I was absolutely flabbergasted and upset to learn yesterday afternoon that former San Antonio Express-News columnist Carlos Guerra has passed away.
I knew Carlos Guerra by reputation and writing before I met Carlos Guerra the man, years ago. I still remember my first impression of him, immediately before first reading his column, which I ran across in the legislative news clips one morning when I first started working at the Capitol. His photo was on top of his columns, and my first impression was, “holy crap, what a mean-looking man!”
Carlos wasn’t a complicated guy, and his positions on the way the world ought to be didn’t confuse him. He mainly just wanted everybody…everybody…to be able to sit at the grown-ups’ table, and continually seemed astounded at the stiff opposition to that seemingly-simple value. For the newspaper, he wrote about inequities and indignities. He pounded out column after column, hoping to change a mind, or soften a hardened heart, crafting his pieces as observation, and along the way carefully taking his ideas to the limit of what he thought his editors would print.
In our personal conversations, he expressed great frustration that people were continually beat down, out of reach of real opportunity, and that it usually had everything to do with money and greed. After he left the Express-News, he put a lot of effort into another idea he had – a scholarship fund he initiated, hoping that educating kids from families of modest means would expand that grown-ups’ table. He started calling me more often, discussing his frustration with Republican policy initiatives which had the effect of taking away what little opportunity somebody living behind the 8-ball might have, and equal frustration with Democrats’ inability to motivate Latinos and use that motivation to win elections. He always had plenty of ideas on how to address the challenges, they all just required funding he didn’t have.
The older he became, the more value he saw in the young, and knew that persuading the next generation would win the war faster than changing the hardened minds of those already established. The old warrior kept writing what needed to be written, and, amusingly, he discovered the power of social and online media. His later musings appeared in the Texas Observer and in NewsTaco.com, an online publication of which he was among the founders.
His great frustration – that not everybody was allowed at the grown-ups’ table – finally hit home toward the end of his career at the Express-News. Distraught, he called me a couple of years ago and said, “Harold, they’re trying to get rid of me.” Maybe bean-counters at the newspaper (and virtually every other newspaper) had decided that the most important journalism is the kind that sells ads, and Carlos Guerra didn’t fit the bill. Maybe they were just trying to reduce personnel costs, and he was collateral damage. Maybe he rubbed the powers-that-be the wrong way. It was probably all of the above. Within a year, they’d bought him out and he was gone. He never complained, at least not to me.
Several months ago, I drove to San Antonio and had more-than-a-few-drinks with him, during which we almost surely solved most if not all of the world’s problems, only to be unable to recall our solutions once sobriety returned. All evening long, he shot out idea after idea, seeking input and advice on how something might work, toward the goal of getting more little guys at the grown-ups’ table.
A week and a half ago, he called me while I was stuck in Austin traffic, so I had plenty of time to talk. He wanted to come to Austin and continue our discussion. Sadly, the meeting never happened.
Carlos Guerra never ran out of ideas. He just ran out of time.
Rest in peace, buddy.