people in for safe refuge. Our ROTC officers just laughed and didn't worry about a thing. After all, it was Dr. Manning.

Then, we heard we were stranded. The campus had been cut off, becoming an island. Farm road 141 leading to the cutoff to Alice and Falfurrias had six-feet of water over it. The King Ranch had moved its cattle now, south, where the waters were receding. Bishop was closed and the road to Riviera was impassable. There was no way out for three days. Phone communications were down. The winds had been strong enough to tangle the Javelina Stadium lights, but it wasn't the wind that downed the telephone and power lines. It had rained so much that even the slightest Gulf breeze would knock the poles down as the ground was saturated beyond any thing we had ever seen in South Texas. The ground was just a dark-brown mush. An "emergency" phone line was set up for the refugees and for the parents of students who stayed on campus to contact their children. My family finally contacted me. They were coming to pick us up. They said there was only one lane of traffic from San Jose to Kingsville and that it would take quite a while to get here. We waited at Cousins Hall. We were glad to leave. On the way back west toward Hebbronville, we could not believe our eyes. The King Ranch fence had water to the top wire. One lane of traffic moved west, as slow as a turtle crossing a lonely Texas highway.

Hurricane Beulah would not soon be forgotten. The lower Rio Grande Valley, the four-county region that comprises deep South Texas, was inundated with torrential rains. Rain also doused the Brush Country areas of Kenedy, Jim Hogg, Duval, Webb, Kleberg, Brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces, Bee and San Patricio counties. Within a 36-hour period it dropped more than 27 inches of rain near Beeville. Falfurrias received more rain from Beulah than it normally records during one year. Areas south of Laredo, San Antonio, and Matagorda were isolated for more than a week due to the resulting flooding. On September 28, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared twenty-four counties in southern Texas a disaster area. During a four-day period Beulah rained and reigned over South Texas, daily totals of rain averaged more than 20-inches per day. It was estimated that more than 85 inches of rain drenched different areas of South Texas. In these days, when drought is the key word and many would welcome even the slightest of tropical storms to the area, it seems incredible that Beulah could dump that much rain in only a week - more than 80 inches in some areas. Beulah was a wet storm. But, aside from the immediate tragedy, Beulah's rains helped nourish South Texas for years. Maybe it's time for another "wet one?"

If Beulah was a "rain storm," than Celia was a "wind storm." On Aug. 3, 1970, it roared into Corpus Christi with a fury that city had not seen since the 1919 storm and has not experienced since. Winds hit 130+ mph. It spawned dozens of tornadoes. Its devastation was clear, once the morning sun hit what had once been the Sparkling City by the Sea.

My friends and I spent the night the storm hit Corpus Christi at our rent house down Santa Gertrudis Ave. on 4th St. We didn't expect much from the storm. We had heard, from TV news reports, that it was "small and losing strength." Hurricane Celia developed from a tropical wave moving through the Caribbean, becoming a tropical depression on July 31 and a tropical storm on August 1. In the Gulf of Mexico, it rapidly became a major hurricane, but weakened steadily to an 85 mph hurricane. It didn't seem too dangerous, so few people evacuated the area and we, down in Kingsville, felt safer than a sparrow on a nest high on a South Texas oak. On August 3, it again rapidly strengthened to a major hurricane, this time reaching 130 mph winds prior to its Texas landfall. Celia would kill 20 people.

Back in Kingsville, we went about our normal routine - class, dinner, dates, TV, drink and tell tall tales. The night was tranquil. We heard from TV that the storm would hit the Corpus Christi area late that night or early in the morning. Little did we know that the small compact storm would gain strength and would be one of the most powerful storms to hit the area. The morning of Aug. 3 was quiet in Kingsville. Kingsville had been spared but there was no one on the streets. It was sunny, but there was an ominous feeling around. We woke up and turned on the TV. Nothing. We turned to our favorite radio stations - KUNO 1400 AM in Spanish and KEYS 1440 AM with rock 'n' roll tunes. Nothing. We scanned the radio looking for a station. Finally, through the static came the loud and clear voice of Andy Cook on Kingsville radio station KINE 1330 AM. It would be the only station on the air in South Texas for three days and the only source of information. The first words we heard were: "Corpus Christi has been destroyed . . ." Cook's crisp and definitely distinct radio voice went on to describe the horror the residents of Corpus Christi and the upper Coastal Bend area like Aransas Pass and Mathis felt. He had a straight connection to the Department of Public Safety and the National Guard that had been called up - within 24 hours - to prevent looting and set up spots for people to be treated medically and distribute ice and food. For at least three days, Andy Cook was the voice of South Texas to all those in the immediate Corpus Christi area. Eloquently, and with little rest, he told the story of the hurricane's impact. It was a story of sheer destruction, death and desolation.

The statistical toll taken by Celia was nothing short of staggering: The American Red Cross estimates now that 65,000 families suffered losses; the area took property damage totaled at $500 million in 1970 dollars; almost 9,000 homes were destroyed and some 55,600 homes suffered damage ranging from major to minor. Crop losses -- the storm hit during a harvest season -- were in the millions of dollars. More than 4,000 people were forced to seek shelter. There were many deaths - 20 became the official number.

But added to that toll in numbers was simply the shock for thousands of residents of having their homes, their livelihood, their possessions, perhaps their life's work, wiped out in one terror-filled August evening.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported on the eeriness of the storm like this: "When darkness came -- as dark and as quiet a night as ever fell on Corpus Christi -- those who had survived were simply thankful to be alive. There was no electric or telephone service in many area cities. There was no place to buy ice."

Slowly, we got word from inside Corpus Christi. DPS officers would come to eat at the Round Table, a popular eating spot on 14th Street at the time, or stop for burgers and sandwiches at the Gridiron or Young's Pizza near the university on Santa Gertrudis. As they exchanged shifts, the shared the horror stories. We heard that one of our favorite watering holes when we would go to Corpus Christi for "fun" was giving away free beer while it was still cold, the day after the storm. The place was called Vernon's and still exists today. It was one of the few "bright" stories in the gloom that followed.

We were shocked. The roads to Corpus Christi were blocked. Many of us had family there and wanted to go help, but no one was getting past Robstown on the south and west and the Chapman Ranch entry was flooded and guarded vigilantly by the Texas Army National Guard. No one, except in an official capacity was getting in or out of Corpus Christi. We felt we had to make contact. We got an idea. We had press passes for working with the university newspaper - The South Texan. I even had one that was "approved" or "sanctioned" by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Surely, they would let us in. Kingsville still had electricity so we loaded up our ice chests with clean pure ice. Just in case, we filled one with Lone Star and Schlitz beers. We bought some bread, baloney, cheese and other canned goods and headed north to Corpus Christi. Sure enough, we got through. We had cameras and credentials and qualified as official journalists.

We drove slowly down Highway 44, now going east. We worked our way toward Leopard Street, Old Brownsville Road and Morgan. My uncle lived on Old Brownsville Road. It was a beautiful house with brick all around. Behind him, on Guatemozin St., lived the rest of the family. We passed by slowly, and saw nothing. I remember telling my friends, "I don't see my uncle's house." We were in area just across from Del Mar Tech. There was debris everywhere. We circled next to what used to be the old airport, now the state school and drove down Guatemozin. There was my other family's home. An oak tree had pierced the roof and was clearly stuck in the living room, its branches reaching, so it seemed, to all the rooms in the house. They were so glad to see me, us. We had come with supplies. "Mira, es Memito (Look, it's Manuel Jr.)," I remember Tio Beto shouting to the cheers and anxious eyes of other family members who all had distant looks on their faces as they set outside in what was left of the lawn in the blistering August Texas heat. They, honestly, did not know how they were going to survive. All were huddled around what they now fondly called "the tree house," as if they were waiting for help. That day, Aug. 5, we were the help. They were so grateful for the ice, especially, and all the canned goods and baloney and bread we had brought. They invited us to eat. We politely declined. This trip was for them. We even let them have the ice chest full of beer - at least 36 cans (maybe Adan drank one or two). My uncle Beto savored one and then said most of the neighborhood cantinas down Port and Leopard had been "wiped out" and that some "borachos" were picking up cans of beer on the street. "Now we can enjoy our beers in our tree house," he said smiling, letting out a roaring laugh we had always associated him with. He had such a good nature. I miss him. In the turmoil, it was good to hear him laugh. We helped clean up a bit and then said good bye. We took pictures for our story. They ran that week in The South Texan. Celia, was truly devastating to Corpus Christi and, just as Andy Cook said that gloomy morning, "Corpus Christi ha(s)d been destroyed.

As we drove around town taking pictures for our story, we came to realize the full extent of the disaster and damage. The people that we saw certainly felt despair. There was debris, and rubble all around. TV towers had been knocked down. Downtown was a like a war zone. Windows and doors had been ripped from skyscrapers. The once beautiful bay front had palm tree leaves and limbs littered all around and it seemed as if Corpus Christi Bay had vomited on the city's prized street - Ocean Drive.

It would take weeks, make that months, of clean-up of downed trees, restoring of power, clearing debris, of toiling in the late summer heat, of waiting in long lines to obtain precious ice before any semblance of normality would return.

We came back to Kingsville, thankful that none of our family members were killed or injured. We had heard what they had to do, each one of them, to survive. Their stories seemed surreal. One of my uncles said that their entire house was lifted, made a 360-degree turn while in the air and then dropped in a neighbor's back yard while they were in the house. That explained why I didn't see the house on Old Brownsville Road.

On the way back, we drove through Kingsville and other South Texas towns south of Corpus Christi to see if could find any other signs for destruction. There were none. This small compact storm had picked Corpus Christi and the area directly west and north of it to attack.

We came back to the South Texan office and started developing the film and writing our stories. For days, we were dazed.

Hurricane Beulah and Hurricane Celia were killer storms. I know many of us would welcome the rain from tropical storm or hurricane, but I don't think any of us wants the likes of the wrath of those two storms to visit our area soon.

What do you think? How do you feel?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dormitory ramblings . . .

This summer, because of some personal problems and the high cost of gasoline to and from Corpus Christi, I asked to stay in university housing. I was assigned to the University Village - the UV and the newest dorm to date on the campus of Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

Some 40 years ago I also lived in dorms in what was then Texas A&I University. I stayed in Cousins, Baugh and May Halls and we ate a central cafeteria located in what is now the Connor Museum on Santa Gertrudis Ave.

My return to dorm life was full of surprises.

First, back then in the dark ages, there was no air-conditioning in the dorms I was staying in. The rooms came with large windows, sans screens, that we would open up to let in air and nature. At night, if your room was facing south, it would get the cool breeze from the Gulf of Mexico and you could sleep comfortably. If your room was facing north, you were just out of luck. Not only would you not get the cool breezes at night, but you would be the first to feel the sting of a blue norther biting the South Texas night.

Another thing I noticed was that the walls between the rooms were thick, very thick. Solid concrete separated each room. That was good, for privacy, and quiet study time. Aside from the usual youthful dorm shenanigans, we were comfortable and led a good life in the dorm.

Oh, did I mention, the dorms were segregated and not co-ed and in some instances Mexican Americans and Negroes could not stay in certain dorms. It was okay. We could live with that for a while, but we called for change and it happened. But, that's another story.

For now, let's continue on the segregation of the sexes. As I said, women were assigned to certain dorms and men to other dorms and never the twain shall meet, well, sort of.

Being separated from the opposite sex in college is not nice. Then, there were these silly rules: Doors at women's dorms close at 11 p.m,, young ladies must be inside the dorm and in their rooms by 10:30 and 10:45 p.m., respectively; no men would be allowed in the dorm lobby after 9 p.m. and in no way can you have a man in your room, never, ever, ever, never or you shall be expelled and forced to wear a scarlet letter of the dorm mother's choice on your university vest or blouse. Yes, we all had dorm moms, even the men. They were wonderful women, I'm sure. Most of us however saw them as something akin to the Wicked Witch of the West or Frankenstein's daughter. Ayyyyyy!

We men had to do something to stay alive. We had the urge, you know, to see women. In the dorm in Kingsville, where there was really nothing to do then and less to do now, you scheme things. We schemed. We formed the SOGW and joined the national organization. Oh, SOGW stands for the Society of Girl Watchers. Girls back then here at the university wanted to sun bathe and they would gather at the top of Lewis Hall and just meander to and fro on the roof in their bikinis or two-piece swimsuit.

The SOGW membership would have "lookouts" and the alarm would go off when the girls were on the roof. Armed with the best hunting binoculars one could find in those days, the SOGW membership would scout the game. It was a good way to pass the time.

Then, we had what we called "panty raids." Every now and then, usually during a full moon, the hormones and heat would get to the male population of A&I. Someone would say, "Let's have a panty raid." In case you don't get it, it would happen after the women's dorms closed and the men would clamour outside the women dormintories on University Boulevard and yell for the women to "throw out" their panties. Really, that happened. It must have been the heat, or maybe the fact that there was nothing and there still is nothing to do in Kingsville for the university crowd. Panty raids were a national phenomena that caught on after WWII and lasted into the 1960s and 1970s. At a number of colleges, panty raids functioned as a humorous, ad hoc protest against silly curfews and entry restrictions that barred male visitors from women's dormitories. Here at A&I, I think it was just the thrill of the hunt - for panties. And, generally, the A&I girls welcomed the raiders. They were just as excited as the men. Must have been the heat or the hormones.

The panty raid would start with someone ringing the bell of the USS Corpus Christi located in front of the Student Union Building. Soon, at least 100 to 150 young men would be in the streets and organizing for the raid. Word would get to the girls. The University Police would be alerted. Dorm moms were at full-watch and the girls were in lock down. The men would position themselves in front of Lewis, Lynch and Eckhardt Halls and later Martin and start the chant .... "panties, panties, panties..."

Other young men would try to break in to the women's dorms. Yeah, we had to break in. Ha. I still remember one of the guys in our dorm was caught in the air conditioning vents at Lynch Hall. He was expelled, of course, and so were several other non-content panty seekers.

Soon enough the Dean of Students would show up and ask us to disburse and go back and study or something like that. Just then (and it never seemed to fail) some young women, or two or three, would open a window and wave panties in the air, bringing a loud whoop from the crazed men. Some escaped the grasp of the dorm mom and her monkeys akin to those in the Wizard of Oz and make their way to the moonlit roof of Lewis Hall and throw their panties into the night air. They would flutter down onto the grass below and brave young men would scurry hurriedly to pick up the valued prize and run like the wind, disappearing into the night past Santa Gertrudis Ave. Other panties would flutter in the air with the strong breeze from the Gulf for a long time. One landed on top of a palm tree. Again, some brave young men who must have trained with a chimpanzee somewhere would climb the palm to gather the valued prize and descend down to the cheers of other young who had not been as fortunate.

Mission accomplished, we went back to our dorms where supervision was akin to a Lord of the Flies life.

So, now in the new dorm in 2011, I can see the changes. Men and women stay in the same dorm. There is traffic of both sexes to and fro it seems 24 hours a day. Yes, there is security, but where's the dorm mom?

Maybe she melted.