Brawl in the family

Sitting around a table in the back room of the Charco Broiler in Pleasant Grove, the three men and one woman fidget a bit, aware of the tape recorder's little red light. All four are members of LULAC--the League of United Latin American Citizens--and they are a little uncomfortable talking to a reporter.

"I hope you can understand, it's hard," says Alfred Carrizales, a longtime Dallas activist, above the blare of the big-screen TV in the dining room.

"This is for the good of the community," Gehrig Saldana chimes in, lapsing into a comfortable Spanish flecked with English. "Me da pena...It's painful trying to bring up these kinds of things," he says.

It takes some nerve to bring this information to the media, they admit--an acknowledgment that the "U" in LULAC isn't all it's cracked up to be. And their faces betray their thoughts: Speaking out will cost them. They know they're in for a mean time.

As the waitress brings out burgers, however, they start to ease some. The awkwardness fades, and tongues slowly start wagging. What follows is a bull session--marked by shades of pain and trepidation--in which they offer a litany of grievances.

Most of all, they complain about what Carrizales and Saldana see as a severe lack of inclusion in LULAC. They claim that their LULAC chapter, the fledgling Council 4496, is being kept in the dark by the area's most established chapter--Council 100.

While high-profile Council 4496 members such as Carrizales and Jesse Diaz battle on the front lines for the rights of Latino students, teachers, and staff in the Dallas public schools, the leaders of Council 100--where the membership roll reads like a who's who of Hispanic Dallas--stand at a dignified distance, seldom bothering to wade into such messy matters.

Meanwhile, Saldana and Carrizales say, Council 100 hauls in big bucks from its annual Tejano concert series--money that's supposedly earmarked for LULAC scholarships--yet no one seems to know how much money is made or where it goes. The only scholarships that have been handed out, the four claim, went to relatives of Council 100 members.

All in all, the men say, the dearth of information has caused them to suspect that Council 100 is misusing LULAC funds and misleading folks about its fundraisers. They offer no documentation to support their claims, just a pained recitation of failed attempts to obtain information from their sister council--tales of phone calls that have gone unreturned and letters that have gone unanswered.

"If you're out there saying 'Raza this' and 'Raza that,' and all it amounts to is a press conference so you can get additional funding from corporations, it's a real problem," Carrizales says, beginning to vent.

"They want to be the big shots," Council 4496 member Dolores East says of Council 100 in a separate interview. "If you're not somebody they want to let into their exclusive club, they won't let you in. LULAC is about inclusion, about equality, and they're violating all that."

Even while LULAC's numerous local chapters appear to have united in support of Dallas Independent School District superintendent Dr. Yvonne Gonzalez, it seems that a bickering war is going on behind the scenes, one that bears no resemblance to LULAC's credo: "All for One--One for All."

LULAC, founded in 1929 in Harlingen, Texas, is the country's oldest and largest civil rights organization for Latinos that's been in continuous existence. In North Texas, 28 councils make up LULAC District III, which stretches from Wichita Falls to Corsicana. Each of these councils operates independently, with its own officers and budgets.

Dallas' Council 100, although not the oldest in the area, is the most established LULAC chapter. Founded in 1978 in the back yard of current president Rene Martinez's mother's house, Council 100 claims some of Dallas' most prominent Latinos as members: Hector Flores, Adelfa Callejo, Jake Fuller, and Martinez, to name a few. Flores is well known for his bilingual-teacher recruiting for DISD, and Callejo has been a lawyer and activist in Dallas for many years. Fuller does consulting work for local politicians, and Martinez is a banker.

If Council 100 represents Dallas' oldest, most successful Latino families, with an impressive record of civic activism and achievements, Council 4496 is the snot-nosed younger sibling. Founded in 1990 by Jesse Diaz and Alfred Carrizales as a response to gang problems in their area, 4496 has carved out a role for itself through high-profile activism in the Dallas public schools.

Diaz, a real estate agent in working-class Pleasant Grove, says that being a three-time victim of drive-by shootings made an activist out of him. "We weren't seeing our needs being addressed" by other councils, he says. So they started their own.

Council 4496's current president, Gehrig Saldana, is community program manager for the Dallas parks department. Carrizales, the council's second-in-command, works for a door company, and Dolores East is a community liaison for a West Dallas elementary school.

Council 4496's problems with its sister council began when a member, Rebecca Salinas, heard some radio spots in June for a summer Tejano concert series sponsored by LULAC. For the past two years, Council 100 has produced the series to raise money for scholarships.

The ads on 107.9 FM stated that proceeds from the concert series would go to a national LULAC scholarship fund.

"The ads didn't say 'LULAC Council 100,'" Salinas says. "They said 'LULAC.'"
That indicated to Salinas that anyone could apply for the scholarship. So Salinas, a mother of two teenagers, asked her council president, Saldana, how to apply for the money.

Saldana went to Council 100, which he knew to be sponsoring the event in downtown Dallas' Artists Square. When he asked how people could apply for the scholarship money, he claims, he got no answers. Instead, Council 100 members got defensive--claiming they didn't have to disclose any information about their fundraising activities, while adding that they had "nothing to hide."

Saldana's search for information was complicated by the concert series' confusing parentage. While LULAC Council 100 officially sponsors the series, the host organization listed on the Arts District event application, filed in early summer, is the "Hispanic Institute for Progress," or HIP. Greg Vaquera, director of LULAC's District III, and Marcos Rincon are listed as this organization's contact persons.

Internal Revenue Service records show that the Hispanic Institute for Progress was set up in Dallas in 1990 as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization under section 501 (c)(3) of the federal tax code. This status allows the institute to raise funds and receive tax-deductible donations from sponsors.

It is not uncommon for LULAC councils to set up separate nonprofits for use in fundraising. According to Council 272 president Leonard Chaires of Dallas, his council has a nonprofit set up specifically to raise scholarship money. But the Hispanic Institute for Progress is different because it doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of the national LULAC organization. "Anytime something like that happens, I shy away from it," Chaires says.

Because the institute was set up under the federal tax code for nonprofit organizations, some of its financial records must be made available for examination upon request.

Saldana, believing he was being stonewalled, then put in a formal, written request for the information under open-records laws. Since Council 100 was producing the concert series under the auspices of HIP, Saldana believed he was entitled to the information.

He asked for a full accounting of proceeds from the concert series, a list of scholarship recipients, and information on HIP itself--which Saldana claims he'd never heard of.

But several months later, Saldana says, he still hasn't received any information from Council 100 or HIP. Furthermore, after making inquiries in the Latino communities, he hasn't been able to find anyone who's actually received a LULAC scholarship from Council 100--except for the son of Richard Sambrano, a member of Council 100. Sambrano admits that his son got a scholarship, but he doesn't think there's anything wrong with that. "He's paid that back many times," he says.

Throughout its history, scholarships have been a key ingredient in LULAC's mission to reach out to its targeted community of Hispanics. Since its inception in 1973, the LULAC National Educational Service Centers program has given more than $8 million in scholarships to some 12,000 students.

Individual councils that raise money for LULAC scholarships, however, are entrusted with distributing the money themselves.

These councils are required to report their financial comings and goings to the national LULAC office in El Paso, which, in theory, should provide some accountability. But Larry Trejo, legal counsel for LULAC national, says that some councils don't, making it difficult to track funds.

(The Dallas Observer requested HIP's annual filing with the IRS from both the federal agency and Council 100 president Rene Martinez on August 11. To date, neither source has come up with the records. The IRS claimed that it will take several months to locate and retrieve the information.)

Council 100 members, for their part, say they're not stonewalling; they'll get the information together. They just don't know when.

What they don't understand is how Saldana's request for information has metamorphosed into allegations of financial wrongdoing involving members of Council 100.

Some of those members counter that their sister chapter is simply jealous. "They're making an issue out of nothing," says Martinez, Council 100's president. "It's celo [greed]. Do they have any money in their coffers? No."

The attack against Council 100's integrity is especially hurtful, Martinez says, because Hector Flores and others have tried to help 4496 get on its feet. "Hector helped these guys get incorporated, he nominated them for Council of the Year," Martinez says. "And all of a sudden for them to challenge his character--he is really hurt personally."

Martinez, who says he has known Saldana "all his life," is equally concerned about a perceived change in Saldana over the past few months. "I've noticed a very dramatic shift in Gehrig's character," Martinez says, "and I think the Masons have really influenced him. It's a very secretive organization." Saldana is a member of the Gibraltar Masonic Lodge in Oak Cliff.

It seems that LULAC's fraternal war is full of such conspiracy theories.

The Tejano concert series has featured high-profile Tejano bands and attracted corporate funding from Budweiser and Eagle Honda, but even big names don't always guarantee hefty profits, says Marcos Rincon, the event's coordinator and a member of Council 100.

"We learned from last year," Rincon says. "Last year, we didn't even break even. It costs a lot of money to put on these events."

While Rincon would not disclose the costs of hosting the event, he did say that any scholarship funds were to come from concessions.

Rincon says that some councils erroneously believe they have a right to share in profits from the concert series just because they're also members of LULAC. It doesn't work that way, he says. Rincon says that Saldana approached him at one of the Wednesday-night concerts about "getting a piece of the action." Rincon says Council 4496 is simply miffed because it needs money. "It's kind of ridiculous," he says.

But he doesn't believe the district--and particularly Saldana--has done anything to deserve a cut of Council 100's concert series. "Where were you when I needed you, Gehrig?" Rincon asks rhetorically.

Neither is Saldana entitled to information about the Hispanic Institute for Progress. "I don't believe they're entitled to an accounting," says Adelfa Callejo. "Every council is autonomous. So what's [Saldana's] authority in asking for an accounting?"

Callejo believes that Saldana and Carrizales are personally attacking Council 100's Hector Flores, but doesn't understand why. "Mr. Flores is indefatigable when it comes to Hispanics," Callejo says. "And he is one person for whom I will vouch. The only person that appears to have a problem with Hector Flores is Gehrig Saldana," she adds. "I'll tell you this. If somebody accused me of malfeasance, they'd be sued immediately."

Callejo says that Saldana and Council 4496 have "done some things for which they have been criticized" as well. "I heard that they went and used the LULAC name to support the person running against John Wiley Price," she says. According to its constitution, LULAC is prohibited from endorsing partisan candidates.

"All the councils are charged with the mission of protecting our community," Callejo says. "[4496] has acted like education is their turf," she says, adding that education is a national issue.

Callejo will concede that Saldana and Carrizales are committed and do good work, but believes they're too new at all this. "They're younger than we are," she says, "and one of our goals is to nurture the younger leaders." But instead of forming coalitions, she says, these guys want to divide. Council 100 members, Callejo firmly states, are "men of integrity."

"[Saldana] is trying to make a storm out of a cup of water," adds Michael Gonzales, Callejo's nephew and president of another LULAC chapter, Council 4601. He goes on to describe Saldana as a "kid in a candy store" who tries to "eat Jell-O with a knife," referring to what he perceives as Saldana's overblown reaction to nothing. "This organization is not a playpen," Gonzales says. "It's here to serve the needs of many people."

While Saldana waits for his information, LULAC 100 continues to use its Hispanic Institute for Progress for other fundraising efforts. In June, LULAC's District III sent a proposal to Levi-Strauss asking for $15,000 to support a youth leadership program. The money would be funneled through HIP, and the donation tax-exempt. The proposal was sent in the name of the entire LULAC District III--including 4496, according to records obtained by the Observer. But the entire district has not yet approved of the project, so it's on hold.

The Levi-Strauss funds, if they're granted, are to be used in conjunction with a building being donated by the Southland Corp. The building--located at the corner of Edgefield and 12th in Oak Cliff--is the site of the first 7-Eleven store in Dallas and will be known as the LULAC Social Services Center.

About a year ago, Council 100 began dealing with Janie Camacho, consumer and Hispanic affairs manager for Southland. Camacho admits that she was not fully aware of the hierarchy within LULAC, and that when she dealt with Council 100--namely Hector Flores, Greg Vaquera, and Rene Martinez--she thought she was dealing with all of LULAC.

At a September 13 meeting of District III, Camacho became painfully aware that Council 100 is not all of LULAC. Some of the six councils represented at the meeting didn't even know what the project entailed. "What is this building you're talking about?" asked Ruben Garcia, president of Granbury Council 4582. "What's it going to be used for?"

Leonard Chaires of Council 272--Dallas' oldest council--said the district was presented with "a laundry list of world events written by Sambrano," referring to the somewhat ambitious proposal to Levi-Strauss outlined by Richard Sambrano of Council 100. "They want to save world hunger out of this building," Carrizales added. "We're going to have to taper down."

Others expressed resentment that the Southland project was not made public sooner. "They [Council 100] had the information for one full year, and we knew nothing about it," says Mary Hernandez, the Grand Prairie Council 4576 president.

"In all fairness, I think there are some communication problems," Camacho said. "Y'all aren't talking amongst yourselves."

Camacho further warned that if LULAC District III could not get its house in order, it might lose the building. "If you don't take it, the NAACP will," Camacho said.

The dispute over Council 100 scholarship funds is taking place amidst a backdrop of similar allegations against Greg Vaquera, who is director of LULAC District III and affiliated with Council 100.

The state attorney general's office is reviewing allegations that Houston-based Texas Hispanic Magazine misused the name and tax-exempt status of the Arlington Hispanic Advisory Council (AHAC) in order to raise money for scholarships, according to a July Arlington Morning News article. Vaquera helped found AHAC in 1993 and is named in the complaint as the magazine's representative. Vaquera was a member of the Arlington LULAC council before he affiliated himself with Council 100.

Vaquera has been the director of LULAC District III since May of this year, yet still has no idea how much money the district has in the bank. In fact, Vaquera doesn't even know the name of the bank the district uses, he admitted at a District III meeting in September.

Perry Vecchio, the current district treasurer, says that when he got appointed three years ago, he was told the district had no account and that he should open up a new one. It sounded strange, Vecchio says, but he went ahead and opened up an account with American Bank. The treasurer before Vecchio was Jim Salinas, the registered agent for the Hispanic Institute for Progress.

"I'm sure there are some records somewhere," Vecchio says, but it's anyone's guess where they are. Vecchio says he's never heard of Council 100 giving out scholarships to anyone but their own kids. "It's funny that they would give themselves scholarships--that's improper," Vecchio says.

The ongoing controversy surrounding DISD's Gonzalez appears to have provided a ready-made stage for Councils 100 and 4496 to put their differences aside and deal with an issue that directly affects the Latino population of Dallas. Have they?

No, Carrizales says. Things are as they have always been: fractured.
"It's like they're trying to lead cattle to slaughter," Carrizales says, referring to Council 100's domination of LULAC District III. "It's just not going to work anymore. They don't speak for us anymore."

The good news is that other normally apathetic Latinos are seeing the Gonzalez issue as something to rally around. Carrizales is right there in the middle.


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