Page 9


T THE TEXAS server Available at the following locations: Brazos Bookstore 2314 Bissonett Houston Paperbacks & Mas 1819 Blanco Road San Antonio Daily News & Tobacco 309-A Andrews Highway Midland The Common Market 1610 San Antonio Austin Old World Bakery 814 W. 12th Street Austin The Stoneleigh P 2926 Maple Ave. Dallas Guy’s News Stand 3700 Main Street Houston College News 1101 University Lubbock Fire in the Belly BY MALCOLM GREENSTEIN ‘FIRST MET Willie in the fall of 1969 in San Antonio where I was stationed as a VISTA volunteer. I had recently completed law school and was filled with the idealism and energy that imbued many of us in that era. I knew nothing of the Southwest. Except for a post-law-school hitchhike, I had never ventured west of D.C.; I didn’t know there were people in this country who spoke Spanish as their native language. My ignorance did not disqualify me from VISTA service. They designated me a community organizer and placed me in a public housing unit on the west side of San Antonio. Willie was my trainer and he had no easy task in acculturating a middle-class Jewish Yankee. At one of our first meetings he took me to Mario’s Restaurant for my first Mexican meal. After we were seated, I noticed a bowl on the table with small green pieces of some unknown substance and I asked Willie what it was. With a straight face he suggested I try it, whereupon I grabbed a teaspoon-full and blithely swallowed it. My mouth exploded and I couldn’t drink enough water to put out the fire. Willie couldn’t stop laughing nor could I, when I realized what had happened. Following this introduction to Southwestern cuisine, Willie and I became friends. But more important for myself and the other VISTA volunteers who worked in the barrios of San Antonio, he was the one VISTA supervisor who consistently supported our well-intenattempts to effect change. Whenever we were attacked, either in the press or by our own supervisors, Malcolm Greenstein is a lawyer practicing in Austin. whether it was for assisting the lettuce boycott by picketing Safeway Stores, or driving neighborhood kids to the beach in a government van, or assisting a Hunger in America television documentary portraying the devastating poverty in San Antonio \(to the embarrassment in our defense. At one point I was faced with expulsion from VISTA, in part because of my frequent unexcused departures from my project to help with the formation of La Raza Unida in Crystal City. At the subsequent public hearing, both Willie and his wife, Jane, who was also a VISTA volunteer, spoke out on my behalf and against my immediate supervisors, who were longtime San Antonio associates of theirs. It seemed to me that took some courage. But Willie seemed naturally inclined to stand with people who were trying to shake things up a little. He was a born hellraiser. I last spoke to Willie when he was hospitalized at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, a few weeks before his death. We recounted VISTA stories, joked about his hypothetical rejection of Duarte as a hospital roommate, and made plans for me to visit Willie and his family in San Antonio. Willie then discussed his illness. He related how he had daily performed his aerobic exercises until recently, when he unexpectedly found he lacked the stamina to continue his regimen. He consulted a doctor who, he explained, relieved his anxiety. “I thought I could no longer exercise because I was getting old; I was glad to learn it was only because I had cancer.” We never did get to visit in San Antonio. Que le vaya bien, Willie. We’ll miss you. “fight,” the “issue,” or the “cause” is next on the list of priorities, not our well-being. It is a scenario that reminds me of the hired gunslinger who comes at the behest of the spineless to rid the town of outlaws and assorted toughies. He rides in, never smiles or quits, gets the job done at great sacrifice and risk to himself, then rides out into the sunset leaving girl, friends, admirers, and victory behind. No one, including him, stops to think of his own future. We have forever assumed that organizers take vows of poverty when they engage in social activism. Today, not even the priests or nuns live in poverty; it’s mostly their parishioners. When Willie, Juan, Mario, Nacho, and myself were out leafletting in front of the Alamo, at the cathedral, at La Casita farms against the Rinches, against the war, against Preston Smith, there was no health, accident, or life insurance. When your ass got in trouble that was too bad. Someone else took your place until you got out of trouble. We never stopped to plan out our lives, our educational needs, our dreams for a family life. We couldn’t afford it. Inevitably came the wife, the kids, the mortgage, the college loans, cars, and the rest of life to pay for. So when an organizer dies it is the survivors who live in hell, making the best of life under the circumstances. Some things don’t change. I remember. Willie organized for MAYO-La Raza Unida conferences across the state. At those conferences we addressed issues of wellbeing for our people, both economic and political. We forgot about ourselves. Today, Mario, Nacho, Juan, and I, all of us well into middle age, are still trying to finish college careers, find jobs with real “fringe benefits,” and enjoy life as best we can. Granted that Willie and Juan both for awhile enjoyed a regular check and some benefits. Not having benefits for so long made it easier to give them up again and again. We lost a good one in Willie. We will lose more until we treat our organizers well. 1-0 JULY 29, 1988