By Joe Olvera ©, 2010
With the advent of Hispanic Heritage Month – which starts September 15 and concludes October 15 – one of El Paso’s early leaders (although he no longer considers himself a leader) spoke about the progress, if any, since the recognition began in 1988 when President Ronald Reagan chose that period to honor Hispanic contributions.
Pete Duarte, former director of Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, and, later CEO at Thomason Hospital, said that the progress has been sporadic and, in some ways, Hispanics have slid backward. “Some of us were involved in the civil rights movement that had adherence to the idea of self-determination, the right of people to determine their own destiny.
“But, today, we are sin jale, sin feria, sin nada,” Duarte said in an interview. “The number one issue in 1968, when my wife, Joy, and I came to El Paso was poverty. Today, almost 40 years later, we’re faced with the same problem. In El Paso, one-third of the population was below the poverty level. We came to El Paso because the dismal demographics made the city very challenging. We thought we could change it in a decade, but, we still haven’t changed it.”
Duarte, who was born in a small community in California (Moorpark), had come to El Paso from the Dominican Republic in the Fall of 1968. He was one of a few Chicanos who were hired by the University of Texas at El Paso, when, in 1970, he joined the faculty. He remained 10 years at the school, but, became the Executive Director of La Fe in 1980. In 1992, he moved to Thomason Hospital as the CEO.
He said that it’s ironic with what’s happening in Arizona with SB1070 that targets Hispanics, because his people – the Yaqui Indians – actually made the state grow. “My people started a revolution by working in the mines in Clifton and Morenci, Arizona. Today, I can’t even go there because I’m liable to be stopped.”
Duarte said that if El Paso is to improve its economic situation for the less fortunate, it must create a concentrated effort, to come up with an economic plan. “There are many unfulfilled promises in El Paso. The issue is how much we pay people. Many of our brightest leave El Paso because there isn’t enough pay. If we concentrated on this effort, we could make progress, but, there seems to be very little concentration.”
Duarte said El Paso is becoming more of a military community, but, it’s the taxpayer who must support the effort. “It’s okay, you understand, yet, who pays for this infrastructure? We’re being taxed out of existence. The military community may be good for some, but, not for everyone. We need to recruit local talent to run our systems, to educate them so that they can take over some day. We need to get young people more involved in making El Paso a truly unique city, one dedicated to making progress.”
When asked if Hispanic El Pasoans have made any progress at all, Duarte said that “people like Pete Duarte had a good job, but, 9 out of 10 people don’t have a good job. The problem is we get further behind every decade. You know the saying, ‘money talks and something else walks,’ that’s us, that’s our problem.
“I’m so disappointed and disillusioned at the corruption that’s happening in our community,” Duarte said. “The problem too is that the small ones pay and the big ones get off, they buy their way out. Some things never change. Maybe I’m getting too cynical, the older I get, the more cynical I become.”
Duarte said that the Decade of the Hispanics, which, to him, started in 1980, was pure fantasy. “We don’t own our destiny, not as long as we are on the low level of the economic picture. We struggled and fought for our people, and we ousted our white ‘patrons,’ and replaced them with brown ones.
“The reason I don’t see myself as a leader, is that we have new ones. I started out being a leader, but, I’m out of the picture now. My job today is taking care of my 11 grandchildren. I’ve got three here, four in Denver, and four more in Las Vegas, Nevada. I travel back and forth because I don’t want them to forget their grandpa. I also go to California quite often to see my five siblings. So, that keeps me busy and involved. But, I’m still very skeptical of change.”