While there were differences in opinion regarding many things he championed for in his time as a San Antonio City Council member, Texas state senator, and U.S. Congressman, it’s safe to say that everyone agrees that it’s nearly impossible to fill the shoes of the late Henry B. Gonzalez in public service.
“He was the epitome of the classical Congressperson,” said Henry Flores, PhD., director of the Master of Public Administration Program at St. Mary’s University, in a panel discussion at the UTSA Downtown Campus on Tuesday evening, commemorating Gonzalez on what would have been his 100th birthday.
“He thought of himself as a representative of the people of his district, and that was epitomized on the sign on his door that read: ‘This office belongs to the people of the 20th district of Texas.’”
Flores, who first met Gonzalez when he was a boy, was joined by other prominent leaders who also had personal and professional experiences with Gonzalez, including Lionel Sosa, local artist and retired advertising and marketing executive; Gene Rodriguez, author and former executive director of Economic Opportunities Development Corporation; Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary and San Antonio mayor; and Charles Gonzalez, former U.S. congressman and son of Gonzalez.
Gonzalez’s memory is one that will likely never be forgotten, both by distinguished politicians and city leaders but perhaps more by the majority of San Antonians who had humble, everyday interactions with him throughout his career. The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, his namesake, is just one example of the large impact the politician, father, and neighbor left on the city.
Considering his great historical influence he had on key areas in politics and public policy, both in San Antonio and in the U.S., it came as no surprise to the audience that Gonzalez actually came from a long line of political leaders in Mexico dating back as far back as before the Mexican Revolution. Many would say that his family making a home in San Antonio was a blessing to the city, in the form of a dedicated and selfless public servant.
“The Gonzalez family in the United States had begun, but the family’s love of politics never waived, and they became as involved here as they were in Mexico,” Sosa said, concluding an anecdote of the Gonzalez family’s journey to San Antonio.
After being defeated in his run for State Representative in the early ’50s, Gonzalez was eventually elected to the San Antonio City Council, serving as mayor pro tem for a portion of his term. From there, the passionate leader took off in what would be a more than 40 year political career that would take him to serve in the Texas State Senate and later to Washington D.C. to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a leader during the polarizing civil rights movement of the ’60s, Gonzalez is fondly remembered and celebrated by Latino and other minority groups for his staunch support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Housing Act of 1964, and Equal Opportunities Act of 1964, among a number of other causes that promoted equity in the community. Before that in 1957, he held the longest filibuster in the history of the Texas Senate – 36 hours – defeating eight of 10 proposed school segregation bills.
His high regard for the everyday people of his city and country and their rights made him stand out as a leader, Cisneros said.
“As a champion of the working people, as a champion of the strivers, the people who work so hard, who work with their hands in a system that seems to be loaded against them … the Congressman was the one who articulated their concerns,” he said.
Often fearless and relentless in standing up for what he believed in, especially when it came to promoting pure honesty in all political processes, Gonzalez paved the road for several Latino leaders who would come after him like his son former U.S. Rep.Charles Gonzalez, Congressman Joaquín Castro, and City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) who showed their support and gratitude to him at a commemorative breakfast in his honor held Tuesday morning.
Cisneros, who was the first Hispanic mayor of a major U.S. city, has and always will look to Gonzalez for his “unshakeable” honesty, and his dedication to his constituents as a nearly perfect example of what it means to be a public servant.
“He taught me a good deal about the connection a public person can make with their constituents,” he said, citing Gonzalez’s efforts to “answer their every letter, and return every phone call.”
Charles, too, looks to his father’s example of staying “true” to the public no matter what, whether that meant avoiding situations that might compromise your integrity as a politician – which he was widely known for doing – or regularly sending recorded reports and events calendars, paid out of his own pocket, to his constituents. Sure, Gonzalez had opposition, but at least in San Antonio, his legacy is one celebrated by many.
“Dad was beloved,” Charles said. “Not by the power structure, not by the privileged or the richest, he was loved by the people, and that’s what really made him so happy.”
Top image: Moderator Dr. Francine Romero introduces panelists (left to right) Lionel Sosa, Gene Rodriguez, Dr. Henry Flores, Dr. Henry Cisneros, and Charles Gonzalez. Photo by Scott Ball.