Growing up in a San Antonio in which pernicious neglect by an Anglo-controlled "Good Government League" left low-income Mexican-American neighborhoods flooded each year, Andy Sarabia helped transform the political landscape of the city and mentor generations of community leaders. In partnership with Ernesto Cortes, Sarabia not only reshaped the City, he launched COPS/Metro and the modern Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).
A civil engineer with the Kelly Airforce Base and active at Holy Family Church, Sarabia was first approached by Cortes after a pastor recommended they meet. Standing ankle deep in a front yard pool of water after recent rains, he grew agitated when Cortes asked him whether he liked standing in floodwater. Reflecting on that question, Sarabia decided that he did not like standing in floodwater and went about shifting the racial and class dynamics in San Antonio so that his family and neighbors would not have to stand in floodwater again.
“Andy was quiet and methodical, the master of checklists with an ability to systematically organize,” says Cortes. “He had a natural talent as a negotiator, to make trade-offs, to reach a deal.” Sarabia soon found himself at the epicenter of a seismic shift in local politics as Mexican-American congregations began to band together -- not to march in the streets, but for quiet engagement in parish classrooms and union halls to identify barriers that chafed at the dignity of hard-working families. Through the formation of the broad-based organization Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), Sarabia worked for the advancement of lower-income families, inducting them into a discipline of careful political research and targeted public action, and thus initiating sweeping structural changes (see Texas Monthly piece from 1977 below). Monied Anglos were fearful of the changes. Others, like bank founder Tom Frost, eventually welcomed them.
As the first president of COPS, Sarabia shaped the culture of the organization. During the 1970s, change was stirring across the nation, and a generation of young people explored local activism, party politics and candidacy for elected office. Sarabia believed in institutional change and regularly spurned invitations to run for office. He created a culture of organizing in which accountability to an institution was required and organizational leadership positions awarded to those that produced results. At the end of his two-year tenure, he continued to remain active from the sidelines -- mentoring new presidents, coaching first-time public speakers, and reminding subsequent generations of the organization's history and traditions.
“The most important thing for people to know is that none of the work was ever about him, it was about the betterment of the community, siempre para la gente,” said Linda Ledesma, Sarabia’s widow. “He was compassionate, he was caring, and he wanted justice, but he went about things his way, quietly.”
Sarabia connected the present to the past -- reminding leaders and public officials alike that it took COPS' power to establish successful programs like nationally-renowned Project Quest and the San Antonio Educational Partnership. The organization he helped establish, now COPS/Metro, has persisted as a powerhouse. This year, the San Antonio Current recognized it as the only community organization on its top ten list of power brokers.
COPS’ success led to the creation of over 30 sister organizations throughout Texas and the West / Southwest US, some of which are approaching 35+ years of age. Andy Sarabia was incredibly adroit with funders, ensuring support for expansion projects in Houston and Dallas through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD).
Even in retirement, Sarabia continued to work with COPS/Metro -- writing op-eds and consulting with newer organizers. Weeks ago, from his hospice bed, Andy Sarabia watched the COPS/Metro accountability assembly on a NOWCastSA livestream. As the curtain closed, he called individual leaders, congratulating them on the session and evaluating which of the candidates were most responsive to the organization's concerns. On election day, he marked his ballot from bed, urging others: "Get out the vote. I am with you in heart and spirit." Days later he died surrounded by family and friends.
That is how COPS/Metro leaders remember him: passionate about community and democracy -- and committed to the end.
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Services will be held Monday and Tuesday, May 13-14 at Holy Family Church at 152 Florencia Ave. on the West Side. The 5pm viewing Monday will be followed by a Rosary at 7pm. Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11am Tuesday, followed by a reception in the parish hall.
The Sarabia Family suggests that in lieu of flowers, a memorial contribution be sent to Holy Family Church (152 Florencia Ave., 78228) and COPS/Metro (1511 Saltillo Street, 78207).
[Credits: Upper right photo from COPS/Metro archives at UTSA; lower left photo by Carlos Javier Sanchez, San Antonio Express-News; other images provided by COPS/Metro. Quotes by Cortes and Ledesma first published by the Rivard Report.]
Andy Sarabia, COPS’ First President, Dies at 79, Rivard Report [pdf]
Editorial Board: A Man Who Gave Voice to Voiceless, San Antonio Express News [pdf]
Andy Sarabia, 79, Fought for San Antonio's Forsaken and Forgotten, San Antonio Express-News [pdf]
The Second Battle of the Alamo, Texas Monthly (1977)
COPS Takes on City Hall, Texas Observer (1976)
COPS Hold Meet at Frost Bank: Another 'Polite Talk'
Andy Sarabia on Celebrating 40+ Years of Organizing in San Antonio, Rafael Paz Parra [video]