By Alsha Khan
In the late 1960s, Richard Moya, an investigator with Legal Aid, was having lunch with two of his best friends - who also worked in anti-poverty programs - at Johnny Boy's Hamburgers. The topic: how tough it was to help their clientele.
Over hamburgers, fries and Dr Peppers at Johnny Boy's, the three of them talked about their frustrations, how to get the bureaucracy to hear the voices of the little guy.
"You know the only way we're gonna help all the people we want to help is we have to get on the other side of the table," someone remarked.
The three shrugged and went back to their respective jobs. But the idea stuck. That evening, they met up for beers after work, and it came up again.
"If we were on the other side, wouldn't it be better?" one of them said.
"And I said, 'Hell, yeah, it would be better!'" Moya recalled.
That epiphany would lead Moya to run for the Travis County Commissioners Court Precinct 4 seat - the first Mexican American to occupy that position, and the first to be elected in Travis County in general. That in turn motivated Gonzalo Barrientos to run for the Texas House of Representatives and John Trevino to run for the Austin City Council.
They worked together "to change the course of Austin." They didn't always agree, but "we never let the world know because that was the key that could knock us out by the establishment. Divide-and-conquer theory works today, it worked then, and it'll work again."
Moya, 81 at the time of his interview in 2013, served four terms as Travis County commissioner from 1970 to 1986. A Korean War veteran, Moya went to great lengths to fight for the rights of the poor in Austin, especially Mexican Americans.
The early years
Moya was born to Pete and Bertha Moya in Austin, Texas, in 1932 in a predominantly Mexican-American part of town. His father's parents died when the elder Moya was 6 years old, so Pete Moya "never went to school a day in his life." But he was ambitious. He became a peanut farmer and later sold ice door to door before refrigerators were commonly used. Young Richard helped his father deliver ice in the warm months. In the winter, they delivered wood so people could heat their homes. Richard Moya started driving his father's truck at the tender age of 12 to finish the "ice route" faster and get home sooner.
"I made a lot of friends delivering ice, and I enjoyed doing it," Moya said.
His father would also buy old houses, fix them up and rent them out to people at reasonable rates. By the time Pete Moya died, he owned six houses in East Austin.
"He's kind of a success story," Moya said about his father.
There were two schools in the area where Moya grew up: Metz and Zavala Elementary. Mexican Americans were expected to go to Zavala because it was the "Mexican school," while Metz was for the Anglo children.
Moya went to Zavala for a few years, and then his family moved to Willow Street, which was much closer to Metz, only about three blocks away. However, Moya and his sister Christine were not allowed to attend Metz because they were Mexican.
Moya said his mother "was pretty much of a hell-raiser," and she complained to the superintendent, insisting that her children be allowed to attend Metz. He agreed eventually, but Moya hated Metz because he always got picked on for being a Mexican American. The only other Mexican-American student at Metz was the janitor's son, who was allowed to attend because of his father.
"I was the only kid who hated recess," Moya said, referring to his mistreatment by the other children at Metz.
After elementary school, Moya went on to attend the now-defunct John T. Allan Junior High School. He also attended Stephen F. Austin High School, then the city's only high school. Both Allan Junior High and Austin High had a mix of Mexican-American and Anglo students. African Americans, however, were not allowed to attend these schools. Although Moya was allowed to attend Austin High, he still faced discrimination there, so he had his own little group of friends, other Mexican Americans he would hang out with.
Moya said he was inspired by Roy Guerrero, who ran the Pan American Recreation Center.
"Mr. G was way ahead of his time," Moya said. "There was nobody like Roy. ... He did more for Hispanic kids than anybody I know. If it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't have amounted to anything. He kept me in line. ... I was at Pan Am more than I was at home."
Guerrero got kids involved in athletics so they had less time to get into trouble. He started a softball team that Moya was part of for 25 years, "until we got too old to pick up the ball." But Guerrero also taught the boys cooking.
"We loved to take those cooking classes. Of course, some of the boys would make fun of us because we'd have to wear those aprons and they would call us a bunch of sissies," Moya said. "The cooking classes were to keep us from getting into trouble. If we had not been taking those cooking classes, we'd probably have been out there doing something we shouldn't have been doing."
The Pan American Center was part of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. Guerrero was never promoted within the department ("which he should have been," said Moya), to the advantage of the boys, many of whom considered Guerrero their most important role model.
While in high school, Moya and two other students started a newspaper that came out every Friday morning. The paper - called The Blah, Blah, and Blah - got banned because it caused so much trouble; it was basically a gossip magazine. During its 10-issue run, the newspaper became so popular that even Moya's science teacher asked for a copy of it. Guerrero typed The Blah, Blah and Blah for the threesome, and then they mimeographed copies to distribute at school. He was also The Blah, Blah, and Blah's secret editor.
In high school, Moya met the girl who would become his wife, Gertrude "Gertie" Garza. Moya was 16 and Gertie was 14 when they met through Moya's sister Christine at a "teenage dance, where they danced to records." They were married Feb. 15, 1953, when he was 20 years old. The couple had two children, Lori and Danny.
Moya worked as a printer from 1953 through 1965, first at the Joe Cockrell Co. and then at Von Boeckman-Jones, both in Austin.
The Korean War
In 1953, right after marrying Gertie, Moya was drafted into the armed services. He had initially enlisted in the National Guard, thinking that would prevent him from getting drafted into the Korean War, but the U.S. government passed a law that said anyone who enlisted in the National Guard after July 1, 1952, would still be eligible for the draft. He was a sergeant first class in the Korean War and was in charge of ration breakdowns.
"A ration breakdown is the place where every mess sergeant goes every morning to pick up their rations of food for the day," Moya said. Rations were issued in the morning based on the number of soldiers in each unit. Moya and his team would go to the distribution point to pick up the rations every single day; rations were distributed daily because there was no way to keep foods from spoiling.
"Best job in Korea," Moya said. "Everybody loves you 'cause you have the rations, their food!"
There were a few Mexican Americans and other Hispanics in Moya's unit but not many. He met a few Mexican-American soldiers from California and became good friends with another from New Mexico. Moya came across only one Puerto Rican soldier in his unit. It was rare to see Hispanics from other companies, according to Moya, but they had a lot in common and even spoke Spanish to one another sometimes.
Moya said African-American soldiers greatly outnumbered Mexican Americans.
Moya returned to Austin in 1955 and went back to his old job as a printer.
Unlike World War II, the Korean War did not usher in major advancements in Mexican-American civil rights.
"My recollection of history at that time was that the war - WWII, not the Korean War - was the awakening of the Hispanic community. ... All of a sudden [Hispanics] began to realize ...'What's the deal, man? We were over there too. We were getting killed. My brother got killed, my uncle, my father got killed,'" Moya said.
Moya in Politics
Moya had not been involved in politics as a young adult.
"I voted and I cared who won," he said. "But that was about it."
But two things opened his eyes and made him become more political: working within the government and the Economy Furniture Store strike in Austin.
In 1965, Moya took a job as an investigator for the Travis County Legal Aid Defenders Society and worked with the Office of Economic Opportunity. Through his work with Legal Aid, he became aware of how much the poor, Mexican Americans in particular, needed help. One of the biggest problems was domestic abuse: Many Mexican-American women had been in abusive relationships and needed help extricating themselves from their husbands. Legal Aid helped many women file for divorce. The organization also helped with adoptions, wills, car title transfers, liability insurance problems and rental evictions.
When the Economy Furniture strike happened in 1968, Moya got involved because it affected many people close to him. Ninety percent of the company's 400 workers were Mexican Americans. A quarter of the workers were women. And many of the workers earned only $1.75 an hour, even after more than 15 years of service.
One complaint surfaced: Hispanic workers trained non-Hispanic employees, who would then go on to become supervisors and make much more money. The employees voted to unionize and the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the store must negotiate with the union. But owner Milton T. Smith rejected the board's order, prompting the strike.
"The strike got really nasty because the owners tried to bust the strike" by bringing in non-union workers to replace the strikers, Moya said.
Moya knew the advantages of being in a union because he had been a union printer. He knew how much unions could help employees.
"I started getting involved because I believed in that movement, and I believed what they were doing was right," he said.
That connection with the labor union would prove important the following year, when he entered the political arena.
The opportunity to run for office came to him by way of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968, in Avery v. Midland County (Texas). In that case, Midland County was required to redistrict to balance out its county commissioners court. It was evident that Travis County was in much the same situation, with some commissioners' precincts imbalanced.
Moya's lawyer-friend Gabriel Gutierrez pointed out that a Mexican American could win the precinct if he could pick up all of the Hispanic votes in that area.
In 1970, Moya announced that he would run for a seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court for Precinct 4. He told the Austin American-Statesman, "I feel that I must run for this office, with the goal of seeking a more efficient form of local government, one that will respond readily to the needs of the people of this community."
Seven or eight other Mexican Americans considered running for commissioner, including Gutierrez, but many of them dropped out of the race to help Moya. In the end, one other Mexican American - Paul Tovar - ran, splitting the vote. Moya and Tovar thought the incumbent, Lawson Booth, would beat them.
"If we didn't elect somebody, the guarantee of keeping those lines or making sure they were drawn properly might be lost," Moya recalled. "When I ran for commissioner, there were eight Mexican Americans in the county office, period. And half of them were in one department. Nobody was hiring them.
"We weren't used to having Hispanics run for anything. There were a lot of confrontations. It was really sad. In fact, one of the guys who supported me got killed," Moya said. During the 1970 campaign, one of the people working for his candidacy was shot at Villa Latina Bar after an argument over campaign signs.
Still, Moya's campaign benefited from the support of an energized army of volunteers that included many of the Economy Furniture strikers.
"If it hadn't been for the strikers, I wouldn't have won. I couldn't have won," he said. "They were on the picket line for an hour a day. They spent the other eight or nine hours over at my headquarters making signs, knocking on doors, doing whatever needed to be done, raising money, so I had the workforce the campaign needed.
"We never had enough money for nothin'. We had a little money to buy Miller Lite for the workers at the end of the day," he said. "But we never had any money to do real stuff."
Moya's friend John Trevino quit his job at the City of Austin Community Action Program to manage Moya's campaign. It was a great personal sacrifice because Trevino and his wife had six children. Moya said the members of his campaign were committed to the area they sought to represent and the people who lived there.
Moya prevailed in the election, winning by 683 votes. His victory gave other Hispanics in Austin the hope that winning elected office was possible. Slowly but surely, the number of Hispanic officials in Travis County and Austin grew.
As more Mexican Americans were elected, they could support one another and help poor people, many of whom were Mexican American. Moya; Gonzalo Barrientos, elected to the Texas House in 1974; and Trevino, elected to Austin City Council in 1975, referred poor people to one another so that their problems would get solved.
"To this day, we're the best of friends," Moya said.
As county commissioner, Moya helped expand the road system, helped build more programs for the poor and created programs to help ex-convicts get back on their feet.
Moya still sees these programs for the poor ("Medicaid, children immunization programs, pre-K programs, CHIP...") being cut, and he wishes he could do something about it.
In 1986, Moya lost his bid for a fifth term when he "pissed off the environmentalists" by supporting the expansion of Ben White Boulevard in South Austin, a project opposed by conservation activists. Moya saw it as an opportunity for more jobs and better access and doesn't regret his support of the highway expansion, even though it cost him his seat.
"I never forgot where I came from. I get up every morning and drink coffee in East Austin, not where I live," Moya said. "I'm probably the only Mexican American elected official who does that."
Mr. Moya was interviewed by Alsha Khan in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 2, 2013