Last week, more than 40 people stood vigil outside a hospital room the afternoon San Antonio activist and Democratic organizer Choco Gonzalez Meza died – local leaders and politicians, lifelong friends, and most of her beloved family. It became clear that although Meza will be laid to rest Monday, Oct. 17, she did anything but rest during her time on Earth.

“Social justice and equal rights burned in her heart,” said Leticia Van de Putte, former State senator and longtime friend who was with Meza when she fell ill two weeks ago and when she passed away Oct. 10 at the age of 64.

“Her life’s work was to lay the groundwork for others to become involved. If anything, Choco despised it when there were people who didn’t care. “Her constant pressure on all of us was to get up and do something and give back.”

Born in Zaragoza, Coahuila, Mexico, Meza and her working class family came to the United States in 1955. Already a fighter at six years old, Meza beat the odds when she was hit by a truck and nearly lost her legs.

“Not only did she walk again, she’s been running ever since,” Van de Putte said. “Running every organization she gets involved with, running campaigns and nonprofits. In college, she would insist they go out and protest even when her friends would tell her, ‘We have to go to class.’”

Meza’s formal career in public service began in 1977 when Willie Velásquez recruited her to serve as a research director for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

She went on the become the first Hispanic executive of the YWCA in the U.S. before former Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros tapped her to serve as his deputy assistant secretary of intergovernmental relations at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Washington, D.C. in 1992. Meza joined him again in 2005 at his nonprofit American Sunrise.

Current HUD Secretary Julián Castro told the Rivard Report he can’t recall a time in his life when Meza wasn’t there supporting him and his brother Joaquín. She helped raise funds so they could both attend Stanford University, organized a farewell party when the time came, and even purchased sets of luggage they used for the next 10 years.

“She was so dedicated to improving life for people in vulnerable situations, and she mentored a whole lot of young people coming up,” Castro said.

Throughout her career, Meza participated in the political process, managing local, state, and national campaigns. She most recently managed the campaign of City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), and then acted as chief of staff in Gonzales’ office.

Gonzales met Meza after reaching out to her through Facebook.

“She agreed to be my campaign manager, and my first impression of her in those days was that she was very tough and had a lot of experience,” Gonzales said. “I put my full faith and trust in her to navigate the politics of running a campaign in District 5, and it proved to be a great success and grew to be a wonderful friendship.”

For the last three years, Meza guided Gonzales through the City system and worked beside her on various programs and projects.

“This is a tremendous loss because she spent her life working in my community and she’s known as an advocate for the Westside, but also for all women, for all Latinos,” Gonzales said. “Almost everybody I know has been impacted by her presence in one way or another.”

For a woman who affected every issue from civil and voter rights to housing and economic empowerment, according to Gonzales, Meza still reserved great energy and passion for her family – her husband Daniel, her two children, Ivalis and Danny, and her granddaughter Emma, whom she adored.

“On the outside, she was always working for the community at large,” Gonzales said. “But her heart was always with her family.”

Choco Meza and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) pose with District Five interns.
Choco Meza and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) pose with District 5 interns. Credit: Courtesy of the District 5 office

In 2014, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff appointed Meza to the board of the Bexar County Housing Authority.

“When I approached her, the place was in turmoil,” Wolff said. “They didn’t have people running the show who understood housing like she did, and didn’t have a good relationship with HUD. I knew she could set it straight, and she did a great job.”

It’s a trait many attribute to Meza. As a member of the Democratic National Committee, she is said to have consoled and unified a room of more than 3,000 Hillary Clinton supporters who were disappointed when Barack Obama won the party’s nomination in 2008.

Before she died, Meza had been actively campaigning for Clinton – who personally tweeted her condolences – and planning an event for the first day of early voting on Oct. 24. Friends have begun calling that day “Choco Day,” and will use #choco to encourage voting.

“Because her work recently was to see Hillary elected, we’re going to work doubly hard now,” Van de Putte said. Meza’s friends will pay tribute to her by dressing in all-white, as suffragettes once did and as Meza would have wanted it.

“She loved the politics side of everything,” Van de Putte added. “But some people love it for the sheer power. Choco believed in the power of good policymaking. She loved winning, but she got involved for what you could do when you won. She stayed on because it was about doing the work.

“We’ve lost not just a lifelong friend but someone who has added so much to this community.”

There will be a rosary at San Fernando Cathedral on Sunday, Oct. 16 beginning at 7:30 p.m.

On Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, a Mass of Resurrection will be held at San Fernando Cathedral at 10:00 a.m., followed by the burial at San Fernando Cemetery No. 2. and a celebration of life in the Mabry Conference Room at Port San Antonio, located at 103 Mabry Pl.

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.