We’ve heard a lot lately about Cesar Batalla School along State Street in the West End. It became the epicenter of parental concern following public disclosure of a proposed shooting range inside an adjacent police precinct. Days after a noisy meeting with parents and community activists last week, Mayor Bill Finch shot down the firing range location. Cesar Batalla? Simply a school to some. For others a hero. Still for others a gigantic pain in the ass. For a young reporter–any reporter, for that matter–he was a godsend.
“Cesar, I’m dry,” says a young reporter on the telephone. “You got anything for me?”
“Sharpen your pencil,” he’d say.
Page one, here I come!
Cesar Batalla passed away nearly 20 years ago. His presence is far from gone whether as brick and mortar, or as a lasting influence.
A day prior to last week’s community meeting at Batalla School, OIB heard from Town Clerk Alma Maya who in her day was alongside Batalla as one of the leading community warriors for social change: school desegregation, special education, police presence, political influence and voting power. Alma has mellowed some. But sometimes the warrior’s roar returns. There was no way, she said, Cesar would allow a gun range next to a school.
“Put it somewhere else,” she said emotionally. It is going somewhere else.
Batalla could walk the streets with tough guys, or sit among suits in corporate boardrooms. The political establishment couldn’t stand him, but they knew he was always a factor. He knew how to cause trouble, frame a message and make life miserable for elected officials. A few memories of Batalla follow starting with the book Only In Bridgeport.
Cesar Batalla looked out his ninth-floor office of the Southern Connecticut Gas Co. toward the empty factories that were the very reason thousands of Latinos came to Bridgeport. Bullard’s, Bryant Electric, Underwood. All gone. Even when the jobs were plentiful, life in Bridgeport was far from idyllic. For the toughest of the Latinos, perseverance, hard work and the determination to care for family inspired achievement and provided the lifestyle they had dreamed about in Puerto Rico, that made them risk that air trip those many years before. A job–at least they had a job.
Many of the factories that put food on the table, clothes on their backs and provided the little extras for a future college education are gone–squeezed by the global competition. So many jobs are gone, but Batalla’s people are still here, and growing. During the middle and late 1980s, Bridgeport’s historically rough inner streets had become war zones. Drug dealers, gunfire and killings tormented families trying to survive among the poverty.
Batalla was one of many Latinos inching the Latin community’s agenda forward: greater representation on the City Council; control of the Board of Education; and creation of a political power base to carry a louder community voice–a voice now broadcast over the Bridgeport-based Spanish radio station WCUM, 1450 on the AM dial.
Batalla recognized that the city’s children continued to suffer increasing poverty, violence and health problems. A 1992 report by the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition showed that in Bridgeport almost one in three children lived in poverty, 30 percent of all African American children and nearly 45 percent of all Latino children.
Active in a number of programs targeting teen pregnancy, drug abuse and infant mortality, Batalla groomed a new generation of young people through a local chapter of Aspira, the Spanish word for aspire, a national group promoting leadership programs to at-risk youth.
“We are reaching out to a cadre of bright kids to season them governmentally, politically and socially,” Batalla said in 1993. Batalla, the leader, fell to cancer just a few years later, but other Latino leaders represent the hopes and dreams for his city and people.
From Jim Callahan, OIB correspondent and former Post Publishing reporter:
Cesar Batalla was that rare person who could challenge people with power loudly and sometimes obnoxiously, and yet listen respectfully and cooperate to solve a problem.
There was, of course, nothing to stop Cesar from coming back a day later and kicking those same people in the butt again (some mayors may have said it took as little as 15 minutes).
The contradictions were endless. At the same time he would be publicly denounced by leaders in the political system, he would be sought out quietly to hear what he had to say about something.
He was persistent.
The lawsuit to desegregate Bridgeport schools dragged in federal court, particularly the conditions ordered by the judge to fix the system. Year in and year out, Batalla spoke out complaining the city was dragging its feet. He was relentless.
He was easily the most articulate spokesman of the Bridgeport Puerto Rican community in his generation, particularly for those struggling. He was resented by others working more silently for the same goal. But Batalla had an uncanny ability to voice concerns and angers for people who did not know how to speak for themselves. Even his critics admitted that.
Elected officials in Bridgeport, at least the ones who cared, understood his connection. Many thought he should run for office. Some resented that he didn’t.
Batalla said he never would run for office–and he meant it. He said he would be a lousy elected official: too many compromises, too many frustrations. He preferred his outsider status.
He was a U.S. Army combat veteran of the Vietnam War who had a huge poster of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in his office. That office was in the public relations department of the Southern Connecticut Gas Company. He could move through a cocktail crowd of suburban Anglos at a business function as cool as could be. He was probably more comfortable moving stool to stool in a Spanish bar asking patrons what was going on in the neighborhood.
He would schmooze newspaper reporters, and he could turn on them.
One night an anonymous blond-haired Anglo male was taking notes in a room half-filled with raven-haired Puerto Rican mothers listening and talking to Batalla about the school suit. Note taking was complicated by the reporter’s semi-literacy in pidgin Puerto Rican. The reporter must have frowned. Batalla shifted to Spanish to comment about the XXXX desde Breejpor’ Post. XXXX was a Spanish obscenity that got the attention of the reporter much quicker than “Bridgeport Post.” About 15 pairs of black Carib eyes turned to stare angrily at the reporter. Batalla tried to look innocent at the front of the room. He failed.
I had more arguments with Cesar than any person I covered in Bridgeport. I loved the cranky son of a bitch like a brother.
From John Gilmore, OIB correspondent and former Post Publishing reporter:
You could say Cesar was a leader of the loyal opposition.
From time to time, the city’s political organization faced an organized challenge–much like what is happening with the school board today. And sometimes these “loyal oppositionists” garner a strong following.
Cesar was a thorn in the city’s side, but he had passion and drive and rallied a segment of the city that gave him political power.
Today’s organization opponents face the same problems Cesar faced in trying to gain citywide power–the ability to fund a citywide challenge.
Nevertheless, what Cesar should be remembered for is his passion.
More on Batalla from Bridgeport Public Library here.