Ernie Cortés

Profile of a Leader

by Robert Bryce He's been called one of the most powerful people in Texas, and has been fêted as one of the saviors of American democracy. William Greider, political writer for Rolling Stone, devoted a chapter in his book Who Will Tell the People to the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in general, and to Cortés in particular. In 1984, the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a "genius" grant, giving him $204,000 to spend however he liked. His intellect and abilities have been lionized by Mary Beth Rogers, chief of staff to former governor Ann Richards, who wrote an entire book about him, Cold Anger.

Every organization depends on one or two key people for direction, energy, and inspiration. For Austin Interfaith, Valley Interfaith in South Texas, Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) in San Antonio, The Metropolitan Organization in Houston, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Committee, Allied Communities of Tarrant in Fort Worth, and several other groups affiliated with the IAF, that leader is Cortés.

The San Antonio-born son of a drugstore manager, Cortés, 52, is the IAF's coordinator for the Southwest. An Austin resident for the past 10 years, he trains and motivates the leaders that keep groups like Austin Interfaith going.

And yet to meet him is, well, to be somewhat nonplussed. It's not that Ernesto Cortés is disappointing in any way. He is warm, gracious, and engaging. But he hardly fits the profile of a powerbroker. There are no sharply cut suits, no neatly coiffed hair. In fact, there's not much hair at all. Instead, Cortés the genius, Cortés the inspirational powerbroker, stands about five and a half feet tall, has a potbelly, and wears plain, inexpensive clothes.

But as soon as he starts talking, you understand why Cortés comes with such an impressive résumé. He speaks without hesitation and with a certainty that he is absolutely correct in everything he says.

If Cortés weren't an organizer, he could be a motivational speaker. Team him with Zig Ziglar or one of those other Go Get 'Em gurus and Cortés could make a bundle. Instead, he lives in a modest tract home north of the airport which he bought with the money he got from the MacArthur Foundation. A brilliant orator who throws off quotes from the Bible, Lord Acton - "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" - and Thomas Jefferson, Cortés wheedles, prods, questions, and expounds while wheeling and pacing through the room. He doesn't ask for attention, he commands it with an intellect that allows his listeners to make the connections. He's like your favorite college professor who always remembers your name and challenges you to think and work harder.

His rhetorical power stems from his ability to put the Gospels and the rest of the Bible into current political reality. He makes the commands and stories of the Bible into a political manifesto that demands action.

At the May 6 meeting of Austin Interfaith, Cortés told the crowd that an "effective government requires an engaged citizenry. If we are to be a pluralistic culture, we have to have serious, deliberate conversations with each other." But that isn't happening in America, he says. People in society aren't mixing as much as they used to. The decline in volunteer organizations is part, he says, of "an unraveling of the social fabric. Democracy requires intermediary organizations."

Creating those intermediary organizations has become Cortés' life work. He graduated from San Antonio's Central Catholic High School at the age of 16 and took just three years to grad-uate from Texas A&M. He did graduate work in economics at the University of Texas, then in 1971 moved to Chicago to work with the IAF.

Two years later, Cortés returned to his hometown of San Antonio to begin organizing Hispanics on the city's west side. The group had a quick victory, convincing the city to spend $46 million on drainage projects. But when city leaders balked at a COPS plan to spend an additional $100 million on drainage improvements, parks, libraries and better streets, Cortés initiated a peaceful guerilla war. On February 4 and 5, 1975, hundreds of COPS members invaded two of San Antonio's most visible businesses: Joske's department store and Frost National Bank. At the department store, they tried on clothes and more clothes, but bought nothing. At the bank, COPS members changed dollars into pennies, went to the end of the line and had their pennies turned back into dollars. The resulting snafu sent the city leadership into a tailspin, and they quickly consented to COPS' agenda. In all, COPS forced city leaders to spend about half a billion dollars on infrastructure improvements on the Westside of San Antonio, an area that had been neglected by city leaders for decades. The group also played an instrumental role in forcing the city to move to single-member districts in city council elections.

"COPS brought a lot of pieces of the IAF tradition together," says Cortés, who developed the accountability sessions while working with COPS. He calls the sessions a "public drama. It's an effort to try to develop a sense of significance. It's a public action to give people the right and the opportunity to be public personas."

Cortés' success with COPS brought him notoriety. From 1975 to 1985, he moved four times to create new IAF organizations: to Los Angeles, then to Houston, then to Mercedes in South Texas, and then, in 1985, to Austin. Looking back, Cortés acknowledges that the COPS experience was pivotal. It was the first congregationally based organization in the IAF, and those congregations gave COPS the clout that it needed to succeed. No other IAF organization "had the ability to be that effective," he said recently. "We had the numbers and we had the institutional base."

A Roman Catholic who attends Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in East Austin whenever he's in town, Cortés is an omnivorous, voracious reader. Cortés' home overflows with books. Not surprisingly, his wife, Oralia, got an advanced degree in library science and recently began working in the children's section at the San Antonio Central Library. She also works as a co-chair of Austin Interfaith. The Texas IAF offices are a warren of bookshelves, filled with scores of books on Asian history, American history, politics, philosophy, and a dozen other topics.

Cortés is also like a political candidate whose campaign never ends. In the first two weeks of May he was in San Francisco, New Orleans, San Antonio, Baltimore, Florida, Houston, Mississippi, and Kansas City. When I finally caught up with him near midnight on July 10, he had been in Chicago, McAllen, and San Antonio over the previous 14 hours. He left the next morning at 7:40 for Los Angeles. What keeps him going? "I get a lot of energy from what I do. I like to see people get charged up, turned on." And the next challenges for the IAF in Texas are smaller cities like Laredo, Corpus Christi, Lubbock, or Tyler.

Cortés calls himself an organizer, but he considers himself first and foremost a teacher. He also calls himself a mentor and an agitator. He's been called an "outside agitator" many times, but his goal is to agitate people on the inside. He challenges and prods ordinary citizens to fight for themselves. He doesn't want to lead, he wants to create leaders to lead others.

So call him an agitator, a malcontent who can't accept the status quo. His job, he says, is "getting people to raise questions about what is important to them, and inspiring in them a capacity to act." If it takes agitation to get more people involved in the political process, then America needs more agitators like Ernesto Cortés. n

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