'Let's try to fix it together': Gonzalo Barrientos on civil rights, passing laws and helping people

Civil rights pioneer and former state senator Gonzalo Barrientos looks around the Senate floor as he visits the Texas State Capitol on Friday, August 20, 2021. Barrientos served for 20 years as a Texas state senator and 10 years as a Texas state representative.
Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman

On Nov. 3, 1959, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson spoke during a fish fry at the American Legion Park in Bastrop.

Ostensibly, Johnson was running for reelection, but an organized crowd of 600 pressed the Texas senator to throw his hat in the ring for the presidency, as well. 

Banners read "All the Way with LBJ for President," "Lyndon in '60," "Lee County for Johnson" and "Blanco County for Johnson."

According to newspaper reports, Johnson insisted to the crowd that he ought to win one political race at a time.

"I shall place the interests of my country before the interests of my party or myself," Johnson said, "in the full knowledge that when you do your best for America, America will do what is best for you."

On cue, the Bastrop High School band struck up "Happy Days Are Here Again."

Among the student players was a wide-eyed trumpeter named Gonzalo Barrientos, who later served as a state senator for 20 years after serving as state representative for 10 years.

In 1976, State Rep. Gonzalo Barrientos, (left) U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle, and state Sen. Lloyd Doggett are sworn in as deputy registrars by by Travis County tax assessor-collector Fritz Robinson.

It's a "good old Democratic Party song," Barrientos, 80, told Austin History Center volunteer Meghan Kempf in a thorough interview about his life and career in January. "And the people started marching around in a circle inside that arena place. It seemed like they would go on forever, because we played 'Happy Days Are Here Again' about 20 times." 

Eventually, each band member shook the tall candidate's hand. 

"I felt like, wow, that was terrific," Barrientos said. "That was LBJ. And he did more for our state and all citizens of this county than many people will ever know, especially minorities."

Barrientos followed in Johnson's path.

"When you talk about political heavyweights in Austin history, Gonzalo Barrientos is one of them," said former TV news anchor Ron Oliveira, who first met Barrientos in 1980. "Always has been and always will be in my history book. He gets it. It’s about the people, listening to them and serving their needs."

Former state senator Gonzalo Barrientos talks with State Trooper Dannie Gutierrez at the Texas State Capitol on Friday, August 20, 2021. Barrientos served for 20 years as a Texas state senator and 10 years as a Texas state representative.

After reading the transcript of the history center interview, I met with Barrientos, who lives in South Austin's Dawson neighborhood, at Casa Maria. The owners of the South First Street restaurant reserve a curved banquette around a circular table for him. His former regular get-together spot, El Gallo on South Congress Avenue, closed in 2017. 

Almost 40 years after I first encountered him, Barrientos still looks trim, dresses sharp and sports the same spiffy haircut, now mostly gray rather than dark. Even though the scenery and the times have changed, Barrientos still is helping people on a daily basis.

Hard, sweaty labor of youth in Texas

Born July 20, 1941, in Galveston, Gonzalo Barrientos came from a family of extremely hard workers, including at least two who dug coal north of Bastrop.

"My grandfather was a coal miner in those mines," Barrientos told Kempf. "It wasn't strip mining. It was tunnel mining. My dad was a coal miner for a little while."

In the late 1930s, those Bastrop County coal mines closed, probably because the railroads were switching to diesel.

"All the people had to leave to go find jobs," Barrientos told Kempf. "And some people went to Austin, some to Houston. Part of my family went to Michigan to do agricultural work. ... About that time, Mom and Dad got married and they moved out of the Bastrop area also and went to Galveston. My dad was a longshoreman; helped them load ships. And that's where I was born."

After moving back to the Bastrop area, the family became migrant farmworkers, moving between Central and West Texas. That included little Gonzalo; his sister, Alicia, who is three years younger; and his parents, Gonzalo Barrientos Sr. and Christina Mendiola Barrientos.

"We picked cotton in Paducah, Littlefield, Munday — all those areas in West Texas every year," Barrientos told Kempf. "I must have been 2 or 3 years old, because one of the first things that I can remember is riding on the back of my dad's cotton-picking sack. ... But as I got older and heavier, that was not allowed."

It was not long, however, until Barrientos became part of the family's field operation.

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"I remember being 5 or 6 years old, I would pick cotton ahead of my dad or my mom and I would make little bundles of cotton in the middle of the row," Barrientos told Kempf. "So when (they) got to that point, they would just pick up the bundles that I had already picked and put it in the sack."

"But in terms of real work, I must have been about 10, 12 years old when I had my own cotton sack to fill," he continued. "I wanted to work. Some of the other kids did, too. We got our own little pillow sacks and acted like adults and picked cotton. Of course, later, it was not fun or easy, as you can imagine."

Different stripes of schools in Bastrop

Although his American-born parents knew little English, they could read and write Spanish, and they insisted that he enroll in school back in Bastrop. To this day, the family still owns land there.

"Before I went to school, I would go and play just less than a quarter of a mile from our little farm," Barrientos told Kempf. "There was a two- or three-room schoolhouse for African American children. ... I'd go there and play with those kids and picked up a bit of English."

As in many counties in this part of Texas, elementary schools in Bastrop were divided among three categories: "White," "Colored" and "Mexican." Barrientos was directed to a three- or four-room wood building right off Main Street across from the railroad tracks.

"Basically, the teacher — a white teacher, I remember, Anglo — would give us a sheet of paper and a crayon and would say: 'Knock yourself out,'" Barrientos told Kempf. "We might have learned some of the ABCs."

In 1984, Bill Aleshire, right, and then-Rep. Gonzalo Barrientos held a press conference in front of the Travis County courthouse annex, to talk about a new law that requires a seller of an auto to include a statement that tells the buyer about the mileage on the odometer.

Not long after that, however, San Antonio civil rights lawyer Gustavo Garcia, University of Texas professor George Sanchez and Dr. Hector P. Garcia from the G.I. Forum filed a lawsuit that led to a 1949 civil rights victory for integration in Delgado v. Bastrop ISD, which struck down unequal schooling for Mexican Americans. The named plaintiff was a little girl, Minerva Delgado, just ahead of him in school.

As with shaking LBJ's hand, this judicial breakthrough made a lasting impression on the young Barrientos. Recently, he attended a celebratory conference about the case.

At the integrated school, he adapted to the more advanced curriculum.

"It was more organized," Barrientos told Kempf. "It was more to the point. It had everything from English, music, math, a little bit of history, all the basic courses, which, of course that Mexican school did not have."

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Nevertheless, teachers punished anyone who spoke Spanish. He made white friends, but some white students taunted him with slurs and told him to "go back to Mexico." Barrientos reported this to his grandfather.

"Here's a man who had no formal education, could not read or write Spanish," Barrientos told Kempf. "He told me in Spanish, 'Son, do not blame them; rather, blame the corral in which they grew up like animals.' And I'll never forget that, because that's the basis of so many things, and how children grow up." 

On to the University of Texas

Barrientos once dreamed of going to West Point, but after being voted best all-around senior at Bastrop High School, he instead attended UT. But not before a fateful trip to Galveston.

"I told my dad in the 11th grade that I didn't want go picking cotton anymore, because believe me, that is so hard work," Barrientos told Kempf. "So I went to Galveston, where some of my cousins had lived, and they said, 'Come over here. Don't be crazy out there in 100-degree sun and sweaty and dirty.'"

Gonzalo Barrientos working as a busboy at a hotel in Galveston in August of 1957. He met his wife, Emma, that summer in Galveston, where she is from. He was born in Galveston but grew up in Bastrop. He spent childhood summers as a migrant worker, picking cotton with his family in South Texas and West Texas. But in high school he spent a few summers working in Galveston — he says he liked escaping the heat of the cotton fields and he liked  the fact that he got to wear a crisp, white uniform.

They got him a job as a busboy. He stayed with an uncle during the two summers that he held that job.

"And I met this young lady who had long curly hair and was beautiful," Barrientos told Kempf about the future Emma Serrato Barrientos. "I asked what her name was as she was walking down the street. She had been in the group of young women in Ball High School who marched with the band. Her name was Emma. And it turned out that, after school, she worked in the corner store, a little bitty store in the neighborhood. We got to know each other and, by golly, right out of high school, we got married."

The newly minted Barrientos family moved to Austin. Gonzalo attended UT, and they both held down a variety of jobs. While working and helping to raise four children, Emma, like her husband, became a charismatic activist.

Austin's Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center is named for her.

State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos becomes Governor of the State of Texas for a day as he is sworn in by Rose Spector, Justice, Texas Supreme Court. Standing to the right is Emma Barrientos, the first lady of Texas for the  day and wife of Senator Gonzalo Barrientos.

"Gonzalo married up, and well," said lawyer, activist and philanthropist Maria Luisa "Lulu" Flores, who met Barrientos in the 1970s. "His wife and life companion was an Austin community treasure."

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Among his jobs while at UT was at the Travis State School for people with mental disabilities. (His wife worked there, too.) One boy died in his arms. In another circumstance, he saw through the misdiagnosis of several students.

"I found that some of the young men who were in there did not have mental deficiencies," Barrientos told Kempf. "They had just been brought up in a really tough background. Some of those 'corrals' that I talk about. And as a matter of fact, they asked me — the director of the school — asked me to set up classes, and I taught some of the 12- to 16-year-old boys how to read and write. Some of them were able to leave and go back home."

At UT, Barrientos first studied hotel and restaurant management, then took courses in history and psychology. One of his psychology professors, Frances Fuller, recommended Barrientos for a position as a community organizer for the National Urban League.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos reveals a Texas Flag which has flown over the Captiol of Texas as he presents it to Rubi Lopez from Austin's Webb Middle School who is the winner of the Southwestern Bell "Mi Familia, Mi Cultura" art contest.

"I was organizing neighborhoods in the African American part of East Austin, and in the Mexican American part of East Austin (and) Montopolis," Barrientos told Kempf. "To some degree, also Clarksville, which was a little section in West Austin that had many African Americans living there back in the 1900s and before. I worked getting streets paved, asking people to register to vote, referring people to services."

Barrientos' first job in public life prepared him for what he did in public office — constituent services — and what he is doing today.

From community organizing to the Texas Legislature

In the mid-1960s, Barrientos worked as a trainer for VISTA Peace Corps volunteers.

"These were men and women from all over the country who liked the Peace Corps, (but) instead of all over the world, they would serve in low-income communities in the U.S.," he said. "And so, they might come from New York, they might come from Detroit or Seattle, but they’d come to train in this region."

Barrientos rose to the position of program officer: "I got to place volunteers in low-income areas — which a lot of people call the poor areas of town — in places like El Paso, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, San Antonio, Cotulla, Austin, Houston, some of the larger areas, Corpus Christi."

Gonzalo Barrientos filibusters in the Senate.

After 1969, when President Richard Nixon began trimming back LBJ's Great Society programs, Barrientos was offered several jobs, including one in Washington, D.C. None seemed right, or at least affordable for a family of six that had been living frugally in East and South Austin.

All through the '60s, Barrientos had participated in the growing civil rights demonstrations. For instance, he was a boycott coordinator for Cesar Chavez and striking farmworkers.

In 1972, folks urged him to run for office. He and several other candidates challenged state Rep. Wilson Foreman. Without money for ads or lobby backing, he still came close to unseating that incumbent in a runoff.

His next run in 1974 was complicated by the rise of the Raza Unida Party, which coalesced as a response to the systemic oppression of Tejanos. Barrientos had won the primary against Foreman this time and faced a Republican in the general election, but Raza Unida leaders had another idea.

Former Texas State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos pays his respects as Lady Bird Johnson lies in repose at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in in 2007.

"'Now that you won the primary, we want you switch and run as a Raza Unida Party candidate, not a Democrat,'" Barrientos remembered them saying, according to the history center interview. "And I said, 'Hey, guys, long story short, this is not Del Rio, or Crystal City, or Laredo, or the Valley, it's not even San Antonio, it's Austin.' At that time, 10% of the community was Mexican American. And I said, 'I still believe that you ought to represent everybody regardless of color.' So they put in a Raza Unida Party candidate. I had to defeat the Republican and the Raza Unida Party candidate."

He won.

Barrientos rises at the Capitol

Once in the Texas House, Barrientos, who knew something about its machinery by watching from the citizen gallery, realized that he needed to learn more and not worry about passing a lot of bills as a freshman.

He worked on education reform and civil rights — more money for schools and teachers, bilingual education, and efforts to equalize the opportunities among Texas school districts.

"I passed one interesting little ditty called the Texas Human Rights Commission," Barrientos told Kempf, "for any inequalities that might have been going on and where you could go. It's kind of like the EEOC the federal government has."

Civil rights pioneer and former state senator Gonzalo Barrientos visits the Texas State Capitol on Friday, August 20, 2021. Barrientos served for 20 years as a Texas state senator and 10 years as a Texas state representative.

In 1984, when Lloyd Doggett decided to leave the Texas Senate to become a state Supreme Court justice, Barrientos ran against several candidates for the Senate seat and won in a runoff.

It was quite a switch.

"In the Texas House, you've got 150 people," Barrientos told Kempf, "and a much smaller district than in the Senate. The Senate, of course, we have 31 people. So there is that feeling that when you're in the Senate, it's the upper chamber. Getting your votes together is a little bit easier than going to majority of 150. I liked that."

It would be impossible to list in this space all the hundreds of bills Barrientos helped make into law in the House and Senate, but among the most memorable were working to fix the horrific school drop-out rates and their impact on massive imprisonment, especially of African Americans and Hispanics; making sure hospitals took care of patients even if they could not pay; establishing the Edwards Underground Aquifer Protection District; and providing that the top 10% of graduating Texas high school seniors be admitted to state universities, one of the most efficient and effective tools for promoting diversity in higher education anywhere in the country.

His personal experiences inspired the Capitol View Corridors law that has shaped the look of downtown Austin ever since.

"I had noticed when I went to Philadelphia to Independence Hall, that you can't see it, all the buildings around it," Barrientos told Kempf. "I passed a law that on certain corridors, you could not build over two stories, so that the people of Texas, Austin, and all over the country could come by and say, 'Look, there's the Texas Capitol.'

"A lot of people with big money with investors didn't like me for doing that. It's too bad. I think our heritage, our history is sometimes more important than people getting rich."

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Voting on bills, however, was not his primary activity as a lawmaker. 

"What most people don't realize is that those positions can be used extremely well to assist individuals with problems," Barrientos told Kempf. "I had learned a little bit from Jake Pickle, who had been a congressman from this district. He did a lot of casework. And so did we. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people who called. People of all colors and backgrounds in the district, and sometimes later from outside the district, who would call about any number of things."

Barrientos' senatorial staff of 10 had their work cut out for them.

He remembered people would ask: "Senator, can you find my son a job? Senator, can you get a scholarship for my daughter? Senator, somebody cheated me on this car. Senator, I was fired because I'm African American.

"Today, I get maybe three or four calls a week, from individuals like that to help. And I try to help them, but I say, 'Look, I don't have 10 employees anymore. Do this or do that and do that. And tell him I said, I sent you. If not, call me back.'

"Free, of course. I'm not a lawyer, and I never charge people."

Not coming from money, Barrientos did have trouble making ends meet on $600 a month as a legislator, so he took a variety of consultancy gigs, and then handled public relations for Miller Beer by way of power broker Lowell Lebermann's distributorship, CenTex Beverage, making sure there were no conflicts with his legislative work.

Life after the Legislature

Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson followed Barrientos into the Texas Senate. Watson said that Barrientos advocated for people who didn't have a lobbyist and needed a strong voice.

"I always admired a poster he had from an old campaign and that hung in his Senate office," Watson said. "It was a picture of him with a bunch of kids. All of them, including the senator, are happy. The caption read, 'Our Special Interests.' Sen. Barrientos had a special interest in serving those kids and serving individuals who needed a voice. And he had a record of succeeding."

Besides his ongoing gratis casework and time spent with his still-growing family, Barrientos has been outspoken about the fight against COVID-19. While he encourages everyone to follow the pandemic protocols, he came down with the virus in December 2020.

"I was lucky," he said. "It was tough and rough, but I didn't have to go to the hospital. My daughters would bring me food and put it outside because I wouldn't let them in the door."

The former community organizer for the National Urban League and VISTA Peace Corps is still finding ways to help people. These days, meetings to help citizens navigate the tortuous ways of government fill up his weekly calendar. Some of those postulants have endured hardships at the hands of the authorities; others just need help with paperwork.

"My next meeting is to help organize a petition," he said. "We want to rename the ball park at the Pan American Recreation Center after Rabbit Duran." Rosalio "Rabbit" Duran's bar on East Sixth Street was a longtime meeting place for the city's Hispanic politicians and activists, as well as for softball players whose games bonded Austin's Hispanic communities together. It closed in 2011. Duran died in 2020.

Recently, Barrientos has been thinking hard about the past. For two years running, he has written down snatches of memories on index cards in order to write a book.

Back when Barrientos served in the Legislature during the 1970s and '80s, Texas government was dominated by the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. 

"When I first started running and got in office, people would ask me, 'Barrientos, so you're liberal or conservative?'" Barrientos told Kempf. "And I'd say, 'Look, I'm a liberal about children, making sure that they have a good education, being brought up decently. I'm a liberal about the elderly, making sure that they have good medical attention. I'm a conservative about spending money, especially other people's money.

"'You tell me what your issue is. I'll tell you where I stand. And then you decide; do not put me in a pigeonhole automatically.' I believe in common sense, compassion and the common good. I still believe that if there's something wrong out there, let's try to fix it together."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

Former state senator Gonzalo Barrientos visits with senate administrative assistant Nanci Longoria in the Senate Secretary's office at the Texas State Capitol on Friday, August 20, 2021. Barrientos served for 20 years as a Texas state senator and 10 years as a Texas state representative.

Oral history at the Austin History Center

Many of the direct quotes in this story came from a transcribed oral history housed at the Austin History Center. Dedicated volunteers from the Austin History Center Association, the nonprofit partner to the municipal center, have recorded more than 200 key stories of public figures, as well as more private people with unique angles on the city's past. You can listen to the recorded voices, which tell their own stories beyond the words. Many of the interviews have been transcribed. Some of the recordings, including slave narratives, can be found online at soundcloud.com/austinhistorycenter or austinhistory.net/oral-history.