The Austin Chronicle

Celebrating Barrientos

By Michael King, September 29, 2006, News

"I am not retiring, just changing gloves," declared Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, at a Sept. 13 Scholz Garten celebration of the retiring senator and his wife, Emma, sponsored by the Austin Tejano Democrats. Barrientos is officially stepping down at the end of his current legislative term in January, after 21 years in the Senate and 10 years in the House, but he says he expects to turn to some related form of work – perhaps public relations or broadcasting. "We are humbled that you allowed us to serve," he told the crowd, speaking for himself and Emma, "and we are thankful we were able to build some bridges between all kinds and colors of people, rich and poor." The shared affection among the Barrientos family – several of them on hand – and several generations of politicians, community activists, and friends was palpable.

Emphasizing the senator's legislative work in housing, education, and the environment, Austin state Rep. Elliott Naishtat recalled, "Gonzalo has done more for the people of Texas than you will ever, ever know." Naishtat was also among those sharing tales about the old days, recalling in particular his first meeting with Barrientos, at the time a program officer with Volunteers in Service to America. "He just couldn't stop laughing," said Naishtat, "when he realized he was telling this Jewish New Yorker, who thought he'd been assigned to San Francisco, that I was in fact going to be performing my service in Eagle Pass."

And there were more sober memories, as John Treviño, Austin's first Mexican-American City Council member, recalled persuading Barrientos to run once again for the House seat he had narrowly lost to incumbent Wilson Foreman in 1972. Barrientos was extremely reluctant to put his family through the ordeal all over again, but Treviño and others told him, "There's no one else that can do it. … We just don't have anyone else." Barrientos sat and thought a long time, recalled Treviño – "Finally, he stood and said, 'Vamanos!'"

This time, he won. Barrientos became the first Mexican-American representative from Travis Co. and began a long legislative career supporting and defending the interests of ordinary Texans. "He was a different kind of politician," recalled a lifelong friend. "He never forgot his roots."

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