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.
HISD officials "don't want the parents in the schools," she says. "It's easier for them if the parents don't know what's going on. If those things were happening on the other side of town, it wouldn't be tolerated for a New York minute."
But May is careful to walk the line between assisting her clients and fostering dependence. It's one of the reasons she doesn't live in the Second Ward. For May and her co-workers, El Centro is not so much about doling out services, but respecting clients' wishes.
"I think we do people a disservice when we try to take over their lives," she says. "We are here to cooperate and support, not dictate."
The two rooms tucked in the back of the bottom floor of El Centro are covered in about 20 different colors of paint. The words "El Centro de Corazon" have been painted in bright purples, reds and oranges on one wall, and handprints cover the rest. A few comfy couches sit next to a table, where recent art projects are drying, and a paint-spattered boom box plays Tejano music at a low volume.
It's here that the after-school program for girls meets every weekday. The group is run by Ana Montellano, who grew up in the East End and is getting her master's in psychology at the University of Houston, and Amanda DeRosario, an artist who has worked with Hispanic youths for the past six years. Both are in their twenties and give off a cool-big-sister vibe. Because many of the girls have no way of getting to the meetings, Montellano and DeRosario often pick them up and drop them off. They also arrange field trips and bring in speakers to talk about everything from sexual health to photography. Recently the girls participated in CowParade Houston, decorating one of the artworks in partnership with the Houston Center for Photography.
"Girls are tougher to work with," says DeRosario, who worked with male juvenile offenders before coming to El Centro two years ago. "I believe they mature a little faster. But unlike other places I've worked at, I feel here you really get to know the kids."
DeRosario and Montellano steer clear of a classroom setting and instead try to create an easygoing mood, where the girls work on homework or art projects at one large table. They then pick up on the girls' conversations, adding insight and opinions when they feel it's necessary. The local news or current events sometimes guide the topics of discussion, and the older girls often talk about sexuality and boyfriends.
On one recent afternoon, DeRosario catches one girl casually using the word chuntaro, derogatory slang for a Mexican person. She argues that it's just like black people using the N-word.
"I'm not getting after you or saying, 'Don't use it,' " says DeRosario evenly. "But to me it's a big problem. I don't like it." She says it fosters a negative image of Mexicans. Several of the girls around the table give their thoughts on the topic, telling DeRosario whether they agree with her or not.
Soon the conversation branches off into a discussion about the differences between Mexican and American cultures. DeRosario and Montellano say the clash between generations and cultures is something that comes up often during meetings. They say some recently immigrated parents may not entirely understand or value a young daughter who wants to go to college. They may not discourage early marriages. And they often don't talk about birth control or boys. But both women say they are careful to try to respect the aspects of the immigrant culture, something that's not always easy for the girls in the program.
"You know, I don't feel like I'm 100 percent American, but I don't feel like I'm 100 percent Mexican, either," says one girl. "I go to Mexico and my cousins say, 'Say my name in English,' and I'm like, 'I came here to speak Spanish!' "
A longtime member of the group is 16-year-old Betzy, who started attending meetings at the age of 12. Born in Mexico, Betzy moved to Houston when she was three. She says she wants to go to college and be a computer technician. The oldest of four children, she has already fixed her family's radio and television set.
"Amanda and Ana tell me just because you have a boyfriend, it doesn't mean you can't do this or that," says Betzy, who admits that while with one boyfriend she was "afraid to show the real me" and was always acting shy or not speaking up.
"Here at El Centro, I'm the one cracking them up or making them laugh," she says. "They say, 'Betzy, express yourself! You're not quiet.' "
DeRosario believes it's the setting of the meetings that provides for much of the group's success. A good part of that is May's influence as director, she says. Other agencies worry more about pushing clients through certain programs, but May encourages her employees to come up with their own ideas and to work independently of her.
The fact that May is white means little to DeRosario and other employees, she says. It's the former nun in her that is slightly disarming.
"She can be intimidating," says DeRosario with a laugh. "But she is funny. And she has never, never told me no. She is really something else."
As a child growing up in Southern California, Mary Jo May had no plans to become a nun. She wasn't even raised Roman Catholic. One of two children, the daughter of an appliance salesman and a homemaker, she says she dreamed of having 17 children and becoming "a teacher, a lawyer, a veterinarian or a newspaper reporter." Something of a troublemaker, May remembers the time she and a friend released a cow from a nearby dairy farm and led it into their classroom, which caused a near-riot.
As she grew older, May says, she had a desire to "search out the great mysteries of life" and decided the Catholic Church might be the place to do it. And, she adds, it was the early 1960s. Options for women were still limited.
"The expectations of the people I was friends with and the people I dated was 'You will be a wife,' " she remembers. But May wanted more. She eventually joined the Dominican Order and moved to Houston in 1962. The years in the convent were happy ones -- not that May conformed to the stereotypical image of a serious nun.
"Oh, she was always getting me in trouble," remembers longtime friend Ricki Janicek, a fellow former Dominican sister who now volunteers at El Centro.
Included among May's stunts was sneaking a cat inside the chapel and placing it near an elderly nun, who of course was deathly afraid of cats. ("She ended up standing up on one of the pews," says Janicek.) May also planned ill-fated tubing trips down local rivers; one ended with several nuns abandoned on the riverbank near a prison work farm.
"She was a free spirit, very much so," says Janicek.
May eventually started teaching in diocesan schools and built up a reputation as a tough but fair instructor. In 1977 the local bishop asked her to take the position of principal at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, down the street from where El Centro now stands. The school had gone through five principals in two years, and the situation was desperate. May agreed she would take on the position for five months. She ended up staying five years.
May dealt with problems in what would become a signature style. When the eighth-grade girls refused to stop sitting on a wall that surrounded the school, putting them at risk of harassment from passing pedestrians, May held an all-school assembly and made an important announcement.
"I said, 'If you're ugly, you can sit up on that wall,' " she says. " 'But if you're pretty, we want to make sure you're safe, and you shouldn't sit up on that wall.' So, of course, nobody ever sat up there again."
She also tried to bring in creative instructors, facilitated weekly teacher meetings and encouraged small student groups. Soon the school started to turn around. After five years May went to work as director of Guadalupe Area Social Services, a diocesan-run direct-service agency that tried to meet the needs of the poor in the community.
May kept the same approach that had worked at the Guadalupe school, and she didn't mince words when it came to dealing with city bureaucracy. In 1993 she made the Houston Chronicle when she complained about the way the city handled a community development grant that was supposed to go to Guadalupe. While May claimed she had to fight for three years to get the $100,000 grant that had been awarded to the agency, Houston's then-housing and community development director Margie Bingham argued that the plans for the money had not been clear and called May "totally unethical."
May fired off in the newspaper's story, and was quoted as saying, "What they do to us is what society does to the poor -- they try to put you in a dependent position since they control the resources you need."
"Someone called and asked me to comment on that," says May, remembering the piece. "I'm not about bashing people, but I think we need to open our eyes at how really out of touch with people the system can be."
And the system, says May, is desperately out of touch with the community in the Second Ward. Local residents agree.
"The city ignores us," says longtime resident Mary Medina, who has owned and operated a flower shop on Navigation Boulevard since 1949. "These sewer lines have been here since 1924. We need the city to fix our streets, to fix our drainage. It's a large fight."
The 83-year-old Medina, nicknamed the Godmother of the Second Ward, befriended May while Medina was serving on the parish council for Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. "We were a gringa and a mexicana!" she laughs. "But she's a hard worker. And she's not afraid to speak her mind."
May decided to leave the sisterhood in 1995. She says the Diocese of Galveston-Houston decided to place Guadalupe Area Social Services under the direction of Catholic Charities. Some sisters who had been working there were given little warning before being told to leave. May says one nun in her late seventies who had been devoted to Guadalupe was told by the diocese to turn in her keys -- she wouldn't need to return the next day.
"I feel strongly about how women are treated," May says. "For someone who had given a whole life to the service of the church to be treated like that, it was something I could not tolerate." Soon after, May left Guadalupe and her vocation.
But May also speaks of growing less interested in religion, which she says often leaves the needs of the people behind in favor of rules. She speaks about women who would come to Guadalupe worried because they didn't want to have any more children, but who felt as Catholics that they could not use birth control.
"I would tell them, 'Tell God if it's a sin, I'll take responsibility for it,' " says May. Other sisters joked that she would be spending lots of time in hell.
May also had grown disillusioned with the hierarchical structure of the church. Perhaps that is the very reason El Centro operates without such a ladder of authority.
"Hierarchies don't work," she says. "People ask me if I would want to be a priest, and I say, 'Why would I want to be a part of that mess?' "
She says she still attends services but doesn't have a home church. In her free time, she goes fishing and reads anything she can get her hands on. Still in search of answers to the great questions, she spends lots of time outdoors.
"If you really want to know the deep mysteries, I would go to nature," she says. "I've always felt everything we need to know would be found in nature. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair, because then only those who were educated could know them."
When asked, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston has only kind words about May. Spokeswoman Annette Gonzales Taylor would only say, "She has a great commitment to the poor. We commend her, and we pray for her success."
After leaving Guadalupe, May says, she still felt a commitment to the Second Ward and its residents. One day she called her friend Margaret Daly, a former Guadalupe volunteer who was studying in Washington, D.C. She asked Daly about the possibility of getting her help to start El Centro.
Daly says she told May if the people still wanted them there, and they could respond to the people's needs, she would return. Soon the two women and a few volunteers set up shop in the North Palmer home.
"[The people] here weren't getting a fair deal at the pediatricians, they weren't getting a fair deal at the schools," says Daly, of her reasons for returning. "The system wasn't responding."
Although Daly decided to return to her native Ireland soon after El Centro opened, she stays in touch with May and others at El Centro. The work being done there amazes her. And May, she says, continues to be the catalyst of that work.
"She taught me how to ask why," says Daly of May. " 'Why does it have to be this way?' That's an honesty Mary Jo brings to life, and I think that's the highest compliment anyone could pay to another human being."
The tiny home on Crites Street just a short walk from El Centro is painstakingly neat. A small bouquet of fake flowers sits on the coffee table, and framed photographs of children peer out from a cabinet in the corner. Every few minutes, a toddler comes running in from the front yard, then darts out again.
The home belongs to 31-year-old Claudia, a mother of three. Today the women's group she belongs to is meeting in her living room. In attendance are four other neighborhood women: Adela, Paula, Julia and Veronica. Facilitating the group is Marisol Acosta, one of the five therapists employed by El Centro.
Like the younger girls' groups, the meetings are loosely organized. The women speak in rapid Spanish about everything from self-esteem and domestic violence to cultural differences and parenting issues.
"I have learned a better way to deal with my kids," says 39-year-old Adela, who has three children. The meetings especially helped her in dealing with her teenage daughter.
"I learned how to actually sit with her and look her in the face as opposed to trying to talk to her while I washing the dishes and then ending up screaming," she says.
El Centro has also empowered her when it comes to working with the children's schools. When her kids were placed in a more slowly paced class, she thought the school was only doing so because the children were Mexican. She asked El Centro for help in talking to the school administrators, and soon her kids were in regular classes.
Sometimes very serious issues are brought up.
Upon their arrival in Houston, "my husband started treating me very badly," says 30-year-old Julia, a mother of three who works at night cleaning offices. "He was very aggressive for no reason. I felt very lonely. When I came here, I was able to say what I felt." As she tells her story, she begins to cry, and Claudia runs for a napkin. Her family got counseling at El Centro, Julia says, and she learned how to deal with her husband when he got upset.
"Now he doesn't hit me," she says. "I feel safe here. I feel like these women are my friends."
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As the women talk, someone brings up Mary Jo May. They speak of her as a good friend, and of El Centro as a second family. They would be lost without it.
But for May, the reverse seems to be just as true. Rising each morning at four to get to El Centro before any other employee, she works quietly on different projects, saying this is the best time of the day to get things done.
"It's my normal waking time," she says of her early-morning schedule, shrugging off the notion that her hours are superhuman. She also laughs off the idea that there is anything very special about her.
"The real story about all of this, for me, is my experience of being adopted by this community," says May. "The elders say things like, 'When you used to be a gringa ' I've learned so much from them. I don't know who I'd be otherwise."