Living Archives Interview Series
December 2, 2009, Rockwell Pavilion, MD Anderson Library, UH
An Interview with Sylvia Garcia, Harris County Commissioner Precinct 2
Interviewer: Professor Monica Perales (UH, History)
Elizabeth Gregory: I’m Elizabeth Gregory, I’m the director of the UH Women’s Studies program, and I’m very happy to welcome you this morning to the second in this year’s Living Archives Series interviews sponsored by the Friends of Women’s Studies. This year we’ve, in October, had an interview with author and Houston First Lady Andrea White and we’re happy to continue today with an interview with Harris County Commissioner Precinct 2, Sylvia Garcia. This Living Archives Series aims to present a sense of the complex history of women’s lives in Houston, and of the struggles and changes that have characterized that, uh, that history and the series has been ongoing since 1996. Our interview format was developed as an extension of the program’s Women’s Archives at the University of Houston here in the library to serve students, scholars, and the Houston community as a whole. And the focus of the archive is on both oral histories of Texas women, and the papers of Houston area women’s organizations. So the series provides a means of focusing public awareness on the need to document women’s history as well as on the Women’s Archive and Research Center, which is supported by the Friend’s of Women’s Studies. And if you are not a Friend please consider joining, there are forms at the front, and one of the member benefits is free admission to the Living Archives Series. Um, now the structure of the interview is, uh, we will have the interview which is taped and becomes part of the archive and at the end, in order that all the questions can be heard, we’ve distributed pieces of paper so you can write your questions down and we will give them to Monica, the interviewer, and then she can read them, uh, to Commissioner Garcia that way. So, if you have questions just write them down there. Um, after the Q and A we’ll have lunch available which will be arriving shortly, which we invite you to join us for lunch and to talk further. And then in February the next Living Archives Series interview will be with UH President and Chancellor Renu Kator, date to be announced. So, make sure to give us your contact information so we can update you on that when we have that all set. Um today’s presentation is sponsored, we have two sponsors today we’re very happy to acknowledge them both. Um, the Humanities Texas, which is an arm of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is sponsoring and the Amegy Bank Women’s Initiative so we thank them both. Please give them some applause for their support.
EG: And now I am happy to introduce today’s speakers. First I am going to introduce the interviewer who is Monica Perales. Uh, who received her Ph. D. in History from Stanford in 2004, and she has been the recipient of various fellowships including the 2009 Women’s Studies Faculty Fellowship, uh, and she was the 2006, 2007 Summerly Fellow in Texas History at Southern Methodist University. She holds a BA in Journalism, so she knows how to interview, and a MA in History from the University of Texas at El Paso, and her first book Smelter Town: Making and Remembering a Boarder Community is going to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in Fall 2010. She also co edited a collection of essays titled The Hispanic History of Texas which if forthcoming Arte Público Press, and her general teaching interests includes Chicano and Chicana labor and social history, immigration, American west, boarder lands and oral history, and she was also recently elected to the Board of Directors Humanities Texas, our sponsor, the state affiliate for the National Endowment for the Humanities and she is going to begin that in January. And now I will tell you a little bit about our interviewee for today, but you are going to hear much in depth in the course of the interview. Today we are very happy to have joining us Harris County Commissioner Sylvia R. Garcia, Precinct 2, who will be telling us something about her life and ground breaking career. Uh, she represented Harris County, Precinct 2 as commissioner since January 2003 when she became the first Hispanic and the first women to be elected Harris County Commissioner in her own right. Prior to her election as Commissioner, Garcia served as city controller for the city of Houston since 1998. Uh, she served as a social worker while, worked as a social worker while earning her Law Degree from the Thurgood Marshal School of Law at Texas Southern in 1978, and she earned her undergraduate degree at Texas Women’s University. She has recently been appointed to the region wide Hurricane Ike recovery committee, and elected to the, um, National Office as president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. And we are very happy to say that her papers will be coming into the Women’s Archive in the coming months, and this interview will become part of her collection, augmenting the story that the papers tell. So please join me in welcoming our interview panel.
Monica Perales: Well thank you so much for being with us today, um, you are truly a very busy, busy person and so we appreciate your time here this morning.
Sylvia Garcia: Well now that they said you are a journalism major I am really scared.
MP: Well that was that was a long time ago
[Some laughter from audience]
SG: So please take it easy, ok.
MP: Yeah if anything that probably puts more pressure on me, they think oh wait a minute she’s not the historian. Um, I wanted to start with your background. I read that you grew up in a small Texas town called Palito Blanco. Where is Palito Blanco and what was it like growing up there?
SG: Well it’s in south Texas, it’s, um, nothing that you can find on the map. Uh, the only one that used to have it on the map was Old Gulf Oil because there used to be a gas pump in front of the general store. It’s a very small farming community. It’s a cluster of farms; it’s about less than a hundred people.
SG: Um, recently our family gathered for an early dinner and there was about seventy of us there and I am sure we doubled the population that weekend.
[Some laughter from audience]
MP: Was your family in farming?
SG: We were, we were, we had a working farm and all of us had to do chores before going to school in the morning, uh afterschool, the summers. The summers were always the worst, and for me it was sort of a driving force in going on to school and getting and education ‘cuz I really hated working out in the hot sun.
MP: Umm hum, I would imagine south Texas summers are probably not to –
SG: It’s blistering hot and if you can see me I’m rather fair, I do what fair people do - I get really red and blistered and then it goes away and I just don’t tan. So uh, I never really liked it so my dream from day one has always been to work in an air conditioned building.
[Some laughter from audience]
MP: [laughing] Did you, you mentioned your siblings you had a lot, you come from a large family?
SG: Um hum, nine siblings.
MP: Nine siblings, and where did you fit in the –
SG: I was in the baby girl, uh number eight
SG: So I am part of the bottom tier of the family
MP: Umm hum. How did, how did being among the youngest in your family also influence, sort of your –
SG: Well, I mean, there was the ups and downs, you know, I think all my brothers and sisters would argue that I was my Daddy’s favorite and that probably worked to my advantage ‘cuz I worked on him to convince him to allow me to go on to college. Uh, it sometimes didn’t help because you know you got all the hand-me-downs, you got all the, you know, work that nobody else wanted to do, and there were some things that you couldn’t do because you were too young. Like when my family they would, we would pick cotton, particularly in the summers and, you know, my mother would load up and take five or six of the kids, but I had to stay home because I was still too little to go. And I used to hate that because everyone would leave and I would be at home and would, you know, just kind of mope around. So, uh, it had its advantages and disadvantages, but on the farm you know it really wasn’t, you know I think that’s really what helped me, is that it really wasn’t about whether you were a boy or a girl, it’s about how tall and strong you were. So if you were ready to drive a tractor – which I did learn how to drive before a car – you know they put you on a tractor, if you were ready to bail the hay or pick the cotton or load it, I mean it just, it was more task oriented than by sex, except for driving, only the boys got to drive the truck.
MP: Oh really, you could drive the tractor, but not the but you couldn’t drive the truck
SG: Not the truck, I learned how to drive a regular car in college -
MP: Umm hum
SG: In drivers ed
MP: Yeah. What were some of your, your best memories when you think back um on going up, you mentioned that it was hard work and the summer work was not very comfortable? But what are some of your, uh, more I guess fond memories when you look back on your childhood?
SG: Just exploring and the freedom of, of you know the vastness of growing up on the farm. My grandfather, the property started with almost six hundred acres that my grandfather bought at a tax sale and just the openness. I mean, I think that’s why I like doing parks projects and green space, good quality air because I grew up in an area where you could just, you could literally just go play in the pasture, you could climb in the barns, you could climb in the windmills, you could go up to the windmill even thought they told you not to. I mean it was, you were able just to be free and I think that’s really what, what I enjoyed the most. Most of our activities centered over family, our church or school – that’s all we knew it was a small farm, uh everybody spoke Spanish, it was just a very small tiny community. But if I did anything that I wasn’t supposed to either my mother would know about it, or the teacher would tell my mother, or the priest would tell my mother, or the neighbor would tell my mother. So it was really very small, very nurturing, we were poor but we didn’t realize it because we didn’t really get a TV until I was – I don’t know maybe third or fourth grade. I read a lot, I knew what was out there, but all we knew was our own little community.
MP: Umm hum. So yeah it was almost like, you know when they say it takes a village, in this case it really was –
SG: It really was
MP: kind of connecting, you know beyond –
SG: Because everybody knew everybody, you couldn’t get away with anything.
MP: Very different from Houston.
MP: [Laughing] Um, so going to school, it must have been a very small school as well.
SG: Right. We actually started; our school was a four room schoolhouse. And every other year I’d get to, I was able to be in school with my brother because there was always two rooms to a school, uh, to each room. That too had its advantages and disadvantages. It was neat to have your brother in the same classroom, but it was hard when he would try to beat you up for the homework.
MP: Right [laughing]
SG: Because he always depended on me to do the homework and then he would just kind of turn in his version of my version.
MP: Right [laughing]
SG: So uh, that was always fun.
MP: Yeah, the whole thing between siblings I guess that’s uh, you know kind of a constant theme regardless of where you grow up.
SG: Right, I always wanted a bigger library thought because that, the library was in the principal’s office - whatever books he had in there. Once you got past those you had to rely on the county to send us a bookmobile during the summer and once you got past those you just sort of started getting bored. It’s a different kind of boredom than the kids experience today thought.
MP: Right. So you, you mentioned that it was - is it in your family everybody that everybody spoke Spanish, or was it the community all together?
SG: Oh absolutely, the whole community it was probably just one non-Hispanic family in the whole community. So everyone spoke Spanish, uh and my Dad in fact didn’t speak any English, he didn’t read or write Spanish, he was just a very verbal. He finished probably the third grade and then he was pulled out of school to do, to work the farm. My mother finished the fifth grade, but learned to read and was an avid reader and was self taught. So they really were the ones that really pushed us to continue our education and do better. I think that’s every parent’s dream even today, is that their children do better than they did. And especially my Mother, she really pushed us a lot and she got all ten of us to graduate from high school. And when she, when my little brother finished, the tenth one, the school recognized her as being – the family as being the largest family that our school system had graduated where all kids graduated from high school. And regrettably that is still a challenge for Latino families all around this country that all parents can’t brag that all their children graduated from high school. It’s still one of the biggest challenges we have today.
MP: She must have been very proud to be honored in that way.
SG: Oh she was, she was, she was.
MP: So when you, um, you went to school all through high school there in Palito Blanco, and you went to college at Texas Women’s University, that’s in the Forth Worth area.
SG: Its, uh, the Dallas, Fort Worth area
MP: Dallas, Fort Worth area
MP: Um, how was that transition? Moving from the small town of, you know, about a hundred to a much larger metropolitan area. Was it difficult?
SG: Well you know I wish that there was a, you know, an ‘easy button’ and then a ‘not so easy’ button. I would be punching the that was ‘not easy’ button.
SG: Because, you know, first of all I really had to convince my parents to let me do it. My father was totally against it. I mean, he cried at the bus station when they put me on the bus. He was adamantly against it, they wanted me to stay in the area and go to the, back then it was called Texas CMI University, in Kingsville so that I could just commute. But I wanted to go away; you know I just thought that educational experience would be better for me if I wasn’t at home. The only reason I was able to do it was that I was kind of lucky. The youngest daughter on the Garcia side had gone to college and she went to Texas Women’s University because it was in the teachers college and she was going to be a teacher. And then the youngest Rodriguez was also a girl and she too wanted to be a teacher and they let her go. So I argued that if it was good enough for the two aunts on both sides of the family, the youngest daughters there, and the only ones of their families to go to college that it would be ok for me to go. Now the secret was never telling them that there was a school across the way called North Texas State University that had boys.
SG: So you just talked about the girl stuff –
SG: and the aunts and I’m not even sure that Mom and Dad even figured out that there were boys across the way in Denton at North Texas.
MP: Umm hum
SG: So they finally decided that fine, if you can figure out how to do it. So I got a scholarship and then got a loan later and then worked and just put it all together.
MP: And I assume the eventually your parents became comfortable with your being far away?
SG: They, they did. And for me the first semester was just a real, real sort of cultural shock. I mean, I went from being one of fourteen in a class – that has advantages too because I could brag that I graduated in the top fourteen of my class.
SG: Uh, you know and just being in a very very small school room size and having teachers that knew you and knew your parents to going to classes that had two to three hundred people. I, quite frankly, I think after the first semester I was ready to just leave. I just wasn’t sure I could handle it, but I stuck it out and stayed.
MP: Yeah. What made you, what helped you to be able to stick it out? What were the kind of strategies or resources that you reached out for, to help you make it through after that first semester?
SG: You know I’m not really sure that I can pinpoint anything specific. All I know is that I just had a lot of friends, I was always involved in and interested in government and politics. I started getting more involved in school activities and ultimately became the vice president of my student body and was a class officer and I got, I just got involved and tried to find some other thing that was of interests. And the good part about going to a girl’s school like that is that you could just focus on studying and extra circular activities because there really wasn’t the distraction of boys in the classroom and all that can bring. And I think it really helped me in developing as a leader because there was not the extra competition or pressure so I did take leadership roles in college that I think I sort of build on to do what I am doing today.
MP: Right, right. What were some of the activities you go involved in, was it student government?
SG: I don’t think we want to talk about it.
MP: Oh [laughing]
SG: You know, actually part of the thing that I probably enjoyed the most was the student government work because we were really about changing the culture of Texas Women’s University at the time. They hadn’t quite let go of the old, you know the relationships with Texas A&M because they are brother sister schools. They had the kind of programming that we were just going to be the teacher, the librarians or the nurses and we really argued about having Women’s Studies Programs brought to the campus. We brought to the campus Gloria Steinam to come talk about the feminist movement. We brought Sissy Farenthal who was running for governor, Barbara Jordan. So we really worked hard as a student activist group to try to bring the women in the college more aware of what else was going on around them and to get away from just all the usual pigeon holing in the career track that the school was better known for.
SG: Simply to say that a lot of it worked, it was really very interesting. It was always fun to put demonstrations and protests together if you can imagine girls doing that.
SG: We did.
MP: Yeah, and I would guess that it would be a very difficult thing, right? To change the attitudes of an institution and really being part of the moment.
SG: It was. I remember, I remember more than one unpleasant meeting with the president of the university at the time. That was one of our, sort of planks on our little platforms, that it didn’t make sense to us that we have a male president at a women’s college and I am pleased to say that that has finally changed. We have had two women presidents since then and they are currently the president of Texas Women’s University is a woman.
MP: So when you went to Texas Women’s University you got your degree in social work.
SG: Social work and government, double major
MP: You said that you had always been interested in government, is that what led into a natural transition to the study of law? How did you get interested in –?
SG: You know the law thing really came from just watching. First of all, a lot of the women that I really, you know, admired and followed at the time – mentioned some like Sissy Farenthal, Barbara Jordan, Judge Sarah T. Hughes from the Dallas area – it seemed to me that a lot of the women, for whatever reason, who were involved in politics were lawyers. So I thought, well maybe if I really want to get involved in politics I’m going to have to become a lawyer. But I really just had a heart for social work. Growing up poor, having stood in line at the clinic to get a shot, having received commodity foods, I just wanted to do something to help people and to make sure that other kids didn’t have to go through what I went through. So I was very committed to social work, and what I like the best about social work is that you got to go home and make home visits and help families. I loved that part. And still today I like going door knocking and campaigning to be able to just talk to people and just ask them – what are your needs, what can make a difference in your life? So I started on the social work track because that’s what I wanted to do. But then I decided that social work was like one case at a time, it was a real band aid approach. Maybe if I became a legal aid lawyer I could sue people and make a bigger impact. So I went to law school to be a legal aid lawyer and that’s what I did the first three or four years. Filed a lot of really interesting class action suits against many of the agencies that are about delivering serves to the poor. And then after that I decided that even that wasn’t doing a lot. I had a friend by the name of Kathy Whitmire who called and said do you want to be a judge.
SG: I thought, ok my mother told me to take, you know she didn’t raise a fool, so I thought about it overnight and the next day and said ok. So I thought now I get to be in a different position of listening to people and providing an opportunity for them to be heard and making decisions so I thought I’ll try that, and I did that for ten years.
MP: So this is judge, a municipal judge?
MP: Here in Houston. Um, when she asked you to become, how would you like to be a judge, what were the things that went through your mind? I mean –
SG: Well the real first thing I reacted to was our city attorney at the time, who also was a friend of all of ours, Claris called me and it happened to be April first when he called.
MP: Oh no! [Laughing]
SG: So I actually did think it was it was an April Fool’s joke, but he says “No Sylvia I’m serious Kathy really wanted to know – do you want to be the chief judge?” And I just said, Claris are you for real? So I had to kind of work through that, and then I just really did think about it because it is an awesome responsibility. I mean you are sitting there listening to cases, making decisions in other people’s lives. Fortunately municipal courts is fine only, it didn’t mean I was going to put anybody in jail and take their life and liberty, but its still making judgments and that is a very, very serious position to be in. A lot of responsibility, and to be the chief judge, to then manage that – all the court rooms all the cases – that was an even more awesome responsibility. So I did think about it, probably over night. I discussed it with my mom, my daddy had died by that time, and she just wasn’t quite sure what it all meant but she said that that is really what you want to do. So I called the next day and I said yes.
MP: It does sound like a, really kind of a surprise offer. It kind of opened a lot of other doors for you, I’m sure. What were were some of the biggest challenges you encountered as being – you were the first Latina to hold this position. Did that present any challenges, or what were the challenges that you encountered in this job?
SG: I think any time any woman is put in a position where you are the first, or you are the only at the table there are challenges that come with it. I mean, I remember so many times walking into meetings where I’d be the only woman at the table. Quite frankly, even though almost twenty, twenty-five years have gone by that still happens today. And to me that’s the sad part, Major Whitmire really was about opening the doors of opportunity for people at city hall. It wasn’t just my appointment; it was appointing Lee Brown the first African American police officer, appointing a lot of people that were women and minorities to different positions of authority in city government. But some of those positions are now not filled by women and minorities, I sometimes think that in some areas we have not taken as many great strides as we should have, but I think that for me Major Whitmire certainly opened those doors and it built on the foundation that ultimately let me run for office myself. I was always one of her supporters, one of her workers. I was always involved in so many people’s campaigns that ultimately it became time for me to say, ok maybe I can do this too.
MP: Umm hum
SG: So I think it all kind of works together.
MP: Tell me about that first election. What was the office that you were running for, and what did it feel like? Was it a scary thing, was it more exciting?
SG: I think it’s a little bit of everything. It is, I ran after the last census redistricting I ran for congress, many people don’t know that but I ran for congress in 1992. It was an open seat; it was a new seat that was created to hopefully elect a Hispanic to congress. There were five of us running and it was a real, kind of, adventure is the best word for me. It was something I had always thought about and finally I was doing it. I probably approached it more textbook and more intellectual than I should have, and probably did a lot of it more hands on than I should of. I was the candidate, and that’s always the struggle – who is the manager and who the candidate is. But it was a very unique opportunity for me because we had not really had that opportunity as Hispanics to elect someone to congress. So it was exciting, it was hard, it was difficult because I wasn’t favored by the insiders. There were two candidates in the race that were pretty much treated like they were incumbents because they had been in office before, so I was like the one that everyone was like – why is she really doing it, she has never run for anything? But how many times have you heard that about women or Latinos, so I just said no I want to do it and this is the only shot I may have period. So I did, and I came out third, you know got the silver, but not the gold. It was a good experience for me; again I think it helped build the base that ultimately has put me where I am.
MP: Right. And what were the, what were some of the lessons that you took away from that experience? You kind of mentioned that maybe you were more hands on than you should have been. Um, what did you take away from that even though it wasn’t a win?
SG: Well I, one thing you learn and learn fast that is that all those people who encourage you may not be at the headquarters helping you.
SG: All those people who tell you “yes I’ll help you” may not write you the check that it takes to do that. But I think what it really did help me realize that I really like people. I think anybody who thinks about just the power and authority of an office, but doesn’t really realize that they really have to like people and want to help people are really in the wrong profession.
MP: Umm hum
SG: Sometimes I see folks that are in politics, that it is almost painful for them to campaign and you wonder why they do it. Well you realize it’s because they want the title and the power and the authority, but don’t want to take the steps. They want their staff to take care of everything. I am quite the opposite. I really just love going to the events, talking to folks, knocking on those doors and just really looking at what people want out of their office holders, and I think that is what is important. So that was the best takeaway. The downside is that so many people you think you can count on, you realize you can’t. You really understand fully one - that your family is always there for you, because all my family would come down and help. They were truly the only ones that could always count on, and probably anywhere from five to ten really good friends who would just stick it out for you. All the others are just talkers and you just have to figure out where you can put them, use them when you can and do what you can with them as volunteers. And just move on and stay very, very focused.
MP: You know something that you mentioned right now that I find really interesting, um, we kind of think of or have an idea of what Texas politics are like. Texas is known for some wonderful, strong, amazing women leaders, but it is also I think, kind of perceived to be one of those places where the good ole’ boys network still thrives. What has been your experience, in your public life and your life in politics? Has that been the case? Has it been much more difficult as a woman, as a Latina to navigate these crazy political waters?
SG: You know, I think, again how long it has been since the Women’s Movement started and where it may or may not be today, women candidates still face a different set of challenges. I’ve got be honest with you, I’ve felt some as being Latina, being Hispanic, but I face more as a woman. And I think that’s because of who I am, and perhaps because I am fair and some folks may not realize that I am Hispanic at first. But the reality is that the public, the media pundits, your colleagues, others will still see women in a different light. I remember one time, this is when I was judge, I had an appointment at a state agency to go visit with someone. At the front desk they had that Judge Garcia was coming so they knew I was coming – I was judge at the time. My chief of staff happened to be a Latino and had the mustache, the darker features, he and I walked into that state agency and they went straight to him and said – “Judge Garcia we knew that you were coming in this morning thank you so much for being here” – and he looked at them and said “I’m not the judge, she’s the judge.”
SG: But those kinds of things still happen sometimes, you know they will say commissioner is coming, and it doesn’t happen in my own precinct anymore because I have been there seven years, but if you go somewhere else externally it still may happen. And there are still a lot of places where the table you may sit at that you are still the only women, of course including Commissioners court itself.
SG: So you feel it, you see it, but it is subtle it’s never overt. I think people are smarter than that today.
MP: Umm hum. Do you think that at some point in the near future we will move beyond that? Are you hopeful that soon there will be more women and people of color in elected offices? [Inaudible]
SG: I think we’ll get there because of just the dynamics of the changing demographics. Again if you think about those strong women that you were talking about I think they happened in the early 90s, if you look today there isn’t that many women in positions like there were five of ten years ago. I hope that we get back to that and I would hope that we become just a diverse group of people so that we don’t even have to think about it anymore. But we are not quite there yet, I think there is still a lot of work to do. I think women just need do – to quote Madeline Albright – interrupt more and make sure that people know that you are there. Whether it’s like her wearing the right broach, or me wearing the right color. You know you just have to make sure that you make your presence know and your views known. Do not let them speak louder than you, or dismiss what you say and they repeat it later, which happens often and just exert yourself a little more.
MP: It sounds like really wonderful advice for a lot of our students here.
SG: I think it works really not only in politics, in any arena. Because I think the challenges are pretty much the same.
MP: Umm hum
SG: Voters tend to look at women more for how you look and you know how you presented yourself, less of that with men candidates. But it is know that when you go to the poles women, at least, will vote for women and there is that gender gap, which used to be three to five percent and I think it’s still true. So think that things have changed a little bit, things have changed, but we do have a lot more work ahead of us.
MP: Thinking about your time here in Houston, you came down to Houston to go to law school right, or was that before?
SG: Actually no, I came to Houston looking for a job like everybody else. I’m an immigrant too. I immigrated from south Texas, I came looking for a job just like so many other people because Houston has always been just a great job place and it has always been known for having a great heart and being very open. So someone like me came here with everything I owned in a little Volkswagen and now I have a home and a car, you know you do that on your own. I think the city of Houston recognizes that if you work hard the opportunity is there for you, it’s whatever you make of yourself.
MP: How has Houston changed in the time that you have been here? Have you noticed any shift in, just in anything. How is it different from when you first got here?
SG: Well it’s grown a lot more. And with that growth has come a lot of the pains of a big, major urban center. For me as commissioner, when I talk to other colleagues around the state, you know, I explain to them that being the commissioner of a major urban center like Houston, Harris County has so many different challenges that being the commissioner back where I grew up. We have the big operation of NASA in my precinct, the entire ship channel, all the petrochemical plants, the port, some very diverse cities- I represent fourteen of them. I mean, any given day I could cover twenty-five to thirty different topics that I have to wrestle with, or deal with at some level. Most commissioners don’t do that in their communities but, you know five or six different projects that they are working on. We are constantly working, and I think that is because of the growth of the whole county. And I think the changing demographics have been very interesting to watch, because for me – you know I call my area la cara de Tejas, the face of Texas because we look like, today, in precinct two what the state is going to look like in five to ten years. So I feel additional responsibility to make sure that I succeed, not only as an office holder, but as a precinct because if my precinct doesn’t develop a work force, if my precinct’s families don’t graduate from high school, if they don’t go on to a community college or at least a two-year education somewhere then I have some responsibility that I have to do my part. And what will work in my precinct, I think latter will work in the entire state so we take our position very seriously, we work hard.
MP: Well they say, the slogan that Texas is a whole other country, it sounds like Harris County is a whole other country, right?
SG: Well it is, it’s the third largest county in the country and each of our precincts is larger than about five states in populations. So I represent about a million people, that’s more people than a member of congress and that’s more people than at least five governors. So it is a huge responsibility, and its very divers. It is part of Houston’s east end, just north of here, and all the way to Baytown and all the way to Clear Lake. Very diverse communities, so whatever you do impacts a lot of people.
MP: What do you think are some of the most pressing issues facing Harris County and the state of Texas in the next few years? Things that need to be, really need to be addressed
SG: Well today, I mean, we are dealing with an economy that is in trouble and it is no different for us in government that it is for anyone in your own household. We have had to take a lot of steps to cut and freeze hiring and to do what we need to do as a county to ensure that we can get through the next, probably the next year or two without raising taxes and still meet all the demands. Regrettably, the demands never decrease. There is always more demand on the county government, the shifting of responsibility from both the federal government, the state government and even some of our cities who decided that, well we don’t wanna do this anymore let’s ask the county to do it. So there is that struggle all the time to meet demand with shrinking revenues and more responsibility. But I think overall for this whole region it’s about quality of life. We do have some air quality issues, we do have to worry about some water quality issues in some parts of our county, and we have to figure out a way to manage our grown. I mean, the growth that is coming we can’t stop it. There will be more cars, there will be more need for transportation, there will be more need for medical facilities, and more importantly educational facilities. Education in my books is like the number one challenge. I would love to see the day where every parent in my precinct could brag that their children graduated from high school. I mean if my mother and father could do it with their limited resources there is absolutely no reason why that can’t be done. Particularly in a huge urban area like this one that has such a great social service network and such a great partnering network of different agencies that will assist someone. So I think for us, not only as Latinos but everyone, developing that educational opportunity and that workforce development is critical to our growth. Because if we don’t have the employees, and the uh, folks to be able to keep things going at the port, at NASA, and the petrochemical companies, in our institutions there where are we going? So I think that is probably still our most important task ahead.
MP: And as you mentioned education, in some of the Latino communities especially, is important with some of the highest high school dropout rates. It is a very important, you know, thing to address.
MP: Um, what kind of advice would you give to, we have some students here who have kind of seen everything that you have accomplished and the challenges that you have experienced. What kind of advice would you give to them as they begin their careers?
SG: Well, I think that everyone first should just kind of try to dream and try to figure out in their own minds, you know, be creative. Just think of what you really want to do, and then just stay focused on it and every day when you get up a look at yourself in the mirror make sure that you are having fun, that you still like to do it, and stick with it. I think, I tell all my nieces and nephews and great nieces and great-great nieces because we are a large family now, that if you really just need to stick with it. At that point in time that you decided that that is what they want, there is nothing wrong with that. But you have to at least try to do what it is that you really want to do, and then if you have to change your mind well then do that and focus on that, but whatever you are doing just do your best, stay focused, and don’t get distracted just work hard.
SG: My mother always said to just work hard, get an education, believe in God, and that I would be rewarded. I still live by that and I have been lucky, I have been very well rewarded. But I think that there are a lot of kids out there who haven’t been. Now that’s my job, to try to figure out ways to make sure that all kids can meet their dreams.
MP: Well that is wonderful. I am sure that there are questions in the audience; I want to be sure to leave time.
MP: I don’t want to hog all the time asking you my questions. How do we want to –
SG: I do think that there is a degree of complacency, not just or young women, but even among my peers. There doesn’t seem to be a well organized women’s caucus or women’s movement anymore in Harris County or Houston. I’m not quite sure what happened. You know we worked real hard to get a lot of gain, some of us have achieved those gains, but there has not been a continuing support system for all our young women and I think that is what’s lacking right now.
MP: This one is an interesting and timely question - Seeing other women going into high office and the sort of the “wise Latina” perspective, do you think that this is helpful and should a candidate’s sexual orientation should be an issue like it has become in our current mayoral race?
SG: Well I think, you know first let me just say that I have had the distinct honor and pleasure of meeting Justice Sotomayor and I just think she is just a perfect example of a good product of a great law school. And I think like her, she is just very focused on her profession and was focused on just doing what she was doing in her legal career and I think she is going to be one of the best justices on the Supreme Court as she grows into that position that we are going to find. She is certainly well prepared for it, and I think it is important that we focus on that – the qualifications, the skill sets, and the life experiences someone brings to the court, or to city hall, or to any position. And anything having to do with anything personal should be just left to death, whether it’s about sexual orientation or anything else. I think there is no room for it, it’s not relevant, and we should focus on ability and capacity to hold the position and to do a good job and that should be the only test – for men and women alike.
MP: Um, here is another question. What infrastructure changes could help more young women move up – things like access to birth control, paid sick leave, or other support for families are some suggestions – are there any thoughts that you have as far as what kind of changes would help young women?
SG: Quite frankly the first thing that came to mind was more educational funding opportunities. I think it is still a struggle for working families to send their children to college, and I think what is probably better for everyone is if we really did a better job of providing scholarships, grants, or loans that were affordable to be able to get kids through college. It is very difficult to, I guess do what I did, to work and get the grand and the scholarship and make it all mix. It’s a different generation now, but it is difficult for people to stay in school whether it’s a training or college opportunity if they still have to work, or they have a role in providing for their families so they have to work to keep their families together and then they are trying to go to school. I know a lot of uh, kids today that you know they want to go to school but they have a role in making sure they provide part of the income that goes to their families so there is that struggle. I would focus more on the financial opportunities than anything else.
MP: Well defiantly here at the University of Houston, even just in our own classrooms, so many of the students I come across work multiple jobs um, and then come to school.
SG: Or if they get a loan they have to just about agree to give their first born back to whoever is holding the loan.
MP: Right [laughing]
SG: Because it just, probably one of my proudest moments was when I finally got the loan paper back, you know, where they release me from my obligations, I had paid off my loans. I just about framed it because I had been paying on it for years.
MP: I look forward to that day myself [laughing]
SG: Right, and then the second one from law school. So I mean we have got to do something to make it easier for people to go to school. The scholarship that I got to go to TWU was one that was, it really had no strings attached. It was a grant, and that grant was for, uh, children from poverty areas with academic achievement and you got your tuition and your fees, your state fees, waived. So I essentially went to school with, you know, the state providing – it was a special act that they passed at the time and they don’t have it anymore. We need to bring that back, particularly kids that have challenges or disadvantages but are high academic achievers or can at least be a ‘B’ and ‘A’ student. Not everyone can be a double ‘A’ or I don’t know what they call it today. So I think we need to do a better job of providing the vehicle for that child to be able do more.
MP: Um, on a different topic. What do you think the county should do about Dynamo stadium?
SG: Dynamo stadium
SG: Some fans in the crow. Well, you know it’s a, it’s a city project. Uh, it is something that the Mayor has been negotiating with the Dynamo folks. I think there are some things that some of us at the county would like to see and I can tell you here today that my biggest – I don’t know who the Dynamo fan here is – but my deal breaker is that Dynamo must set aside, must set aside some seats that are affordable. If I am going to set aside and do something and build a stadium without any voter approval then I am going to do it only because it provides a venue and a sport opportunity for working families and children. And if they can go to Robertson stadium now for tickets that are eight or ten dollars then I want them to be able to go do a Dynamo stadium with tickets for eight to ten dollars. I don’t want families and children priced out, and that is what happens with stadiums. That eight to ten is going to change to twenty-five, to thirty-five to forty and before you know it you can’t go to the games. So until they commit to do that I am not signing off on that. I have made it plain and clear and we will wait and see what they are willing to do.
MP: These questions are kind of, ok –
SG: Questions from all over the place
SG: Yeah, and we thought you were going to be tough.
MP: I know! [Laughing] Let’s see, some of these questions are sort of, these questions are somewhat related. But um, generally asking what are your long terms plans with regard to elective office? What, what national office might you seek next or do you think you might peruse a run for perhaps governor or senator?
SG: No I don’t -
MP: or mayor
SG: I love my job and I intend to keep it, in fact Saturday I will be filing for reelection. It’s a job that gives me an opportunity everyday to make a difference in people’s lives and I intend to stay there. You know, I’ve been in politics at some level for almost twenty-five years and I would like to have some years to just do whatever Sylvia wants, to have no schedule and no handlers, to just be able to go to, go to the movies when I want to. I’ve been trying to do that for three months now.
SG: To take a vacation and do some other things, we will see. To continue making a difference for people, now when that will be I don’t know, but I think at some point I will sort of retire from politics and do something else.
MP: Sort of following up on that, how do you find balance? I mean it sounds like it is very difficult to get to the movies, let alone make room for some of these other things. How do you think you have managed to –
SG: You know I think I still do the same things I used to do when I was growing up on the farm. Books are my escape, I go to my estate and grab a book and let my brain kind of level off. Uh, I will go back home and be with family. That is always, probably the most normal, most nurturing, most kind of fun thing for me to do. Or I’ll go to a friend’s house in Galveston and just get away for a day or two. So it is hard to do it, but I think that unless I do I’ll end up with an ulcer or something - and I am real proud to say I have never had one. So I try to put things down for away and just take a deep breath and get away from it.
MP: Find those moments when you can get then and enjoy them. Um, here is another question. How do you feel about affirmative action? Do you think that it is effective, or ineffective?
SG: You know that is a word that rarely comes up anymore. I think that for many of us it is really what helped us get to where we are today, but it is probably not as alive and well as it was many years ago. I know most local government just really focus on being diverse and being responsive, having bilingual people available and hotlines or offices to respond to folks. I think that if people just focus on meeting the needs of their constituents then you don’t need affirmative action. But I think that in some areas, particularly in big organizational, big organizations, big corporate structures I think that you still need to do that. Particularly with the makeup on some boards and in some places where it is important to have that diversity at the table.
MP: And coming back to the question of education –
SG: Dynamo again?
MP: No, no more Dynamo just the one. But the question about higher ed and in terms of thinking about what local government can do to increase the number of students who go into higher educations. And also, what are some of the things that you have done specifically to um, help young people get their high school education, get a quality education?
SG: Well for me I think that, all of us can be a part of it. Just being a good role model and encouraging, you know. When I talk to my nieces and nephews it’s really not a question of are you going to college, you know it’s really more a question of ok are you going to want to go to TWU like me or do you want to go to this other school. You don’t even give them an option so that it begins with all this at home and just being encouraging and making sure that they know that the opportunities are there. As an office holder, I think that it is important to just talk about it. I mean, as a commissioner I really have nothing to do with education, but if I don’t talk about it terms of work force and future growth of our area then people really won’t think about it. But I work together with all the presidents and chancellors of all the colleges within my precinct, I meet with them regularly. We have a person on staff that does nothing but educational initiatives so we work will all our institutions of higher learning in our precinct.
MP: Um, what book are you currently reading and what were some of the influential books that you read growing up?
SG: I read a lot of mysteries and I started Richard North Patterson’s latest book The Spire, in fact I just started it, I guess this weekend because I was busy trying to finish the first one which was sort of a historical fiction that was a little bit more of a chore to read that I thought it was. And I haven’t found a lot of chunks of time to read, but I generally read mysteries and autobiographies and some political thriller, drama kinds of things. So, um, I forgot what the second part of the question was.
MP: If there was a, if there was some influential books that made an impact on your life, that were influential in your life.
SG: There is a book that is called a Simple Justice it sort of tracks the history of Brown vs. The Board of Education and the civil rights movement that I found just really, really fascinating in terms of history and the whole civil rights struggle from the court cases type of reading. I really found it very encouraging and nurturing when I was going through law school. And I have always been real proud of the fact that being able to say that I went to the Thurgood Marshall School of Law because he is someone I very highly admired and respected for a lot of legal work that ensuing landmark decision having to do with discrimination and civil rights that really opened the doors for not just a African Americans, bur for everyone.
MP: Returning to the theme of diversity, um, recessions can be times when diversity initiatives can suddenly disappear, how do you see this operating today and do you think it is something that can be addressed?
SG: In, I guess we don’t know what respect they mean.
SG: Uh, well I think it is, it is, I think it is one of the challenges that still lies ahead. When you speak of those issues there is a lot of emotion and reaction that comes with it so I think we just need to stay focused and keep working at it.
MP: Well great. If there are no more questions, um, thank you so much –
SG: Oh absolutely
MP: for being here with us and talking with us today, and sharing your story. And thank you all for being here.