Robert Medrano’s brawny brown hand is clenched into a fist. “This is the nucleus of an atom, see?” he says as we stand sipping Budweiser at a Medrano family gathering. “And from that nucleus,” he continues, slowly extending his fingers, “radiates a staggering amount of power. The power of that atom ripples out in every direction and goes on forever. That nucleus, of course, is Medrano.“
Robert stares off into space. “There’s just no way of knowing where what the Medrano family has started will stop. But I can tell you it will reach a long, long way.”
It’s difficult to argue with Robert on the point. For one thing, he tends to ignore those who disagree with him. For another, he’s right. The Medranos have already reached a long, long way – far enough to make them the most powerful minority family in Dallas politics, maybe the state. Assembled tonight in the hospitality room of the Dallas Budweiser distributor are all of the Mexican-American elected officials in Dallas County. They are both named Medrano. Robert, a barrel-chested man of 37, is the first Chicano ever elected to the Dallas School Board; at a nearby table is Robert’s brother, Ricardo, 35, the only Chicano on the Dallas City Council. And that’s only the beginning. Standing a few feet away is Pauline, 26, a Democratic precinct chairman and official in the budding Mexican-American Democrats organization. She is being groomed to follow brother Robert onto the school board. Pauline and a friend are discussing a mutual acquaintance.
“And where does he live now?” Pauline’s friend asks.
“He lives over in Precinct. . .Oh, I’m sorry,” she says. “1 don’t think in terms of streets and blocks anymore. I just think in terms of precinct boundaries.”
In the center of the room is the man who taught Pauline to think that way: her father, Pancho Medrano, 59, union activist, Democratic National Platform Advisory Committee member, barrio politician extraordinaire. It is Pancho’s political acumen that makes Robert’s bold claims of Medrano supremacy palpable: Starting from abject poverty 40 years ago, Pancho has built a Dallas political machine of impressive proportions. The Medrano family literally owns huge chunks of the barrio known as Little Mexico, the neighborhood bounded by Harry Hines and Maple, extending from the edge of downtown to Love Field. They own 23 lots within a few block radius of the Medrano grocery store and live in four consecutive houses on nearby Douglas. Within Precinct 3303 there are 64 adult members of the clan, counting cousins, uncles, and aunts. In the coming year, another eight Medranos will turn 18, giving the family 72. votes within the precinct. The family alone is enough to swing an election.
Critics of the Medranos, especially the upwardly mobile professionals in the Chicano community who backed attorney Frank Hernandez in the City Council election against Ricardo, have charged that the Medranos have become an institution unto themselves. They say that the Medranos do not really represent the Mexican-American community, but simply use it for their own political goals, duplicating the old Hispanic patron system, in which leaders ruled by birthright and power was retained by a single family for generations. The Medranos adamantly deny those contentions, saying they simply know how to play politics better than most of their Chicano peers.
The titular sponsor for tonight’s gathering is the Dallas Tornado. When the Tornado decided to try to organize a Mexican-American night at Texas Stadium and build support in the Chicano community, the Tornado public relations director did the only sensible thing: He called Pancho Medrano. The Medranos will talk enough soccer to make the Tornado people feel comfortable – after all, the Medranos sponsor an amateur soccer team of their own – but the conversation will never venture too far away from the element that dominates the Medranos’ lives: politics.
Robert Medrano attracts journalists the way his father attracts politicians. During six years of public office, Robert has gained a reputation as a man who will talk. The other Medranos speak in subtleties and euphemisms, emphasizing the positive and being evasive about their motives. Robert, however, is a man who will tell you exactly what he is thinking, even if it takes the most abrasive terms to do so. As any working journalist in Dallas will tell you, Robert Medrano will get down and level with you. Tonight he is no disappointment.
“There’s a political ramification in everything, isn’t there?” Robert asks. “Of course there is. We’re going to wind up getting a slock of tickets from this thing. Now do you think a politician might find a good use for a few thousand free soccer tickets? Do you think somebody might find a way to pass out a few Medrano bumper stickers?
“Everything we do is political. At the store, for instance, we have a notary public license and we do auto title transfers for people and we don’t charge them a penny. Anybody else would charge them a dollar fifty. I don’t think we are asking too much of them if, in return for the favor, they let us put a Medrano bumper sticker on their car and we ask for their support in the next election. We’re talking about saving them a dollar fifty.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a young Chicano man who has a question for Robert.
“I’m going to write a letter to the editor of the Times Herald to answer that one that was written about Ricardo,” he. says. (A letter critical of Ricardo Medrano’s Council performance had appeared that day.)
“Good,” says Robert. “You do that.”
“How many words does it need to be?” the young man asks.
Robert smiles, almost embarrassed.
“1 don’t know how many words it needs to be. Why don’t you ask the editor of the Times Herald?”
“As far as I’m concerned,” the young man replies, “You are the editor of the Times Herald.”
Robert elbows me in the ribs playfully and laughs. “See what 1 mean?” he says.
“If [House Speaker] Billy Clayton goes down the tubes with this Brilab deal, then Johnny Bryant [the state representative from Pleasant Grove] is going to be thrust into the Speaker’s post and he’s going to become a statewide politician instead of just a local politician. Who’s he going to come to when he needs help to get Mexican-American support in the Valley? Who’s supported him all along? The Medranos, that’s who.
“And when he asks for our support and says, ’What can I give you in return for the favor?’ we are going to say, ’A legislative district, that’s what you can give us.’ “
“Do you mean a Mexican-American legislative district or a Medrano legislative district?” I ask.
“I guess when I say a district for ’us,’ ” Robert says, “that’s something you could interpret either way, couldn’t you? Do you think we don’t know that there’s never been a Mexican-American state representative in the history of Dallas County? Do you think we wouldn’t like for that first state representative to be a Medrano?”
I ask him if that isn’t a little, well, undemocratic of the family. What about other Mexican-Americans who might want some of the action? Robert’s initial response is stone-faced.
“We’ve been in this neighborhood for 30 years,” he says. “We didn’t elect to move out when we could afford it like some other people. We didn’t go to Piano. I turned down a $57,000-a-year job because I would have had to move to Washington and leave our precinct to do so. So when some of these Johnny-come-lately guys come moving into our neighborhood, we say, ’Welcome to the stew pot, Jack, but you’re going to have to wait your turn in line, and the Medranos have a 30-year head start on you.’ “
By every possible standard, the Medranos are truly the lords of Little Mexico. Their claim extends back to a time when no one else wanted it.
Little Francisco learned to hate Pike Park before he was old enough to wear long pants. The boys in Francisco’s neighborhood had dirty names for it. For some children the park held lots of opportunities. There were swings and slides and a merry-go-round, even a small swimming pool. The City of Dallas showed outdoor movies on summer nights.
But that was all for the other children. For Francisco and his playmates, the park was forbidden. A park policeman enforced the edict printed on a sign at the gate: “No Mexicans.” It was that simple in the early 1920’s. Francisco learned that one day when he tried to take a shortcut through the park on his way home. The policeman stopped him just past the gate.
” ’No Mexicans’ means no Mexicans, kid,” the cop said. “That doesn’t mean just no playing on the playground equipment. That means stay the hell out of here, period.”
Francisco and dozens of other youngsters like him were the children of Little Mexico. He lived close enough to the park that on warm days he could hear the white children splashing in the swimming pool. It made him angry. After all, Francisco Franco Medrano – his friends knew him by his nickname, “Pancho” – was an American citizen. He was born near what is now Woodall Rodgers Expressway, not far from the park. His parents had immigrated to America, walking most of the way from Jarel de Progresso in central Mexico to Dallas, so that their children could have a better life. Wasn’t the park one of the aspects of the good life America was supposed to offer to all who came here?
But America seemed to be more the land of embarrassments than opportunities. It was embarrassing for little Pancho and his family to sit on a curb and eat a meal that his mother had purchased at a café and brought outdoors because the family was not welcome inside. It was embarrassing for Pancho to see his older brother decked out in a little red uniform with a pillbox hat, working at the Adolphus Hotel. The boy’s principal duty was to see that all the cigarette butts were picked up off the floor and that the white sand in the ashtrays was kept pristine. The job was embarrassing, but it was necessary. The Medrano family needed the money. Pancho’s father’s job as a laborer was not enough to feed and clothe the family and still have enough to pay their $3 monthly rent.
When the rent collector came around, Pancho’s mother placed newspapers over the windows so no one could see inside. She gathered the children and told them to be silent until the man went away. The children giggled when he banged on the door and broke into laughter when he left. But the experience was never really funny.
Mexican-Americans in Dallas tried to improve their lot in those days by seeking help from the Mexican consul. Members of the consulate staff would negotiate with the city fathers when the Mexican-American community needed something. That struck Pancho as rather ironic: Bonafide American citizens had to go through a foreign government to get aid from their own country. But as young Pancho was learning, America was a land where you had to have connections. In those days, the Mexican consulate was the only connection the residents of the Dallas barrios had.
Yielding to pressure from the Hispanic community, the city allowed Mexican-American children limited access to Pike Park by the time Pancho was a teenager. From 7 a.m. until 8:15, Pancho and his friends could swim in the pool, provided they first took a bath with lye soap and passed an inspection by a park official. When 8:15 came, the kids would have to hurry out of the pool. They had to be gone in time for the pool to be drained and refilled before it opened for the white kids.
The opening of the pool to Chicanos taught Pancho something. His people could make some gains, no matter how small, through politics. But the struggle would be slow.
Pancho’s respect for the system wasn’t helped by his first day of high school at Crozier Tech. Pancho’s mother had bought him some new shoes for the occasion; she had purchased them from a Salvation Army store for a dime. The previous owner had worn huge holes in the soles before discarding them. Pancho hadn’t been in the building 10 minutes when the principal told him to report to the administrative office. It was there that Pancho Medrano’s academic career came to an end.
“You can’t go to school dressed like that,” the principal told Pancho. “We just can’t allow it.” But the principal offered Pancho, by then a strapping boy of six-foot-two, a chance to work to buy some better clothing: The school administrator had a friend who ran a rock quarry near what is now Bachman Lake.
Pancho never made it back to Crozier Tech. Breaking rocks with a hammer for 25 cents an hour never raised enough to buy new clothing. But it did provide Pancho with a new connection. His boss at the quarry ultimately helped him get into a WPA (Works Progress Administration) school, where he learned a skill as a jig builder. He took a job at the North American Aviation plant in Grand Prairie during World War 11; he became a skilled craftsman with a good job.
But the job at North American would mean even more than that to Pancho. Because it was at North American that Pancho First encountered the union movement, which would become his life’s work. He first learned about the unions from the literature that organizers were distributing at the North American plant gates. The union was the force that brought down the coal barons, the pamphlets said, and the union could be the means through which the common man could have clout. Connections. Pancho liked that idea. He liked something else he saw in the union literature: a pledge not to discriminate against minorities and not to tolerate employers who did. Pancho joined the union efforts to organize the plant. He was fired for doing so. But the union ultimately won, and so did Pancho.
Local 645 of the UAW-CIO was formed at North American Aviation in 1943 and when the union contract was signed, Pancho was reinstated in his job. From that point Pancho was convinced that the union would be the vehicle through which he could open the doors that had been closed to him in the past.
Union dogma just happened to be in complete accord with something that Pancho had already learned: politics is all-important. The way to change the system is to run it. And, like many young men brought up in a ghetto, Pancho had another vehicle for ascent in mind: sports. Young Medrano was a relatively good amateur heavyweight boxer. He boxed as a representative of North American Aviation and later Chance Vought Corp. when the firm took over the Grand Prairie production plant in 1948. Pancho became adroit enough at box-ing – and at politicking and self-promotion – to be able to parlay his activities in the ring into a full-time job. He started out putting on exhibition matches for his fellow plant workers during their lunch breaks. Soon company officials told him that if he would put on several exhibitions each day for different shift breaks, he could spend the whole day just boxing and training.
Then Pancho decided to turn professional and asked the company for a leave of absence. His leave was denied. Pancho immediately filed a grievance with his union, which had become UAW Local 848 when North American became Chance Vought. The union straightened things out. Pancho got his leave to box.
Pancho’s career in the ring faded after a few years; then he was back at Vought and back on the political circuit. He worked for liberal Democrats like Oscar Mauzy, who during the Fifties was trying to get his own political feet on the ground with a bid for the state House of Representatives. And Pancho was active in the union’s own campaigns: strikes and boycotts. The union officials knew that if someone was needed to carry a picket sign, they could always count on Pancho Medrano.
In 1955 he was elected a trustee of UAW Local 848, the largest union local in Texas. It took considerable political skill.
“Pancho was one of only about two Mexicans out of thousands of workers out at LTV in those days, and it was a period when a lot of union members didn’t have any great love for Chicanos,” recalls Mauzy, now a state senator and a long-time Medrano ally. “Pancho pulled it-off by knowing his political moves. I knew when he got elected that he had to know what he was doing.”
Pancho also worked his way up in the union by making himself useful. If the union needed a pamphlet translated into Spanish, they called Pancho. If someone was needed to recruit minorities, they called Pancho. He was a one-man minority program. Every issue that the union endorsed, Pancho threw himself into. When civil rights became a union cause, Pancho made an ideal soldier for the front lines of non-violent warfare. He was a participant in the Montgomery, Alabama school boycott of 1956. He would be in hundreds of other political actions during the next 25 years. Boycotts. Strikes. Picket lines. Election campaigns. Pancho considered each one of them a lesson.
At the same time that Pancho was working his way into the union and starting to build his political base, he began building his family. In a few years, his family and his political base would be one and the same.
Pancho Jr. was born in 1941. A year later, Pancho’s wife, Esperanza, gave birth to a second son, Robert; two years later, Ricardo was born. In 1949, the Medranos moved from the housing project on Harry Hines where they had begun raising their first three sons to Douglas Street, where Pancho bought his first house. The move represented more than the purchase of the first family home. It was the staking out of family territory. Pancho planned to live the rest of his life in Little Mexico. He planned for his children to do the same. In 1953, Pancho’s only daughter, Pauline, was born. Two years later came his last child, Rolando. Like his own parents, Pancho was determined that his children would have what he didn’t have: an education. There would be no rock quarries for them. And all would be taught politics as soon as they could pronounce the word. Pauline was wearing John Kennedy buttons and passing out “Kennedy for President” leaflets in her neighborhood when she was 4; Ricardo was walking picket lines in a strike against the Neuhoff meat company when most kids were learning how to ride bicycles; and as soon as young Robert had learned to climb trees, he climbed them to nail up campaign signs.
In 1963, Pancho left LTV to become a full-time UAW official. He traveled the country to work for candidates and causes that the union endorsed. He stumped the barrios of cities all over the nation for Democratic candidates. He organized California farm workers with Cesar Chavez. Pancho was a central figure in the La Raza movement of the late Sixties in the Rio Grande Valley. His arrest by Texas Rangers during a farm workers’ strike in Mission, Texas in 1967 propelled him into national judicial history. A lawsuit, Medrano vs. Allee (for Texas Ranger Capt. A. Y. Allee, who arrested Pancho and other demonstrators) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the demonstrators and held that Texas statutes barring mass demonstrations were unconstitutional.
Pancho’s travels as a national political warrior provided an excellent learning tool for his children. “Dad was usually gone during the week,” recalls Robert Medrano. “But he would frequently be back home on Sunday and the whole family would gather around to hear what he had been doing. He’d take apart the campaign he’d been working in and talk about the lessons we could learn from it. We could use the tactics that had worked and avoid making the mistake of using the ones that didn’t.”
Along the campaign trail, Pancho picked up some powerful allies. He campaigned with Robert Kennedy, and as recently as this year’s Illinois primary, with Ted Kennedy. He’s worked with Walter Mondale when the Vice President was a senator. He’s worked in every Democratic presidential campaign since John Kennedy’s. Pancho has been a National Democratic convention delegate for years. He has built up quite a reputation with national Democratic candidates as a man who can deliver Hispanic votes. Pancho is owed political favors by politicians from New England to California.
But Pancho has picked up more than a bunch of political IOU’s and a scrapbook full of pictures of himself posing with famous people. Somewhere along the way he created a political master plan, a blueprint to make the Medranos a political power in their own right. Each Medrano would capitalize on the successes of the others. Each campaign would be a building block for more and higher political offices.
It is obvious to anyone who spends time with the Medranos that the whole family endorses that master plan.
“The Medrano children are Pancho’s alter egos,” says Bill Callejo, a member of the Hispanic community and husband of one of the city’s leading Chicano attorneys, Adelfa Callejo. “It’s the textbook case of a father doing through his children what he was not in a position to do when he was their age. The Medrano children have given Pancho the ability to be in three or four places at the same time. It’s the best political asset imaginable.”
When Robert says the nucleus of the atom “is Medrano,” he is correct in using the singular verb form. Politically, at least, the Medrano family members are like extensions of a single being.
On one wall of the family store, which also serves as a family room and neighborhood center, is a calendar of Dallas political events. (The store, where the Medrano’s neighbors can come to get their income tax forms computed or to fill out voter registration forms, is more of a privately-owned community center than it is a retail outlet for groceries. Bumper stickers and voting materials can be found in more abundance than canned goods.) Dinners, board meetings, fund-raisers – everything is covered. At least one Medrano is assigned to every meeting. Family members can check the calendar to determine what their daily assignments are. Especially important meetings are marked “All Medrano.” But regardless of whether one Medrano or 50 attend a meeting, the group gets a report when the family reassembles at the store. The meetings give the family – especially Pan-cho – a good overview of everything that is going on politically in Dallas at any given time.
“People sometimes think that we don’t have any individuality, but that’s not true,” Pauline contends. “We all have our own individual ideas and thoughts about things. It’s just that on major issues we put them to a family vote and everyone goes along with the majority.”
Each family member relies on the others’ experience. “When Ricardo got on the City Council,” says Robert, “it was like he already had six years’ experience as a public official working for him. I’ve learned a lot about bureaucracies in my years on the School Board. When Ricardo first started getting his Council packets (of proposed Council actions for a given meeting] I was able to go over them with him and point out things and say, ’Here’s what they are trying to pull on this one,’ or ’Here’s what you need to watch for on that one.’ “
That notion would doubtless send chills up the spines of Ricardo’s Council peers, some of whom think of Robert as too militant , and one of whom told me, “The sooner Ricardo starts thinking of himself as the representative of Council District 2 and stops thinking of himself as a Medrano, the better off he will be.”
That, of course, will never happen.
Pancho’s connections played a key role in Ricardo’s election. Pancho was able to win the endorsement of the Progressive Voter’s League, a political organization with real clout among black voters. As a result, Ricardo won the black vote in his Council race. Pancho’s union connections provided a host of workers for the campaign.
The eldest Medrano denies that he orchestrated Ricardo’s election.
“I was out of town most of the time,” Pancho says. “It was the kids who put Ricardo in office; they did it for themselves.”
That’s not what foes of the Medrano family think, however.
“They used plain old-fashioned intimidation against my campaign workers,” Hernandez charges. “They slashed tires. They tore down campaign signs. They tried to scare people away from the polls. It was just pure and simple goon squad tactics.”
“Those charges are so ridiculous that they are just plain silly,” replies Ricardo Me-drano. “Not one single person filed any charges with the authorities.”
Which side is right in the contentions will remain a matter of opinion. But any assessment of whether Medrano campaign workers resorted to bullying the opposition has to include the consideration that the campaign was conducted in the barrio, where the rules are somewhat different than those of, say, Highland Park.
“It is important to remember that in Chicano politics the prevailing ethic is ’Either you’re on my side or I’m gonna get your ass,’ ” says one Hernandez strategist. “That’s simply the way the game has always been played in the barrio.”
Pancho plays hardball with his political opponents, but he’s a charmer with the press. “We have just kind of anointed Pancho the leader of the Mexican-American community,” says one Morning News reporter, “because we basically don’t know who the hell the leader of the Mexican-American community is. Pancho does the best public relations for himself. He inundates reporters with information about himself and his family. So somewhere along the way we made the unconscious decision to label him the leader of all Dallas Chicanos.”
I found out just how skillful Pancho is with reporters the first time I met him. Within minutes he was showing me the pictures of Pancho and Robert Kennedy, Pancho and Lyndon Johnson – all the photos he has doubtless showed dozens of other reporters. And he was Xeroxing copies of the Medrano vs. Allee Supreme Court decision and telling stories about campaigning with Frank Church in Idaho and going to the Dominican Republic as a sort of freelance civilian trouble-shooter during the days of political unrest in that island nation.
Pancho Medrano has an athletic presence. He is aggressively gregarious. From the moment he grips your hand in his massive ex-boxer’s paw, it is next to impossible not to like the man. He also has personal characteristics that make him an excellent one-on-one politician – including the ability to evade questions. “They say you are probably going to run for county commissioner or the legislature next year when you retire from the union,” I said to Pancho one day at a caté near his office. “Which one do you think you’ll run for?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Pancho said, giving me an aw-shucks smile. “I will have more time on my hands when I retire from the union and it is only natural that I would be thinking about public service. But there’s plenty of time to make a decision later. Have some more tostados.”
A clue to Pancho’s plans might be taken from the fact that on one wall of the Medrano grocery store, next to the precinct map of Ricardo’s city council district, is a map of Justice of the Peace District 8, Judge George Allen’s district. It takes in Little Mexico and juts down into southeast Dallas. And while Pancho is reluctant to discuss his plans, Robert is characteristically vocal. “If something should happen and George Allen didn’t run for re-election or something we could be in pretty good shape in that district.”
But it is also likely that if a 1980 census shows enough population for a new legislative district in West Dallas (Robert, Ricar-do, and Pauline all volunteered to be census workers to help make sure those people are found), the Medrano running for the legislature in the district would be Pancho.
There are so many Medranos, all interested in public office, that it is impossible to know which Medrano is running for what.
“Someday there will be a Medrano in statewide office gaining statewide recognition,” says Robert. “Who knows which one it will be? I know that Dad can say to himself, ’One of my sons or my daughter will be in statewide office,’ but I’m not sure he knows which one or when. It doesn’t matter. We know how to be patient.”
While Pancho is the hub of the Medrano political wheel, his children are equally important. Consider the position of Ricardo Medrano, the first “non-establishment” Chicano ever elected to the Dallas City Council. He ran unsuccessfully for the Council in 1977 and the Dallas County Community College Board of Trustees in 1978. Ricardo has come a long way since he first tried to organize co-workers at the Hilton Hotel to form a union at age 16. His job as an organizer for the Federation of State and County Municipal Employees when he was in his twenties gave him a chance to make connections in the labor side of city government. Now, by virtue of election, he is management.
His position puts him in an excellent spot to broaden the Medrano power base. As the only Hispanic on the City Council, it is Ricardo the Council will turn to for other Chicanos to appoint to city boards and commissions and it is Ricardo the Council will look to when the needs of the Chicano community are being considered.
“1 don’t have to go out and hold a community meeting to know what’s going on in West Dallas neighborhoods,” Ricardo says with confidence. “I’ve lived there all my life. I know what the needs are.”
Ricardo is quieter – and some say he is smarter – than his brother Robert. Since his election to the Council in February, Ricardo has been a surprise to the establishment Council members who expected him to be a militant.
“He’s anything but a radical,” says Councilman Steve Bartlett. “He is showing us in a very quiet and efficient manner that he knows exactly what he is doing and that he can work with his fellow Council members very well.”
While black Councilwoman Elsie Faye Heggins has railed and ranted in the Council chambers about white oppression of the minorities, Ricardo has been conspicuously silent.
“I made myself a promise that I would keep my mouth shut for the first three months and that I would spend that time learning the ropes and getting to know my council colleagues better,” says Ricardo. “You simply aren’t going to get anything done by standing around shaking your fist at people. That simply doesn’t work.”
So far, Ricardo has displayed skill at politicking. When Mayor Bob Folsom asked Council members to list their preferences for Council committee assignments, Ricardo listed his in reverse order. “Sure enough,”says Ricardo, “they gave me exactly what I wanted.” As a result, he was assigned to the public safety committee, which oversees the fire and police departments, and the housing committee -both important jobs for someone whose power base lies in the minority community.
When an opening was created on the City Planning Commission and confusion arose over whether it was Ricardo’s or Sid Stahl’s turn to recommend the appointment, Ricardo deferred to his colleague.
“I think for the sake of council unity it would be better if I withdrew my nomination,” he told Stahl and other council members privately.
“Ricardo bought himself more good will and political chits by that move than you can imagine,” says one of Ricardo’s council peers. “As a result of that he automatically had everyone owing him one.” Since then, all of Ricardo’s board appointments, including the appointment of Pancho’s old friend Joe Landin to the zoning board of adjustment, have been unanimous.
And when a young Chicano girl was run over on Sylvan Street in West Dallas, Ricardo was able to get a stoplight installed at the intersection in a matter of days.
“It’s just about impossible for a council member to get a stoplight installed, period,” says Bartlett. “Ricardo got one installed faster than anyone down here ever has.”
Among Pancho’s children, Robert has been in the position to help the family machine most. For several years, he was the only Mexican-American among the 133 elected officials in Dallas County. “Robert was the wedge,” says Ricardo. “He was the groundbreaker who got things started.”
Robert, who holds a Master of Liberal Arts from SMU, first ran for the school board under the old at-large system in 1972. He was 26 years old (the youngest candidate in the election), had shoulder-length hair, and a reputation for Brown Beret activism. The whole package was obviously too much for North Dallas voters; Robert was defeated.
But in 1974, Dallas adopted single-member school board districts. District 8, which covers West Central Dallas, Little Mexico, and the massive black and brown neighborhood along the banks of the Trinity River between the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike and Stemmons Freeway, was tailor made for a Medrano. After facing five opponents in the general election, Robert beat Anglo businessman W. F. Goodman 830 votes to 697 in a runoff. Medrano was the first Chicano and, at age 30, the youngest person ever to serve on the board.
It didn’t take Robert long to become the darling of the news media. Reporters soon learned that it was easy to find out what went on in a closed session of the school board; they simply had to ask Medrano. His reputation for being a media leak became so well established that when board members exchanged gag gifts at a party, they gave Robert a teletype machine.
Robert contends that his reputation for talking to the news media is somewhat overblown, but admits using it to reach his goals. “When you want the public to know about something that you feel they deserve to know, can you think of a better way than the news media?” he asks. “Besides, I don’t really like the principle of public business being conducted secretly.”
Some of the journalists who have watched the school board over a period of years think there is another motive for his actions. “Even though Medrano’s performance on the school board has been rather dismal,” says one reporter, “there has never been a critical analysis of Robert’s service in either one of the newspapers. The people who cover the board couldn’t afford to write one; they’d lose the best source they’ve got.”
Three years after Medrano was elected to the board, a group of black constituents who supported him in the election held a press conference to seek his resignation. Their charge: that Robert had failed to provide adequate minority representation on the board. Robert Daniels, a spokesman for a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens for Dallas Schools, said Robert was indifferent to minority needs and had failed to show up at community meetings. Robert contended that the group was merely a “front” for candidate Guillermo Galindo, who was running against Medrano in the 1977 election.
Aided by the traditional Medrano family election effort, Robert beat Galindo in a 1977 runoff elect ion, 697 votes to 605. With a 92-vote difference in the election, the Medrano family votes alone had a significant impact. Galindo contended that in Precinct 3303, where Ricardo Medrano was election judge, illegal aliens and unregistered voters were allowed to vote. Galindo threatened court action, but never followed through.
(The Medranos have sometimes been accused of playing fast and loose with voter registration procedures in the precinct where a Medrano is always the election judge. The current official voter list for Precinct 3303, for instance, shows six people besides the Medranos registered to vote from Pancho’s house and five people besides the family registered to vote from Frank Jr.’s house. One of the standout names on the list of people registered from Pancho’s house is that of Juan Perez, who became locally famous as the spokesman for the Brown Berets. Pan-cho’s explanation for the multiple registration is that all of the people who are registered to vote at his address are “family,” cousins or in-laws who use the Medrano houses as their legal addresses. Some, like Robert’s friend Richard Amalla, are not legally related to the Medranos, but use the Medrano homes as their permanent addresses. “They don’t vote more than once,” Pancho contends. The County Clerk has always allowed multiple registrations like that, which is one reason why such irregularities exist in every minority precinct in the city. None have ever been successfully challenged in a court.)
Now Robert, who will not come up for reelection until 1982, has a lock on the District 8 School Board seat. And, as he points out, a school board seat is immensely powerful. “There are only nine people,” he says, “making decisions that will affect the life of every child in Dallas. That makes each one of those nine board seats crucially important.”
But perhaps more important to the Medranos’ political power is the position Robert holds as director of the West Dallas Community Center of the Dallas County Community Action Agency, a job he has held for 12 years and obtained by being politically active in the Chicano community. The center, a federal War on Poverty outpost in the Trinity River flood plain that makes up a large part of both Robert’s school board district and Ricardo’s council district, dispenses a whole shopping list of services to the poor: job counseling, free transportation to get food stamps or medical services at Parkland Hospital. Sports equipment. Clothing. Turkeys at Thanksgiving. Robert Medrano is the man who gets to hand out all these goods and services.
These people don’t understand that this stuff comes from the DCA,” he says. “They just think Medrano gave it to them. They don’t even say, ’Robert,’ they just say ’Medrano.’ I try to tell them, ’It’s not me that’s giving you this. It’s not me that’s giving you these baseball uniforms.’ Well, true, I am the one who takes their sizes and goes and picks out the uniforms at the sporting goods outlet, but that’s only in my job as director of the center. All they see is that it came from Medrano.”
Robert’s job has another aspect that meshes well with his political career. One of his duties, under the original Kennedy Administration guidelines that set up the community action agency program, is to see that minorities become involved in the governmental process. It’s like getting paid a salary to campaign for yourself 365 days a year.
“We don’t advocate any particular candidate,” says Robert. “We just want them to participate. When election time comes around, I round these people up and say, ’Let’s go vote.’ They say, ’Who do you want us to vote for, Robert?’ 1 say, ’1 don’t care who you vote for, I just want you to get out and vote.’
“I don’t have to tell people who to vote for. They have ways of finding out for themselves what my preferences are.”
Doubtless, the bright orange “Medrano” bumper stickers on Robert’s car and the Medrano signs on every street leading to the center help people determine those preferences.
While Robert has been in a position to contribute a lot to the Medrano family’s aspirations, he has also had problems that could have created political roadblocks. In September 1976, he was arrested on misdemeanor charges of possession of marijuana after a police officer searched a car in which he was sitting with two other men in a parking lot on North Industrial. The officer said he was looking for citizens band radio thieves when he spotted the car and searched it. Officer T. B. McCanlies told a jury that he found a plastic bag of marijuana on the floorboard of the car and seven half-smoked marijuana cigarette stubs in the car’s ashtray. Medrano and another individual, Mario Martinez, were acquitted after the owner of the car, Juan Guevara Jr., testified that he was the owner of the marijuana and that the other men in the car were unaware of the drug’s presence.
“It was just one of those situations of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Robert, who testified at his trial that he had never smoked marijuana and did not know what burning marijuana smelled like. “It could have happened to anybody. I would never embarrass my father by doing anything like that.”
Two years later, Robert was back in the headlines with more legal troubles. Earlene Sessions, a 19-year-old secretary for the DCA, filed charges against Robert and DCA planner John Richards, contending that the two had turned out the lights in an elevator they were riding at DCA headquarters and fondled her breasts. But she didn’t file charges against a third man riding in the elevator – Juan Guevara.
Municipal Judge Nina Lambeth, who said she believed that Miss Sessions had been assaulted in the elevator, threw out the charges because of the absence of testimony from Guevara. In the trial, prosecutor Karen Brophy asked Medrano if Guevara, a DCA employee and the same man who pled guilty to the 1977 marijuana trial “always takes the fall” in such cases. Defense attorneys objected and Robert never had to answer that question. Robert contends that he was framed, that the charges were purely “political.”
“The newspapers said that the judge lectured us for acting like children in a place of business,” says Medrano. “But what the newspapers didn’t report is that I responded by saying, ’I didn’t do it lady.’ And I didn’t.”
The attendant publicity hurt the Medrano reputation in some quarters, but as Ricardo points out, “The people in our district know better than to believe everything they see in the newspapers about somebody; they know how to read between the lines.” They obviously do. Robert was re-elected to the school board while the marijuana charges against him were still pending.
Robert and Ricardo, who both appear to be firmly entrenched in their offices, are only the first wave of the Medrano assault on the political summit. Pauline Medrano is ready for battle. “I like to get in on the campaigning aspect of it,” says Pauline, who has (he familiar Medrano smile. “I know where the votes are. I know which house just needs to be called on election day, which house you have to give the people a ride to the polls, which house you have to baby-sit for them or cook supper for them while they go to vote. That’s what I like the best.”
Says Ricardo about his sister’s political future: “We feel that the 1980’s will be the decade in which women will make great advances in politics. We’ve been holding Pauline in reserve for that era.” And Robert, as is his manner, spells things out. “What do you think would happen, when I get ready to move on from the School Board, if I endorsed Pauline and told the community that she is my sister, she’s been close to the issues as long as I have, she has experience, and she has a master’s degree. Experience counts a lot in public office and she would have the benefit of my experience.”
It might appear that only three of Pancho’s five children are involved in politics. Pancho Jr., 38, who made one bid for the city council in 1975, works at Vought Corp. and Rolando, 24, is a graduate student in public administration at SMU. But the two fit into the family network as productively as their siblings.
Pancho Jr. is a trustee of UAW Local 848 at Vought and is the editor of the local’s newspaper. Every issue of the paper, as Pan-cho Sr. points out, has the name of “Pancho Medrano” on the front page. He keeps the Medranos’ original power base covered. “It’s very important,” says Robert, “to groom someone to take your place. Most people don’t think about that and 1 really didn’t either until dad got me thinking about it.”
“Let me ask you a question,” Robert said one afternoon as I was interviewing him at his office. “What do you think my chances would be if, when I leave the community center, I recommend Rolando for my rereplacement and I point out that he has good experience in the community and that he has a Master’s degree in public administration from SMU? What do you think my chance would be of getting him in that job?”
And the first five Medranos, of course, are only a start. Ricardo Medrano Jr., 15, Student of the Month three times in a row at Rusk Middle School, was elected vice president of the student council last September. He was the only candidate with yard signs and bumper stickers.
Adam Medrano, 4, son of Pancho Jr. and godson of Ricardo, has decided that he will be President of the United States, but concedes that first he will serve a term or two on the Dallas City Council “like Padrino” is doing.
Last fall the family was gathered in front of the television screen when Tony Dorsett scored a touchdown. The men in the family began talking about Dorsett’s accomplishments. “Tony Dorsett,” said Adam. “Is that who we are gonna work for on election day?”
Little Mia Medrano, age I, daughter ofPancho Jr., knows how to delight her eldersalready. When Pauline says, “Show us howto vote, Mia,” the baby will toddle over loanold voting machine that is kept in theMedrano family store, flip a switch or two,and then pull the lever.
Robert Medrano’s brawny brown hand is clenched into a fist. “This is the nucleus of an atom, see?” he says as we stand sipping Budweiser at a Medrano family gathering. “And from that nucleus,” he continues, slowly extending his fingers, “radiates a staggering amount of power. The power of that atom ripples out in every direction and goes on forever. That nucleus, of course, is Medrano.“