Alfonso Vazquez

Duration: 1hr: 34mins
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Interview with: Alfonso Vazquez
Interviewed by:
Date:
Archive Number: OH 233.1

 

Introduction: Oral History with Mr Alfonso Vazquez, founding member of the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations in Harris County and professional photographer.

I: Mr Vazquez, could you tell us a little bit about your personal background prior to your involvement in the civic action committee?

AV: Actually, there was hardly any activity in that direction, most of mine was just average civic clubs like PTA meetings—from school—and different clubs, but nothing similar to this particular type of endeavor in a political field.

I: In this particular case, though, where did you come from, and what was your profession there?

AV: Well, originally I was a window trimmer for Joskey’s in San Antonio, and then I came here in Houston and become a window trimmer at Oshman’s. They only had one store, and they have 17 now, but my background for this particular area that we’re talking about is hardly nil because I’m about average with most Mexican-Americans in that respect.

I: What was your educational background?

AV: High school.

I: Okay, so you, basically, weren’t terribly involved in political activity prior to the civic action committee?

AV: No, in fact, I voted for Eisenhower against Stevenson because that’s how naïve I was about politics.

I: Any other preferences at that time that you can remember—political?

AV: I was incensed at the firing of General MacArthur, and history has proven that Truman was correct, at least the history that I’ve heard of, that a military should be under the civilian control, and that’s what it was all about.

I: (2:38) But you were against the firing—

AV: Oh, I was incensed along with all my brother-in-laws, but now we call ourselves liberals, but we never in the remote sense knew what politics was all about. We acted emotionally, and that is the difference from then to now. Now we react with more rationalization as to how it affects Mexican-Americans and people in general not just Mexican-Americans.

I: What about your World War II experience; what was happening?

AV: I was drafted—well, I was in the National Guard when the war broke out, and I was drafted and got sick. I was sent to a hospital, and from then on was never recalled again.

I: So, this was in San Antonio?

AV: Yes.

I: Were you born in San Antonio?

AV: No, I was born in Laredo, but I was raised in San Antonio. All my education was in San Antonio schools.

I: What high school?

AV: Brackenridge.

I2: When you moved from Laredo to San Antonio how old were you then?

AV: Just a small kid—I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I was not college prone, because of lack of anyone pushing me—I’m talking about my age group—very few Mexican-Americans went to college in my age group. There was no counselor pushing you in that direction. Nobody directing you, and so, because Mexican-Americans from way back have occupied menial work, and it was a cycle. Parents expected their kids to get out and work as soon as they got any kind of education to help support the family. In my case it wasn’t exactly that, but it was similar. I was without parents and my brothers and sisters were all married. I was kind of on my own, so I had to make a living, but the—my age group without anyone pushing you could have never advance in education.

I: What was your father’s profession?

AV: (5:46) He was a newspaperman.

I2: Were there any particular directions that you were encouraged to pursue?

AV: No, it was—everything I did I more or less did on my own, because there was nobody around to say do you want to be a geologist or a lawyer or a doctor, there was no such thing. The main thing is to make a living and support yourself. Consequently, my background—in that direction—is merely to make a living.

I: What was the Civic Action Committee?

AV: The Civic Action Committee was a group that, actually, was born out of frustration that Mexican-Americans were not voting, were not participating in the political—in politics—and consequently, some of us who began to realize how necessary it was to have a voice in government was sitting around at some social function, and then somebody was complaining about this lack of participation in Mexican-Americans—including ourselves—

I: Do you remember what social function it was?

AV: Well, it was—I forget the name—it was just a dance or social activity, but the man who suggested it was Roy Aleson, who became its first chairman. The group was, kind of, more or less interested in coordinating some kind of movement and finding some kind of candidate, and it wasn’t until congress—well, at that time Senator Henry B. Gonzalez became famous overnight by filibustering in the Texas State Senate—that we became involved in the consecrated political arena. Until that time we were, kind of, just a loose group without any real aims.

I: What year did it begin?

AV: I’m trying to remember—I think it was 1958 when Congressman Gonzalez was—someone will have to research that because this thing was filibustered and there are not too many filibusters in the Texas legislature. It would have to be someone real maverick like Henry Gonzalez was at that time. In fact, his filibuster, I think, was broken, but I’m not positive. He spoke 26 hours. He had a senator from Laredo, who helped him, Kazen, and now both of them are congressman in the United States Congress. Two or three others helped him, but you know how the filibuster is conducted. They asked him consequential questions just to let him rest a little bit. The main speaker just occasionally will rest but keeps on holding the floor, and Price Daniel was the governor who was—well I don’t know how material this is?

I: (10:12) Well, when exactly did the Civic Action Committee get involved?

AV: Right around that time in 58, because I remember that Henry Gonzalez decided that the only way to impress upon the voters the importance of what he was talking about—civil rights—this is just about the time that Martin Luther King and the whole Civil Rights Movement began to get mobilized. Congressman Gonzalez decided to run for governor against Price Daniel—in fact, there was another ex-governor named W. Lee O’Daniel, and Congressman Gonzalez had become famous overnight for his quips. Normally, the average American never thought of a Mexican as having a sense of humor—sophisticated sense of humor—I mean—they knew we talked about enchiladas, tamales, and tacos in a humorous way, but they never realized that there was such a thing as a Mexican-Americans with intelligence and an education to make quips, and when he made one about the two—one was a governor the other one was an ex-governor, and both of them were Daniel. One was O’Daniel and the other one was Daniel, and he called them Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dumb, and that caught on in newspapers. He became, kind of, in vogue as man with this kind of sense of humor. Consequently, he got around 200,000 votes being a complete unknown and came in second beating O’Daniel in the primary and O’Daniel had been a governor.

I: How did y’all help Henry Gonzalez at the time?

AV: Well, the first thing we did when he was running for governor was—first of all, I’m not certain as to what came first. I think the filibuster came first, and he was in town in a little tavern on Smith Street, and a fellow Martin Elfont became his campaign manager for governor. He is a local man and still around. Roy Aleson—the one that started the Civic Action Committee—called me and said, “This great man is going to be in a little place around noon, Would you like to meet him?” I said, “Of course. Can I take my camera along,” and he said, “Sure.” So, it was Roy Aleson, a doctor named Phillip Hernandez— there is another Phillip Hernandez who is a LULAC leader, but that wasn’t him—and a Mrs Mary Lopez, and myself. We watched this man talk to this small crowd, and he had them in the palm of his hand. He is an eloquent speaker, and it was love at first sight. Luckily, he was a good politician. Had we encountered another type of politician we probably would have been turned off politics completely, but it happened to of been the right man at the right time, and we immediately asked him if he would allow us to have some kind of function for him, and he said yes. Mr Reale, who has a fairly good business and had a nice home, he said, “Why don’t we have a barbeque at my house, and I’ll get the beer donated.” All we did was sell tickets, and we raised $1,000, which was unheard of for a Mexican group to raise money for a politician. It was just unheard of. When you went up to people and you said, “We’re going to have a barbeque would you like to donate?” they thought it was ridiculous, because you shouldn’t have to pay to watch a politician or to hear a politician. That is how naïve we were about political activities. So in Mr Reale’s home we raised a historically $1,000, which today is nothing—well—you know—political groups can raise $100,000 to $250,000, but this was the trial stage. We were just trying our wings, so to speak, and we had such a beautiful man to direct all our energies to, because the man was just in his prime of eloquence. He could hold your attention for an hour and a half and you wouldn’t bat an eyelash. I remember he always wore a white suit. He stood out in a crowd and immediately your attention went to him, and when he started speaking he had you mesmerized.

We were lucky in that respect, and from then on it was one function after another for him. We educated the people to go to a function and pay just to hear him. The strangest thing in his political rally—that I had never seen before and haven’t seen since—was he used to carry a group of musicians—an accordion and two guitars. He was so long winded in his speeches that right in the middle of the speech, when he had this crowd in the palm of his hand because he was so eloquent, the musicians would interrupt him, and then they’d play for a while and everybody would stand up or walk around to relax and smoke a cigarette, and when the music was finished everybody would sit down and continue. I had never seen that before or since.

I: How many functions did the Civic Action Committee have for Henry B. Gonzalez?

AV: (18:11) I lost count over the years. I would estimate around between 7 and 10, and some of them were really not for him they were for the organization, and he happened to have been available and we made him our honored guest, but it wasn’t—in other words, the money was not raised for him, but it was raised for the organization. I remember that out of the funds we would pay his airfare, so in a way we weren’t paying him as we had in the beginning when we were really raising funds for him. We educated the people, because it was unheard of for Mexican-Americans to pay to hear a politician.

I: How often did the Civic Action Committee or how regular did the Civic Action Committee meet and how did you all meet—what was the procedure?

AV: We really had no home base. We had to meet in different public places such as restaurants like the Santanita and in fact, in your books—in the book that I gave you on PASO activities—in the beginning many of those activities are in the different areas that I’m talking about. But, really, the whole aim of this organization was not really for us, but it was trying to cement some kind of a base so that eventually other generations could come along and improve upon it, which is in effect what has happened. We walk into a PASO today and nobody hardly ever knows us. It’s just a completely different generation. They run their own group, and we keep our mouths shut, because they are very eloquent, and a lot of them have a good education. Some of them are professors, teachers—so to get up and debate with them you had better know what you’re talking about.

I: (20:56) How often did y’all meet with the Civic Action Committee? Did y’all have monthly meetings or weekly meetings?

AV: Yeah, it depended. See, you could have a—we weren’t that organized that we had a constitution and a regular meeting place and a regular—what we did was like an Ad Hoc group. We didn’t know what the meaning of the word was at the time, now I know that that’s what we were. We were like fireman—you know—you were out there maybe 3 or 4 nights in a row in meetings, and then perhaps not meet again for 3 months. It was that kind of group. It depended on what our goal was for that particular era. It could be Henry Gonzalez press—I remember one particular function we had to do just for that—for him—because some character attached himself to his campaign when he was running for governor, and asked him how would he like bumper stickers and Henry Gonzalez said, “Well, I don’t have any money,” and he said, “But would you like them,” and he said, “Well, yes, we need them for the state campaign. It’s a big state.” So, the guy went ahead and made 6,000 or 7,000 of those bumper stickers, and after the campaign he sent him the bill. Well, Gonzalez is an honorable man and although he had not ordered them, but this fellow kept harassing him for payment. He did receive them—this is what got Gonzalez, was that this fellow at this particular barbeque took him to a station wagon and said, “Well, here is the bumper stickers,” and Gonzalez said, “Well, that’s beautiful,” but no word was mentioned about money, so he transferred all of those bumper stickers to Gonzalez’s car and after the campaign he charged him for them. Gonzalez felt obligated, so we went ahead and made a function to pay for that, which we did.

I: How many were involved in the Civic Action Committee—the ongoing strength of it?

AV: You have a picture of all the people in it. That picture in that restaurant where everybody is lined up like that in a row. I wish you would have brought that little booklet, because I could point them out by name to you.

I: So, it was a small group?

AV: (23:46) It was a small group, yes. It was never more than 20 people.

I2: Mainly middle class people, would you say?

AV: Yes, some of them businessmen, and some of them just workers. I was a photographer. Alessandro was and is a businessman, and Mr Reale was a businessman, Mr Gonzalez owns a company and business, and our wives—my wife was one of the members, and Roy Aleson’s wife. So, in functions like barbeques where we had a thousand people in a day’s time those were done usually at the Knight’s of Columbus Hall out on East Whitney Drive—I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. They are ideal for a big barbeque, because they have parking and facilities. This was our fund gathering activities, but mainly the whole goal we had set out was that the Mexican-Americans were not participating in politics and we wanted to know why. We came to the conclusion in our naïve way that the reason was that the poll tax was eliminating a lot of these people from voting. Now, whether that is true or whether it isn’t nobody can know for sure even today, but at that time it made a lot of sense, because if you didn’t have poll tax you didn’t vote.

For some Mexican-Americans to go out and pay $1.50 to vote when he didn’t vote in the first place was just a big educational project. So, we set out to do that, and we found out that Mexican-Americans were very shy about going to the courthouse and buying a poll tax. So, we decided that this group was going to form a taskforce of poll tax deputies—now mind you that none of us had ever done that—we thought a poll tax deputy was a federal official, and that was very, very difficult to do. We found out that all you had to do was be sworn in and be an American citizen to become a pretty good gimmick. I remember we went to Carl Smith—I guess he is still the tax assessor isn’t he? His department was in charge of that, the poll tax. I remember we walked in the—these 6 or 7 Mexican-Americans—and you have to understand the year we are talking about. There was a lot of discrimination and where Mexican-Americans just didn’t walk in and say they want to be poll tax deputies and look you straight in the eye. You just didn’t do that, so when 6 of us walked—6 or 10 of us—they felt that that was an invasion in the courthouse. There is a lot of those old, old political hacks that used to be in the courthouse—they probably still are, but a different generation—but there used to be these little old ladies just shuffling around and not doing very much, but they were a friend of the councilmen or county judge and they’re very hard to deal with. They rejected us (snaps fingers) right there. No question. They didn’t even want to talk to us. So, we organized for the following year, and this time we had about 17 and now we really looked like an invasion, and that lady, again, rejected us, and everybody was going home very disappointed. We had one fellow named Al Rodriguez, who was a real hustler or go-getter, and he told everybody, “Y’all wait; don’t go home,” and he went back in and he came out and he said, “We are all going to be poll tax deputies.” We walked in and this little old woman asked us to raise our hands, and we raised our hands, and they swore us in. As we were leaving I asked Al Rodriguez—somebody asked him—I don’t know if it was me or somebody else that said, “How did you do it?” He just said, “Well I promised her a Christmas turkey,” it was that simple. They were so used to corruption that unless you greased a palm you just didn’t get things done. Plus the fact that we had already harassed them so much about being poll tax deputies. It was just that little straw that broke the camel’s back. It didn’t mean that you walk in and you offer a turkey and you become a poll tax deputy, but it was just kind of a process that built up to this funny situation. It’s funny and tragic at the same time. So, we became poll tax deputies and we spread out into the grocery stores, the nightclubs, the movie theaters, and the dances selling poll taxes—all of us—you know—just plain volunteers.

I: These were your poll tax drives, right?

AV: Around December to January, and going into a nightclub with 1,000 people bent on having a good time and walking in and selling them poll taxes was not easy, but we had speakers, and we’d walk in—of course we didn’t pick just anybody. We usually had a man who could really control a crowd, and he would walk in and there would be a drum roll, because we arranged all of this, and this crowd on a Saturday night—when there is killings and knifings or whatever going on—stood still for 2 minutes and listened to this pitch. (audio ends 31:30)

Oral History Interview with Alfonso Vazquez
Oral History 233.1_02

 

AV: It wasn’t the amount of poll taxes that we were selling. We knew that it was very unpractical to think that we were going to raise an army of 10,000 voters that way, but what we were trying to do was to let the word spread like when you drop a rock into still water and let the little waves begin to spread out, and it was just exactly what happened. Although we were just a little rock we were making waves. So consequently, the following year Mr Carl Smith took us into an office and he told us that he didn’t believe that this going door to door and going to nightclubs was the proper thing for American citizens to bend elbows and twist arms to do their civic duty. We argued with him, and we finally compromised somewhere along the way, and eventually the poll tax was eliminated, but this was a very real thing for us, and a very serious thing.

I: Mr Vazquez, let me ask you a little bit more about the actual core essence of the Civic Action Committee. What were your initial lines of communication? Were you all social friends to begin with that got together?

AV: Right, we were social friends, precisely. Naturally through the years we gathered other people that we didn’t know before like Mrs Lopez, because we had never met her. In fact, it was a very unique experience because here was a lady who was married with a family sitting in a meeting with five or six men, which was unheard of among Mexican culture—you know—you just didn’t do that. So, it would have to be somebody who was really and truly dedicated, and I remember that the uniqueness of it was that you had five or six men that would sit around and the lady would sit over there about 6 or 7 feet away from us. It wasn’t that she was afraid of us or it wasn’t that it was—it wasn’t anything that you could put your finger on, but it was, kind of, an indication that she was out of a joke-telling era—it wasn’t a buddy situation. She didn’t want to become one of the boys, and yet she was there to give her point of view on women’s point of views. I thought that was interesting because here we were doing something that was, kind of, pioneering in the political arena, but what we discovered once we became—the Civil Action Committee eventually became PASO, and I don’t know if you want to get into that?

I: We’ll get there eventually.

AV: Anyway, this lady, Mary Lopez, was the lady that stuck with us through thick and thin.

I: (4:29) How did she become involved initially?

AV: Because of Henry Gonzalez. She was one of those that read in the paper about this man, and we got together with him at that little tavern.

I: She was a friend of y’all?

AV: No, we had never met her. In fact, we took each other’s names and this is how the friendship began. There was cooperation between us.

I: Who were you friends with in this group?

AV: Alessandro, in fact, we were close friends. We went to school together when we were kids in San Antonio. We went to elementary school and had known each other practically all our lives, but the others were just complete strangers to me. What drew us together was Henry Gonzalez. In fact, the irony of it is that pretty soon he is going to be brought to Houston by some group—Henry Gonzalez—to speak, and he is a drawing card among Mexican-Americans. You can mention any, including the President Jimmy Carter, but then you mention Gonzalez and the Mexican-Americans are going to be in big groups. We’ve had occasions—plane connections or whatever—and you talk about somebody afraid of being lynched. (laughs) He was late or something like that happened—he is very popular with Mexican-Americans.

I: What candidates did the Civic Action Committee support locally?

AV: Our principle and only candidate at the time was Henry Gonzalez, and it wasn’t until we became PASO that we began to get into the coalitions and actually getting out and campaigning, but up until that time we thought all we had to do was raise funds for Henry Gonzalez. In fact, we had implored him to give a name to the organization, and he wouldn’t do it. We thought that he had more experience and he could tell us what to name the organization, and he said, “This is your baby.”

I: Who came up with the name?

AV: Well, I don’t remember. It was somebody who mentioned that we were a civic group, and we were so afraid of being partisan at the time, because we knew that the minute you become partisan then you become controversial, but it worked out that we began to understand more that you have to be partisan in order to function. If you become all things to all people then you become nothing, because people will be pulling you from different directions.

I: How many poll tax drives did y’all have would you say?

AV: Well you see the problem with that is that our real involvement in poll tax drives, with the exception of the first two, were done after PASO was organized, and we really had a candidate like John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Johnson—that’s national—and locally we had—

I: But as the Civic Action Committee how many did y’all have?

AV: As the Civic Action Committee, I don’t recall anyone other than Henry Gonzalez, which was love at first sight, and nobody felt an enthusiasm for any other candidate.

I: (9:28) What areas of town did y’all work when you had the first couple of poll tax drives?

AV: Actually, we concentrated in the Magnolia area, which is on Harrisburg, and the north side, which is around—wherever the Mexican-Americans were in heavy concentration, but mainly the churches, because churches were where Mexican-Americans were concentrated, so like Guadalupe Church—I remember Tony Marone used to sell poll taxes there, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is out in Magnolia now. The other church was Our Lady of Sorrow, which is off Cashmere—well, it’s on Cashmere and off of Liberty road, and then there was a church on Alfonso. St Joseph on Cane Street, and Holy Name, I believe, is on Cochrane, so that is where the concentration of Mexican-Americans was. In fact, everybody has copied us since. When they have some kind of political thing going they concentrate on the churches on Sunday morning. I’m talking about leaflet distribution.

I: How were y’all received by the priests at that time?

AV: With suspicion, because they thought politics was bad, bad, bad. They saw us with horns like we were devils. (laughs) Through persuasion and through demonstrating to them that we weren’t in it for the corruption or for the money—and their answer would always be that it wasn’t us, but the ones that were elected that were going to be—and the only one that was able to bring a priest to a political gathering was Henry Gonzalez. The first time we mentioned to this priest, Father Cuervas, he said, “Can I meet him?” We said, “Not only can you meet him, but we are going to bring him to you,” and within 5 minutes he found out that Henry Gonzalez was a Knight of Columbus, he was in the 33rd order or whatever—it’s a very high order in the Catholic religion. Well, he had that priest really mesmerized, to the extent that he went to the rally, and when a priest goes to a rally all the fanatics follow him like little sheep. When they found out that Father Cuervas is going to the rally out of nowhere we had a crowd coming out of our ears.

Of course, all he had to do was watch him come down the street and he knew that he was okay. That is—I don’t know whether it is tragic or funny or unique, but a priest has a lot of clout with—I call them fanatics, which is probably sacrilegious to say it—but they are very, very devout Catholics, and this was a very, very difficult thing to breakdown, because Henry Gonzalez was the only one that they respected and liked. All the other politicians they looked at with suspicion. Mainly because a politician creates or brings with him controversy, and the Church just doesn’t like waves, and when you ask to use a hall of the Church, which is our only way of saving money, because if you are going to spend money on a hall then you’re not going to have any money left over, so we had to look around for halls that were going to be available to us with all the facilities, chairs, stage, and microphone, so that all the money could be handed over to the cause that we were fighting. The particular church that went all out for us was the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and all of us belonged to that church. We belonged to it because we went once in a while to the church, and the priest knew us.

I: Who was he?

AV: (14:45) Father Cuervas, and in fact, he married me many, many centuries ago. Just to give you an idea—I’m a photographer—at one time he would not allow a photographer inside of the Church. He saw me with horns. We had a running debate about that all the time. My saying that the bride wanted a picture of the ceremony, and him saying that he challenged me to tell him what importance the picture had, and I was kind of tongue tied and he would say, “I’ll tell you how important the picture is, the first argument that a newly married couple has they tear each other’s pictures and throw them in each other’s face.” I said, “Well, that shows how important they are.” (laughing)

I: What roles, exactly, did you play in the Civic Action Committee? Did you have an office? Did y’all have formal offices at all?

AV: Yes, we had a chairman and we had a secretary and a treasurer, but we were—like I said, we didn’t have a constitution. We kind of—we were a bunch of friends that trusted each other. We had a man who was a leader because he could get—in the first place, he had the charisma and the drive to go and get donations and things that we needed. If you stop to think that at that time to go out and get donated rice and turkeys and chickens and beer and all that takes a certain kind of individual, because not everybody can do it. So, just by the process of having this ability he was our leader.

I: This was Roy Aleson?

AV: (16:59) Yes, Roy Aleson.

I: Did he remain the leader the whole time?

AV: He remained the leader the whole time. There was no sense in changing it. Nobody had the drive that this man had, as I had told you before. Later on when the PASO organization became statewide he became its chairman. So if you consider that in the whole state of Texas the one man that leads a statewide organization is the same guy that we started out with then he must have some kind of drive.

I: Were you an officer at all, ever?

AV: After it became PASO I became the chairman.

I: What about the Civic Action Committee?

AV: In the Civic Action Committee I was like the secretary, the vice president, or the second banana. When they couldn’t get a hold of Roy they could get a hold of me. In fact, that remains so even in PASO. Even today when we form another group I always end up the second banana to Roy.

I: Other than suspicion on the part of certain individuals and people that you’ve already mentioned, can you think of any other “opposition” that you all encountered as the Civic Action Committee within Houston?

AV: Well, I don’t think that other organizations welcomed our going after members. No organization wants that. You couldn’t go into a social group and ask these people to become members of PASO, so you, kind of, have to just be on the outskirts. You’re like the unwelcomed relative skirting around trying to form your own coalitions out here, because the civic groups and social groups—although they sympathize with you—they didn’t want to go all out and become a member. Lack of members and quality members—I don’t mean by that the ones we had were not quality, but I’m saying there were a lot of professionals that could have been involved and were never involved with us at that time.

I: (19:41) What about—well, fair enough—what relationship did the Civic Action Committee have to the Viva Kennedy Clubs here in Houston?

AV: Well, in effect, the original Viva Kennedy Clubs were formed and as I understood it, Commissioner Albert Pena from San Antonio became the statewide leader. Now, how he was chosen or whether this was a Viva Kennedy Club nationwide I can’t tell you. In the state of Texas it was Commissioner Pena. He looked around for politic groups that were already in operation and we were the first group to—and you have pictures of the first Viva Kennedy/Viva Johnson headquarters out on Navigation. We brought Commissioner Pena to inaugurate it, and at the time he commented that it was the first Viva Kennedy/Viva Johnson headquarters in the state of Texas. We were in one respect honored and in the other respect we thought, my God in Heaven we are in bad shape statewide if we’re—and we did it on our own. We didn’t ask anybody for money for signs or—all we knew was that the Viva Kennedy/Viva Johnson movement—we got together and we—I painted all the signs for the organization, but I said, “Look, I don’t have the time to make the kind of signs we are going to need. We are going to need something really professional and large that can hit people in the face,” and that’s what we did. We spend $25 or $30, which was a lot of money at that time, and we had a professional sign and a professional headquarters and it took off very well, to the extent that when the President won he sent a telegram to Commissioner Pena congratulating the Viva Kennedy/Viva Johnson Clubs, because they had gotten out the vote. As you recall, Kennedy won by like 10,000 votes in the state of Texas.

I: But here in Houston y’all, sort of, spontaneously started the Viva Kennedy Club and then called Commissioner Pena in?

AV: No, the club was formed nationally and statewide, but they didn’t call us and say, “We’re going to send you X number of dollars to open up a headquarters and put up a sign.” This we did on our own. They called Roy and said, “Can you fix up a headquarters or can you help us,” and, immediately, to us helping meant opening up a headquarters and having a base of operations.

I: How did they get your number to call or how did they know to call?

AV: We had already been making noises through Henry Gonzalez. Henry Gonzalez was our key in all the state of Texas for names and addresses and phone numbers. Whenever somebody wanted political connections in San Antonio, Corpus Christy, or El Paso they went to Gonzalez to get our names and phone numbers. I’ve never asked Henry Gonzalez but I’m sure that’s the way it happened, because he was the only one. In fact, his campaigns for governor and United States senator, in actual fact, is what started this whole Mexican-American involvement statewide in politics, because up until then there was organizations like the LULACs who were not supposed to participate in politics by constitution. So along came Henry Gonzalez and lit little fires all over the state of Texas.

The funny thing about politics, in this particular vane that we’re talking about, is that we thought in our own little world that we were the only ones doing this. We thought it was our baby and nobody else did it, and we found out later on that there were little groups like us all over the state of Texas. Little groups doing the same thing, and thinking they were the only ones, and getting out and getting people enthusiastically involved in politics and so on. It was being done all over the state of Texas.

I: (25:10) How old were you when the beginning of the Viva Kennedy thing started?

AV: Well, in 58—this is 78 and that’s 20 years ago and I’m 56, so that makes me about 36.

I: So who were the key people here in Houston involved in the Viva Kennedy Club here?

AV: Well, there was Roy Aleson, myself, Mary Lopez, Mr Reale, Mr Gonzalez, Mr Almata, and these men and their wives—although I’m not naming them, because none of these functions would have happened without the wives helping. In the case of Mary Lopez her husband helped. Later on Fred Solis and Olga Solis and Roy Solis and John Casteo, and I can go on and on.

I: But it was, basically, the Civil Action Committee becoming the Viva Kennedy.

AV: Yeah, this was a group that—Al Rodriguez—very key people like Al Rodriguez—he’s the one who gave the turkey to the—incidentally he only promised it, because he never gave it to her. (laughs) That guy is so dynamic that he is in Puerto Rico today and is the president of a big plumbing company.

I: Giving away turkeys or just promising them? (laughing)

AV: I can imagine he must have sold that government on a lot of things.

I: What was your particular role in Viva Kennedy? Was there just one Viva Kennedy Club here?

AV: Yes, in Houston there was only one. In fact, I have a plaque over there about these activities about John Kennedy. My particular function? I was like the trouble-shooter. I did everything, including calling meetings and running meetings when Roy wasn’t there, and taking photographs, as you know. Actually, that has always been my main function—always has been and always will be—is an amateur historian of what is going on. Not in any organized way like you all are doing but taking photographs because photographs tell so much.

I: (28:50) What methods did the Viva Kennedy Club use here in Houston in the campaign?

AV: Well, mainly our function had already started with the poll tax drive, and then getting people out to vote. From the headquarters we had letter writing, telephone calling—we had never heard of telephone banks—so I think the first time we only had one telephone and that was tied up by someone just calling in for questions. So, we were calling from our homes in order to—for instance, some of the ladies would take the poll tax list home and call from their home because there was no telephone. Each person from their home would call the poll tax list, which is even done today. Those are things that—there was no such thing as a telephone bank, so we would divide the work that way, and it was easy for us because all we had to do was look for Mexican names. This is very unique because you call out Mexican names very fast. That particular one and then rallies. The minute somebody of any importance came to town we threw our people into the function and naturally the labor was organized and the blacks were organized, so if they did a function we went to their function. If we did ours they would come to ours, and we helped each other that way.

I: So, y’all were specific with the phone calling in the Mexican community though?

AV: Right.

I: I see. Now, what kind of participation did y’all get from the—what kind of turnout did you get from the Mexican-American community in Houston regarding the Viva Kennedy Club?

(audio ends 31:31)

I: So, you were saying that you had a candidate that was very recognized.

AV: Well the fact that John Kennedy was a Catholic, and the fact that John Kennedy was on the television debates—it became love at first sight for Mexican-Americans with no problem. Our biggest problem was finding people who could vote, and that became the primary concern to get people out to vote. The debate that John Kennedy was invited to at the Ministerial Alliance—was that what it was called, the Ministerial Alliance?

I: I think so.

AV: It was the greater Houston ministers.

I: The Metropolitan Ministries—I can’t remember the exact name.

AV: They had this nationally televised debate with him actually. He was able to satisfy so many people, but the issue of a Catholic president—to this day there are two pictures on the walls of the poor Mexican-Americans, and that is a picture of Jesus Christ and John Kennedy, and you’ll find that in my mother-in-law’s house, because John Kennedy’s picture is right along side the saints—you know—these calendar things—and John Kennedy’s picture has always been there.

I: And it really made a difference here in Houston that he was a Catholic, and that he was—

AV: That’s right, all over Texas, because the great majority of Mexican-Americans are Catholic.

I: Do you know any—just deviating here a little bit—do you know if there was ever a branch of the Mexican-American’s for Political Action, better known as MAPA, here in Houston?

AV: Was there a branch?

I: Yes, was there a branch?

AV: (2:36) MAPA was the original name of PASO, and a big meeting was held in Corpus Christy—a statewide or national meeting—to become a national, because you know MAPA means Mexican-American Political Action or Association. There was so many Hispanics, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans that began to want to participate in this political movement that a compromise was made, and the name would change to Political Association for Spanish Speaking Organizations; however as I understand it there is a group in California that still goes by the name of MAPA. I can’t tell you for sure whether it was the same—in fact, it could have been some delegates at this particular function in Corpus Christy that went back to California and never changed.

I: What about in Houston, though, was MAPA big in Houston at all?

AV: No, it never got really going because the name was changed almost immediately.

I: Now, what was the relationship between the Viva Kennedy Club in Houston and the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations?

AV: The relationship?

I: Yeah, the relationship, was there a transition into it?

AV: Actually, it was like putting the cart before the horse. The Viva Kennedy/Johnson campaign—out of this was born the PASO organization. In other words, after the election everybody looked around and said, “We can’t let this group that has been mobilized go to sleep again,” and that’s when the PASO organization was formed.

I: In Houston who were the people responsible or involved in the origins of PASO?

AV: The same group that we’re talking about with the Civil Action Committee. We enlarged it a little more, but it was the same—Roy Alesondo, Mrs Lopez, all our wives, Al Mata, Mr Flores—the Flores’ was a large family. It functioned in that manner with the people that were the same group as the Civil Action Committee.

I: I see. Where did y’all first get together, though, after the election? Do you remember when y’all first became the group PASO here in Houston?

AV: Well, we were meeting in these old headquarters that we were still paying the rent on from the Viva Kennedy/Johnson. When you rented it or you got telephones it was for a month or two months, and when the campaign was over you still had this paid up, so we met in those places, but eventually we had to move over to church buildings and to Russ Settlement and different YMCAs and rooms where we could meet.

I: (6:50) Now this is something specifically related to you, what years do you consider to be the ones during which you were most personally active with PASO here in Houston—if you had to pick those years that you were really directly in the swing of things?

AV: The beginning of PASO all the way to 1968 or 1970. When was the assassination of Martin Luther King, ‘67?

I: I’m embarrassed, because I don’t know.

AV: ‘65?

I: No, it was after that. I was a freshman in college.

AV: Kennedy was assassinated in ’63. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated the same year weren’t they?

I: I think so.

AV: Was it 3 years later in ’67?

I: In ’66, I believe it was in 1966.

AV: It was around ’68 when we had a convention in Fort Worth and—when was Nixon elected?

I: 1968.

AV: Okay that was about the ending of our real active participation, because our state chairman went to the penitentiary.

I: Who was that?

AV: Albert Fuentes. He became a republican and he—Henry Gonzalez had warned us about this, and here was this leech that we thought was a great man, and Henry Gonzalez warned us. He said—going back to what I said about asking him to name the organization, he said, “No, not only will I not name it, but I will not be a member of it,” and we were hurt. Our feelings were hurt because after all we had—the whole thing had been born around him, but he pointed out to us that—he said, “With human frailty being what they are the minute I become a member I become one of its leaders, and the minute I become one of its leaders this organization is going to be my playpen, and I don’t want that.” He said, “I want this organization to be free to operate, to grow, and I have my career and I will help you, and I will always be available to you, but I’m not going to be one of its leaders,” and consequently, eventually he was proven right. This guy from San Antonio, Albert Fuentes, became a chairman of the statewide organization. Roy Alesondo became the first chairman and I’m almost positive that Albert Fuentes was the second chairman, and he killed the organization statewide, because the first thing he did was to become a republican.

Then he campaigned for Nixon. When Nixon was elected he immediately went after a political bone, and they made him regional director of the SBA, Small Business Administration. Immediately he started making money hand over fist. His method of operation was to go to a business man and say, “You have already made an application for $10,000,” and he would tell them, “You don’t need $10,000 you need $100,000.” The man would say, “No, I don’t need $100,000. I just want $10,000.” He would say, “No, listen to me. You’re going to need $100,000. Now, I’m going to see to it that you get the $100,000 loan, and you are going to make me a 50 percent partner in your business.” And he would point out to them that with $10,000 what can you do, but with $100,000 you become a big operation, so you will be making more money then you did when you didn’t have a partner. He was just a regular Al Capone type. Of all people, Henry Gonzalez went after him, and unfortunately, this is the result of this fellow—now, I’m telling it to you because this is for historical facts, and I don’t want to cover this up because after all he hurt us politically—this leech that got into the arena of where we needed so much honesty, and he was convicted and sent to the penitentiary. I think for 4 or 5 years, so obviously he was not innocent.

I: (13:06) Did your active involvement in PASO end or taper off after that?

AV: Right. All of us became disillusioned and up until then we had been operating very effectively because we had formed the coalition. In fact, we were one of the five legs of the coalition, which is a historical accomplishment, because nothing like that had ever taken place. PASO has always had more clout then it really deserved. We became, through a lot of aggressiveness, a member or equal partner in a coalition that had a hell of a lot of clout such as Council Organization, which was a black organization, the Teamsters, the Harris County Democrats, and PASO was the fifth leg. It was called the fifth leg of the coalition. When you went out and you endorsed a candidate—PASO endorsed a candidate—and you had the other four organizations behind you then you had a hell of a lot of clout. This is where we learned the importance of coalitions. The PASO organization’s endorsement would never get a politician anything, but if PASO’s endorsement along with the other four—in other words, the PASO working in a particular area, which is a Mexican-American area—in other words, we were put in charge of the Mexican-Americans. The blacks were put in charge of blacks, so it became a conglomeration of potential voters, and people that ordinarily wouldn’t question the leadership of that particular group, but if PASO went along or whatever organization and asked them to vote they would question it. They wouldn’t question it if they were a union member and the union was asking them to vote. In the same sense, the Mexican-Americans would have been reluctant to rush out and vote for somebody that blacks suggested they vote for, but if PASO suggested it then it became, kind of, acceptable.

I: (16:08) What was the origins of early PASO’s strength in the Mexican-American community? Was it the Viva Kennedy mystique that was still around?

AV: Sure, no doubt about that. The fact that we were on a winning side with a great candidate like Kennedy, the fact that it followed along with Lyndon Johnson, and finally, with Hubert Humphrey that by the time we got the backing it wasn’t as enthusiastic as it had been for Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

I: Now, what offices did you hold locally with PASO and statewide—if any statewide?

AV: I was Harris County Chairman for PASO.

I: From when?

AV: I will have to look at the plaque, because I don’t remember the year. I believe it was 1967.

I: Wasn’t it during the Minimum Wage March?

AV: Yes, I believe it was.

I: 1966.

AV: Did you research that?

I: Yes, I did. Now, in these earliest years—the ones that you were involved in—from 1960-1968—this is, kind of, a generalization here—how often did Harris County PASO meet? Did y’all have regular meetings in these earliest years?

AV: (18:09) Paso has never had a regular routine that way, simply, because there is going to be a time when you are going to be meeting not only for regular meetings but you’re going to have screening committee meetings. You have meetings with the mayor, meetings with the chief of police, meetings with so and so, and so consequently, this is like a civic group or a national or state or even a county group that meets every second—well, like for instance, I belong to the Photographer Association and it meets every second Wednesday of the month. Political organizations have to be allowed to rest in between campaigns or in between voter registration drives, so consequently, PASO has never had a specific routine meeting date. Once a month could be called average, but even—because there are times when you meet every night for weeks at a time.

I: When y’all did meet what type of meeting facilities did y’all have?

AV: What type of meetings?

I: I mean what type of meeting facilities or where did y’all meet when you did meet?

AV: Usually it was at some public place that—we never had any specific meeting place. It usually ended up being some headquarters that we had used for a registration drive or a political candidate. Those were our best meetings, because they were working meetings, and other than that we had little meetings at churches and at the Russ Settlement and different places, but never any specific building.

I: Was there a membership trend in the early ‘60s that you remember? How many people were involved from ’60 to ’64?

AV: We never had more than 25-35 actively involved. We could count on having a function and having a thousand people, but we wouldn’t see them again until the next campaign or the next political drive or something. We were never like the organizations today where you can count on a hundred members coming to a meeting.

I: But in the early ‘60s y’all just—

AV: No, we weren’t a very large group for the simple reason that we were a lot easier to control that way. If we had aspired to have hundreds of members then we would have had so little control or at least that was our thinking. In the first place it wasn’t that easy to get people to come to meetings. It’s not like a PTA meeting when you have a specific goal like a membership drive and stuff like that. That didn’t enter into us that much—the membership drives and award presentations. We had awards in the later years when we had conventions. I got two or three of those, but it just wasn’t our function. It was mainly just getting people out to vote.

I: (22:55) Who was the driving wheel in the early ‘60s if there were driving wheels in PASO—I mean—the main springs of PASO?

AV: Actually we functioned as a team with each of us doing particular work that we liked to do and that we could do. We had Roy Alesondo, who was good at getting donations—mind you, not only things for barbeques and stuff like that, but getting money donated for buying airtime on radio, which was our biggest headache. KLBL, which is a Mexican-American station in Houston, always treated us as a political group and according to them the FCC rules frowned upon them giving us anything, so we had to go out and hustle money to put in this man’s pocket, and we were just doing what we thought was just a civic duty. We could understand the candidates campaign, but merely to get people to register to vote we thought it was a civic function—nonprofit—and eventually, the fact that we had enough political clout that politicians would go after this kind of voter and would go and spend money in his station. That’s the way we figured it. He never figured it that way.

At first he—we had a constant running battle with him, and he would allow us to have one ad for one that we would buy, and so we would go out to businessmen and say, “Would you advertise because all we’re talking about is registering to vote.” So, the businessman would buy an ad and the station would give us an ad, and they could have easily manipulated this public service, which they should have done in the first place, but then we wouldn’t have any control as to how many ads. So, at that time it would be like $54 per half a minute of a spot or announcement for registration—telling people where the registration deputies were and urging them to go and register to vote. This was one area where Roy Alesondo was very good at going and getting money like that.

Then my function was photographing the events and also serving as a driving force to get people to meetings, to get things done or accomplished, to get the agenda, and the particular assignments for people. Then we had Al Mata who was a printer—still is a printer—who would do all our printing like invitations—ironically, out of all of us that participated in this organization he is the only one that ever went to a national democratic convention as a delegate. Al Mata is probably going to get—he did the printing of the booklets that I’ve given you, and was very, very dedicated. So, we had a small very, very efficient team that would have required a lot of people and a lot of money and we did it without. Like we say in Spanish, “Con las unas” or with our fingernails, and we worked with our fingernails really. At this point, we had Mrs Lopez, who was a dynamic woman at selling tickets over the phone. If she got a hold of you in person then she wouldn’t let you go. I would say we were a very, very small group that operated under these circumstances. We each had our function.

I: How long was Mr Alesondo active in PASO in these years?

AV: Until he was no longer state chairman. In fact, that’s when the big disillusionment came. It was after him and all the problems, but—

I: He dropped out, more or less, of the Harris County chapter as well as the state level?

AV: Yes. A good friend of ours took over the organization, David Ortiz, and he became chairman, and right about that time the organization was petering out. We were just dying, and out of the same group there were individuals who formed, kind of, another clique so to speak—another group—the same members from our group went out and more or less began to reorganize the PASO organization. Incidentally—

I: Who were these people?

AV: Well it was John Casteo that was the immigration head, and there was Ben Reyes, and the ironic thing is that just when we were beginning to peter out—

I: In the late ‘60s?

AV: Yeah, we were meeting there in my studio—the PASO organization—and there was about eight of us and Roy Alesondo was asking about how we could make a proposal, because we always were trying to get a proposal going into some kind of a foundation to go along with us in helping voter registration—monetarily help, and Roy Alesondo was saying how we needed somebody who could write up a proposal, and this fellow spoke up and he said, “Well, why don’t you do it this way,” and our organization was so small that whenever you spoke up then automatically you were assigned that. If somebody said that we needed some radio spots— (audio ends 31:31)