Crystal City and Chicano Mental Health
Always a part of its program, the foundation’s work in African American and Mexican American communities began to expand in the 1960s. In particular, the foundation began to focus on the historically underserved South Texas region, which had been the only part of the state to record no mental health clinics or psychological services in the surveys completed earlier that decade as part of the Texas Plan for Mental Health.
Wayne Holtzman, Hogg Foundation executive director at the time, had an interest in the region that had grown out of his research collaborations with social and behavioral scientists from the region as well as from Mexico. Between 1957 and 1961, for instance, the foundation supported the Hidalgo Project on Differential Culture Change and Mental Health, a study of “folk customs, social organization, medical practices and beliefs in the lower Rio Grande Valley” conducted by a team of American and Mexican anthropologists.
The study’s conclusions, summarized in a preface written by Holtzman, recommended cooperation between “modern” psychologists and psychiatrists, and traditional curanderos (folk medicine healers) relied upon by many Mexican American residents of the Valley. National Advisory Council (NAC) meetings during this time also echoed the increased interest in community mental health initiatives that would align with progressive civil rights movements of the period. Advisory member Ira Iscoe wondered aloud at a NAC meeting in 1969 whether “the Hogg Foundation should be on the lookout for unusual or ‘far out’ projects” that would “challenge the ‘power structure’” while also bringing mental health services to underserved populations.
Despite the energy behind new projects that would align with civil rights ideals, the foundation struggled with the practical question of how to work effectively with minority communities. One solution emerged from the January 1971 advisory council meeting: hire professional staff from the same racial and ethnic backgrounds as the communities which the foundation hoped to serve.
At the time, this meant the hiring of the foundation’s first Mexican American professional staff member: Reymundo Rodriguez, assigned to the sprawling, predominantly Mexican and Mexican American region of South Texas. It was Rodriguez’s connection to South Texas and his focus on the needs of Mexican-Americans and Chicanos in particular that led to the project in Cristal City in Zavala County, one of the nerve centers of the Mexican American civil rights movement.
The Hogg Foundation project in Crystal City came at a time in the city’s history when local political events (including Chicano victories in City Council elections and a school boycott to protest discrimination of Chicano students by Anglo teachers) had brought national attention to the city’s changing face. Of particular note was the emergence of El Partido de la Raza Unida (RUP), a Chicano nationalist political party that had its founding meeting in Cristal City.
The RUP leadership was comprised mainly of young, educated Mexican Americans from South Texas who had developed sophisticated critiques not only of the Anglo-dominated “power structure,” but also of liberal organizations such as the Hogg Foundation, which activists viewed as part of that same structure.
Consequently, initial meetings between the foundation and community leaders, many of them longtime activists in the Mexican American civil rights movement and interested in investments in the regions’ health initiatives, had mixed results and receptions. Sally Jones Andrade, a research assistant in the psychology department at UTHSC, arranged the meetings through her husband, who was a longtime activist.
As she later wrote in Chicano Mental Health: The Case of Cristal: "[Chicano participant] views ranged from a naïve unawareness of the Hogg Foundation to a resentful perception of the Foundation as a funder of Anglo anthropological studies which perpetuated a stereotypic, assimilationist view of the Mexican American.”
Nevertheless, there was a tentative agreement after the second meeting to a modest five-year grant of $35,000, as well as the formation of a “Chicano Advisory Board” and the employment of a “Chicano professional” to serve as a liaison to the Crystal City project.
The Zavala County Mental Health Project struggled mightily during its five-year existence. Even though the project achieved some successes, including a greater investment in the region from Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (TDMHMR), it was never able to reconcile in a sustainable way the competing demands of the RUP activists and the traditional political and mental health establishment.
Local white officials and businessmen, for instance, uniformly opposed the provision of any funds to the RUP regime, which they viewed as unacceptably radical. After the 1972 gubernatorial election, won by Democrat Dolph Briscoe of nearby Uvalde, the RUP faced a hostile state administration as well. Moreover, TDMHMR expressed displeasure with the Hogg Foundation for having developed and funded the mental health project without involving the agency, despite the state’s historical lack of involvement in providing mental health services to the region.
On the other side of the dynamic, Chicano activists sought to assert some control over how their own voices would be seen and heard within the project that didn't always fit comfortably with the traditional organizational practices of the foundation and the local mental health establishment. In matters of hiring, for instance, RUP leaders often expected political loyalists to be hired for positions regardless of their academic qualifications.
This put even well-intentioned and well-positioned "cultural brokers" like Rodriguez in a difficult position, caught between the expectations of ethnic and political loyalties to the Chicano movement, and the professional standards of foundations, government agencies, and mental health fields.
For the foundation, the project would in many ways prove a failure. It was, however, an instructive one. It demonstrated the need to do more than simply expand existing service models to underserved communities. Those models had to change to meet distinctive community needs. They had to adapt to the local politics. And the foundation, if it hoped to play a role in expanding and improving services in complex cultural and political situations, would have to be patient, and humble, and able to learn from its mistakes.