the lost american The Transformation of Fred Cuny by Christopher Buchanan

(Associate Producer of FRONTLINE's  The Lost American How did Fred Cuny go from being a supporter of Barry Goldwater's arch conservative presidential campaign in 1964 and Marine hopeful to a renegade, anti-establishment, liberal international humanitarian relief worker?

The clues can mostly be found in Texas.

Growing up in a comfortably suburban neighborhood in east Dallas, his first exposure to the other side of the tracks came after his freshman year at Texas A&M, when his father arranged for young Fred to spend the summer working on a cargo ship making a long, slow voyage down the western coast of South America. Although the experience opened his eyes, he was not much more than an interested tourist during that summer.

It wasn't until he transferred to Texas A&I, in Kingsville, Texas, that Fred began to seriously change his political stripes and find a new direction for his life. There he met and fell in love with Beth Roush. Having grown up in south Texas and briefly been married to a Chicano, Beth was acutely aware of the discrimination Mexican-Americans suffered in that part of the state during the mid-1960's. Her circle of friends included the Chicano activists at the university and a few "campus radicals" - white students and young professors who joined the Chicano rights movement. They quickly became Fred's friends as well.

Student housing was a major issue. Although equal housing legislation had passed, landlords in Kingsville still often refused to rent to blacks and Hispanics. To document this practice, Mexican-American students would answer newspaper ads for housing only to be told the room or apartment was already rented. Minutes later, Cuny or one of the other white students in their group would inquire about the room and be welcomed to see it. But simply having proof of discrimination did not satisfy Fred Cuny. He wanted change. To get it he convinced the skeptical Chicano students they should approach the Kingsville Chamber of Commerce. One of those students was Jose Angel Guttierez, who later would be one of the founders of the Hispanic political movement, La Raza Unida. "I thought the Chamber of Commerce were all a bunch of bigots," Guttierez recalled, "but Fred explained to me the economic realities." Students had purchasing power and the local merchants in the Chamber had things to sell. "Once we laid out our findings to the Chamber of Commerce, they came down on the school, and the school came down on the landlords."

This was a typical Cuny approach. Always looking at the larger picture, the larger environment. seeking out connections that aren't immediately apparent but often hold the key. And when he couldn't find these links, he would make them up. One of his favorite professors, Wayne Johnson, recalled a time when Fred was involved in a role-playing scenario about Latin American politics. In a mock session of the Organization of American States, Fred and his group were given the job of representing the small, landlocked country of Paraguay. "It was a real nothing country," Johnson said. "No political power in South America, few recourses, economically depressed, not likely to be a major player in this exercise. A lot of kids would have used that as a reason to slack off. Not Fred. His first question to his group was, 'So, listen, how can we make something of this country?' And he quickly came up with an answer: Build a dam across the Paraguay and Parana Rivers and hold the countries below it - Argentina and Uruguay - hostage, refusing to let the water through, until Paraguay got its way." The other countries were forced to give in to whatever the demands of tiny Paraguay happened to be that day, leaving Fred grinning about his ability to make something out of nothing ... at least on paper.

His first chance to actually exercise his political and engineering skills along with his logistical and motivational talents came two years later in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Between his years at Kingsville and Eagle Pass, he'd spent a couple of years in Houston trying to become a player in the liberal political scene that was emerging with the likes of Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland. Fred's one and only foray into elective politics ended miserably, when, in 1967, he came in 13th out of 16 candidates in a special election to fill a vacancy in the Texas House of Representatives. He won just 315 votes.)

In the summer of 1968, while the rest of the country was seething with unrest over Vietnam and civil rights following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Eagle Pass was a sleepy border town along the Rio Grande in which the Anglo power structure generally ignored the needs of the Mexican-Americans living along the unpaved streets and open sewers on the south side of town. Fred Cuny, age 23, saw a chance, like Harold Hill in The Music Man, to descend upon a town, stir up the local population, improve their lives and fall in love with a local girl. He wasn't selling brass bands and phony music lessons. Rather, he had the imprimatur of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the form of the Model Cities Program. As the "coordinator of community resources," it was Cuny's first hands-on chance at organizing and motivating people to take matters into their own hands.

People in Eagle Pass still recall Fred going around to community groups asking them why they put up with open sewers and unpaved streets. "The reason your kids are always sick," he would tell them, "is because of the insects that live in the stagnant water by the side of the road. Pave the streets, put in a sewer system, and your kids won't be going to the doctor all the time." Backed up with federal money to get the job done, Fred talked Chicano leaders into - for the first time in their lives - approaching city hall with demands. In patterns that would be repeated over and over again, in Central America, in Africa, in Asia, Fred made sure the local people knew they were the ones who were making the choices. He may have used his engineering skills and insights to guide them in the right direction; he may have suggested an approach to take, but when the city council of Eagle Pass convened it was their fellow citizens - not Fred Cuny - who were making the demands.

By the time the Model Cities money ran out - long after Fred Cuny left town for other adventures - every street was paved, every house had indoor plumbing and sewer connections, there were two new elementary schools, four neighborhood centers and a community hall. It would become Fred's domestic legacy ... and his launching pad to Biafra, Bangladesh and beyond.



home .  who killed fred cuny .  map of cuny's world .  from his laptop .  on the life .  his radio interviews .  special reports .  friends & colleagues .  links .  viewer discussion .  press reaction .  tapes & transcripts
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS