Episode 05: Henry Cisneros

The Strategerist Podcast

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros discusses what makes San Antonio special and how its welcoming culture can be a model for the nation.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros discusses what makes San Antonio special, how its welcoming culture can be a model for the nation, and why this generation will be better off than the last. He also shares a personal story about how and why he helped a Dreamer.

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Read the episode transcript



Read the episode transcript


00:00 Andrew Kaufmann (AK): Thank you so much, Secretary Cisneros, for joining us today. We really appreciated it.


00:04 Henry Cisneros (HC): Andrew, glad to be with you.


00:05 AK: We’re also with Laura Collins, who is our director in the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. Laura, thank you for helping out today.


00:13 Laura Collins (LC): Thanks, Andrew. Mr. Secretary, you hail from one of my favorite cities in Texas, San Antonio. Can you give us a couple of words about why you think San Antonio is so special and what’s so special about it to you?


00:23 HC: Well, I’m glad you like it. I hear frequently from people that San Antonio is their favorite place. And we have a little mantra in San Antonio that says, “Every Texan has two homes, where they live today and San Antonio.” So, I’m glad to hear that maybe that applies in your case a bit. What makes it special, I think, aside from the blessing of topography, and the River Walk, and the history that has been maintained, so it doesn’t have the feel of glass structures and canyons of modern buildings. But for the longest time, we built in the local native stone, so it has a kind of warmth. And we describe it as a kind of human scale development, so people are not dwarfed by traditional urban settings. And it’s just different in that respect. Those are some of the things that make it special. But what really truly makes it special is the consensus that we built around integration of cultures, around tolerance and understanding. And so there is, I think it’s fair to say, a San Antonio culture that is different from American culture generally, or even Texas culture. It’s San Antonio, and it’s uniquely so.


01:46 AK: What made it? Where did that come from?


01:49 HC: Well, I think it comes from people living together for a long time. It was an indigenous place originally. In fact, the original name was Yanaguana given by the Native Americans who lived there for 500 years before the Spaniards ever arrived. And Yanaguana meant “the place of the peaceful water.” So, what we enjoy now, the River Walk, was a peaceful watering place for Native American migratory tribes for years. And you still find, when construction is done along the river, pottery shards, and where there were camp fires, and so forth. So, it had the indigenous period, the Spanish period, which left a great influence. The five Spanish missions there were just named a national UNESCO Heritage Site. Of course, it was part of Mexico in that period, after Mexican independence, and then became an important part of Texas. It was the largest city in Texas until the 1930s, when Dallas supplanted it, and then later Houston. We are now the second largest city in the state in city population but… So, there’s a real sense of people having lived together for a long time, and then we’ve worked at it.


03:07 HC: On my watch, as mayor, I never appointed a city commission that wasn’t tripartite, traditional Texan, Latino and African-American. We went to great lengths to create a sense of consensus on policy and mutual respect. Let me close just by saying the theme of the world’s fair, that was held there in 1968 called Hemisphere, was the confluence of cultures. And so that’s been just an important part of our DNA.


03:39 LC: Yeah. I think that really describes San Antonio quite well. And it’s such a quintessentially American city in that way, and that there is that confluence of cultures.


03:46 HC: Well, we think it’s the quintessential future American city, because not all American cities are that way or have been that way. But our recent mayor, Julian Castro, basically used to say, “This is what America will look like in the future.” So, it’s more aspirational and pointing to the future in that respect.


04:08 AK: Well, what you were describing, too, you were mayor in the early ’80s…


04:12 HC: All of the ’80s.


04:13 AK: Is that really ahead of its time?


04:18 HC: It was at the end of a period of great tumult, and division, and confusion about who we were and where we were going. San Antonia was, until 1930, as I said, the largest city in Texas. And then it lost its position because it became a place that was very provincial, conservative, and did not keep up with the petroleum developments in Houston, the banking developments in Dallas, and fell behind. And there was a time when the leadership of the city actually was selling the fact that it was poor as a reason for business to come, because there would be low wages that… And they were opposed to newcomers and opposed to unions. And they had a pretty rigid power structure. So, when I ran for mayor in 1981, the traditional model of a San Antonio Mayor was a 60-ish man who had punched all the buttons of the Chamber of Commerce, etcetera. And here I come as a 33-year-old Hispanic university professor, pretty different than the model, and I came with ideas. I had training as a White House fellow in Washington, Kennedy School, at Harvard and such, as well as Texas A&M and…




05:39 AK: For the Aggies out there.


05:40 LC: I like that part.


05:41 HC: Well, it was an important part of my formation, because A&M had a tradition of being the place that trained the people who do things like build roads, and do the agricultural work. A&M agricultural and mechanical, it was the land-grant. So, there was a real tradition since The Depression, that this was the place where you actually had the people who worked, built, engineered, constructed. And that’s an important part of my view of how the world works. In any event, when I got elected, we really went out of our way to create that sense of consensus. Some of it is natural and some of it is encouraged, but it’s become the dominant way of doing business in San Antonio. And as I said, the Anglo-San Antonians love Mexican food and…




06:39 LC: As they should.


06:40 HC: And Latinos love country and western music. It’s just a real mix.




06:47 AK: It’s the way it should be. You mentioned a little bit that you were mayor. You were actually a 33-year-old mayor.


06:52 HC: Correct.


06:53 AK: If a 33-year-old walked up to you today and said, “I’m gonna run for mayor,” what would you tell them?


06:57 HC: I’d say, “Go for it.” We’ve had a number of young mayors in the period since I was. And it’s a great thing we have young members of the city council. In fact, I would say that, from what I have seen today, that the generational gap is greater because of what technology has given young people in terms of tools, and understandings, and access to information instantly that older generations don’t have. And so, in some ways, a 33-year-old today is probably what a 50-year-old was in the past in terms of just knowledge and access and experience, because technology makes that so. And every once in a while somebody will come up to me and complain about what they want to accomplish, but they haven’t because they’re too young, because they’re 33. And I say, “By the time he was 33, Alexander the Great had conquered all of the known world. And by the time He was 33, Jesus Christ had built a religion that’s lasted for 2000 years. So, don’t tell me you’re too young.”




08:06 LC: Well, I’m older than 33, so you’re making me feel like a quitter.


08:10 AnK: Yeah. What have I gotten done?




08:12 LC: I wanna head back on this generational point though because I’m a millennial, and while I feel like I haven’t had to delay a lot of life milestones, there are data that suggest that millennials are not going to be as well-off as their parents were. You’ve lived the American dream. You’ve had an incredible career and lots of interesting experiences. How do we make sure that millennials and the generation coming after and successive generations are able to live the American dream as well?


08:45 HC: That’s a big question with a lot of policy dimensions to it. We have to continue to keep the country strong economically, because that is the juice that fuels everything. And then we have to harness that growth and make it work for people in education, through good housing policy that allows people to buy a home instead of having so much of our housing stock unaffordable. And we have to focus on keeping a fluid system, a class system, so we’re not overly rigid, then lock people into roles, including spatial segregation and those sorts of things. But I frankly would quarrel with the premise that this generation may not be as well-off as previous generations, because really fundamentally that’s up to us, that’s something we can determine. And I think we are a progressive nation that is intent on creating a better life, and I personally believe we will find the ways to do that. We’re too ambitious, impatient, driven, able to exploit opportunities, and there’s just huge opportunities in the world.


10:08 HC: So, when I see young people who create companies, without ever having gone to college, like Microsoft Gates, and Facebook, etcetera, and then I see young people today who are running their companies, and they’re on top of the world at 30 years of age… I know that’s not the masses, and we’ve gotta do a great… Do a much better job of creating a broader economy, but I think we will get there. I’m optimistic, and I think the American progression that says “better health, longer life spans, more accomplishment, higher incomes, better quality of life” is alive and progressing.


10:57 LC: Yeah. You mentioned that entrepreneurial spirit that I think is really important to us as a nation.


11:03 HC: I think there’s something fundamentally happening with your generation on entrepreneurship. Less and less people wanna work in corporate settings, and less and less wanna be cogs in the machine. They want to accomplish something. And my reading of the younger generation is not only are they very smart, and well-educated, and well-prepared, but they are unsatisfied in being pigeon-holed. And you put all of that together and unleash that spirit, powerful things will be done, all kinds of… I’m the one who’s confused, not your generation. When I look at the names of new companies and what they do in cities, just in Texas, and it’s like, “Hey, the ship’s left. It’s gone.”


11:48 AK: Well, what’s so great about this generation, too, is when you look at a lot of these companies that are forming, the old models that you create, this successful company, then you build your corporate social responsibility department, and you’re trying to get back, and so many of these young companies now, from day one, they’re committed to not… They’re making a profit and being successful, but also giving back in some way. And that’s a part of the mission from day one, which is unique.


11:48 HC: You’re exactly right. I meant to say that earlier, so I’m glad you picked up on it. But the truth of the matter is many of the companies are formed because there is a social need to be met. And, frankly, Dr. Toyoda once told me… San Antonio has one of the largest Toyota plants in the world. And I worked closely with Dr. Toyoda directly, the founder’s grandson, and he said, “The Toyota way is find a need and then meet it, and you will be successful economically as well as performing a social function. So, when they determined that we needed to have cars that were not purely internal combustion, they weren’t able to get all the way to an electric car in the first step, but they got halfway with the Prius, and they met the market’s desire for that product, and it’s been a very successful product. And they will go to the next step to all electric. It’s an example of the way a lot of young people think today, and I think that is one of the… When I see polls and surveys of what millennials think, that’s always one of the first points that comes up.


13:19 LC: We have a very special population of millennials and younger in the United States, and a very big portion of them live in the State of Texas, and you have some personal experience with one of them, a DREAMer. Can you tell me a little bit about… You took in a DREAMer for a number of years.


13:36 HC: That’s true.


13:37 LC: Yes. Can you tell me a little bit about that?


13:38 HC: Well, it was an interesting thing. I got a call from a professor at a community college in east Texas, who said, “I have a young man who’s written a historic essay. I submitted it,” the professor said, “into a state-wide competition, and he won the best history paper award for the State of Texas, and it’s about you. It’s about your work as mayor, and it’s about the underlying philosophy of what you were trying to accomplish.” And I said, “Well, that’s interesting. I’d love to meet him. I’d love to see the paper.” I read it. I said, “This is the best piece that’s been done on what I tried to do.” It had more insight and understood really where I was coming from better than any magazine articles or major essays that have been written. So, I said, “I’d love to meet him.”


14:26 HC: And when I met him, I said… They brought him to town. He was in Houston for the award, and he and the professor drove over to San Antonio. Great professor, obviously. This is a person who cared about the student. I said, “Well, you’re a very good writer. What do you wanna be, a journalist? You could be in politics yourself.” And he said, “I wanna be an engineer.” I said, “Well, what are your grades like in science and math? “All A’s.” “Where are you gonna to college, beyond the community college?” “I don’t know. I don’t know anything about the next steps. The community college takes me so far.” I said, “Well, if you come to San Antonio, we’ll work to get you into UT San Antonio, where I helped create the engineering school, and then I’ll help you figure out where you’re gonna live and such.”


15:16 LC: At what point did you find out he was undocumented? I guess I should back up, for those listening that didn’t know what DREAMers are. They’re undocumented.


15:20 HC: I think I knew right there in that conversation. He told me that he came across the Rio Grande on a tire tread at 6 years old with his mother. And here’s the interesting story. They went to Dallas and lived in a very, very overcrowded housing conditions. His mother worked a full-time job. His father worked a full-time job. One morning, on the way to work, an 18-wheeler T-boned the car, killed his mother and a sister in the car. And his father was hurt, had his leg mangled, so he was now disabled.


15:56 AK: Right. And he can’t work.


15:57 HC: Right, couldn’t work. But they lived in a garage, a tin garage with a concrete floor, and showered at the YMCA. But he had straight A’s.


16:09 LC: That’s incredible.




16:12 HC: And straight A’s through college. So, we got him into college and the straight A’s continued. In fact, the only time I ever saw him despondent was when he got a B plus in an… And the dean told me he can’t do this because he hasn’t had engineering courses. He’s been at community college. He had math and other preparation, but not engineering courses. He’s gonna have to take five engineering courses a semester.


16:40 AK: That’s a heavy load.


16:41 HC: Nobody has ever been able to do that, all A’s.


16:43 LC: When you think about what he was able to accomplish given his circumstances, and the debate that we have currently about that population and immigration as a whole, and the illegal immigration population as a whole, what do you think…


16:58 HC: For me it goes beyond anger, it goes beyond a sense of shame that our country would behave this way. It actually hurts because I’ve come to so admire that spirit, not just that young man, but that spirit in a number of people that I’ve met who are the so-called DREAMers. They came here with their parents, they’re driven by the will to succeed, they’re smart, they apply themselves, they live by a code that says, “We owe back to the society and our family.” And they’re just a cut above. They’re very, very good. So, it’s very, very painful to see the human toll that would be imposed upon them if that generation was required to go back to Mexico where, by the way, there’s no more family, there’s no more connection, you just drop them on the floor of a… On the street of a city in Mexico and say, “Make it on your own,” when we need that talent here. This young man is now an engineer in an automotive plant, and gets all kinds of quality awards for what he does. We need that talent.


18:18 AK: When we were preparing for this, Ioanna sent around… Our producer sent around a video of you, and you start the video by saying… This was a year or two ago. You started by saying that you’re an optimist. And you mentioned earlier that you’re an optimist, and we love optimism as an organization. We feel like President Bush is an optimist. And so you say that, and yet you say you are also an optimist. Where does your optimism come from? What is the drive of that feel?


18:43 HC: Well, I’m an optimist because I just… I’m a student of history, and I see the, as Dr. King used to say, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I think it bends toward human betterment, it bends toward progress, it bends toward a better quality of life. And that’s been the story of our country. If this was not a country of optimists, then how in the world do you describe people who weathered an ocean trip to get here, to cold weather, and forge communities in the east out of the rocky soil of New England? How do you describe people who get in a covered wagon and start from the east, and make their way across St. Louis, and out across the Great Plains? This is a country of people who have optimistically built things. How do you describe a place, like where I went to school at Texas A&M, a land-grant which was created in the Morrill Act of 1862? In the heart of the Civil War, the people said, “When it’s over, we’re gonna have to build this country. And we’re gonna need engineers, and we’re gonna need teachers, and we’re gonna need animal husbanders, etcetera.”


19:58 HC: And so they put it… They built a college. And what is a college if it’s not an act of faith in the future? What’s the whole point of the expenditures, and the staffing, and the preparation if it’s not about building a better future? So, I just have great faith in humankind, but especially an American humankind, because I think we’re just endowed with that sense of extra energy applied to ambition, and entrepreneurship, and family, and so forth.


20:34 LC: We’ve mentioned A&M a couple of times now, I’m not an Aggie, but my perception from you… I have two questions for you on this. One is substantive, one is a little silly. But my perception from the outside is that it is a place that instills a sense of service and leadership.


20:51 HC: I think that’s true.


20:53 LC: How did that inform your public rep?


20:55 AK: Well, very much. I was in a place where everybody around me was headed toward doing practical things, building things. And as I say that engineering… The civil engineering department is the people who build the roads in Texas, and animal husbanders are the people who go out and feed us in the farm and ranch system of Texas. And so it’s a very practical kind of place. I was a junior… I was actually a senior in 1968, and that was one of the most tumultuous years in American life. The Vietnam War was raging, there were protests on the street, President Johnson stepped down. In April, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. The cities were burning. And so in my head, knowing that I wanted to be of service, and I thought it would be in some institutional role, like the military or the state department, all of a sudden, it became obvious to me this would be a contributing life to be involved in the urban affairs of the country, and building our cities, and dealing with this issue of how we’re gonna bring people together. And there are very few people who can say they’ve been as fortunate as I have, which is what I started out to do in college, I’ve done for the rest of my life, which is over 50 years now of involvement in the same field of building cities, and building communities, and trying to help people advance.


22:40 LC: My silly question is A&M has a beautiful mascot named Reveille.


22:46 HC: Yes.


22:46 LC: Do you think you could possibly hook us up with a visit? [laughter] Because I know I love dolls, and I think that would be a big kick here in the office. She’s beautiful.


22:53 HC: It depends on where you went to school, because they take real good care of Reveille and they don’t let anybody near her.


23:00 AK: Reveille would love the native Texas park in the…


23:03 LC: Yes. Reveille would love the park we have back here, lots of place to roam.


23:06 HC: We’ll work on it.


23:06 LC: Okay, thank you.


23:07 HC: Our final question we want to wrap with is a little bit on a different track. What is no one talking about that you think they should be talking about in this country?


23:18 HC: Well, I don’t know that no one is talking about it, but I do think we need to do a better job of finding out how we’re going to work together, finding the dialogue, finding the language by which we can empathize, put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and try to get this country back on a track where we’re working together for positive things. We’re so divided at the moment, and so just willing to shout at each other across the ramparts, and everybody holds every one of their desires closely and then fights for it. Compromise is no longer our language, and I just think you can’t build a society that way. You can win a political battle momentarily, and then you’ve planted seeds of division that will come back in the next election. We just kind of lost the sense of how do you build consensus, how do you take 85% of what you want or 75% of what you want instead of absolutely holding up for 100% of what you have to have or think you have to have. I think we need to seriously talk about the dialogue, the settings, the venues, the systems we’re gonna use to try to come together as a society.


24:47 HC: That’s why our cities are so important, because they are literally the cauldron where people have to live together. You’ll find these great divisions on national policy, but you also find people working together to improve their local schools, or to pass local bond issues, or to focus on some local project like a library or something. And that’s why I think our cities are maybe the places where we learn, re-learn civics that we need to.


25:22 LC: And you know that cities are where we touch government more.


25:22 HC: Absolutely. Absolutely. I used to say… I’ve worked in Washington and you’re a long way from the nation’s problems, or you can escape to Austin as a state representative or a state senator. But if you’re a city council member, or a local school board member, you walk out of your office and you’re smack in the middle of the problems. Homelessness was not a distraction for me because between my office as a mayor and my car, I would encounter a homeless person.


25:54 LC: Yeah. Yeah.


25:56 AK: Well, Secretary Cisneros, this was great. Thank you so much for putting the time aside in your busy day to spend a little time with us.


26:02 HC: Thank you for doing this, and thank you to the Bush Institute. I’m a great fan of the Bush family. It is my own sense of bi-partisanship to appreciate really what president Bush did, HW Bush, and then President George Bush as well. What is it, 41 and 43?


26:23 AK: Forty-one and 43, yeah.


26:24 HC: Right. I was asked by the first President Bush as mayor, called me on a Tuesday afternoon and said, “President Reagan has asked me to put together a small working group for Mikhail Gorbachev. This was 1987 or so. And he said, “I want you to come up, and I want you to be the person who presents on our cities and our system of intergovernmental relations. Can you do it on Thursday?” He asked me Tuesday. I was able to get there. And so I met at the Russian Embassy with the president, then Vice President Bush, vice president, and Mrs. Bush, Barbara Bush, and the five or so other people that they had put around the table to talk to Gorbachev. That was a very kind thing of him to do, and no one could have been more encouraging than Mrs. Bush after that session. And it wasn’t partisan. She said, “Look, I know you’re not a Republican, but we need to have more people saying the kinds of things you’re saying. And I’m glad that you’re here and responded to this invitation to speak to Gorbachev, President Gorbachev.” That’s the kind of people that the Bushes were. They had a broad view, and I think subsequent President Bush, George W. Bush, also brought a great sense of understanding about the world that’s reflected in this institute and this library.


Hosted by
Learn more about Andrew Kaufmann.
Andrew Kaufmann
Director, Communications and Marketing
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Learn more about Laura Collins.
Laura Collins
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute
Produced by
Learn more about Ioanna Papas.
Ioanna Papas
Director, Communications
George W. Bush Institute