By Elaine Ayala
Jesse "Chuy" Cortez went a long way for a guy who didn't finish
elementary school and couldn't read. He traveled to California, New
York and places south, marching with César Chávez's United Farm
Workers and civil rights activists in Alabama.
He was a member of the Brown Berets in their first and most recent
incarnations; on a scooter, he joined the annual César Chávez March
for Justice in San Antonio.
"Era puro corazón," said Victor San Miguel, state prime minister of
the Brown Berets. He was pure heart.
Cortez died Saturday of kidney failure and complications related to
diabetes. He was 67.
Cortez's parents were migrant workers who left their children in the
care of a grandmother. A rebellious youth, Cortez fended for himself.
"He would get odd jobs as a child, shining shoes, selling papers, to
help our grandmother," sister Patsy Rogers said. "I think he was a
wise child. He had to learn very quickly to survive," she said.
He compensated for his illiteracy by refining his memory.
"He was like a computer. He had files stored everywhere in his head,"
she said, saying Cortez memorized place names and phone numbers.
At 16, Cortez was already traveling as a migrant worker, first in
California then in southern and northern parts of the country. He
often talked about the tensions between growers and union pickets in
California. He met Chávez during that time.
When in Alabama, he joined protests, too.
"We used to listen to all his stories and expressed to (children) how
important the civil rights movement was," said brother-in-law Anthony Rogers.
By the late '60s, Cortez was back in San Antonio. He was proud of
being part of the construction teams that built HemisFair '68.
Afterward, "he was hired at the park as a maintenance person. I still
have his little ID card," his sister said.
Around the same time, he joined the Brown Berets, a Chicano civil
rights group with a paramilitary structure. Its members, who dress in
brown uniforms and berets, often serve as guards during protests and marches.
"He was always political," Patsy Rogers said. "I think traveling so
much and being a migrant worker, he saw a lot of injustice out there,
and I think that's what influenced him."
He rejoined the Brown Berets, whose San Antonio members now range in
age from 13 to 68 and who work on social justice issues and civic and