Henry B. Gonzalez

Henry B. Gonzalez
Courtesy of The Institute of Texan Cultures

Henry B. Gonzalez was the first Mexican American elected to the Texas Senate, in 1956; the first Mexican American to run for governor, in 1958; and the first Mexican American elected from Texas to the U. S. House, in 1961. But when he died in San Antonio on November 28 at 84, Henry B. was the last of the great Texas political jefes.

He lived life as one long, tumultuous filibuster and was suited for the job: He had an ego that demanded life-or-death combat, the heart of a philosopher, and the bladder of an elephant. As a young reporter in San Antonio, I used to meet him for breakfast regularly on Saturday mornings at Earl Abel’s restaurant, north of downtown. He always brought his own fresh jalapeño peppers from home, carefully collected in plastic wrap, for his scrambled eggs. He would arrive early, shake hands, and distribute souvenir pens that read “Henry B. Gonzalez, 20th Congressional District.”

With drooping jowls and furrowed brow, he confided all kinds of fantastic beliefs, like his theory that the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the attempt on George Wallace’s life were all the result of conspiracies. The next moment he would chuckle like a child and relive the pleasure he took in 1962 of getting his first bill—one that abolished the poll tax—through Congress.

He was often not in control of his own emotions. He railed against real and imagined enemies, calling them “skunks” and “scoundrels,” and threatened to give anyone who challenged his beliefs a “knuckle sandwich,” as he once did to an Earl Abel’s customer who called him a communist. Then, in the next breath, he would reveal some

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