Ernie Cortés (Part Two)

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Part II of Bill Moyers’ discussion with Latino grassroots organizer, Ernie Cortés. They discuss Cortés’ works with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which he founded with famed community organizer Saul Alinsky.


BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] The Los Angeles Times called Ernie Cortés ” … the most effective Latino grassroots organizer in the country today.” He has nurtured organizations across the state of Texas, in Los Angeles, California, as well as in Tucson and Phoenix. Officially, Cortés works for the Industrial Areas Foundation, started in the 1940s by Saul Alinsky, the famous community organizer from Chicago. Alinsky believed in teaching the have-nots about political power. In that tradition, Cortés trains leaders from within communities-housewives and firefighters, secretaries and schoolteachers.

1st WOMAN TRAINEE: Part of this training is to motivate you, and to agitate you, and it’s in that challenge that makes us grow. That is itself the teaching part of organizing.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Cortés also trains professional organizers who are hired by local organizations. Many of these men and women come from religious communities, from congregation and clergy.

Cortés grew up in San Antonio. In the ’60s, he dropped out of graduate school to work with the United Farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley. In 1974, he began to build an organization in San Antonio called COPS, Communities Organized for Public Services. By the end of its first decade, COPS had succeeded in bringing paved roads, drainage ditches, housing and economic development funds to Mexican-American neighborhoods, and those victories inspired other organizations throughout the Southwest.

In the Rio Grande Valley, for example, Mrs. Anaya wanted to learn how to mobilize her community to get sewers and paved roads for the colonias, poor neighborhoods along the Texas-Mexico border.

Mrs. ANAYA: [through interpreter] The most important thing is that our children now have water and our kids now can take a bath so they can go to school clean. They have drainage now and there aren’t so many microbes.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] But for Cortés, training future organizers is more than teaching about issues.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Well, there’s no agitation going on. There’s no going to the center, okay? You were told you were allowed one agitational question?


ERNIE CORTÉS: All right. Well, I’m telling you that. You’re allowed one agitational question in that first meeting. Not too many, because it’s not appropriate.

ERNIE CORTÉS: The job of an organizer is to agitate, okay? Now, people have a stereotype of what agitation is, but agitation in the sense we teach it is to raise questions, to get people to look at their choices and look at their options, to understand that power depends upon consent. And there’s all the question-ethics of power is really kind of hovers around how do you go about obtaining consent, okay? You can obtain consent by force or violence. You can obtain consent by deceit, by lying to people–you can deceive them and you can get them to agree to do what you want them to do. You can obtain consent by manipulating people, okay, withholding information, rendering them incompetent. You can obtain consent because that’s the way it’s always done, you know, with certain traditions, okay. We have a condition I called learned helplessness in south Texas, where people-

BILL MOYERS: Learned helplessness?

ERNIE CORTÉS: -learned helplessness. People have been taught to be incompetent by all the institutions, family, the church, school. There was a-there’s a-in south Texas, you know, I’m sure you know, there is a tradition among the workers of the King ranch, quifteros, okay, and it was a proud tradition, okay. They didn’t have to worry about their retirement, they didn’t have to worry about their kids’ education, they didn’t have to worry about anything, because the boss would take care of them. Well, the King ranch is no longer owned by a: family, okay. It’s now owned by corporations, and there were these stories in The New York Times about quifteros who now are out of work, no skills, no education, nowhere to go, okay, because, you know, they’ve been raised in this kind of, you know, almost feudal system where they were taken care of, okay, they were taught to be dependent upon the padron.

BILL MOYERS: So they never questioned his authority.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Why should they? I mean, he always took care of you. If he told you which way to vote, I mean, what did it matter? Those things weren’t important. What was important was the integrity of that relationship between you and the land and between you and your work and your family, and you know, et cetera. You know, oversimplifying it just a bit, but there is that tradition all across south Texas, and part of what we have to do is to teach people that there’s another way of giving consent, obtaining consent.


ERNIE CORTÉS: Informed commitment, by teaching people what are the implications of their decisions. By teaching people how to exercise responsibility with power. And that’s what we’re trying to do with these organizations, is to-

BILL MOYERS: Well, give me an example. Teach the consequences of their actions.

ERNIE CORTÉS: -you want good schools? You’ve got to pay for them. They’re not free. You can’t tell people, ”We’re going to improve the quality of your schools, we’re going to increase teachers’ salaries, we’re going to reduce the classroom size,” and then say, ”Well, I’m not going to raise taxes.”

BILL MOYERS: Has it occurred to you maybe a lot of Americans don’t want good schools?

ERNIE CORTÉS: No, I don’t believe that’s true. I thought about that, and I think about that, but when it comes down-I think people understand the importance of schools. Now, what they don’t understand is the schools can work for them, and for their kids. I hope I’m not being naive in making that statement.

BILL MOYERS: But down in Texas, when there was a reform movement to try to improve education at the expense of some extracurricular activity and sports, the tide of public opinion went against the reform, didn’t it?

ERNIE CORTÉS: Yeah, I guess-you’ve got a point. I don’t want to concede it totally, because I don’t think that people understood. We never really trusted the people enough to teach them and we never took the time to teach them what the implications of the reforms were. So we allowed the dialogue to be seized by those people who were antireform, those people who thought that other things were more important, extracurricular activities, those people who thought that certain control was important, various and sundry reasons.

BILL MOYERS: There are always people who want to go back to Egypt.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Absolutely. And always people who are afraid of change, who don’t understand chance. And there are always people who benefit from the system as it exists. I mean, to be frank, I mean, when you’ve got layers of bureaucracy in a school system and the teacher doesn’t have any power and the principal doesn’t have much power and the parents don’t have any power, you know, and you start talking about maybe reforming and giving the teacher more power, more say-so, calling the teacher accountable, okay, you know, over three years, over five years, for what that kid does, but saying that, okay, while this is taking place, you’re free to do whatever you think is appropriate, okay. Now we’re going to see how this kid is developing, and you’re going to be held accountable for that. There are people whose livelihood or whose power or whose–you know, depends upon being able to deny that power to the teacher, deny that power to the parent.

BILL MOYERS: So you try to teach the parents in these neighborhoods in San Antonio and other places to do what in the school, to confront the school? To agitate?

ERNIE CORTÉS: Well, not necessarily. I mean, there are principals who want to do things differently. There are teachers who want to-you know, so that hopefully, you know, you try first to collaborate, okay? You try first to see if you can’t form some sort of community of interest. If necessary, you teach people that sometimes they’ve got to stand up for their rights and for the rights of their kids. You’ve got to demonstrate that there is a constituency, a strong, powerful, political -in the Greek sense of the term -constituency that is interested in reform.

BILL MOYERS: What was it Saul Alinsky, who was the founder of your parent organization, said? “Never go beyond the experience of

ERNIE CORTÉS: “Never go outside the experience of your own people.” Never do things which make them feel anxious, et cetera. He taught that because whatever your tactics, they’ve got to be things that your people feel comfortable with, okay?

BILL MOYERS: Alinsky also said, what was it, “Make the enemy live by-

ERNIE CORTÉS: “…your own book of rules.” So I guess one of the things we’re always trying to do is to get people’s recognition. People say sometimes, you know, “Why are you different now then-why are your tactics so different now than they were before?” Well, because we weren’t in the arena before.

BILL MOYERS: You were at the window looking in.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Yeah, we were on the outside looking in. We were trying to get, you know, attention, okay. Now that we’re in, okay, we’ve got to-the rules-now we’ve got to learn the rules inside, okay, and we’ve got to teach our people a different set of rules and different way of operating. How do you challenge people, how do you agitate people in the corporate room, in the boardroom? How do you agitate them when you’re sitting down negotiating, okay? How do you be effective in those arenas? Because we’re trying to teach people about public life, about politics. But more importantly, we’re trying to get people who tend to get left out, in. So we’ve got to expand the arena.

BILL MOYERS: But it’s not just another-it’s not just another interest group you’re talking about. The end of politics is not just to form another interest group, is it?

ERNIE CORTÉS: No, it’s not. I think what we’re trying to do is to try to reorganize the civic culture, and you’ve got to sometimes deal with the most disenfranchised to force them-before–to get everybody else to deal with what’s not going right in the culture. In the religious tradition you talk about, the poor have got to evangelize the rich. It’s the responsibility of poor people, to teach rich people how to be human.

BILL MOYERS: How to be human? What do you mean? What do you think we are when we are most human?

ERNIE CORTÉS: We’re relational, we’re caring, we are reciprocal. We give and take, we share. There’s a guy, I forget his name, Loomer, Art Loomer, wrote an essay called “Two Kinds of Power.” And he talks about most of our institutions culturally are into what he calls unilateral power, domination, the power of domination, the power of-unaccountable power, what Lord Acton would talk about, power tends to corrupt, absolute power, power which is inaccessible, power which is unaccountable.

We think that people can learn a different kind of power, power which involves sharing, collaboration, power which involves people learning how to work together, okay. Now, that means that, you know, we’re not trying to preach pie in the sky, Pollyanna stuff. I’m saying that it means that people have got to recognize other people’s interests. It means sometimes there has to be hard bargaining, hard negotiating, sometimes arguing, sometimes confrontation.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, because I know behind every one of the principles, I know from firsthand experience as a fellow Texan, that behind every one of the principles you espouse, there is an action that you have sponsored.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s correct. That is correct. But we’re ultimately trying to teach people that democracy-Alinsky used to say that if you had to define democracy in one word, it would be compromise. There has to be a deal. A political philosopher said, in politics, it’s not just enough to be right, you also have to be reasonable. You have to give and take, okay. You have to compromise.

BILL MOYERS: But that’s easy to say to the poor, though. How do you say that to the rich? The rich have been winning in the last number of years in this country, and-

ERNIE CORTÉS: No, but they’ve got a stake, too.

BILL MOYERS: -and the poor seem very reasonable about it.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s true. But the rich have got to understand that they’ve got a stake in this, too. I mean, there are some real-I mean, unless they want to—you know, we could live in a Third World country. We could-I’m not sure that America can make it without a decent public school system. I’m not sure America can make it without cities. I don’t know how that’s possible, that we can make it, if our cities are ungovernable, if our schools don’t work.

BILL MOYERS: I agree with you, but parts of your culture, parts of San Antonio, are a Third World country. Down the border of Texas and Mexico, a Third World country.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Oh, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: You’re not talking about something that could be, you’re talking about something that is.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s correct. And that’s why I think Texas has got a real kind of role to play. I mean, we could be a model, or we can be an example of the future that doesn’t work, okay?

BILL MOYERS: The Nigeria of America.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s right. Or the Central America of America. However you want to look at it, okay. And that concerns me. We have to begin to say-I think there are people, I know there are people in the corporate community, in the political community, who understand that-Ross Perot used to say to us, we asked him, you know, ”Why are you so involved with this education issue?” And he said he had a friend who used to tell him about that, and he said he’d tell the friend, “I know you don’t like black, and I know you don’t like brown, but I know you love green.”

BILL MOYERS: It comes down to that, doesn’t it?

ERNIE CORTÉS: Sometimes. One of the things that we-one of the universals we teach is that people do the right thing for the wrong reason. And sometimes some of my friends who are idealists expect people to do the right thing, okay, for the right reason. They want people’s motives to be pure. And you can’t-in the world as it is, people operate on the basis of their own interests. And we’ve got to find out what is the interest of people. We can’t look at people in one dimension.

That’s one of the skills we try to teach people, is not to look at people one-dimensionally, not to see rich people as a monolith, okay. That there are all kinds of interests and tensions between people in any corporate community, okay. Some people are creditors, some people are, you know, debtors, et cetera. And I don’t want to overplay that, but I’m just saying there are people will some-I remember once meeting with one of the editors of the Houston newspaper who all of a sudden wanted to have a relationship with our organization. And I said, you know, where is this coming from? These guys have been blasting us when we moved to Houston, four days in a row attacked us all the time, “outside agitators.” All of a sudden now they want a relationship with us, okay. Why? You know, you’re part of the establishment, how come you’re becoming, you know, “anti-establishment”? ”Well, you know,” he says, “you know, every year we said to ourselves, we’re going to make our money and the next year we’ll take care of the problems, next year we’ll take care of the crime, next year we’ll take care of the… well, you know, now 10, 20 years have passed and we still haven’t done any-I mean, we’ve got, you know, flooding problems in the southeast, we’ve got”

BILL MOYERS: Zoning abominations all over Houston. Houston’s a wasted city, in many respects.

ERNIE CORTÉS: It’s a city which has a political establishment which would work for a city of about 100,000 people. There’s no traffic-I mean, there’s no transportation system, the schools are crumbling, the infrastructure is decaying. But, you know, maybe not too late. There are people who are starting to recognize, you know, maybe for the wrong reason, we’ve got to do something about the infrastructure, we’ve got to do something about zoning. We’re being approached now by people, you know, to talk about zoning questions in Houston, okay, by the very people who wouldn’t have anything to do with us, you know, 10 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: What’s your biggest success of the last 15 years? Have you won a big one?

ERNIE CORTÉS: Yeah, we won three big ones. I guess the one that I’m the proudest of, because everybody said it was impossible, couldn’t be done, was to get the state legislature in Texas to vote $100 million dollars’ worth of general obligation bonds to provide water and sewer services to what they call colonias, unincorporated areas outside of cities along the border. Everyone told us that the state legislature of Texas would never do that. But they did it. We got a lot of help. The lieutenant governor, Hobby. Remarkably, some of the Republican legislators who were, for their own reasons, wanting to form alliances with the Hispanic community, felt that they needed to show-. and this way they could, because it was a real self-help deal -I mean, the colonia residents were going to pay through their utility bills for these capital improvements, so it was not a giveaway, from their point of view, although there was some state money that had to appropriated. So I was real proud of that. But there have been other victories that I’ve been real proud of, the house-the effort to get-we got over a billion dollars’ worth of state education dollars to the property of poor school districts in south Texas. And working with a great woman by the name of Helen Farrabee, who’s now deceased, and Lieutenant Governor Hobby, a kind of revolutionary indigent health care program in Texas. So I felt like we were part of those victories.

BILL MOYERS: What’s going to happen in Texas and California when the people who are now in the minority are going to become, in 10 or 15 years, the majority?

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s a good question, and I would ask people who think that it’s not in their interest to be concerned about those people, just ask them how their Social Security checks will be paid for when the ratio—when we started the Social Security system, it was 16 to one.

BILL MOYERS: Sixteen to one.

ERNIE CORTÉS: And now it’s going to be what, five to one?


ERNIE CORTÉS: Three to one?

BILL MOYERS: Three to one, yeah.

ERNIE CORTÉS: What happens in the year 2015 when it’s two to one, two workers to one, and one of those workers is uneducated, can’t read, is illiterate and, you know, can’t function in a working environment? Now, where is that Social Security check going to come from? Where is his pension going to come from if we don’t have workers who now are productive for him? I’d ask him that question.

BILL MOYERS: You’re asking us to think of self-interest as something more, whether we’re rich or poor, than just our own aggrandizement, our own reward.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about in a cultural way. Self-interest involves the other.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Yeah, because the word-well, let’s go back to the word interest. It means to be among or between. It means inter-the Latin word for interest is interese. So we’re asking that which the self is among or between. De Tocqueville understood self-interest as a very complex phenomenon.

BILL MOYERS: John Dewey.

ERNIE CORTÉS: John Dewey understood it, okay.

BILL MOYERS: “And no one grows apart from others growing, too.”

ERNIE CORTÉS: Exactly. And we say that, properly understood, self-interest leads people to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, because you recognize you need people. I can’t get what I want without you setting what you want. We’re in this together.

BILL MOYERS: That’s not the way the world seems to have been working.

ERNIE CORTÉS: No question about it, but I think part of-well, that’s why we need organizations. That’s why we need organizers. That’s why I’m-fortunately or unfortunately, no matter how hard I work myself out of a job, I’ll always have one, okay. Because people need to there needs to be these organizations which are like mini-universities, which teach people how their self-interest is connected to other people’s interest, how they’re not going to get what they want unless other people get what they want. And how compromise is not a dirty word. There’s a compromise of half a loaf, which is still bread, you can still eat it. Then there’s the compromise of Solomon, which is half a baby, a corpse. The question is, which compromises do you take? Which compromises are appropriate?

Which involves judgment, and how do you learn judgment? Well, it’s a public process, it’s not-you know, everybody has an opinion, and everybody’s opinion is as good as everybody else’s, but the act of making a judgment requires the act of looking at the arguments, looking at the evidence, the criteria for evidence.

BILL MOYERS: So what does it mean when you say, “I want to empower the poor?”

ERNIE CORTÉS: I want to teach, in a word. I want to teach people. I want to teach people how they can take their private pain, their private hopes, their private aspirations, and translate that into public issues which are going to qualitatively improve their lives and that of their children. But that that’s going to require work on their part, it’s going to require responsibility, because the flip side of power is responsibility.

It means they have to be owners of their own destiny. And that means everything from raising the money to building an organization so that they can hire the organizers, so that the organizers work for them, they’re not paid for by some outside source. It means understanding the issues. They’re not going to pay some advocate to go speak for them, they’re not going to hire lawyers to represent them, they’ve got to be their own spokespersons. They’ve got to speak for themselves. Which means they’ve got to understand the issues, they’ve got to understand the arguments, because they’ve got to engage in the discourse with the mayor of San Antonio, or the mayor of Houston or the bank president. It means they’ve got to be willing to teach others.

BILL MOYERS: How do you do that? Because for so long, in Texas, Hispanics have been taught that-to conform.

ERNIE CORTÉS: There’s a wonderful story about one of the presidents of COPS, Beatriz Gallego, who always thought I was a radical and always thought I was, you know, a ne’er-do-well, and didn’t believe me. And she went to this big action with the city manager and she was concerned about the Nogalitos drainage project. And we had done some research in the project. The money had been voted for the project four years before, but nothing had been done. The contract-the preliminary engineering contract had not been signed, nothing had been done while projects on the north side, the more affluent side of town, were being completed. She didn’t believe us. She said she couldn’t believe that they would do that.

So she confronted him with the information, half mistrusting me, half thinking I was-you know, but she was going to do it this time, she was going to test me out in front of 500 people. And when he was confronted with the information, he said, ”We dropped the ball.” And that was like a world opened up to her, a moment of truth. He admitted publicly -maybe he shouldn’t have, maybe he should have lied, but he admitted publicly, God rest his soul -but he admitted publicly that they had dropped the ball, that they had not done a thing.

Well, that was the end-of her-the old Beatriz Gallego. That was the end of the Beatriz Gallego-

BILL MOYERS: Obeisance to authority.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s right, higher authority, who bowed and scraped. No, no more.

BILL MOYERS: They were human.

ERNIE CORTÉS: That’s right. They were human beings.


ERNIE CORTÉS: Flawed. Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: Because she stood up. That had to empower her, didn’t it? Morally, not just politically.

ERNIE CORTÉS: Two years later they were writing articles about her, you know, that she’s a scrapper and she’s, you know, can compete with me for being, you know, for being somebody that could really kind of take people on, et cetera.

BILL MOYERS: So she learned the lesson. But what lesson did you learn from that experience?

ERNIE CORTÉS: Well, I learned I could trust my own people. I could trust people, I could trust myself. And I learned that-I guess I learned the iron rule.

BILL MOYERS: The iron rule?

ERNIE CORTÉS: The iron rule is, never, ever do for anyone what he or she can do for themselves. It’s the opposite of learned helplessness. It’s the opposite of what we teach. We teach people they’re incompetent. We teach people they can’t do for themselves, that they have to–that they’ve got to be told everything.

The iron rule respects people’s dignity. It says you have to challenge people, you have to agitate them. It’s the opposite of what Alinsky called welfare colonialism, where you treat people as if they were children.

But the iron rule teaches that people can be respected, that they can be challenged, they can be agitated. And if they’re offered the right choices and the opportunity to learn, that they could initiate on-in behalf of themselves and their families.

There is no democracy without the iron-John Stuart Mill wrote an essay on representative government, and he said that the act of participation teaches people confidence in their own competence.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] This has been a conversation with Ernie Cortés. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on April 3, 2015.

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