Friend Indeed

Tony Villegas lends a hand and a voice to needy Latinos

Twice in the life of 60-year-old Jose Antonio "Tony" Villegas there have been epiphanies that pointed the course for the mission he now religiously pursues.

First, had the man in the leather coat not fired a shot that shattered his car window on that Chicago night back in 1979, he might never have considered moving to Dallas.

He was an up-and-coming union rep for a food processing plant back then and had just left a meeting where employees, many of them fellow Hispanics, had voiced complaints about their working conditions. "I'd walked into the parking lot and just gotten into my car," he recalls, "when this guy walks up with a sawed-off rifle and blows my window out. He told me there were people upset and that things might get rough for me and my family if I didn't back off."

Villegas, a man with an elementary schoolteacher wife and two young sons, needed little time to judge his priorities. A native of Mission in the Rio Grande Valley, he and his wife, Linda, had already been discussing a return to Texas anyway. Dallas, they agreed, offered the opportunities and educational environment they wanted for their children.

Then, in the late '80s, there was his recovery from a series of frightening bouts with thyroid cancer. It was then, he recalls, that he began earnestly searching for some way to acknowledge his good fortune; to, as he puts it, "give something back."

By then he was working as a case manager for Dallas County Community Corrections, assigned to do pretrial release interviews. "Much of my job was to make people aware of the help the system had to offer, things like bond reduction and proper legal assistance," he says. "Later, I was given the responsibility of overseeing the program that allowed those in jail to be released during the day to work."

What he didn't see during the course of his daily routine were many Hispanics appearing before judges for bail hearings or being released to work at day jobs. "They were just sitting in a cell somewhere, marking time," he says. The reason, he discovered, was because many of them spoke no English and were unaware of the complex workings of the judicial system.

And with that an idea began to form. It was not, however, until he took a position as bilingual service director with Addicare, the marketing arm of Delta Health Care, which sought out those in need of help with drug and alcohol addiction, that he became fully aware of the foe he would ultimately vow to battle.

He's now been at it for more than a decade.

"As I responded to calls," he says, "I met people living in sub-standard housing, heard stories of employers who were dealing unfairly with workers, realized that families were having difficulties getting the most basic social services--all because they spoke no English."

Thus Villegas set out to convince his partners at Addicare to add a service to its program, a free lineayuda--help line--for non-English-speaking Hispanics. Soon, on Spanish radio stations, Addicare commercials offered not only help with addiction problems but with any language-related difficulties families were experiencing.

And with the unique offer, Villegas' already busy days grew longer. The pleas for help ran the gamut, from a mother having a hard time communicating with her children's schoolteachers to those needing help paying rent and feeding their families; men looking for employment or legal aid; day laborers who told of working for weeks without being paid promised wages; people calling to complain that the quality of their neighborhoods was being destroyed by crack houses. Soon, judges and lawyers were in touch, asking if he might volunteer as an interpreter during court proceedings.

Overwhelmed by the response, the energetic Villegas began networking, knocking on doors of those he felt could help. "I realized right away," he says, "that I was not going to be the solution to all problems. I'm no lawyer, nor do I have formal training as a counselor. My role is simply that of an advocate, someone who tries to put people together with the right organization or person who can get things done." Today, his address book is filled with names and numbers of Dallas charities, lawyers, doctors, ministers and people in law enforcement who have expressed a willingness to help in his cause.

"There has been a long-standing myth," says Dr. Linda Galindo, a Dallas psychologist, "that Hispanics, even those in need, don't seek help. What I've seen Tony do over the years is give them a voice so they can. He's a living example of what a real community service volunteer should be." Not only has he sent people to her for counsel, but on numerous occasions she's directed people to him. "Every time I've ever called on him," she says, "he's come running."

Working quietly and behind the scenes on evenings and weekends, Villegas, now a caseworker for Buckner's Children's Home, often simply plays the role of mediator. To wit:

He recently received a call from a woman who had purchased a new car. She had agreed on a monthly payment schedule that she thought she could afford, but when her payment book arrived she learned that it included a final "balloon" payment of several thousand dollars, which she knew she wouldn't be able to pay. She immediately placed her first call to the lineayuda number she had carried in her purse for nine years. "The salesman had obviously taken advantage of her, duped her," Villegas says. Once a car salesman himself, he took the problem directly to the manager of the dealership and negotiated a revised payment plan.

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