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/ Research / Oral Histories / John Barrientes

John Barrientes

Tape 1

Date: May 22, 2012
Interviewers: Sal Valadez


Note: Interviewers questions are in bold italics

Your name is John Barrientes and you are originally from where, John?

Texas.  Hondo, Texas.

Hondo, Texas.  And your father’s name was?

Roberto; and my mother’s name was Aurelia Medina Barrientes. 

And you have brothers and sisters?

Yes.  Two brothers and four sisters. 

And what are the names of your surviving siblings?

Celia, Emily, Tommy, and Norma

So, you grew up in Hondo, Texas.

I was born in Hondo.

At the time, we had a family grocery store which depended heavily on business from people working at an Air Force base located in Hondo. After the war the base closed down and our business suffered. Ultimately we had to close down the grocery store .When I was about 5 years old our family moved to San Antonio, Texas and there is where I grew up.

As far as your family is concerned, can you tell us a little of the history as you know it?

I don’t know whether my great-grandparents lived in what is now Texas or whether they lived in Mexico and then came to Texas. The only history that I know is that my great-grandparents were living in the town of Eagle Pass Texas and later moved to Hondo.

It was in Hondo where my great grandparents started a small business. They started selling produce and eventually that business grew into other businesses. The Barrientes family was large and my father and his brothers all had businesses. It was a nice flourishing business until that base closed.

After we moved to San Antonio our family struggled to make ends meet. We moved from place to place. My father had several low paying jobs and we barely got by with a family of seven kids. My oldest sister quit high school in order to help out the family. She did a great job and I am very grateful to her for paying my parochial school tuition. This was a pivotal point for me as I received a very good education at the elementary school level. It also gave me the encouragement to continue my education.

Where did you go to high school?

I went to Holy Cross High School. Which was a new school located on the west side of town --.  I was one of the original thirty that graduated from that school.  I went there because tuition was more affordable than the other Catholic high schools. But I did have to work after school and weekends to help pay the tuition.

It worked out well…Holy Cross High School was an excellent college prep school .I became more determined in going to college. I don’t believe I would have gone to college if I had gone to a public school.

After I graduated from high school I decided to go to Saint Mary’s University located in San Antonio .It was and still is a small university of about 3000 students. An interesting part of attending this university was that ROTC enrollment was mandatory for the first two years.0f college. I stayed on the ROTC program for the entire four year duration leading up to graduation. The ROTC program provided me and all cadets with a monthly stipend of $50.00 during the last two years of this program. This money was very helpful in those days. Eventually I graduated with a Math degree and I was also commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army

What was the reaction of your parents and your family when you got that degree?

Oh, they were extremely elated -- they were very proud .I was not only the first family member to ever graduate from a high school but more so earn a college degree. I know they were also proud that I had been commissioned as an n Army officer.

What was it about Texas culture that --

At that time Mexican Americans were second class citizens. The city was essentially segregated…the west and south side of the city was where most Mexican Americans lived. The East side of town was where Blacks lived and the north side of town was for Anglos. There was no overt discrimination against Mexican Americans but you could sense and feel some discriminatory attitudes.

You could easily get a feel for the environment in which Latinos were not liked. Better jobs and opportunities were not for them. Civil service jobs at the various military bases was the best opportunity for Mexican Americans While I never experience outright discrimination, I knew that if I wanted to get ahead and achieved better opportunities I would have to move out of the state.

Was the potential for a person of Mexican descent was limited?

Without a doubt opportunity for Mexican Americans was very limited. That is why I welcomed the opportunity to go on my military tour and see other places...

Did you have any discussions with your mentors -- and were your mentors other Mexican educators or where they Anglos?

No.  Quite seriously, the only mentors that I had were the grade school teachers -- they were Anglos --. These teachers encouraged me to excel. God bless them they certainly guided me in the right direction. While I was attending high school and college, I was too busy working.  So I never went to a Mexican-American mentor and I really don’t know if there was any such person of Mexican descent.

It sounds like you had a natural curiosity and an aptitude to study and to follow through.

I used to see my dad, struggle to support our family we were poor; it was only natural to dream for something better than just living on the edge.  It certainly made me develop a different attitude and aptitude about life.  I wanted to do well and succeed. I was very motivated and I felt very confident that I would do well. I was looking forward to starting my military career as an Army Officer. Moving away from Texas and seeking opportunities elsewhere

What year did you go into the Army?

I went in the Army in 1967 just about the time that the Viet Nam situation was becoming a major conflict. I knew our involvement would escalate and I would more than likely be assigned combat duty there

In 1967, I would imagine there weren’t a lot of Latinos.  How did it feel?  Did you have any experiences with soldiers having to salute you?

You are right. There were not too many Latinos military officers. However, there was Latino enlisted men .Since there were not that many Latino officers I was more motivated to do well... I never experienced any discrimination from soldiers or civilians.

Because you were a lieutenant --

Not necessarily. I didn’t wear my uniform all the time.

Let me ask you a couple of questions about your duty.  At that point in the military it was predominantly draft -- so there were a lot of people that were drafted -- a few volunteers -- and your time of service was from what year to what year?

At that time the Viet Nam War was escalating. The draft was active and people were being drafted. This was the major reason I remained on the ROTC program. If not for this program I would have been drafted as an enlisted man after I graduated .Instead I entered active duty as an Army officer. My tour ran from 1967 to 1969 a 2½ year period.

So 1967 to 1969.  What corps were you in?

Army.  Air Defense Artillery.

And where were you stationed?

I was initially stationed at Ft Bliss Texas, then at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While I was stationed at Fort Leavenworth I got married. Thereafter, I was stationed in Los Angeles California

Whoa, whoa -- let’s stop right here.  That’s a very important story so -- before you had gotten to Los Angeles, you had gotten married -- where did you meet your wife?

I met my wife when I was on leave -- I went to San Antonio on leave, and it was there where I met my future wife Becky.

And what was her maiden name?

Spence.  Becky Spence

Well, tell us how you met.

We just happened to meet.  It was late at night and she had just left her work place and I just happened to be at the same place she was at. It took all I had to ask her if she wanted to get together.  She agreed. We had subsequent dates prior to me reporting at my post.

And where did you meet?

In San Antonio.

And you were on leave.

Right.  So when I returned to Fort Leavenworth we continued to stay in touch, about six months later we decided to get married

Is there a college there?

Yes the Command and General Staff College for field grade officers.

Command and General Staff -- I have been to Leavenworth.  It’s out in the boondocks though.

Yes.  But it was close to Kansas City

You got married -- in what year?

We got married in 1969.

And so, then you went to Los Angeles?

I was assigned to what was called the Los Angeles defense in Los Angeles California

You were married.

Yes. My military tour and commitment to the Army was coming to an end and rather than extend for two more years I decided to start a career out side of the military service...More than likely I would have been assigned to combat duty in Viet Nam if I had extended my military tour.

I did not want to head back to Texas because I believed there was more opportunity in California We decided that we should start our family and my career in California. Becky and I and Diana our new born daughter moved to Sherman Oaks California after my tour was complete.

I sent several resumes to a large number of major companies located in the Los Angeles area.  I went on several interviews and received some positive offers. However, one company, State Farm Insurance Company, offered an attractive job offering, I didn’t know anything about the insurance industry much less State Farm. However they offered me a position as a claims adjuster along with a company car and expense account.  It was an excellent opportunity and I enthusiastically accepted the job offer.

You didn’t have to receive insurance sales training or anything like that?

Only agents received sales training. My training was focused on claims training and insurance contract education.  The company sent me to their schools and I also received on the job training.

Oh, that was quite of an incentive and they train you --

Yes.

I learned a great deal. As a claims adjuster I handled liability insurance claims. Basically, this job required me to investigate accidents and bodily injury claims. You needed a good background and knowledge of insurance contracts and negligence law. Moreover, you needed to ability to interact with litigation attorneys.

I enjoyed this endeavor and the more I came into contact with plaintiff and defense attorneys the more I wanted to learn more about law and becoming a lawyer. It would be mutually beneficial I could do better job and it would also enhance my career opportunities.

Eventually I decided to go to law school on my own time at night. The company gave me their blessing and encouragement

Through which college or university?

The University of West Los Angeles School of Law

So, you decided at that point that you would concentrate on law school

Yes but only to the extent that it would not adversely impact my work or family life. My wife was very supportive and she did a great job in raising our kids. If it had not been for her solid support I could not have finished law school and become a lawyer .We both knew that once I achieved these goals it would enhance my career and open new opportunities within the company or elsewhere in a legal environment.

At the time I was a first line supervisor at that time supervising a claims unit of eight persons. Later I was promoted to section superintendent and supervise various claims offices in Los Angeles...

And what year was this?

In the early 70s

Well, let me ask you this -- when did you get your law degree?

It was in 1975.

In 1975 -- so what were you doing as far as work was concerned?

I was still working for State Farm I had now been promoted to Divisional management and I was supervising claims adjusters, management and overseeing claim offices in the southern part of Los Angeles

How did State Farm react when they realized that one of their staff persons all of a sudden has a law degree?

My superiors applauded my achievements and encouraged me to excel. However, I made sure that my claim operation was properly being managed. And we were achieving our company goals...I worked long hours.  .

So, the company knew that you were a very dedicated staff person.

Right. They rated me well and encouraged me to excel.

And obviously your salary kept --

Right

Before we continue, I just want to ask a couple of questions about Becky.  So, Becky your wife, when you met her -- she is a nurse, is that right?

Right.

Did she have a four-year degree or --

Yeas she attended University Arkansas and graduated from nursing school in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

When you were in Los Angeles, did she put her career aside to dedicate herself?

Early on she worked as an emergency room nurse and later as a nurse at a physician’s clinic.

However, as the family grew, we now had three children; she stopped working in order to care for the children. I was now going to law school so she dedicated herself to being a great mother and solidly supporting my efforts to get a law degree.

After I received my law degree she worked again but on a part time basis. She enjoyed being with people and begin working again and volunteering for a variety of programs

Oh, I see.

So, she’s always had that desire to --

Right.  She’s very people-orientated.  In fact, when I was transferred to Houston, she became involved in real estate, and a successful real estate agent

So, you went from Los Angeles to Houston.  When did you get to Houston?

I was promoted to Division Manager in Houston .Texas in 1984 and we relocated to Texas. Ironic, isn’t it here I am back in Texas. By that time I had earned my law degree and passed the California Bar exam and was now a lawyer.

As a Division Manager I had overall Auto and Homeowners claims responsibility for the Greater Houston area and surrounding areas. My area of responsibility included eleven claim offices throughout the area as well as about 700 claim personnel and management. This was a fast growing operation with a wide variety of challenges. These challenges ranged from personnel, claim service issues complex litigation, hurricane preparedness and catastrophes operations.

It was challenging and I enjoyed working in this type of environment. My training, background and education in Los Angeles were invaluable and helped me a great deal in dealing with all the challenges I faced. I was extremely busy during those four years we did well and accomplished a great deal.

We relocated we moved to the Clear Lake area of Houston and my office was near the downtown area of Houston. The kids were all going to school and Becky was now free to restart her career, however, this time as a real estate agent. She did quite well.ne all the time. 

We accomplished a lot of great things there I was very satisfied with our achievements

So how long were you in Houston?

Four years.

In 1988, what happened?

I interviewed for an executive position at our corporate office in Bloomington Illinois I was selected as Assistant Vice President - Bodily Injury in the General Claims Department of State Farm.

The responsibility was indeed greater, instead having regional responsibility it was now companywide operations. Now my responsibility along with my group was to provide review, guidance and authority to regional claim operations.

Four years later I was selected to be Assistant Vice President – Casualty Claims in Fire & Casualty Insurance Company. My last position before I retire was as General Claim Counsel in the Corporate Law Department

You retired when?

I retire early in 2003. .

Time just flies.  Let’s talk a little bit about Bloomington.  Now, had Becky been up here before you left Houston?

No.  The only time that Becky came to Bloomington before we moved in was on a house hunting trip prior to our relocation.

So, how was Becky?  How did Becky feel about coming to Bloomington?

Becky was happy to be in Bloomington. Houston had been a little hectic and she looked forward to living in a smaller town. Bloomington was and still is a good place to raise kids. She also knew that the big cities such as Chicago were nearby and available. She became involved with the PTA, real estate, and also worked as a nurse.  She became president of the PTA while our children were in high school.  So she was very active.

Along the way we have thought about relocating back to Texas. Our grandkids all live in the Chicago area so more than likely we will remain in Illinois. We may move closer to the Chicago area to be closer to the grandkids in the future.

So, do you still have your house over here on Monroe?

Yes

It’s a beautiful house.

Thanks you

Did you have a sense of things going on in the country, in the community, or especially at State Farm as far as the Latino community was involved?

Well, during the latter part of my career I started seeing more Latinos coming into the company and Corporate. Some of them becoming middle managers and becoming executives.  Dave Gonzales is a good example he is now a regional Vice President.

The other thing I noticed as I looked at the Latino community in Bloomington is that Latinos are more visible and involved. They are no longer in the background and invisible. I see them in the community, in the malls, at restaurants etc. they are more active and no ambivalent. They own and operate a variety of businesses

They have become citizens and more involved they drive nice cars and live in nice houses in good communities.  That’s one thing that I am very pleased to see -- is that they have become a part of the community -- a viable and contributing part. 

Have you left out anything you want to tell me? 

No I don’t think so. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you about my background and family.