Chapter 2 The Rumpled Angels of the Slums: 1932 to 1953
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
Father Tranchese, originally from Naples, had studied in Malta, Wales, and Italy before arriving in the United States as a missionary in 1911 – the same year Guadalupe Parish had been established. He ministered in Albuquerque, El Paso, Poughkeepsie, and San Jose, developing a reputation as a reformer and crusader for social justice, before arriving at the San Antonio assignment where he would leave his deepest and most lasting mark.
82,000 Mexican Americans lived in San Antonio in 1932, generally scorned by the rest of the city’s moneyed German-American population and living in general squalor. Windowless, tin-walled, dirt-floored shanties with no indoor plumbing and muddy streets that became impassable when it rained, the Guadalupe slums were among the worst in the United States. The San Antonio Housing Authority surveyed half of the barrio’s Mexican-American households and found 90% to be substandard; 72% of the city’s cases of tuberculosis occurred in Guadalupe Parish, giving San Antonio the worst rate of deaths by TB in the United States; and the Great Depression ravaged the neighborhood as hard as anywhere, compelling the executives of the three major pecan-shelling companies, which were responsible for most of the immigrants’ jobs, to adopt mechanized labor and lay off workers by the thousands. At two of the three companies, workers were denied the right to a minimum wage, and none of the employees were granted the right to unionize.
The poverty on the West Side was the worst Father Tranchese had ever seen, and it moved him profoundly. “A huge mass of humanity emerging out of little shacks wrung my heart,” he wrote in a private journal. “Pale, emaciated faces of the children playing in the dust without laughter in their hearts or on their lips haunted me at night.” Tranchese leapt to action. Over the course of the 1930s, he established and directed the Guadalupe Community Center (which exists to this day), which provided recreational and educational programs in a neighborhood profoundly lacking in public spaces. Perhaps its most important initiative was a health clinic staffed by doctors whom Tranchese recruited from more affluent areas and sponsored by the Bexar County Tuberculosis Association. The clinic offered vaccinations and classes on health and sanitation. It cut tubercular deaths in half in its first ten years of operation, and perhaps more abstractly, signified the beginnings of civil interest in this long-neglected and despised little neighborhood.
In the late 1930s, he became increasingly political and vocal, lending his support to massive pecan shellers’ strikes in 1935 and 1938; coordinating local produce merchants to stock a food pantry whose bread lines served as de facto labor meetings for the unemployed or disgruntled workers who waited there; bringing the attention of the Catholic Relief Association to the barrio and winning 1800 new jobs from the federal Works Progress Administration in 1939; and publicizing all these activities in a weekly newspaper, La Voz de la Parroquia, which he began in 1935 and which became so popular that the Archdiocese eventually bought it out and distributed it all over Texas.
His advocacy on behalf of the poor earned him the enmity of industrial bosses, anonymous death threats, and petitions for his removal sent to the archbishop. A number of landlords joined the ranks of Tranchese’s detractors as the priest turned his attention to the biggest problem of all – that of substandard housing, which was at the root of all the barrio’s crime and sanitation problems. If this segment of the population resented him, however, he found himself earning the love of his parishioners, who nicknamed him their padrecito, and the respect of none less than the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, who initiated a years-long correspondence with a 1935 letter asking him his professional opinion about the situation of the Guadalupe slums.
Tranchese, personally and spiritually close to the poor, was an equally shrewd advocate on their behalf in circles of power. His experience building bridges with city officials had prepared him to take advantage of the president’s recognition. He plied the president’s desk with a stream of letters and photographs detailing the parish area’s poverty, so that when Roosevelt started exploring options for low-rent public housing projects and signed the Wagner-Steagall National Housing Act on September 1, 1937, Tranchese was at the top of Roosevelt’s list of recipients for federal funding for these new urban initiatives. Nathan Straus, newly appointed administrator of the United States Housing Authority, authorized $3.5 million in funds for the construction, in Guadalupe parish, of one the first public housing projects in American history. This groundbreaking initiative nearly failed; before the government-funded construction could begin, the San Antonio Housing Authority (on whose five-member executive board sat Father Tranchese) had to buy the desired lots from greedy landowners who disliked Tranchese and didn’t want to relinquish control to such a project. When the landowners demanded exorbitantly high prices for their land, Straus canceled the loan.
Tranchese was alarmed, but not deterred. Not content to settle for defeat, he went straight to the top, imploring the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to visit the barrio herself and assess the neighborhood’s needs. Amazingly, she did. In 1937 Father Tranchese escorted her on a tour of the muddy, dirty streets, and after her departure, continued writing letters that detailed the number of funerals he had to conduct per month (several dozen) and begging the Roosevelts’ renowned humanitarian sympathies. Finally, the First Lady asked Straus to pay whatever it would cost to recommission the housing projects — under condition that landowners’ demands would have to be bargained down in the future if additional projects were to be built.
And so the Alazan, Apache, Wheatley, Victoria, and Lincoln Heights Courts came into being. Rent in the Alazan-Apache complex averaged $7.00 / month, and although attention to and funding of public housing was temporarily redirected to apartment complexes built for veterans near the city’s military bases during World War II, some seven decades later the Alazan-Apache Courts have retained their reputation as one of the most affordable, best designed, and safest public housing complexes in the United States.
With this victory under his belt, Father Tranchese plowed on, emphasizing the spiritual heritage of a rapidly modernizing Mexican-American community in the years after the war. He translated a shepherd’s play, Los Pastores, into English and began the tradition of producing it yearly. But the “rumpled angel of the slums,” as he was referred to in a 1948 Saturday Evening Post profile by William Sessions Perry, was aging rapidly. He suffered a stress-induced breakdown in 1953, and was sent by his superiors to St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. He died there three years later, of a heart attack, on July 13.