“The needs of a community such as Crystal City are so numerous that one must start by considering health from the point of view of socio-economic conditions such as food, shelter, employment…” – Zavala County Mental Health Outreach Program Proposal, 1971

Zavala County Mental Health Outreach Program logoOn February 19, 1971, Hogg Foundation executive director Robert Lee Sutherland and several key faculty from the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) in San Antonio met with community leaders in Crystal City, Texas. Located in south Texas, it was the only part of the state to record no mental health clinics or psychological services in surveys completed earlier that decade. While Crystal City is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar agribusiness center, there were great disparities of wealth between the landowners and the Mexican-American laborers – 85 percent of the population was Mexican-American and 80 percent of the Mexican-American population lived in extreme poverty.

Today we know that mental health is not solely an individual responsibility, but is also a product of community conditions. A growing body of research demonstrates that mental health and wellness are influenced and shaped by our communities. Likewise, community leaders and Sutherland recognized that racism, poverty, and lack of health care access were contributing to poor health outcomes in Crystal City.

It was during their visit that Sutherland and his colleagues recommended to the city leadership that once the community clarified its needs and aims for a mental health program, they could look to the Hogg Foundation for seed money.

Crystal City and El Partido Nacional de La Raza Unida

The Hogg Foundation’s program to bring mental health services to Zavala County coincided with the rise of La Raza Unida (RUP), a Chicano nationalist organization that had prominence throughout Texas, California, and a few other southwestern states. The primary goal of the RUP was to improve the economic, social, and political prospects of the majority Mexican-American community—prospects that had been historically denied to them because of systemic racism. Their platform resonated; before long the RUP began winning spots on the school board, city council, and county positions in Crystal City. Once in power, leaders in the party began applying for grants to bring jobs and social services to the neglected area to achieve their goal.

Zavala County Mental Health Outreach Program

The goals of the mental health outreach program were ambitious. The Hogg Foundation, UTHSC, and Crystal City community leaders hoped to provide economic stimulation and to facilitate positive ethnic relations in the community. While preventing further strife, they hoped to stimulate the development of mental health services in an area where public services of any kind were lacking.

The mental health outreach program aimed to meet the needs of the rural, Spanish speaking clients of the community. Project leaders believed the mental health challenges of the community were based in socioeconomic and sociopolitical institutional factors. Thus, they emphasized that staff needed to gain the confidence of the community and to assist the local residents in coming to a new awareness of what “mental health” actually meant.

To promote public awareness and confidence in the program, services included community functions such as a Thanksgiving dinner for the elderly, a Christmas party for children, as well as assistance with income tax returns, help in obtaining automobile license plates, and other homemaker services.

The program also acted as a “referral service” to encourage residents to use the network of state and federal resources potentially available to them, as clients were often unaware of these services and institutional practices actively discouraged Mexican-Americans from using them. The resulting upsurge in Mexican-American service utilization was viewed by many employees in these agencies as a nuisance more than an achievement.

Lessons Learned

The Zavala County Mental Health Project encountered many obstacles during its five-year existence. Even though the project achieved some successes (among them a greater investment in the region from the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation) it was never able to reconcile the competing demands of the RUP activists and the traditional political and mental health establishment. Local white officials and businessmen, for instance, uniformly opposed the provision of any funds to the RUP administration, which they viewed as unacceptably radical.

Distrust was a persistent problem in the development of the program over the years. Conflicts within the RUP led to divisions between city officials and county officials, and these divisions in turn led to conflicts in program administration. Additionally, the leaders of all the organizations working to build better health infrastructure in Zavala County never actually met to discuss strategy and instead often ended up working against each other.

For the foundation, the project would in many ways prove a failure. It was, however, an instructive one. It demonstrated the need to do more than simply expand existing service models to underserved communities. Those models had to change to meet distinctive community needs, and to adapt to the local politics. And the foundation, if it hoped to play a role in expanding and improving services in complex cultural and political situations, would have to be patient, and humble, and able to learn from its mistakes.

Learn More

Part of our educational mission is to document, archive and share the foundation’s history, which has become an important part of the histories of mental and public health in Texas, and the evolution of mental health discourses nationally and globally. Archival information about the foundation is available at The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin, including, but not limited to, the Ima Hogg Photographs and the Robert Sutherland Papers. We also have a robust collection at the foundation office. Research questions and appointments can be made by contacting our archivist at hogg-archives@austin.utexas.edu.