Lessons From Life : Speaking From Experience, Cabinet’s First Latino Will Put Education’s Focus on Minorities

Times Staff Writer

Lauro Cavazos Jr., the first Latino member of an American presidential cabinet, glanced around his new workplace, taking in its dimensions.

The new secretary of education estimated his office is about the same size as the one-room schoolhouse on the 825,000-acre King Ranch in Texas where he started his education 50 years ago with other Latino children of ranch workers.

“It was just a little bigger but not much. One row was the first grade, and one row was the second grade. It was all in English,” Cavazos said, chuckling as he recalled a room filled with Latino children, all battling with a difficult second language, seeing humor in the ridiculousness of it.

Tiny though it may have been, that first school gave Cavazos an early taste of an obsession of his parents, a cattle foreman with the rough equivalent of a high school education and a homemaker who had never gone beyond the third grade.


What Lauro Cavazos Sr. and his wife, Tomasa, wanted more than anything else for their family was an education. It was the legacy they left their five children, all of whom now have at least one college degree.

It now also has become the national passion of Lauro Cavazos Jr., the first Latino president of Texas Tech University, who at age 61 has found himself running the U.S. Department of Education.

“My father was a man of great wisdom, great intellect, great foresight,” Cavazos said. “Just because one isn’t educated doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an awful lot of intellect.”

The importance of education, especially for minorities, is a message Cavazos hopes to pass along in his five-month tenure, especially in the next month as he campaigns across the Southwest for George Bush.


His travel schedule starts with events this week in Texas and next week in Southern California. Cavazos then goes on to Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona before the Nov. 8 election.

Cavazos’ campaigning likely will remind critics of the controversy that surrounded his selection to replace his outspoken predecessor, William Bennett.

Chosen from a list with only Latinos on it, Cavazos won praise for his qualifications. But critics also assailed the White House for using his appointment to make a blatantly political play for Latino and Texas votes.

Reagan Ploy

Rep. Albert Bustamante, the Texas Democrat who heads the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said President Reagan’s appointment of a Latino cabinet member was a “big ploy to try to help Bush.”

But Bustamante quickly added that he so admires Cavazos that he will recommend he be retained in the next Administration, regardless of who wins. “It’s just too bad this appointment was made for political reasons,” he said.

The National Education Assn. has likened Cavazos’ late hiring to “a substitute teaching appointment. He will not have tremendous impact on the outcome of educational policies,” it said in a statement.

Conceding his scheduled time in the job might be brief, Cavazos hopes he can “set a tone” that will carry into the new Administration, whether it is Republican or Democratic.


Cavazos is apolitical, those who have known him a long time said. Last March, he voted Democratic in Texas’ open primary, he said, noting: “I tend to vote in the Democratic primary most of the time. I look at the candidates on the thing and in those cases I thought these were the better candidates, so I voted for them.”

That leaves hanging the implication that he thought Democratic candidates were superior to Bush and the Republicans’ cohorts. But Cavazos--who before his nomination had said he was retiring from his $143,000-a-year job as Texas Tech president for a sabbatical before returning to teaching--deftly sweeps aside an inquiry about whether he would like to serve in a Dukakis Administration.

He insisted, repeatedly, that he is focused now only on what he can do before Reagan leaves office in January.

He said he thought hard before deciding to accept the cabinet job, which pays $99,500 a year. Despite the political controversy that surrounded it, he wanted the post because “at least this gives me a national platform, a forum to say some things we deeply care about.

“I’m a scientist. And as I think about this thing, I really cannot say, ‘Yes, it was politically motivated,’ or ‘No, it was not.’ But I can say it’s an opportunity to serve. It’s a chance to do something that only comes to a handful of people. And I guarantee you I’m qualified.”

Cavazos’ dedication to educating minorities never has been in question. He has been honored by prominent Latino and education groups; he is backed by Republicans and Democrats.

Cavazos credits his parents for plotting his remarkable journey from the schoolhouse to the Cabinet, an educational path that took many a twist and turn.

His father, he noted, worked on the ranch seven days a week without vacation for 43 years. He had to dodge Mexican bounty hunters, who were seeking the $25 price put on his head after his rough dealings with raiders from across the border. Disgusted that his bounty was so low, Lauro Cavazos Sr. and other ranch hands fended off the hunters and bandits in gunfights. Cavazos’ mother, Tomasa, born on the ranch, gave birth to her five children at home.


Cavazos’ parents led a hard life and wanted more for their children, a future extending beyond the Rhode Island-sized King Ranch.

His father worked at his dream, insisting that his children speak to him in English, though they talked to their mother in Spanish. And when Cavazos Jr. was in about the third grade in the ranch school where “my aunt was the teacher” and “you could pull a drape across and it became a two-room schoolhouse,” his father decided his children needed better.

Built House in Texas

“He decided we would go to school in town three miles away,” Cavazos said. “That may seem like a simple thing, but this must have been around 1935. And there were three schools in Kingsville, Tex., one for the Anglos, one for the Hispanics and one for the blacks. The one for the Anglos was the closest to the ranch, and was the best, frankly.”

His father “did not literally . . . kick down the schoolhouse door to get his children in,” Cavazos recalled. But he did break a barrier, for his children became the first Latinos in the white school.

Was that difficult? Cavazos laughed in a manner suggesting that was an understatement. “In those days there were some things,” he said, pausing. He decided not to go into it, saying, “children are children.”

Cavazos noted that his father later “built a house in town. . . . It wasn’t until years later that it finally dawned on me what he had done. He had built that house within two blocks of the grade school, within three blocks of the high school and two blocks of Texas A&I; College. He had it all figured out.”

His father also figured that gentle persuasion sometimes worked better than unflinching force to guide an errant child. After high school, Cavazos served in the military.

On the day he came home, his father picked him up at the bus station. His father asked him what he wanted to do next, to which Cavazos replied: “I think I’d like to be a commercial fisherman.”

His father said nothing but as they drove past Texas A&I;, he said: “I think tomorrow we should go there and have a talk.”

Baiting a Hook

Cavazos’ aspiration to spend his life baiting a hook turned out to be short-lived. He enrolled at Texas A&I;, transferred to Texas Tech and was graduated in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. He obtained a master’s degree in cytology from Texas Tech and a Ph.D. in physiology from Iowa State.

He is the author or co-author of about 75 publications on the physiology of reproduction, the structure of cells and medical education. Although he is not a medical doctor, he was dean of the Tufts University School of Medicine before becoming Texas Tech president in 1980, the first alumnus to do so.

Two other Cavazos children also have gained national recognition: Bobby Cavazos, a former All-American football player, owns his own ranch; Richard Cavazos became the Army’s first Latino general and retired with four stars.

As education secretary, Cavazos already has spoken out in favor of bilingual education, a position that many had seen the Administration tilting away from.

He also has vowed to seek an increase in his agency’s $18.4-billion 1988 budget.

But he draws the line at suggesting new government programs or offering specific comments regarding controversial Reagan Administration positions on college loans, tuition tax credits or merit pay for teachers.

Cavazos, cast as a fence-mender who will soothe some of the feelings bruised by his vocal and controversial predecessor, does not specify how he may be similar to or different from Bennett.

Bennett Criticism

(Bennett was unrelenting in criticizing teachers and administrators. He called school bureaucracy “a blob” and characterized the curriculum of black ghetto schools as “Jim Crow math and back-of-the-bus science.” He angered many at Stanford by attacking changes in a required Western civilization course, saying the school had bowed to intimidation by blacks, Latinos and women.)

In an interview, Cavazos was relaxed and affable, sitting near a wall of empty bookshelves. He and his wife, Peggy, have taken an apartment in Washington and have not had time to unpack. Their 10 children, ages 21-31, are scattered nationwide. Nine of them have earned college degrees, he offered proudly.

Cavazos said he hopes to relate to Latinos in American barrios, even though he is not a product of them himself.

The rise of the Cavazos family came at a time of great opportunity for lower-class Americans and descendants of immigrants. The situation is different now, but Cavazos said “it is still possible,” for Latinos trapped in poverty to better their lives as he and his family did.

“The most serious problem in America today is people dropping out and not completing their education,” he said. “About 30% to 45% of Hispanics will not complete high school. Only 7% will complete a university degree, less than 2% will get a graduate degree. It’s a disaster.”

Economics, pregnancy, drugs, alcohol and lack of motivation are all factors in the dropout rate, Cavazos said. But also, “Sometimes I feel that for some reason we Hispanics do not value education. No longer is education the driving force and I don’t know why.”

Minority Attendance

At Texas Tech, his efforts to encourage minority attendance resulted in an increased Latino enrollment of 6.3% in 1987 from 3.6% in 1980, and a rise in black enrollment from 1.8% to 2.4%.

To duplicate this feat nationwide, Cavazos said he believes the federal government should act as a facilitator, coordinating local efforts. His own role will be to use his national platform to try to “reawaken in every child in this country the thirst, the cry, the hunger for education, and have that be reinforced by parents, by teachers, by administrators at every level.”

This is not an easy task, Cavazos knows: “A couple years ago, I was at a school in Lubbock that was predominantly Hispanic and black. I was talking to sixth-graders about staying in school. This young man raised his hand, a little Hispanic fellow, and he said, ‘Doctor, what do you tell your parents when they tell you it is now time to quit school and go to work?’

“It was a devastating question to me personally. I know it’s true. When I think about growing up on the ranch and the influence my parents had on shaping me and my brothers and sister, clearly we need strong parental guidance. We need grandmothers, I guess, and grandfathers. But what I’m getting at is I feel we have lost some of that and people are dropping out.”

After Cavazos became president of Texas Tech, he said he gave about 60 speeches to local Latino groups, the gist of which was, “This is shameful. Drag your kids to school.”

“But nobody listens to university presidents,” he said. “And I’m not sure they’ll listen to the secretary of education either.”

Cavazos, however, figures that as the first Latino education secretary on the campaign trail he will have more chances for people not to listen to him. And maybe a few of them will.