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LESLIE KELEN: Jesse, you might want to get a little closer to the table, and you can probably just speak a little bit more robustly. I’m not going to bow out, but I’ll be quiet, unless I feel like I gotta chime in.
JOSUE: Can you tell us where were you born?
JESSE: I was born in San Antonio, Texas.
JOSUE: Can you tell us something about your parents?
JESSE: Well, both my parents were born in Mexico. My mother was born in Coahuila, a state right across the border, [in] Torreón, one of the large industrial cities in Mexico. My father was born in Zacatecas, which is a little bit further away from the border, but they both came to San Antonio. My mother came with her mother to San Antonio when she emigrated. My father came a little bit earlier, probably around 1918.
ALEXIS: Could you describe the neighborhood that you grew up in?
JESSE: San Antonio was, and still is, mostly Mexican/Mexican-American. So most of the kids I grew up with in those early years were Mexican-American. I went to a Catholic school because I had an aunt who was a nun, and she was a teacher at that Catholic school. And it was a working area, working people, and they’d go to work there. It was a very pleasant neighborhood. Later on we moved to another house closer to downtown San Antonio; in fact, it wasn’t too far from the Alamo. Just to give you an idea of the neighborhood, the name of the street was Arroyo Alleyand it was an alley. The houses were not real nice, but that was one of the houses I grew up in. I used to walk over to the Alamo. When I was a kid, used to run barefoot around San Antonio.
ALEXIS: Was there a sense of community there where you grew up?
JESSE: It was always a sense of community, and partly because a lot of my father’s family was there, so we were always close to the aunts and cousins. It was a neighborhood, yes; and since most of us were Mexican/Mexican-Americans, [and] most of us spoke Spanish, I didn’t speak English until I was about 11, 12.
JOSUE: Can you explain to us how was school for you?
JESSE: What I remember is going to elementary schoolI was always anxious because I didn’t speak English. All the teachers spoke English. Some of the other kids spoke some English, but mostly we spoke Spanish, and that made it scary to go to school. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to school. Later on, when we moved to Michigan and I started school in Michigan at about, I think, 5th grade, and by that time I was speaking English a bit better. And that was a mixed school; mostly they were working people, people who worked in the factories in Michigan. These were the automobile factories. But at that time they were war industry factories. They produced guns and tanks and jeeps and all sorts of other war material. And that 5th grade was fun, except sometimes you’d get a bit anxious. We had mostly black kids, a lot of Mexican kids, and a lot of southern white kids, because a lot of the folks down South were coming North to work in the factories. So it was a neighborhood that was all factory workers.
JOSUE: Who were your friends at school?
JESSE: My friends at school were mostly Mexican/Mexican-American. I had a couple of good friends. That was about it. In our neighborhood we didn’t have too many non-minorities, except for the southern white kids. And they were part of the factory working community, so they sort of fit in real well. But those were my friends mostly. What I recall about being a kid is that most of my friendssome of you may be aware of thisbut in the Mexican-American community, everybody gets nicknames, so all my friends had nicknames, things like Pelo, Chato, all sorts of different nicknames.
BRENNAN: During your schooling, did you experience any discrimination or racism?
JESSE: At the time I wouldn’t have identified it [as racism]. I knew somehow or another I was different, and I was treated differently than some white kids in the school. When people were selected to be in a play, when people were selected to be in some event, they generally selected the white kids. And when we were engaging in sports, the kids that got to play were generally the white kids, because the coach was white. So there was discrimination. And most of us just accepted it; we just said that’s the way the world is.
JOSUE: So that’s how you felt, or was it a different experience for you?
JESSE: I don’t think so. The only thing about myself is that I was small. And that always has something to do with how you interact with other kids. Sometimes you get defensive, sometimes you get aggressive, sometimes you just run away. So that might be the difference. A lot of my friends were a lot larger than I was. And a lot of kids in school were older, because a lot of the minority kids were held back. In the 5th grade, I had kids that were 15 years old. So it was an interesting experience, and it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was fun because of my friends, but the school was not a lot of fun, although I enjoyed learning, reading particularly. I spent a lot of time reading; it was an escape for me.
ALEXIS: Going back to your family, can you tell us more about your parents, like who was stricter…?
JESSE: They were pretty strict. Mexican parents, in those days, could use a belt; they could use corporal punishment; and they were pretty exacting. Now, the thing about my parents is you always knew they cared for you, and whatever they did, they were doing it because they thought that was the right thing to do to make you be a better person and stay out of trouble. So both of them were strict. My father and my mother didn’t hesitate to pick up a belt or, in the case of my father, every once in a while he’d just backhand meyou know, a slap. But my father weighed over 250 pounds, and I only weighed 100 pounds. It didn’t take long for him to straighten me out. But, in spite of that, you knew they were doing it because they thought it was the right thing to do. So I didn’t grow up with any hard feelings about that at all. I mean, that’s the way kids were raised in those days. My mother was a very pretty woman, a tiny woman, light complected, [with] red hair and green eyes. Her grandparents were Spaniards, so she was light complected. My father was probably a European/Indian mix. He was darker, looked more Mexican, still a handsome guy. He was sort of a jack-of-all-trades, could do anything, and he was a big guy; at least when I was little I looked at him as a big guy. My father spoke more English than my mother, and that was common because a woman stayed at home and didn’t have to learn English, but the fathers went out to work. So my exchanges with my other brothers and sisters, we spoke to my mother in Spanish and she spoke to us in Spanish. We spoke to my dad in English, and he spoke to us in English.
And my mother was a curandera. One of the early recollections I have about her, we were raised Catholic, so we had a house full of saints, statues of saints like you see here. All these saints had a different function; you know, different saints get assigned different responsibilities. But that’s what I recall. Now, we weren’t a church going religious [family], although I had to go to church. I was forced to go to mass on Sundays, because I went to a Catholic school. But my mother was a curandera, so we used to have women come to have their fortunes told, to have some illness they felt they wanted cured. And in our community we didn’t go to doctors right away. The first thing you did was you go to a local healer, and my mother used to do that. And curanderismo is a combination of practices, a Native American practice indigenous to the Mexican-Indian practices, and then they mix those with Catholicism. Some of the rituals were interesting, putting somebody on the floor with a sheet and then putting an egg on them and saying prayers or rubbing them with a mixture of oils or herbs. It was always fascinating to me. And we all grew up deathly afraid of ghosts and the devil, because that was part of the stories we used to hear my mother and her friends talk about, ghosts and devils and who saw who.
LUIS: What were you like as a child?
JESSE: I was very shy, very quiet, and, as I said, I was small. I didn’t grow up with a great deal of self-esteem. Also, I was different. Soriano is not a common name in the Mexican community, so that was part of it. When I first left Texas and moved to Michigan, kids used to make fun of my English as well. So that was hard and that’s when I decided I better learn English, and that’s when I started reading. My mother was artistic, and [had] a beautiful voice; she used to sing around the house. So we grew up with singing, with art, and also with all the religious practices that she’d engage in, so it was a fascinating childhood.
JOSUE: Going to the school part again, why did you drop out?
JESSE: The major reason was I was just absolutely bored, but I also didn’t feel the teachers really cared in high school. I had a Spanish teacher who was not a very good Spanish speaker, but she used to tell me that we Mexicans spoke terrible Spanish. And there was only one school in town, so all the rich kids as well as the poor kids from my neighborhood went to the same school, and you could always tell there was a difference. The rich kids, who were mostly white, hung out with the other rich kids. They were the cheerleaders; they were the football team captains; they were the leaders in the school. Most of the Mexican kids hung out separately. So I never really felt part of school. Now, there were other Mexican kids who seemed to fit in better, but I didn’t ever feel that. And the teachers, by and large, used to discriminate. They would call on white kids more than they did on Mexican kids. That was part of it. It’s both the fact that I was bored [and] I didn’t see any relevance with what the schools were teaching. I didn’t see any relevance to my life. Algebra didn’t make a lot of sense to me. History was always about white folks. It wasn’t about my Mexican heritage. So a lot of schooling didn’t have any relevance for me, and I decided to drop out. I went up to the counselor and I said, “I’m gonna drop out.” All he said was, “Okay, here’s some papers you need to sign.” I was 16, in the 10th grade.
ALEXIS: How’d your parents feel about you dropping out?
JESSE: Well, my mother was in Mexico with her family. It might have been a different story if she’d been in town. But my father was, I think, probably frustrated with me, and he worked nights, so for him it was stressful to have me not doing anything. He would ask me, “When are you going to find work?” Well, there wasn’t much you could do at 16 for a little Mexican kid. So I decided to enlist in the military. [I] went to the Marine Corps recruiter; the recruiter said, “We can’t take you right now.” This was at the beginning of the Korean War. Sitting next to the Marine Corps recruiter was the Navy recruiter, and he said, “We’ll take you sooner,” and that was it. My father went in and helped me sign up. I signed up for it shortly after I turned 17, I think a few weeks after I turned 17, but then it was still some time before they called me up. So I ended up in the Navy for 3-1/2 years.
ALEXIS: Did your parents support you in that?
JESSE: My mother was upset when she came back from Mexico and found out that I had signed up. She was upset with my father because he let me do it.
BRENNAN: When you were a child or younger, did you imagine yourself to join the Navy or did you have different plans?
JESSE: I think in those times, at least in my generation and in that circumstance, most of us just lived from day to day. We didn’t have long-range plans; we had dreams. I wanted to be an opera singer when I was a little kid. In fact, after I got out of the Navy I took voice lessons at the university, but by the time I got serious I already had three kids, so I had to choose between opera and three kids. But most of us didn’t plan. We had dreams but we really didn’t plan for anything. I wanted to go to West Point; I wanted to go to the Academy. That was one of my early dreams. But you had to have a congressman recommend you, and there wasn’t any way a Mexican family could get a congressman to recommend me. So like other dreams, [they] just sorta went away. And I just sort of went along with the flow until I dropped out of school.
LESLIE: Just a quick follow-up here. What’s the difference between plans and dreams?
JESSE: [With] dreams, you don’t sit down actively and say, “These are the steps I’m gonna do, these are the steps I’m gonna take to achieve my dream.” Unfortunately, now as I look back on my years of teaching, a lot of our minority kids don’t plan. I had white students who said, “In five years I’m gonna graduate from the university, in seven years I’m gonna have a Ph.D., in eight years this is where I’m gonna be.” They would plan it out, which I thought was boring. I didn’t want to plan my life. But the difference between dreamingand everybody should dream, incidentallybut then you have to decide, which one is it that I’m really going to go after. What is it I’m really gonna go after, and actively sit down and say, “Okay, these are the steps that are gonna get me there.” Sometimes they will [get you there] and sometimes they won’t. You know life takes different turns, but the fact of the matter is that if you plan you’re more apt to achieve your dream.
JOSUE: When you went into the military, how did you feel when they called you up?
JESSE: That was another interesting thing. One day I got a call from the recruiting office and they said, “Come on down to the recruiting office.” I said, “Okay.” This was February; in Michigan that’s cold. But it had been a nice, sort of warmish day, so I put on this light jacket, and I told my mom, “Ma, I’m leaving but I’ll be right back.” [I] got to the recruiting station, and they said, “We’re gonna take you right now. Here, let’s get going.” They put us on a bus, took us down to the train station, next thing I know I’m on the way to basic training. So I called from Chicago, when I got to the Navy base; I said, “Ma, guess where I am!” I’d never been out of town, other than some short trips. So that’s how I got there. I had a hard time in basic training, partly because of the discipline. It was hard to be disciplined; it was hard to take orders. It was hard to do those things at first. Fortunately, I had been in the marching band in junior high school and then in high school, so I knew about marching, so that helped me, because I knew the commands and I knew how to march and all the different military things. So that helped me. I wanted to go to the Navy School of Music because I had also been in the band, but when I got there they said, “We don’t need any more musicians. We need electricians.” So they sent me to electrician school instead, and that’s what I did. Part of first year in the Navy was difficult because of the discipline, learning discipline, learning how not to get angry.
JOSUE: When you called your mom, what did she tell you?
JESSE: She just started crying.
JOSUE: How about your father?
JESSE: Oh, my father was fine. In my time, all of us were expected to join the military, that was how you got out of town, that was the one thing that was available to you, so a lot of my friends joined the Marine Corps. Some joined the Navy; others joined the Army. And in those days you volunteered. So my father was fine with it.
ALEXIS: So growing up, listening to radios talk about the war that was going on, and listening to people discussing it, did it make you ever afraid? How did it make you feel towards being called to serve in the Korean War with the Navy?
JESSE: I was very proud.
JESSE: Yeah, I was extremely proud. We all knew that weat least the kids I hung around with, my buddieswere all very patriotic. We grew up with movies about fighting Japanese, fighting the Nazis, so we were all very patriotic. It was a time when Americans were really patriotic. So we were all happy to do that, we all looked forward to that, we were all excited about that. And that’s what we did. In fact, because of the propaganda, we were taught to hate the Japanese and hate the Germans. So that’s something that was hard to overcome after the war.
ALEXIS: Didn’t you ever feel that [propaganda] was unfair, because you yourself said there was a difference in the way you were treated? So didn’t you ever feel [uncomfortable knowing] that if you ever came across a Japanese person, you would treat them differently, knowing how you felt when you were treated different?
JESSE: Well, this whole country treated them differently. That’s why we had Topaz, the relocation camp. Now most of us as kids didn’t know that was happening, but we did read newspapers about the atrocities the Nazis had committed, the atrocities the Japanese were committing, which is all part of the propaganda machine that takes place in any country when you’re at war with someone. So for us, it was about patriotism; we were Americans. At that point in time I wasn’t a Mexican or Mexican-American, I was an American.
LUIS: What experiences did you learn when you went to the Navy?
JESSE: I learned to take orders and do things that I didn’t want to do. I learned discipline. I learned that in the military there’s a reason for many of the things they tell you to do that you think are dumb, like polishing door handles and polishing brass, and having to take your clothes and lining them up exactly the way they want them. And they come around with a ruler to see that your clothes are lined up exactly, or that your shoes are shined. The reason for that is because they want you to learn to obey orders without question. In the military you have to obey orders without question, that’s what they want you to learn. At the same time, you learn that officers lead a different life than enlisted men. I was enlisted and officers have more privileges. The reason they have more privileges is because they’ve gone to school. Most officers I came across were white. I never ran across any Hispanic or any black officer; they were all white folks. That’s where I learned, look, I’d better go to school; if I’m gonna ever get to a point where I’m in a position to make decisions, I’d better get an education. I absolutely disliked taking orders from some of those guys, because they were 21, they’d just gotten out of the academy, and they looked like kids, like me.
JOSUE: Did you ever tell them anything?
JESSE: A couple of times.
JOSUE: What were your consequences?
JESSE: They reminded me that mine was not to question. As they used to say in the military, “Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die.” And the consequences were severe. In one case I did threaten to hit an officer, but I got off easy with that one.
JOSUE: How come you only served three years?
JESSE: Three and a half. They decided that I had put in enough time, because I had gone in when I was so young; so they said three and a half years. I could have stayed in longer, they asked me to reenlist, but by that time I decided that I was gonna do something different.
ALEXIS: Could you describe your time spent traveling over Europe? Did you see anything that influenced you at all?
JESSE: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. [I] met a lot of military folks around the Mediterranean where we spent a lot of our time. I was on the same ship for over three years; that was home for me. But that ship used to go all over the Atlantic, all the way from Iceland all the way down to the coast of Africa and back. What you learned is that people, other than that they speak differently and look a bit differently, are very nice. They were pleasant to Americans, by and large, although American sailors didn’t have a good reputation. But you learned to accept differences, you learned to say, “They’re different, but look at how exciting it is.” I love the Italians I ran into. I went to Spain and, of course, my grandparents were from Spain, so it was nice there. I visited incredible places like Pompeii, Rome, Paris, places that as a kid I never would have dreamed [of seeing]. When I was a kid, I enjoyed Egyptian history; in fact, one time I thought archaeology is something I want to go into. So going to these places was exciting. Standing in Greece, standing in the Parthenon, say[ing]”I’m standing where people were standing thousands of years ago” that was exciting.
JOSUE: What was the first thing that you did after you got out of the military?
JESSE: I tried to get back to finish high school. In those days there was no GED, there was no alternative schools, there was no Horizonte. I went back to the high school and I said, “I’d like to finish.” I was only 20 years old when I got out of the Navy, and the same principal that was there when I left, said, “We’d rather not have you back.” So I started looking for work. I couldn’t find work. [I] was ready to go back in the military ’cause I couldn’t find work. Then I got a job at Pontiac Motors, working on an assembly line. In those days there weren’t any robots; we would put these things together by hand mostly. I tried that for a while and discovered I just wasn’t cut out to work on an assembly line. My father ended up working in a car factory for over 50 years, but I said, “I can’t do that.” I used to watch my dad come home dirty and tired and smelly and decided that’s not what I’m gonna do. At that time, my older brother, who had been in the war, had gone to college. He came one day and he said, “Go over to the university and see if there’s any way you can get in or make up that high school.” I went over to Michigan State University, and I said, “Can I get in?” They said, “Take all the admissions tests. If you pass them we’ll let you in on probation,” `cause I hadn’t had algebra, I hadn’t had much English in high school. I’d had a quarter of algebra and trigonometry; I think that was about it. My writing skills were not very good. But I passed the entrance exams, and they let me in on probation. Now, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. There were general courses you had to take, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. No one was there to tell me, “Look, this is the next step; this is where you go.” You didn’t have that kind of support that you have today at universities. You had to work that out by yourself. And most of the university was white; most students were white. I might have been one of maybe half a dozen [minorities], and the school had had over 15,000 students.
JOSUE: How did you figure out what you wanted to be?
JESSE: Actually, I didn’t. I started out in engineering, because I thought, I’ve been an electrician; I’ll go into electrical engineering. But [I] found the math boring and all the engineering classes boring, so I said, I’m not gonna be an engineer. But I had taken a political science class, and I really enjoyed it. I found that talking about human behavior, dealing with human institutions, was interesting to me. So I ended up getting a degree in political science. But at the end of the year, there weren’t jobs for somebody with a bachelor’s degree. You have to have a graduate degree in political science to do anything. So I decided at that timeand I had wanted to get into law school, but law schools didn’t admit a lot of Mexican-Americansso I went into education. I took education courses, got a teaching certificate, got a master’s degree in foreign languages, and then started teaching. And that was a long time ago. I started teaching in 1959, and that’s been it; education has been what I pursued.
JOSUE: What was the name of that school you were hired in when you started teaching?
JESSE: I started teaching in a little town in Michigan. It’s right across the river from Canada, and it was called Marine City. You could take a little ferry, go across the river, and go into Canada. A lot of the male teachers in that school and I on Fridays would jump on the ferry, go into Canada, have a few drinks, then come back. Because in Canada at that time, pubs were divided; women couldn’t sit in the same place as men. So when we men wanted to sit by ourselves, we went to Canada. But it was interestingit was a predominantly white school. I was the only Hispanic teacher. It was a small school, small town; I think it only had one stoplight. And like any small community, everybody knew what everybody else was doing, so as a teacher I couldn’t go into town and stop at a bar, I couldn’t drink in town.
LUIS: How long did you teach in that school?
JESSE: I taught there two years. The school principal and I and the school superintendent didn’t agree on some things. So I left after two years, went back [to school] and got another master’s degree. Then I did a lot of substitute teaching and finally ended up teaching in a public school in Detroit. I liked the large city. I like big cities much better, and I taught in a school with about 2,000 kids, [an] entirely black school in the middle of Detroit. It was hard, but I enjoyed the kids.
JOSUE: Did you have a bad experience in Detroit?
JESSE: My experience in Detroit was absolutely positive. While I was there I also taught night school to the Spanish-speaking community in adult education classes, so I used to teach at the high school or junior high school during the day, then I’d go over to the Mexican section of town and teach night school. For me, that was absolutely a delightful experience. I was also the union representative for the teachers’ union, at least in the building where I was, which helped me grow as I talked to teachers and discovered that sometimes supporting an individual is really difficult when you know they haven’t done the right thing. But as a union representative, I was committed to supporting all teachers, no matter what they did.
ALEXIS: So tell us how you became an activist.
JESSE: Well, in Detroit, I was very much aware of the distinctions that existed, the discrimination that existed, and that was also the beginnings of the civil rights movement. And very early on I had looked at the whole question of inequality and how people were treated differently, how some of us got jobs where others didn’t. My father was never a supervisor, although he could have easily have been; he was bright enough, he was good enough, but supervisors jobs mostly went to white folks. And I think when I came back out of the military. I had decided that I just didn’t like the kind of discrimination, the kind of injustice that I saw, and that’s when I started really thinking about it. But in Detroit, because I was teaching night school, I got to meet some of the leaders in the Detroit Mexican community, a small community, and we formed a Mexican-American association. And that was the beginning of my activism, doing things with the community, and the fact that I was a Spanish teacher, the fact that I spoke Spanish, wrote Spanish, read Spanish, was all very helpful. It was in Detroit that I really started becoming really involved. And then to follow up on that, I left Detroit public schools, I went to work on a project that was working with teachers who had migrant kids in their schools. So we used to go out and do teacher training in that project, talked to teachers about how to work with Hispanic migrant kids primarily, although there were black migrant kids as well, farm workers, when I say migrant. And that job, where I could travel around the state, around different schools, it got me the contacts and the communication with all the other Mexican communities in the state. And so soon, because I was at the University of Michigan working on this project, some of these folks started calling me. They said, “Come and talk to us about this. Come and talk to us about what do we do.” So pretty soon a couple of friends of mine, the three of us put together La Raza. It was only three of us, it was a paper organization because there wasn’t any membership, but we’d go around telling people we had 500 members, when we really didn’t. We used to run things off on a machine; in those days it was a mimeograph machine that you turned, you had to stick the paper and put the ink on it and then turn this handle, and that’s how we made our pamphlets and leaflets. We went around speaking at different events. One of the fellows that was working for the state at that time had the state car, so the state car gave us the opportunity to travel around the state, because he’d call me up, he’d say, “Jesse, I’m gonna go meet with this group, why don’t you come along?” And I’d go with him.
ALEXIS: Could you describe to us an incident with the 15-year-old Mexican that died in the incident with the police officer? Could you tell us about that?
JESSE: Yeah, at that time I was the chair of this Mexican-American Association, and that community is a small community in Detroit, the Mexican community, and we got a call one day that a boy had been hurt. He was 15 years old, a little kid; [I mean] small when I say little. I got a call from this lady who was part of this Mexican Association. She said, “Jesse, come out with me down to the city hospital.” I said, “Okay.” I went down to the city hospital and the doctor came up to me, and he said, “Tell that family” and the parents were there, very humble-looking people, barely spoke Englishthe doctor said [long pause], it still chokes me up. Sorry. The doctor said, “Tell the parents that their son has expired,” and that was all. [Voice breaking] I went over and I remember telling the mother, and the mother just said, “That’s God’s will.” I said, “That’s not God’s will.” [Soft voice] And as we talked to some of the other kids, who had been there when the young boy had gotten into a struggle with the police, [it turned out] they were having a party, [and] somebody called the police. The police came. And the witnesses, and one of them was a white girl, who was the kid’s girlfriend, said, “That cop hit him on the head with his blackjack,” or with a club, and that’s what the little boy died of. He died of a brain concussion; it fractured his skull. Well, the police said he had fallen down and hit his head while he was struggling. We didn’t believe that; and we believed the girl. So we went to the media, we went to the press, and said, “We think that this policeman used undue force and killed this little boy.” Of course, the police denied this, as we expected they would. So we found a lawyer, we went back to look for the girl, and just by coincidence the little girl, who was from down South, had gone back down South and they couldn’t find her. So we didn’t have a witness anymore. And I started getting calls at home, calling me names, because I had come out in the paper, and we had accused the police of murdering this kid. So it never got beyond that. The lawyer said, “We don’t have a witness, we don’t have a case.” One of the nurses in the hospital at that time said to me, “That little boy’s been out in that hallway waiting for care.” She said, “I won’t say this publicly, and if you tell anybody I said this I’ll deny it.” She said, “But I think if that boy had been taken care of, he would have lived.” So for me, in any case, you know, too often, I think culturally for some of us, we’re so gosh-darn humble and we’re so accepting of what happens, what other people do to us, at some point in time you [have to] say, “I’m just not going to put up with that any more.” And so that was that incident.
JOSUE: Did you go to the funeral of that little kid?
JESSE: I didn’t. Funerals are a little bit much for me. But members of the association did.
JOSUE: Did you ever see the parents again of that little boy?
JESSE: No, we dealt with a lawyer mostly after that. And, of course, it was free; none of us had enough money for a lawyer.
ALEXIS: Thank you for sharing that with us.
LESLIE: When you look back at that incident now, what does it represent to you?
JESSE: Well, it was clear evidence to me of the injustice. It also pointed out that many of us wield power pretty unjustly and pretty unfairly. Incidentally, after that incident, and I was still teaching night school in that Mexican section of town, but the Mexican section of Detroit had at one time been Irish, so most of the police there were of Irish descent. After that folks called me up from the community and said, “Don’t drive down here alone. Always drive with somebody in the car with you.” And it wasn’t the people I was afraid of; it was the police. And so I think all that did for me was just say: This is something that you’ve gotta commit your life to.
LESLIE: Could you go a little deeper into thatcommit your life to what?
JESSE: To try to address issues of injustice and unfairness and discrimination. Incidentally, that happened to a Mexican kid and that’s why I was involved. But that’s the kind of thing that was happening to black kids all the time. That was part of what our country was like then. I suspect that that still exists, no question about it; not too long ago I was on a task force to look at the criminal justice in the courts here in Utah, and we find very clearly that minority kids get longer sentences, stiffer sentences, they get locked up more frequently than non-minority kids, so those kinds of injustices still continue. And incidentally I’m not optimistic that that’s ever going to end. Injustice will always continue as long as we have people who look different and behave differently, we all make those distinctions. But I think it’s up to all of us to look at injustice and say, “Look, we just can’t have that.”
ALEXIS: Continuing on that note of injustice, how do you as a leader in the Chicano-Latino community feel about the recent occurrence in which anonymous people released that list of illegal immigrants working in the state of Utah?
JESSE: Well, my take on it was that it was done purposely. Folks who aren’t happy with our undocumented immigrants, that’s their way of resolving an issue by informing. And it was illegalI’m fairly certain. It’s gonna turn out to be that it was an illegal act. That’s something else that I think that I’ve learned along the way: The law and justice are two completely different things. So if you’re gonna be a lawyer, if you think you’re gonna be a lawyer because you’re concerned about justice, always be aware that the law and justice are not the same thing.
JOSUE: Going back to the kid, you know how some doctors go to the parents and tell them that they died or if he’s okay or not, why did he leave it to you?
JESSE: Because he didn’t speak Spanish and the parents didn’t speak English. We were there with the parents; the lady that was part of the association and I were there with the parents.
JOSUE: Do you think that was your big change, what you wanted it to be?
JESSE: I think that simply reinforced what I already knew, that there was injustice, that there was discrimination. And being in teaching, and teaching in an all-black school, again simply reinforced that because I used to hear stories from the kids about how they were treated by the police, how they were treated by other white folks. I had white teachers at that school who told me that black kids couldn’t learn. So all of that simply reinforced my feelings about what I wanted to do with my life. And so I stayed in teaching for a while, but then I also decided that at some point or another that, to have a real impact, and I’m not putting down classroom teachers, they have an impact. But to have an impact, you better get in positions where decisions are made. You better become something in an institution, or in government, or somewhere where you help make the decisions. So I decided that I’m going to be an administrator, because that’s where decisions were made. And interesting enough, after working in our project at the University of Michigan for a couple of years, I was asked by the Department of Education in Michigan to go become their Director of Migrant and Bilingual Education, which is exactly what I wanted to do, because migrant farm workers were treated really badly. They still are treated badly, but in those days they were treated even worse. They were slave labor for the most part. At least, that’s what we saw, and I used to travel around to the different camps and different schools, because I was the state director for that program. What we used to do in that program is we would get the $3 millionit got to be more than that after a while, but it was $3 million when I went thereand we used to give that to public schools where there were a lot of migrant kids there during the summer, and they would set up summer schools. So that was a job, we would pay for some of their health care, that sort of thing.
ALEXIS: So what do you as a leader do for the Chicano-Latino community, like what are the responsibilities of a leader?
JESSE: I think the responsibilities of a leader are, first of all, to be a good role model. I think to be a leader people have to trust you. They’re have to trust that you’re gonna be consistent in the way you behave. They’re have to trust that you’re gonna be ethical, that you’re gonna be fair. They also have to trust that you’re gonna be understanding, because let me tell you, there are folks in any community that are not easy to work with, and there are folks in every community who are not very nice. So you have to learn to work with all those folks. I think the thing that you have to learn as a leader is how to deal with conflict. You have to learn how to stand there and let somebody badmouth you, call you names, and learn how to respond. My first reaction when I was a kid was, hit them in the mouth. Well, that’s not conflict resolution; that simply continues the conflict or exacerbates it. But that’s one of the hardest things to do is to stand there and know that somebody is wrong, or to have somebody call you names, and not get angry, or you do get angry, but not respond, not react. And the other thing is to learn how to say to yourself: Now, why are they doing that? Why do you suppose they responded that way? When I was working in Washington, I went to a large gathering, a bunch of Hispanics. I worked with President Reagan’s administration, and President Reagan was a Republican. Most of our Mexican-American community is not a Republican, they’re Democrats. So I was a keynote speaker at this large conference, and a fellow out in the audience got up, you know, and started calling me names and said, “You’re a traitor, you work for Ronald Reagan, you work for a Republican,” and on and on and on. And he said, “You’re an SOB.” And my immediate response, to myself, was not very nice, but as a leader I had to demonstrate that I had the presence to face that kind of criticism. So I simply said to the fellow, “You may be right. But tell me what you want me to do. Tell me how you want me to change. Don’t just call names. Don’t just label me.” And I make that suggestion to you as you go through your lifeDon’t just label people. What is it that they do? What is it you want them to do? And then go from there. So I think a lot of it has to do with how to be a leader, teach folks how to respond to conflict in a productive way.That’s not to say there aren’t times when it’s okay to get a little bit more confrontational. There are times when you have to get confrontational. But there are other times when you say, “Okay, if you don’t like me, what is it you want me to do? What do I need to do? What is it you’d like me to be?” And I think you always disarm an argument, or you can, by saying to someone, “Tell me what you think we ought to do. What’s the answer?” Let them come up with an answer. And so that’s one of the things, but as I say the major thing is to be a role model. And to me, a lot of folks may not like me, and in fact I’ve had a lot of folks say they don’t, but [chuckles] they respect me. And they respect me because I’m fair, they know I’m fair, and they know that I’m honest. That’s the most important thing. Also, as a leader, you have to teach people some of these skills; you have to pass some of those skills on. When I get into a discussion with somebody, I very often ask questions, and I don’t come out with any solutions. I’ll ask a question, and you help people; you help people develop the logic that is necessary. As a leader, I think you also have to be there to say to people, “Look, if you make a decision, always anticipate what it’s going to cost you, or what the consequences are going to be.” When my kids used to come up to me, my children, they’re all older now, but they’d come to me and say, “Dad, can I do this?” I’d say, “Have you thought about what the consequences are going to be? If you have, are you willing to pay the price?” I think that’s the kind of thing that a leader does. A leader has to be a teacher, has to help folks learn how to make decisions wisely, but also has to be a model of integrity and honesty. That’s a long answer.
JOSUE: I have one more question. What is the meaning of your tattoo?
JESSE: I was 17 years old and I had just joined the Navy, and I thought that’s how I showed people I was a man, was by getting a tattoo. You can’t see it any more, but it says USN and it’s an anchor and there’s an eagle there. That was pretty standard for a lot of sailors, you know; it was a sailor thing. When I got home with my tattoo, my mother was very upset. She said, “Now you look like a criminal.” But I have kept it. To me, it goes along with what I said: You can’t look at people and make judgments about people. When I was teaching and for a long time I would wear long-sleeve shirts because the school didn’t really like teachers with tattoos. But I started wearing short-sleeve shirts and the kids started realizing that somebody with a tattoo is not necessarily a criminal or a bad guy. I was very proud of having been in the Navy.
JOSUE: What was your dad’s reaction to your tattoo?
JESSE: My dad didn’t say anything; my dad and I didn’t really talk a lot. We exchanged few words, except as I got older and used to work with him. I helped him a lot when I was younger, when he was going around doing his thing, but not a lot of conversation. In many ways he was a typical Mexican father. I think, once I got to be a certain age, then he wasn’t a buddy any more. Well, he was never a buddy, he was always my father; he was never a friend. He used to remind me of that every once in a while. If I kidded around with him, he’d say, “Don’t kid around. Don’t forget I’m your father.”
LUIS: If you could go to the past and make your life better, what would you change?
JESSE: Well, there are a couple of things I think I would do differently. I would still drop out of school and I would still join the Navy. But one of the things that I still wish I hadn’t done, [I] was in a Ph.D. program, and by the time I was in the program I already had kids. And at that time, I got called to go to Washington to go work for President Reagan’s administration, so I just threw up my hands and said, “I don’t want to finish the Ph.D.” I wish I hadn’t. Credentials open up a lot of doors.
JOSUE: When you were growing up, who was your role model for you?
JESSE: I think my role model was my father. My mother was a bright woman, a very strong personality, but my father was strong. I saw him as somebody strong. He was quiet, but also very honest, and he was a guy that would help anybody. If anybody came to him for help, he would help. He was a compassionate man, a kind, compassionate man and not a loud mouth. I think that’s another thing about being a leader. I think as a leader you have to have some humility. One of the things I learned early on is that I think I’m bright; I thought I was intelligent. But I discovered that all of us are intelligent in some way or another. I happen to be more intelligent in some areas, and they happen to be more intelligent in other areas. So the thing that struck me when I was working with community people, some of these folks who were migrant farm workers would talk to me, and I was absolutely awed by some of their perceptions, how incredibly insightful they were. I’d think, here I am, a college graduate, how come I didn’t think of that? How come they thought of that? So you have to have some humility if you’re gonna be a leader; you’d better always understand that everybody has something to bring to the table. You have to sometimes help them develop their skills, and that’s what some of us do in our jobs. But if I were to make recommendations to people who want to become leaders, [I’d say] you better have some humility. I think arrogance is counterproductive; it’s destructive.
JOSUE: When you were a kid, how was Christmas or Thanksgiving for you?
JESSE: Well, for the most part, every Christmas my mother would cry because we didn’t have enough money to buy gifts or something; it was always stressful. So I don’t recall as a kid Christmas ever being particularly a pleasant time. Thanksgiving was pretty much an American holiday, although we celebrated it; but again it was a question, are we gonna have enough money for a turkey? If you didn’t have a turkey then it really wasn’t Thanksgiving, so it was always a question of having enough money to do some of these holidays.
JOSUE: How did your parents earn money?
JESSE: My father worked in the car factory most of his life. When we moved to Michigan he started working in the factories, and he was a factory worker. He also did odd jobs. He was an incredible handyman. Incidentally that’s some of the stuff that he’s passed on to my brothers and I; we’re all handy. We always had a car or two in the back yard in pieces, because you couldn’t afford to buy new cars so you always kept old cars around to take the parts off the old cars to put on the cars that were running. And my mother at one time was a seamstress; she was really good at making clothing. But she was primarily a home keeper.
LESLIE: Did you get involved in the Chicano Movement? Had it come on to your horizon?
JESSE: I think it became most obvious when Cesar Chavez started his work in California, in the grape vineyards. So we had the grape boycotts where we had demonstrations and marches in Detroit to demonstrate and urge people and grocery stores not to stock the California grapes. That was part of the whole deal. The other part was going around to different meetings and conferences and events and speaking about our culture and our history, and urging people to become more involved.
LESLIE: Why was that important?
JESSE: When people ask me, I say it’s important because that’s the way I was raised; even though I was born in this country, I was raised by Mexican parents in a Mexican neighborhood, [so] culturally, I’m a Mexican. In terms of my nationality, I’m a United States citizen. But culture is important because it’s what I went through as a kid. As you get older those things you remember from being a child, those things that were happy times are part of your culture. Going to the Cinco de Mayo celebration, going to Grito celebrations, listening to oratory in Spanish, looking at the Mexican flag which, I think, is one of the most beautiful flagsthen, I think I knew the Mexican national anthem before the American national anthem, because I used to go with my parents. And you know how Mexican parents werethey would take their kids everywhere; you’d go to parties, you’d go to dances, and you’d have half a dozen little kids trailing behind them. We all danced on the dance floor, we all joined in the party and the events, we were always part of these events, so that’s part of my culture. Another part of my culture was that I was to make my parents proud of me. That was the most important thing; I wanted my parents to be proud of me. One of the things I was reminded of when I was growing up, I’d say, “Mom, going out.” It was late in the afternoon or the evening, and I’d say, “I’ll be back in a little while.” She’d say, “Don’t forget whose name you carry.” The point was, don’t do anything that’s going to shame the family, or your community. For a lot of us in those days, that was one of the most important things. Our responsibility wasn’t just to me, it wasn’t because Iwanted to be proud of myself; it was because I wanted my parents to be proud of me. I wanted my community to be proud of me.
LESLIE: Guys, would each of you go around and ask one personal question, and then you can come to sort of ending here, okay?
BRENNAN: Do you feel it is important for Chicano-Latino leaders to speak Spanish?
JESSE: For me, part of my culture is the language, because that was the first language I learned. There are things in Spanish that just don’t translate well. So language is part of a culture. Culture is embedded in language. Now, my own children don’t speak Spanish. That’s unfortunate, but that was their choice. I don’t think you have to speak Spanish to be a Chicano or a Latino. It’s good if you do, and I think it would be better if you did.
ALEXIS: If it ever came to the point where racism became such a normality here towards Chicanos-Latinos, do you ever feel that you’d be willing to die for our rights as Hispanics?
JESSE: Our rights as Hispanics are no different than our rights as United States citizens. We’re talking about equality, we’re talking about fairness, [and] we’re talking about accepting people, accepting diversity. So I don’t see a great deal of difference.
ALEXIS: But if it ever comes to that…?
JESSE: But if it ever came to that, I’ll stand up for what I think is good for human beings. What is my allegiance to? My allegiance is to human beings. One of the things I’ve told my kids as they’ve gotten older is, do whatever you want to do, but try not to hurt people. We all eventually end up hurting somebody, and we’ll end up hurting a lot of somebodies along the way, but try not tothat’s my thing. The most important thing is human beings and human rights. We make up laws to suit ourselves and our societies, but there are human rights; I thinkthose are the things that we need to keep in mind uppermost.
JOSUE: If you were to pass away, what would you take in your heart?
JESSE: I’ve tried to be honest and to care about other humans, no matter who they are. That doesn’t mean I like them all. It just means I care about human beings. And I’m not suggesting that we need to behave like somebody else or that we need to be like them, or that we need to accept their values. We don’t have to do that. All we have to do is respect their values. You don’t have to be like I am; just respect who I am.
LUIS: How do you feel about how your life has turned out to be?
JESSE: I wish I could have done more. Sadly, in our country, a lot of money is required. Money is the one thing that seems to make a lot of difference. That doesn’t mean you can’t do good things, but every once in a while people come up and say, “Look, we’re trying to do this, we need to do this.” Or you hear about somebody that needs something, you say, “Gosh, I wish I had a million dollars I could give to that person,” or give them something. But the legacy for me is I hope I’ve helped people. I hope that I’ve been able to help people along the way. In fact, I’ve had people call me up from many years back and say, “Mr. Soriano, I remember you saying this, and it changed my life a little bit.” Wonderful! That’s a kind of legacy I think we need to leave behindpeople who can remember that you helped them change their lives for better.
ETHAN: Did you face any discrimination when you were serving in the Navy, whether it was from other recruits or from officers?
JESSE: When I was in the Navy, the blacks couldn’t do certain things; they were mostly cooks and they were mostly seamen who cleaned things, the ship, but they didn’t get into the technical stuff like I did, they didn’t allow them. I remember the first time we had a black come onto my ship who was an electrician, came on to part of our electrical gang; some of my shipmates didn’t want him there because he was black. But I was sort of a bright kid, and I guess I didn’t threaten anybody. So I don’t recall being discriminated against in the Navy. Yeah, other shipmates would make fun of you; we’d kid each other. We had a bunch of Italians, we had some Jewish kids, we had some Italian kids, we had some southerners, and in those days we were not as sensitive about labels. So, you know, they would call me a wetback, or a bean belly or something, and that was part of being a shipmate.
LESLIE: Bean belly?
JESSE: Yeah, from eating beans. That was one of the things, a beaner, or a bean belt. We’d make fun of the Italians from New York, a bunch of Guineas. That was acceptable then. But it was done as shipmates, and it was in fun. A lot of the Italians were from New York and from Brooklyn. They were a pretty close-knit group and they pretty much excluded a lot of us. I used to think New Yorkers were loud and pushy and all those things. After a while I got to act like them. I hung around with them so long that I started behaving like one. In fact when I got out of the Navy, people used to say, “Are you from New York?” I had an English professor tell me once in one of the communications classes, she said, “You know, Jesse, do you know you say ‘dis’ and ‘dat’?” It never occurred to me I’d picked that up when I was in the Navy. So I had to start thinking about my enunciation and pronunciation. Again, I think the Navy, for mewell, next to marrying my wife, the best thing I did was join the Navy; that gave me a lot of self-assurance. I learned a lot about discipline. I learned a lot about getting along with different kinds of people in close quarters. In those days, ships were pretty simple. In the one section where I slept, there were 80 men in that one section, 80 of us slept in this small section, and you slept in these beds that were like racks. They were metal racks that folded up during the day, and so they were three or four high, and that’s how you slept in those racks. And we all shared, I think, a couple of showers. So you had to learn how to get along with a lot of folks. That was a great learning experience for me.
ALEXIS: Well, thank you, it was good to visit with you.
JESSE: So go out and become leaders, and do good things!