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. . . .


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