The politics of two powerful Hispanics.
The two most powerful Hispanics in American government today are Kika de la Garza, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in the year a new farm bill must be passed, and Henry Cisneros, mayor of San Antonio, our 10th largest city, and a member of the Kissinger commission on Central America.
Kika de la Garza's family has lived in the lower Rio Grande valley since the 1700s, long before it was the border. For years it was mostly scrub and desert, and even when he was growing up in the town of Mission in the 1930s, "we were three blocks away from the woods." His father worked for Hidalgo County and then for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; his father and uncle were active in local politics. They weren't a rich family, and as a kid de la Garza shined shoes on Main Street in McAllen; but it was accepted that "you were going to go to college -- period."
Kika grew up speaking both English and Spanish. In grade school the Irish nuns spoke English but didn't ban Spanish; at the dinner table the language "depended on the conversation." In 1945, when he was 17, de la Garza left high school for the Navy to serve, unexpectedly, in peacetime. He returned home and attended Edinburg Junior College in the valley, and saved his GI Bill benefits for law school at St. Mary's in San Antonio, where most of the students were Hispanic. The dean was "a tough cookie," and, he says, "99.9 percent passed the bar." At St. Mary's he was in ROTC and served in the Army artillery. He wasn't in Korea but was a general's aide.
On leave in 1952 de la Garza ran for the legislature and beat the rough-hewn local "machine." Any discrimination in the valley, school, the service, the legislature? "I never had a problem." He is an amiable man who has learned eight languages because "people appreciate hearing their own language." In 1964 Rep. Joe Kilgore retired. Lloyd Bentsen Sr., father of the senator and one of the valley's biggest landowners, "read me my responsibilities: my family, my people, my country." (Bentsen, now 92, says he has known de la Garza "since he could walk. He was always a real worker, ambitious.")
So the young man who had become one of the first Hispanic partners in a big McAllen law firm became, at major financial loss, the first Hispanic congressman from the valley -- moderate to conservative, loyal to party, hard-working on district matters. He can hold the seat, if he wants, for life.
Henry Cisneros' father also worked for the government, as a civilian at San Antonio's Fort Sam Houston, and he rose to colonel in the Army Reserve. "For him, if a world was structured by grade," Cisneros says, "that was a fair world."
But his family was also in plitics: his grandfather, Romulo Munguia, in the turbulent years following the 1910 revolution in Mexico, was a follower of Francisco Madero. Mexican revolutionary politics was a lethal business (for Madero and others), and Munguia moved to San Antonio, part of an exile community of political intellectuals in the first big city north of the border.
On the open, treeless lands of south Texas, San Antonio had even then just enough skyscrapers to look urban, though its economy depended on the military. Its population was about one-third Hispanic. Romulo Munguia and his son ran a print shop, which did a lot of political work.
Munguia was an anticlerical, but the church ran the only good schools, and Henry Cisneros attended Catholic High School for Boys, run by the Marianist Brothers. "I don't know if they intended it or not," he says, "but they created a Hispanic management group": 20 boys from the classes of 1960 to 1968 now hold high positions. Cisneros went from there to Texas A&M and was part of the military corps; he was contemplating a military career at a time when other national Democrats his age were protesting the Vietnam war. He's proud to be an Aggie, and proud that the governor appointed him to the A&M Board of Regents.
Cisneros' military career was cut short as the war wound down; he went to graduate school and got a PhD in urban studies; as a White House fellow he worked for Elliot Richardson. After Cambridge and Washington, he was offered a position teaching in San Antonio, and he and his wife returned there in 1974. He lives on the Hispanic West Side, near the small yellow bungalow where his parents still live. His uncle talked him into running for the council in a west side district in 1975; he ran for mayor in 1981 and beat an Anglo slow-growth advocate.
Cisneros revels now in planning for San Antonio's future, helping to build in a low-wage, public-sector city a strong high-tech private sector. He's proud of writing important papers -- "Target '90," the city blueprint -- himself, and proud that in a city once bitterly divided between Hispanics and Anglos, he's established a consensus politics on issues of his own choosing.
Talented political families, tough Marianist schools, military service, total fluency in English and Spanish and ease among Anglos and Hispanics: the short relaxed 57-year-old de la Garza and the ramrod-thin 38-year-old Cisneros have much in common. From their unusual corner of the United States, they stay in touch with Mexico, but their politics like their lives are unequivocally American.