It is fitting that a proposal to add Andy Sarabia’s name to that of the Las Palmas Branch Library in the heart of San Antonio’s West Side would provoke a controversy.
As the first president of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) — the most durable and politically powerful community organization in San Antonio history — Sarabia was involved in such virulent controversies that he was the target of something he didn’t deserve: death threats.
The reason he didn’t personally deserve the death threats is tied to an irony in the proposal to honor him with the name change. The reality is that Sarabia very much deserves such an honor. The reality also is that it would be a very un-COPS thing to do.
The controversy was aired at a public hearing held six weeks ago by the San Antonio Public Library’s committee on naming libraries. It spilled into the broader public last week when the San Antonio Express-News published an op-ed article opposing adding Sarabia’s name to the library. The article was written by Velma Peña, who is identified as a longtime Westside advocate.
Peña identified a group of women, some of them members of COPS, who worked hard to pass a 1989 bond issue that funded construction of the current Las Palmas Branch Library, which had outgrown a building on land donated in the late 1960s by owners of the Las Palmas shopping center.
“There are countless other stories from and about these women who belong to Los Padrinos of Las Palmas Library,” she wrote. “These stories deserve to be told. The library is not the work of one man: Its creation was an act of community, of determined women who would not give up. Let’s not erase their contribution by adding the name of one man to the Las Palmas name. These women of the Los Padrinos are seldom, if ever, honored because women rarely get credit for any kind of accomplishment.”
Everything Peña said in that powerful paragraph is true. It also describes the COPS organization and one of its foundational principles.
Consider this: Sarabia was the first president. He was also the last male president. The five presidents who succeeded him were women. Women have made up the majority of the organization’s leadership since its founding in 1974.
Also understand that the organization’s president enjoyed no special powers. She was essentially a spokeswoman, a public face of the organization. Neither Sarabia nor any of his successors ever took a position that hadn’t been agreed on by a larger leadership group. Nor did the president ever negotiate with a political or business leader alone. They were always accompanied by a group of leaders.
The position of the president was so symbolic in nature that it was abolished more than 30 years ago. The organization, now known as COPS/Metro since its merger with a sister organization based on the city’s North Side, is currently led by a “strategy team” of about a dozen persons, a majority of whom are women. They pay close attention to the concerns of all COPS membership groups.
So the reality is that Andy Sarabia did not play any special role in the passing of the 1989 bond issue that provided $2.2 million for not only the new Las Palmas Branch Library but also an adjacent community learning center. By that time he was no longer president of COPS, but even if he had been president the organization would not have pushed for the bond issue simply because of his efforts.
But the organization did play a major role, as recognized on the library’s website: “Communities Organized For Public Service (C.O.P.S.) was instrumental in achieving passage of the 1989 Library/Literacy Centers bond issue, which made construction of the new Las Palmas Branch Library and Literacy Center possible.”
So why did a group of people propose adding Sarabia’s name to the library — a group that included not only his widow, Linda Ledesma, but also former COPS President Beatrice Cortez and prominent leaders Sister Gabriella Lohan and Father Mike DeGerolami?
It’s essentially because shortly before Sarabia died in May 2019, he won a commitment from his wife to seek the honor — and because Sarabia is widely admired for the role he played in the founding of COPS, his hard work, his courage, and the fact that he always saw himself not as the head of COPS but as part of a collective.
Among his admirers is Sonia Rodriguez, who was the fifth COPS president from 1982 to 1985, following Cortez.
“When Andy was president, I remember he was getting death threats,” she said. “So he caught a lot more flak than I did.”
In its early days COPS had to employ inventive and sometimes outrageous tactics to force the city’s leaders to meet with them. Under the Good Government League, the West and South sides had been virtually shut out of City Hall decisions. The GGL had usually put two Hispanic candidates considered safe on their tickets, which were elected at large citywide, and these council members knew who put them there.
To shake things up, COPS would do such things as going into Frost Bank in a large group and getting in line to change dollars into pennies, only to go to the rear of the line to change them back. That’s how they won a meeting with the late Tom Frost.
Much of the business community was alarmed, and the tactics led to considerable hostility from a portion of the public. But they worked, and by the time Rodriguez was president, political leaders and many business leaders met regularly and worked with the organization. Antagonistic tactics were no longer necessary.
As much as Rodriguez admired Sarabia, she said she was surprised at the library naming request. “Andy understood more than anybody that we were a collective,” she said. “Everything we’ve ever done is as a collective. Never because of an individual.”
COPS/Metro notably did not take a position on the library naming issue.
Still, Sarabia had his reasons. Maybe it was because the learning center adjacent to the library is named after Father Albert Benavides. He was perhaps the most charismatic COPS leader ever, a tall figure who would bring to City Council actions not only the authority of his clerical collar but also wit and an unassailable self-assurance.
It’s possible that in those rough-and-tumble early days of the organization, the quieter Sarabia and Benavides formed a soldiers-in-the-foxhole bond that would make the notion of having his name on an adjacent building to his buddy’s very attractive to Sarabia.
COPS/Metro’s lack of putting out front a “leader” has served it well in its concern never to be infected by ambitious egos, but there is a price. The lack of having a high-profile public figure, I think, contributes to the fact that the organization’s power and accomplishments are underappreciated by the public. The way they work, without elevating a champion, is hard for much of the public to grasp.
On Monday the San Antonio Public Library issued a press release saying that the library board had accepted the unanimous recommendation of its library committee: that the Las Palmas Branch Library’s name would remain unchanged, but that staff would work on a way to honor a broad range of individuals and organizations involved in getting the library funded and built.
COPS/Metro is unlikely to protest.