Thinking Locally with Gilberto Rivera

Interviewed by Kamala Platt
April 1991; page 10; Volume 2, No. 5

Gilberto Rivera is running for City Council, Place 2, on a progressive platform.

KP: What kinds of relationships do you see forming between the university, the communities and the city council?

GR: There has to be a very close relationship between the city administration and the administration of the university and its students.

I say the university because the University of Texas has historically been a problem for people of color especially on the east side. For instance, the Blackland neighborhood where the university pretty much wiped out what was a vibrant African-American neighborhood in the city of Austin and they've established east of Interstate 35 a truck terminal, their garages, a baseball field and so on.

Students should be involved continuously because beyond being students they are also citizens of Austin and taxpayers. When they go shopping, when they eat in a restaurant or when they buy books they are paying taxes that go to the local government.

KP: How would you describe the current situation here in Austin?

GR: I am - if you want to place labels on anybody - a social environmentalist, and that basically is very simple. I think that historically social activists and environmentalists have sometimes been at different ends of a spectrum of social consciousness; both are very important but I think that in this day and age to be just a social activist or just an environmental activist is not really opening up to the whole struggle for human rights and all living things in this world.

It is imperative at this critical time in our world and in Austin, that environmentalists become social activists and social activists become environmentalists. In the poorer sections of town where the majority of people of color live, many of our struggles are social justice issues; but at the same time, if you do an accurate analysis, they are also environmental issues.

For example, I live in East Austin. We have many toxics stored in East Austin that need to be cleaned up. We have many warehouses that store toxic chemicals. Very few people know what is inside of those warehouses. We have factories that emit toxic fumes on a continuous basis. All of those are environmental issues, but looking at it from a working class/people of color perspective, they are also social justice issues.

KP: You have publicly supported moving the airport to Manor. What about the concern that a Manor airport would provide an excellent excuse for extending the Outer Loop? Isn't this an environmentally disastrous project that would encourage capital flight from the inner city?

GR: I fully understand the concerns of environmentalists about moving the airport to Manor. But as a social environmentalist, I am concerned about the effects of a tight urban situation on the inner city, specifically on people who live in East Austin, where the airport is now. That's why I think the airport should be moved to Manor. I do not support the Outer Loop. But whether or not they move the airport to Manor there will be an attempt to develop the Outer Loop.

KP: You've had a lot of experience working internationally and breaking barriers in that work, too. How do yousee that relating to your local work?

GR: Personally, I don't see any problem in working both globally and locally in the sense that by looking the world and the city from a global perspective one sees the contradictions.

We have many toxics stored in East Austin that need to be cleaned up. We have many warehouses that store toxic chemicals. Very few people know what is inside of those warehouses.

The universal contradictions of this world are very simple. The United States wants to dominate the world through military and economic means. We have done that in Central America for several hundred years. We have done that in Africa by supporting the military adventures in South Africa and so on. We have done that in Southeast Asia for years and we are doing it in the Middle East. How does all that effect us locally? Very simple. There is less money available; there are fewer people available to carry on the local struggles. Historically since World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war in Granada, the War in the Middle East, the wars that we carry on every day have cost one of the most precious resources that we have-the bodies of our young men and women, most of them from working class backgrounds.

Then the billions and billions of dollars that are being spent on the war machine are dollars that are not spent on health care for the elderly, educational opportunities for the young, or training opportunities for Austin's youth that are at risk today.

KP: How do you see the recent war in the Middle East affecting communities in Austin, and how do you think we as local citizens should respond to the situation?

GR: I was very heartened and very appreciative of the response that the people of Austin had toward that war. I have not seen that type of response toward any situation since the old anti-Vietnam War days era. I'm glad that its over and I'm glad that many young men and women are back home, but the war isn't over here in our country in the sense that we are going to feel its effects for many many years to come.

For example, the city council less than a year ago voted to eliminate $16,000 for AIDS services here in Austin. Sixteen thousand dollars doesn't sound like much money when you realize that close to $2 billion a day was spent on the war in the Middle East That money isn't going to be available anymore. It is going to be harder and harder for young women with babies to get WIC services. It is going to be harder and harder for the elderly to get medical services. It is going to be harder and harder to get the services that are related to human needs because many of the monies that were to be used for that are going to be used to refill military coffers.

The war isn't over; the war has just begun here.

KP: This sounds like a kind of structural violence. Can you expand upon this?

GR: I feel that the City of Austin has a perfect opportunity right now to try to eliminate some of that institutional violence that has been perpetuated in this city for many years. People have a very funny definition of violence in this country. They hear of people fighting for their freedom through armed struggle and they get upset about it. But to me, the most violent thing that I see is something different the violence toward humanity that I see everyday here in Austin.

The violence of homeless families; the violence of people with drug and alcohol problems being put in prisons rather than being put in de-tox; the violence of families being kicked out of their homes because they cannot afford to pay the rent; the violence of the electric company cutting off people's electricity or the gas company cutting off people's gas in the middle of the winter; or the violence of young children dying of malnutrition here in Austin ... to me that type of violence is institutional, and it needs to be eradicated.

KP: Anything else?

GR: I think for me there are a couple of things that I'd like to concentrate my campaign on. We are basically a throw-away society and I think that in this day and age we are throwing away our elderly, our ancianos, our people that we should look up to and respect because they have held this world together for sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety years, depending on how old they are.

In the Mexican culture our elders arc well-respected for their knowledge and their experience and their abilities to look at the world and be able to tell you what it is incorrect.

I think lots people don't understand that; but I believe that most elderly people are more progressive than most young people think that they are because they went through struggles in their lives. Especially the working class elderly, they know how much they suffered throughout their lives.

And then you have the youth. Over 40% of Hispanic and over 45% of African Americans in this city are dropping out of school. What are we doing? We aren't doing anything.

We are encouraging them to join the military because that is the only thing out there for them. Very few of them that have dropped out can get jobs or training because we've cut services. When the City of Austin talks about cutting services the first thing they cut is people services.

One of my proposals is to provide a Youth Opportunity Corps. Such an organization would provide legislational and employment opportunities for young people four days a week, and the 5th day they would be at school getting their GED, getting business training, getting classes at ACC - where ever they are in their educational process.

It would be funded through grants and anywhere else we could find money. The youth right now are being thrown away. They are being put in jail; they are being put in prison; they are being put in the military, which is the equivalent of prison, in my opinion.

The other thing is the protection of our mother earth. I was in Africa at a conference for indigenous peoples and there were quite a few Indians there from all over the Americas. One of the women said, "it gives me great pleasure to see all of my people here, but it also gives me great sadness because we are the remnants from once-great societies. Our mother earth has protected us for over 500 years since the conquerors came from Europe and for 500 years we have been beating the drum and the drum is our heart and the heart of mother earth. They are slowly killing us off and killing our mother earth. Every time we drop a bomb on another country we are killing her. Every time we burn oil we are draining her blood." If we can't protect our mother earth we can't protect ourselves.