The Political Desires of Chairman Gonzalez

By England, Robert Stowe | Mortgage Banking, March 1991 | Go to article overview

The Political Desires of Chairman Gonzalez


England, Robert Stowe, Mortgage Banking


The Political Desires of CHAIRMAN GONZALEZ

Childhood is often the time when one hears proud tales of one's ancestors. Not so for a quiet, Mexican-American boy in San Antonio who would one day be a powerful chairman of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee, Henry B. Gonzalez. When he entered public school in the 1920s, the family's past was a blank. He knew little of his Mexican heritage except that he spoke only Spanish and the first-grade teacher spoke only English. He loved learning, however, and became a budding scholar as a youth, in spite of his growing awareness of anti-Mexican prejudice.

The legends of the Gonzalez family could have been a comfort to him then. Instead, they were kept locked up in his father's mind until the last five years of his 90-year life span. When his father, Leonides, began in the 1950s recounting the family's past as the landed gentry of a small Mexican village, Mapimi, in the state of Durango, Henry B was already established as a leading Mexican-American politician, fighting against Jim Crow segregationist laws in the Texas legislature.

Those family stories touched the heart of Henry Gonzalez and left an indelible mark on his memory and widened his world view. From the narrow vantage of the Mexican-American community in San Antonio, which tended to view itself as a "country in exile" waiting to return to Mexico, Gonzalez's view of life expanded vastly in time and space. Papa Leonides told him his family traced its roots back to the 16th century immigration of two brothers from the Basque region of Spain, who, like so many adventurous young Spaniards, came to the New World in search of a great fortune. Instead of El Dorado, however, they struck it rich when they found silver deposits near Mapimi. Generations of Gonzalez family member mined and shipped the silver by ox cart over the Sierra Madre Mountains to the West Coast, and then to China.

Papa Leonides was a patrician jefe politico in Mapimi, a kind of aristrocratic mayor and village patron combined, who was forced into exile in the United States in 1910 after an armed band of Mexican revolutionaries threatened his life. Facing death by firing squad, he was saved at the last minute by a friendly revolutionary, Juana Lopez, who intervened because Leonides had once saved her husband and son. Leonides was allowed to leave Mexico with his wife and two children, in return for giving up nearly all his worldly possessions, including the family's 400-year-old homestead and the mining operation. Leonides settled in San Antonio in 1911. He kept alive the political hopes of the Mexican exile community in Texas for 45 years as managing editor of La Prensa, a Spanish-language daily that was often shipped across the border as "the only free voice for Mexico," Gonzalez recalls.

Ironically, "At home we were all scared off from politics" by Papa, Gonzalez says, apparently from fear that they might one day face the same fate that nearly cost Leonides his life. As a result Gonzalez, like his brothers, first studied engineering. Later, however, he earned a law degree at San Antonio's St. Mary's University. From there it was a short step to public service, and then a run for the San Antonio city council.

Long before he came to Washington, D.C., Gonzalez's fascination with the sweep of history gave him an equally broad view of national and international banking, thrift and housing policy. Today, he looks back over the past 60 years in the United States and sees a tragic pattern of the federal government "stumbling from one jerry-rigged contrivance" to another, leaving shaky financial structures resting on the shifting sands of the regulatory regimes of the 1930s and 1940s. That old order has been unable to stand up to a vastly changed world, paving the way for the nation's descent into financial instability that began not in the 1980s, but in the 1960s, when the Johnson administration and Congress abandoned fiscal responsibility and sought to finance the Vietnam War and the Great Society social programs on deficit spending. …

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