As we explored in Who Rules El Paso?, No Not That One, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that El Paso’s Hispanics began to assert political power in the city. Although the Anglo minority continues to control the public policy agenda with the complicity of a fractured Latino majority, Hispanics leaders have become political power brokers. The 1980’s was supposed to be the renaissance of the empowered Latino in El Paso. However, according to Hector Holguin, as quoted by the El Paso Times in 1989, “the decade was a disappointment” for El Paso Hispanics. Holguin added, however, that it helped to build unity among El Paso’s Latinos.  The “unity” and the “disappointment” led to the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI).
Latinos were making their mark in the city’s politics in 1990; “it’s only a matter of time – and probably not a lot of time – before Hispanics begin to dominate El Paso politics from City Hall to the County courthouse, politicians predict,” said the newspaper. If readers weren’t clear who rules El Paso, the El Paso Times made it clear: “Anglo politicians have ruled El Paso politics for 100 years.”  Prior to 1990, there had been only two Latino mayors of El Paso. They were Raymond Telles (1957) and Ray Salazar (1977). 
It was a woman Latina – Alicia Chacon – that was the first to lead the way in 1990. She won the Democratic nomination for county judge against three “high-profile, Anglo men.”  She later won the November election to become county judge. According to the El Paso Times, in 1990 Chacon was one of five “new breed of young, business-oriented Hispanics preparing to play a bigger part in El Paso politics.” The newspaper said the other four were Charlie Ponzio, Ramiro Guzman, Ray Mancera and Lina Frescas Dobbs. Ponzio and Guzman were part of the newly formed El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, with Ponzio being president in 1990. 
However, in passing, the Times added Phil Martinez, Lupe Rivera-Eggemeyer, Moises Bujanda, Rene Nuñez and Jose Rodriguez to the list of influential Hispanic politicos. The newspaper article did not mention them, but they were included in the accompanying image.  There were other Hispanic office holders in El Paso, but the El Paso Times did not name them as influential politicians in 1990. Among them were Leo Samaniego who was the sheriff and Paul Moreno, the state representative.
The newspaper also added Hector Holguin to the list of influential Hispanics in El Paso.  Holguin is known for working behind the scenes on several issues and for helping to establish the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI). It is the HLI that demonstrates how Latinos in El Paso can band together to drive the city’s public policy agenda and how a fractured Hispanic community diminishes their power by “jumping on the backs of others.” 
Tensions between the Anglo and Latino communities continued to manifest in the city’s politics. For example, on August 19, 1994, then city representative Stan Roberts was overheard saying “damn Mexican flag” over a discussion about murals in the city during a budget hearing. City council members were discussing six murals. Roberts had opposed a mural painted by students because the Mexican flag painted by the students in the Texas Employment Commission’s Northeast branch, had “no place in America,” Roberts had said. Roberts told the newspaper that he opposed the six proposed murals because “they only want to put them in the Northeast,” adding, “why not the West Side?” 
The Hispanic Leadership Institute
It was Myrna Deckert, who was the CEO of the YWCA at the time, that approached a group of Hispanics meeting informally in the 1980’s to discuss Latino issues and asked them start an Hispanic leadership program at the YWCA. The group felt that any group at the YWCA would be “Hispanic leadership according to Myrna Deckert.”  “We didn’t trust Myrna Deckert, so we rejected” joining them, says Galicia in the oral history. 
Deckert was the CEO of the Paso del Norte Group, the controversial group that led several attempts to gentrify Segundo Barrio.
Instead, the group formed the Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI) in 1988.  Former city representative Lily Limón was invited to serve as a facilitator in August 1988 to help form the HLI. According to Limón, although there were “many others” around at the formation of the HLI, the original organizers were Hector Holguin, Alicia R. Chacon, Pete Duarte and Enrique Moreno. 
The HLI was born out of “informal meetings that began in the 1980’s,” Homero Galicia told us earlier this month. According to Galicia, the informal meetings included himself, Pete Duarte, Enrique Moreno and Robert Villarreal. The group started meeting because “we faced pressures in our professional lives from the power structure in El Paso,” wrote Galicia. Moreno was starting his practice, Pete Duarte was transitioning from La Fe to Thomason Hospital (UMC) and Villareal was a political science professor at UTEP, according to Galicia. Galicia adds that he was Director of the Minority Business Council at the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. In addition to discussing the pressures they faced, the group discussed “issues of Hispanic political power and lack of it.” 
The Comadristas is the informal name of the group that was meeting for breakfast. The name evolved from labelling themselves the “Co-Madres,” after Alicia Chacon’s Comadres group. Overtime they became known as the Comadristas. 
The HLI was formed to address the lack of Hispanic leaders in El Paso, according to Pete Duarte, one of the founders. Along with the lack of Hispanic leaders, the HLI also wanted to address issues with education and the lack of access for Latinos in the news media.  In addition, the group wanted to address job development, working on the economy, as well as “to develop programs to improve the public perception of Hispanic issues and culture” in the news. 
But Homero Galicia points to an important problem that the HLI wanted to address – bringing Hispanics together. For example, Galicia explains; “Holguin and Alicia Chacón did not each other,” until they were introduced by Hector Gutierrez. Chacón’s group’s point of view was not known to the others, says Galicia. Thus, the HLI was an attempt to “bring people together” and allow them to share their ideas with the other members. But policy needed to be an important facet of the organization, says Galicia. “Each policy decision has consequences,” Galicia told us. So, the HLI needed to be a “think-tank” to look at policy as well. 
Community involvement by El Paso Hispanics was an issue the HLI hoped to address. Duarte told the newspaper that “too many successful Hispanics have forgotten where we’ve come from and have not made an overall effort to give back.” 
Pablo Salcido told the El Paso Times in 1988 that “Hispanic leaders should forsake personal agenda and focus instead on unity.” Salcido was speaking at the second Hispanic Leadership Conference in El Paso on December 3, 1988. The first conference was held on October 11, 1988. In his speech, Salcido said that in addition to educational development and jobs, the organizers “also want to know where the future Hispanic leaders are, who is grooming them to take over the reins of power,” in El Paso.  The conferences led to the formation of the HLI.
In the first meeting held on October 11, 1988, to organize on the HLI, five areas were identified as key for Hispanics. They were leadership, educational development, job development and economy, marketing and communication, and organization and networking. 
On December 3, 1988, the second organizational meeting for the HLI was held with about 100 individuals in attendance. Pablo Salcido, one of the coordinators told the audience that “learning to deal with the El Paso media should be another focus” of the proposed HLI. Salcido added that the HLI needs “to develop an Hispanic issues program so the El Paso media can deal with those issues important” to Latinos in El Paso, “on a daily, regular basis.” 
Alicia Chacon told the audience that “not everyone can be the general, otherwise there won’t be any soldiers.” She added that, “we need to accept the fact that leading and following are equally important.” Chacon added, “our problem is not knowing when to lead and not knowing when to follow.” 
According to the Texas corporation database, the Hispanic Leadership Institute of El Paso was established on July 18, 1989. It was closed on February 14, 2007. The directors were Hector Holguin, Homero Galicia and Enrique Moreno. In a Texas Christian University oral history interview in 2015, Homero Galicia says that seven individuals formed the group. Galicia adds that he was the facilitator that brought the group together. Initially there were five people “that came together,” says Galicia. 
Galicia, in a telephone interview reiterated what he had said in the 2015 oral history at TCU. It was that the original idea of the HLI was to create an Hispanic think tank “and look at policy and see how policy affected the Mexican American community.”  However, the group soon realized that the “rich, or wealthy, or successful Hispanic didn’t know the community activists.” To address the disconnect between the activists and the Hispanic leaders, the HLI became “a round table.” 
There were two important catalysts that drove the formation of the HLI. It was the symphony’s Abraham Chavez and the Fermin Dorado saga.
The issue of the removal of Abraham Chavez from the symphony “was the biggest issue” for the HLI, according to Galicia.  As we explored in our article about Chavez, the firing became very controversial in the community with calls for boycotts from the orchestra and several community leaders, including Jonathan Rogers, the mayor of El Paso at the time. Chavez’ firing came after a two-year dispute between the conductor and the symphony board.
As we looked at in our previous article, the controversy over the firing of Abraham Chavez seemed to have been resolved by the HLI until it was later revealed that it was partially addressed as Chavez was ultimately forced out by the Symphony. But the incident demonstrated the power the bankers had over El Paso. It took one phone call to resolve the controversy. That phone call came about not altruistically, but because the bankers feared “an explosion in the community.” The El Paso Hispanics had proven they had the clout, when united, to force some change in the status quo.
The Fermin Dorado Controversy
Another issue that consumed the HLI was the Fermin Dorado controversy. As we looked at our previous article on Dorado, Dorado and another Latino were singled out for an intrusive criminal investigation because some Anglo business owners were upset that they now had to compete with Hispanic businesses for the city contracts.
On June 30, 1995 member of the HLI met with then-mayor Larry Francis to discuss the perception that Francis was sidelining Hispanics in hiring decisions, especially department heads. It wasn’t until 1997 that the meeting was publicly disclosed in a letter to the El Paso Times after Francis was quoted as saying that the issue of discrimination had not been brought up to him before, except for one individual. 
The HLI was attempting to address a perception of discrimination by the Francis administration. Instead of addressing it, Larry Francis allowed a criminal investigation that found no wrongdoing three years later but left the impression that Latinos could not be trusted in important positions at the city.
The HLI was not stagnant. It addressed other issues in the community. One issue, in particular, showed the infighting within the Latino community that weakened their political clout in the city.
The Orlando Fonseca Controversy
In the 1980’s when Alicia Chacon and Orlando Fonseca served at city council together a feud developed between them that followed both through their political careers. Fonseca derided Chacon as the “mother superior” in 1994. Chacon often accused Fonseca of being the “rudest” politico in the city. The HLI supported Chacon openly. 
Orlando Fonseca had a Spanish radio show on KBNA for four years called Que Pasa en El Paso. For months the HLI had asked Fonseca to stop attacking other El Paso Latinos on the air, “especially Alicia Chacon.”  The HLI accused Fonseca of using his radio program “to attack people he doesn’t like.” Fonseca countered that it was his comments against Alicia Chacon that the HLI didn’t like. 
For his part, Fonseca asked, “does HLI mean that I can’t criticize Hispanics, but it’s OK to criticize others?” LULAC’s Bobby Perez countered that “the problem is that for years, Hispanics have had a tendency to focus on each other’s shortcomings,” according to the newspaper. 
After targeting Jose Rodriguez on his program on October 3, 1992, Fonseca’s radio program was cancelled by the station the following week. Rodriguez was running for county attorney.  Carmen Rodriguez, Jose Rodriguez’ wife, was a member of the HLI at the time.
The bad blood between Chacon and Fonseca got worse during the April 12, 1994 runoff elections. Both Chacon and Fonseca were fighting to keep their seats.  Both lost.
The Man Who Beat The FBI
On December 3, 1988, Matt Perez told about 100 Latinos, “like Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata said, ‘It’s better to die standing, than to live kneeling.’ I implore upon you here today, get off your knees.” 
FBI agent Matt Perez was asking about 100 members of the HLI members to write letters to the federal government asking them to not appeal the discrimination verdict against the FBI by 310 Hispanic agents. 
The HLI had become a power player in El Paso’s political scene. But it was still weak.
School Board Controversy
In 1990, the El Paso Independent School District was searching for a new superintendent to replace Ronald McLeod who left to head the Clear Creek school district in Houston. On November 13, 1990, the HLI asked the school district to allow the organization to have a “greater involvement in the search process.”  The HLI wanted a say in the selection of the new superintendent but the consultant advising the school district resisted, arguing that “subjecting candidates to interviews with special interest groups…might encourage good prospects to drop out.” 
The HLI wanted the school district to appoint a 21-member advisory board to review the superintendent applications of the top candidates. But Wheeler and Associates, the search firm appointed by the school board opposed the idea of an advisory board. 
On November 13, 1990, the EPISD school board voted 5-2 against allowing input from the community as proposed by the HLI.  In December 1990, the school board appointed Stan Paz as the new superintendent of the school district. 
Banking practices and Hispanic participation on the bank boards was another issue the HLI focused on. When the HLI was being organized, a non-profit was also being created and funded with public money. It was the Community Scholars non-profit created by Mary Hull Caballero, Ray Caballero’s wife, and Eliot Shapleigh. On July 30, 1999, the Community Scholars published a report created by students. The report chastised local banks for not being responsive to the community’s banking needs. (link 2)
The Community Scholars report became controversial and led to a lawsuit over funding for a Ray Caballero non-profit get out the vote (GOTV) project.
A federal study in 1992 into how banks treated minorities “showed African-Americans nationally were turned down for loans at a rate double that for Anglos with the same income.” The report also showed a similar disparity for El Paso’s Hispanics. To find out more about El Paso’s lending trends, a coalition, El Paso Coalition for Economic Development, was formed. It was made up of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, LULAC, NAACP, the G.I. Forum and the HLI. The coalition asked the local banks to respond to a 10-page questionnaire about lending practices. The El Paso Times reported that Harold Hahn, of Rocky Mountain Mortgage, would not be responding to the questionnaire arguing that he did not “believe those people are entitled to all the information.” Hahn added that “minorities are 70 percent of our market,” and if his company discriminated, they would “be out of business.” 
The Common Agenda
The HLI sponsored a summit on September 10, 1994 to “create a common agenda for the Hispanic community.” Carmen Rodriguez, the organization’s vice-chair told the nearly 150 attendees that policy makers should be held accountable to the group’s “collective opinion” on the issues facing the community. 
One proposal at the summit was “to make literacy in both Spanish and English a requirement for high school graduation.”  As much as the group tried to create a common agenda, certain factions within the organization began to assert themselves.
On October 15, 1994, the HLI held a summit at the county courthouse. HLI leaders wanted to have political candidates be specific about their promises. The summit was a new HLI initiative where candidates committed publicly to certain issues and the HLI would hold them accountable over time by holding community meetings.  This was much like the model used by EPISO for many years.
On February 26, 1993, H. Homero Galicia was installed as the chairman of the HLI. The vice-chair was Enrique Moreno, Queta Fierro became the treasurer and the secretary was Lili Limón. 
In 1994, the HLI installed Enrique Moreno as the new chairman, Carmen Rodriguez as the vice-chair, Beto Lopez as the treasurers and Blanca Enriquez as the secretary. The keynote speaker for the installation was Ray Caballero. 
In 1995, the HLI selected Carmen Rodriguez, wife of Jose Rodriguez to be the new chairwoman. Rodriguez said at the time that the HLI “needs to become more vocal with issues that affect our community.”  Carmen Rodriguez has been involved in Chicano issues since her days at UTEP, says Homero Galicia. She was part of the formation of the New Organization of Mexican American Students (NOMAS). 
The Hispanic Cultural Center
In 1997, the HLI’s new chairperson, Margarita Sanchez called for an Hispanic cultural center to be built in El Paso. El Paso needed an Hispanic cultural center to “showcase our heroes,” said Sanchez. Sanchez told the membership that she planned to spend the year finding a site for the proposed center.  The concept did not come to fruition.
“A lot of the battles were trying to weed out the fakes from the reals,” says Homero Galicia. 
The organization fell apart after the elders gave way to a younger generation of leaders, according to Galicia.  Homero Galicia says that some members of the group still meet regularly to discuss politics. 
In 2002, the HLI elders decided to give way to younger Hispanic leaders. Annabell Perez was elected president of the organization. Perez said that she “envisions El Paso becoming one of the most attractive cities in the nation.” Perez was one of the 30-something emerging Hispanic leaders in the community and in the HLI. Pete Duarte, who was no longer an active member of the HLI, told the El Paso Times that the organization was “turned over to the young people because new generations have new ways of looking at socioeconomic situations that we have in El Paso.” The new generation of HLI leaders were concerned about the young people leaving El Paso for better opportunities. 
Perez was now touting the idea that if you make the city an entertainment mecca the economy and the other problems faced by Hispanics would be resolved.
As the organizations’ elder gave way to the newer generation, “the focus and love for the organization was not the same,” said Lily Limón. The organization “drifted away” soon after with Alex Limón, who is not related to Lily Limón, being the “last known chair. 
The HLI organized a rally in support of the Border Health Institute (BHI) on May 15, 2002.  As readers may remember from our previous coverage, the BHI was a project spearheaded by Ray Caballero that wanted to centralize medical education and research facilities around the University Medical Center (UMC). To accomplish the goal of making the medical facility, officials threatened to gentrify the mostly poor Latino community using eminent domain. Anna Perez, the chairwoman of the HLI in 2002, argued that the HLI wanted “to see the city prosper with the economic benefit the BHI will bring.” She added that the HLI “will not be discouraged by the factual and legal misinformation that is being disseminated against the BHI.” 
In 2004, the HLI elected a new board and appointed new officers. Among the new board members were Emma Acosta and Art Fierro. Annabell Pérez as appointed the secretary.  
Homero Galicia told us that the larger problem with the HLI was the “intense one-upmanship tension between Hispanics.” Galicia used the attacks on Pete Duarte as an example of this. He said, “many Hispanics with some political connection who were appointed to the Thomason board targeted Pete Duarte.” 
“It was the Hispanics who killed the HLI, young ones jumping on the backs of the others,” Galicia told us on December 7. 
Galicia and other HLI members continue to meet informally. They are known as the Comadristas, the informal group that led to the HLI in the late 1980’s. 
El Paso Politics
“People getting into political office for self-gain, not for community service.” “We see politics as power for me, not power for the people” said Homero Galicia. According to Galicia, Alicia Chacon, Enrique Moreno and Silvestre Reyes were “far and few between” that were “strong leaders.” “Most people serve very self-serving interests.” 
There have been a few “mavericks, once in a while” who make a difference. Galicia offered as an example Pete Duarte’s tenure at then Thomason Hospital, now UMC. According to Galicia, the outgoing CEO of the hospital wanted Pete Duarte to take over as CEO. Galicia recounts how in one meeting to discuss Duarte’s appointment, he heard “a banker president say, I am not going to let that long-haired run one of our county facilities.”  Duarte sported a ponytail.
One of the Hispanics that went after Duarte was Orlando Fonseca, who wanted to give jobs to his friends at the hospital. Fonseca put “Mexican-Americans on the board to go after Pete.” 
Infighting among political leaders was hampering El Paso’s preparations for NAFTA in 1992. However, it was Ric Rios, the then chairman of the HLI that was openly opposed to the free trade agreement. Rios told the El Paso Times in 1992 that “El Paso runs the risk of becoming a servicing partner for Juárez.”  El Paso never took advantage of NAFTA, leaving other cities like McAllen and even San Antonio to benefit from NAFTA, and even several locations in New Mexico.
Successes Of The HLI
Lily Limón told El Paso Politics earlier this month that in her opinion “the best achievement” of the organization “was sponsoring the Festival Internacional de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.”  The celebration of the Guadalupana is on December 12 each year. Hispanic Catholics celebrate the day in 1531 when the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The apparition of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego is an important event to Mexicans and is said to be the cornerstone of Mexico’s Catholicism.
The Hispanic Leadership Institute “was the last organization to have representatives from various Hispanic organizations,” Limón told us in an interview earlier this month.  Limón added that the “closest” organization to the HLI today is the Community First Coalition.  The Community First Coalition published the book; Who Rules El Paso? in 2019.
In our next article we will profile an Hispanic leader touted by many. He was a significant business owner, was appointed to an important government role, helped to create an Hispanic organization and pleaded guilty to corruption. That was after he was part of an Hispanic group that wanted to build a sports arena in El Paso, which we will follow with the article after our next one.
Hispanic Leadership Chairs 1990 – 2004
1990: Hector Holguin
1991: Pete Duarte
1992: Ric Rios
1993: Homero Galicia
1994: Enrique Moreno
1995: Carmen Rodriguez
1996: Charles Ponzio
1997: Margarita Sanchez
1998: Lilia Limón
1999: Manny Soto
2000: Beto Lopez
2001: Ana Perez
2002: José Lara
2003: Alex Limón
The list of HLI chairs was provided by Lily Limón, December 2021.
- Gary Scharrer, “Vibrant group of Hispanics moves into city, county politics,” El Paso Times, October 7, 1990.
- Gary Scharrer, “Ex-mayor has simple advice: Get involved,” El Paso Times, October 7, 1990.
- Gary Scharrer, “El Paso pollster proves accurate in judicial vote,” El Paso Times, March 13, 1988.
- “Hispanic Leadership Institute,” Homero Galicia interview by Sandra Enriquez and David Robles, Civil rights in Black and Brown Interview Database, Texas Christian University, July 15, 2015.
- Homero Galicia telephone interview with author on December 7, 2021.
- “Hispanic leader installed Friday,” El Paso Times, February 21, 1993.
- “Borderland: Officers,” El Paso Times, February 27, 1994.
- “Hispanic Leadership banquet,” El Paso Times, July 4, 2004.
- Hector Holguin, Guest Editorial, “Next El Paso school superintendent must have vision, creativity,” El Paso Times, November 1990.
- Tracy Venegas, “Hispanics map agenda at summit,” El Paso Times, September 11, 1994.
- Mathew Aguilar, “Institute call for Hispanic center,” El Paso Times, January 9, 1997.
- Pat Henry, “El Paso Symphony rehires conductor, agrees to appoint Hispanics to board,” El Paso Times, January 10, 1995.
- Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “Residents, groups push for institute,” El Paso Times, May 16, 2002.
- Maribel Villalva, “Hispanic institute gets new officers,” El Paso Times, June 25, 2004.
- Gordon Dickson, “Leadership group picks new chair,” El Paso Times, March 3, 1995.
- Stephanie Townsend, “Coalition studies minority-lending practices at El Paso banks,” El Paso Times, May 29, 1992.
- Joe Olvera, “’Que Paso’ to Fonseca’s radio show?,” El Paso Times, October 9, 1992.
- Jim Conley, “Officials held to task at weekend summit,” El Paso Times, October 14, 1994.
- Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “Hispanic institute’s new leaders seek change,” El Paso Times, March 4, 2002.
- David Sheppard, “Chacón, Fonseca bad blood spills into runoff,” El Paso Times, March 28, 1994.
- Joe Olvera, “Conference stresses unity among Hispanic leaders,” El Paso Times, December 3, 1988.
- Emily Jauregui, “Roberts lets remark on murals slip,” El Paso Times, August 20, 1994.
- Margarita Sanchez and Carmen E. Rodriguez letter to the editor on behalf of the Hispanic Leadership Institute, El Paso Times, January 18, 1997.
- Joe Olvera, “Hispanic group wants Fonseca to tone down radio show attacks,” El Paso Times, June 27, 1992.
- Ramon Renteria, “El Paso superintendent search has applicant overflow,” El Paso Times, November 10, 1990.
- Del Jones, “Infighting hamstrings Sun City, leaders say,” El Paso Times, August 16, 1992.
- Joe Olvera, “Hispanics cheer man who ‘beat the FBI’,” El Paso Times, December 4, 1988.
- Joe Olvera, “No changes for Fonseca’s show,” El Paso Times, July 7, 1992.
- Donna Weeks, “Citizens panel won’t get to help select superintendent,” El Paso Times, November 14, 1990.
- Ramon Renteria, “School leader ready to put ideas to work,” El Paso Times, May 28, 1991.
- Lily Limón email interview with author, December 10, 2021.
- Homero Galicia email interview with author, December 13, 2021.
Categories: El Paso