At my mother’s funeral, a former employee of our family’s grocery store came and told me how much my parents meant to him and how much they had done for him. The young man remembered an act of kindness by our dad that changed his whole life. When he was a young boy in elementary school, he was the butt of everyone’s cruel jokes because he was tall for his age and mentally slow. One day on his way to school he saw my father sweeping the sidewalk in front of the store and stopped to talk to him. My father complained that because there was a bus stop in front of the store, there was always a lot of trash and no one bothered to sweep it up. The next morning, this young boy got up very early, took his mother’s broom, and went and swept the sidewalk in front of the store before my father opened the store. He continued to do this for several days until one early morning he found my father waiting for him. My father told him he was so pleased with the job the young man was doing that he wanted to hire him to continue doing it and pay him.
When the young man went to school that day and told everyone that Mr. Elizondo had just hired him to work at the store, everyone was in awe. No other child in the school had a paying job. That afternoon several of his classmates came by the store to see if it was true and if they could get a job too, but my father told them that he had hired the young man because he did such a fine job and he could depend on him. After this, he said, “No one teased me anymore. They all respected me because Mr. Elizondo had given me a paying job.” The recognition of his talent had transformed his shame into pride; in many ways, it had given him life.
My dad ran the store, but my mom was the neighborhood counselor. It is amazing to me today how often I run into very successful persons who tell me that it was thanks to my mother’s encouragement and advice that they decided to stay in school and go to college. In the days I was growing up in San Antonio, many of our public schools discouraged Mexican American youth from advancing in education. They often convinced our children that they were not good enough to even think about the professions. My mother countered this by constantly bringing out the good and challenging them to believe in themselves and go for the top. I have come to learn that this is a profound aspect of charity: not just helping people in material need, but also helping the needy to believe in themselves, to appreciate their dignity, to value their infinite worth, and to dare to achieve what society and its teachers tell them they are incapable of obtaining. Mom was a master at this. This is the deepest root of my preaching and teaching today, for it really pains me to see how many people do not believe in themselves or value their talents and abilities and hence waste their lives away feeling sorry for themselves. At my mother’s funeral a childhood friend came up to my sister and me and said: “Memi [as her friends called her] was our Mother Teresa.”
My parents knew that just helping others in need was not enough. We had to help change the society that made life miserable for our people and excluded us from many of the structures of opportunity. My parents and most of the people in our neighborhood became citizens so that they could vote and take part in the decision-making process. This was a great country but far from perfect, and the exciting thing was that we could take a part in making it better. I remember the great enthusiasm as I went with my dad to meetings of associations for the betterment of our people. Even if it was difficult, we had to work to break down the walls of exclusion that kept so many people in misery. From my earliest days, I remember our involvement in civic and cultural causes. I remember selling bingo tickets to help elect Henry González as our first Mexican American city councilman. He eventually became our first U.S. congressman and one of the most respected members of Congress. Today, his son, Charlie González, has succeeded him at this post. We worked hard to help repeal the poll tax that had been designed to keep poor blacks and Mexican Americans from voting. Civic involvement was collective charity in action.