By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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It was a clear October evening in 1998, just two days before Halloween, when Mary Jo May decided to pull off her next big idea. After months of unsuccessfully appealing for action from local police and politicians, the former Catholic nun and longtime Second Ward activist decided media attention was needed. Two downtown clubs had been exploiting underage girls by allowing them to dance for money, a practice known as taxi dancing. Some of the girls, a few as young as 12, said they had been sexually assaulted or harassed while working at the clubs. Others were skipping school because they were too tired from the late nights out. Lots of the girls claimed they needed the work to help provide for themselves and their families.
May knew about what was going on because some of those same young women were her clients at El Centro de Corazon, the social services agency and community center that May directs and helped found.
"When I called the police about it, nobody would even take down the info," she says in a clear, no-nonsense voice that reveals a bit of her former identity as a Catholic elementary school principal. "They said it was just not a priority of the voters." That the young women lived in the low-income, primarily Hispanic Second Ward and not in the suburbs had a lot to do with the authorities' inaction, she says.
So May decided to act on her own, and stage a nighttime candlelight vigil at the corner of Franklin and Jackson, right outside the two offending clubs.
"It was a trip," she laughs.
When she and almost 100 supporters from the community showed up, she discovered that the two clubs, La Luna and the Fiesta Ballroom, had put up professionally printed signs that read, "Buy Us Out, Don't Lie Us Out." John D. Austin, the clubs' owner, had long denied the presence of minors in his clubs.
As May and her friends stood silently holding candles well in view of the television reporters who had come to record the event, patrons of the two clubs screamed at the protesters.
"Oh, they were saying things like, 'Who set you up to do this?' " says May. "I thought it was so cool. The longer I stood there, the madder they got. They were so ridiculous."
A few months after the vigil, legislation was enacted on the city and state levels to ban underage taxi dancing and to fine and jail club owners who allow it to happen.
It was a rare public victory for a woman who has kept herself out of the limelight during the 24 years she has worked in the city's East End.
At first glance, a white ex-nun from Southern California seems like the least likely person to gravitate to the underserved Hispanic population in a poor Texas neighborhood. But the work's challenges are the right fit for a person admirers call focused and determined.
May recalls an exchange between herself and a friend that took place on the night of the vigil as the two approached the shouting club patrons.
"I remember we were walking up and she said, 'I am really scared,' " says May with a smile. "So I said, 'Well, you might want to find someone else to hang out with.' "
May doesn't like talking about herself. Seated at a conference table at El Centro with her 14-year-old dog, Barley, a former stray who loves to snooze at her feet, she uses every opportunity to duck out of the conversation and introduce other El Centro employees, suggesting they might make for a more interesting interview.
"I feel I don't do anything but facilitate good work," she says.
The good work began in a tiny house on North Palmer street, a former home of restaurateur Yolanda Black Navarro's mother. With just some tables and a desk, May and a few friends birthed El Centro in 1994. Since then, the staff has grown to nine, including five licensed therapists. The yearly budget, which comes mostly from federal grants, is around $600,000. Roughly 1,500 clients are served each year.
The center offers a variety of programs, including after-school and summer groups for youths, parenting groups and women's groups. The therapists work in under-resourced schools and in the community, dealing with issues that range from schizophrenia to anger management to alcohol abuse. Challenges are numerous and complicated. Nutritional issues, teen pregnancy, lack of access to medical care and a social stigma regarding mental health treatment are just some of the problems. And with a large influx of immigrants from Mexico, cultural barriers compound many of the issues; for instance, many newly immigrated parents don't understand the importance of a high school diploma and often allow their children to drop out of school to find work. May also thinks the Second Ward is isolated from city resources such as public transportation.
"Sometimes I think the bus routes around here were constructed in a way so they can get the maids to River Oaks, not service the community," she says.
May is most infuriated by the treatment of some students in the Northeast District of the Houston Independent School District. She says she sometimes feels like she spent her first two years at El Centro writing angry letters to HISD officials, getting replies only when she sent copies of the letters to prominent local Hispanics. The problems ran deep, she says, from corporal punishment to ignoring learning disabilities or mental health problems. May claims that in one case a young Hispanic girl complained to May and her mother about one of her teachers. When the school found out about it, all the fourth- and fifth-grade Hispanic girls were called out of class and told not to talk about the school negatively ever again. May thinks that school officials take advantage of cultural and language barriers, which is why El Centro tries to teach parents how to be better advocates for their kids.