One of El Paso’s most impactful advocacy organizations has its roots in sibling competition more than four decades ago.

The Rev. Edmundo Rodriguez, a Jesuit priest born and raised in El Paso, was one of the founders of Communities Organized for Public Service, or COPS, in San Antonio. The group had formed in 1974 to address a variety of challenges facing the poor in San Antonio.

Back in El Paso, Sister Elisa Rodriguez was appointed in 1977 by Bishop Sidney Metzger to be his liaison with nuns in the El Paso Catholic Diocese. A couple years into the job, she attended a training session on community organizing that included her brother, the San Antonio priest. She said the main lesson of the training was, “What we do in this process is this: we teach people how to use the system.”

“That was in my brain very deep, but so was my desire to do what my brother had done. You know, if he could do it, I can do it,” Sister Elisa, now 85, said with a smile.

That training session set Sister Elisa on a path that would culminate in 1980 with the establishment of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, a church-based organizing project that works to empower communities to initiate change and hold elected officials accountable.

Over the past four decades, EPISO has been instrumental in bringing water and sewerage services to tens of thousands of residents in colonias, subdivisions outside the city limits in El Paso and other Texas border counties that went decades without basic infrastructure. The organization also developed Project ARRIBA, a program that has trained thousands of El Pasoans for living-wage jobs in health care and other sectors.

EPISO will celebrate its 40th anniversary – a couple years late because of the pandemic – on  Friday, Oct. 28, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 10970 Bywood Drive.

Sister Elisa Rodriguez tells the story of the founding of El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization in 1980. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The celebration will include recognition for three of EPISO’s founders: Sister Elisa, the Rev. James Hall and Alicia Franco. The three of them gathered recently at the EPISO office in Central El Paso for an interview with El Paso Matters.

Sister Elisa said that as she was trying to build an organizing team in El Paso, educator and artist Rosa Guerrero directed her to Franco.

“She said, ‘Oh, you know what? She knows everything about everybody. She’s really into politics.’ And she said, she can tell you who’s who and what’s what. So I went to visit Alicia, and we became fast friends,” Sister Elisa said.

Franco had been active for years in Democratic politics in Northeast El Paso, but gave that up because of EPISO’s nonpartisan mission.

The pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Fabens and later at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in the Lower Valley, Hall was among the first priests to join the organization.

Although most of EPISO’s participating churches are Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations also have been involved.

EPISO had its first mass gathering in December 1980 at the El Paso civic center, the first step in efforts to identify issues on which to focus.

Henry Cisneros, then a San Antonio City Council member, addressed the first gathering of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization in 1980. (Photo courtesy of EPISO)

Featured speakers included U.S. Rep. Ron Coleman, D-El Paso, and Henry Cisneros, a San Antonio City Council member who would be elected mayor a few months later.

Early criticism

The organization also met fierce opposition, including from some Catholic parishes in El Paso. EPISO was accused of supporting communism and atheism. COPS had faced similar criticism in San Antonio.

The three organizers still remember those attacks.

“At the very beginning, what did I teach the first group that met and we started getting all of the rocks thrown at us?” Sister Elisa asked during the interview, drawing an immediate response from Franco.

“That if it’s of God, it will succeed and if it isn’t, it’ll die,” Franco said.

EPISO was affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community organizing effort founded by Saul Alinsky, the author of “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals.” Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would later come under criticism from many conservative activists because of Alinsky’s influence on them.

“Anything that is good and is there for the people, you have to get crucified for doing it,” Franco, now 87, said.

“And we did get crucified,” added Hall, now 80.

The Rev. James Hall, a co-founder of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, recalls the mixed reactions to the group’s attempts to organize around social justice issues in the El Paso area. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

He said El Pasoans had heard of COPS’ organizing efforts in San Antonio, which included challenges to power structures that had been embedded for decades.

“They were afraid because they saw what happened in COPS and they thought they would have to give up a lot of clout politically, I guess, and or economically if it was going to succeed here,” Hall said.

Focusing on colonias

The three organizers said EPISO had no set agenda when it was formed.

“The issues had to come from the folks. That much I knew,” Sister Elisa said.

One issue quickly emerged that dominated EPISO’s first two decades – the proliferation of colonias, largely unregulated subdivisions in unincorporated areas along the Texas-Mexico border.

“I don’t think anybody knew, including us, until we found out there were like 70 or 80 colonias in the county outside the city limits. And we drove past them and didn’t really know they were there, didn’t pay much attention and we didn’t know that they didn’t have water,” Hall said.

An estimated 80,000 people in El Paso County and 400,000 along the Texas-Mexico border lived in such subdivisions in the 1980s, usually without access to running water or sewerage services. Septic tanks often were placed near water wells. Diseases such as hepatitis A, salmonellosis, shigellosis and tuberculosis were commonplace in colonias.

EPISO and its sister organizations in Texas began organizing colonia residents to advocate for themselves. They put pressure on local governments along the border and state lawmakers in Austin to address the situation.

They drew national attention to the issue. Alongside an article about a developer named Donald Trump buying New York City’s Plaza Hotel, a 1988 front page in the New York Times bore the headline, “Along U.S. Border, a Third World is reborn.”

The front page of the New York Times on March 27, 1988. (Image courtesy of the New York Times)

“The great state of Texas ain’t so great after all,” Hall said.

The pressure worked. In 1989, Texas voters approved a $500 million bond issue that included $100 million dedicated to colonias. Two years later, the amount earmarked from colonias was increased to $250 million. The Legislature passed laws that created new regulations to prevent the future proliferation of colonias.

The Texas Water Development Board created the Economically Distressed Areas Program, which has directed more than $1 billion to colonias projects since 1989. Still, about 4,000 people continue to live in El Paso County without running water to their homes.

‘No permanent enemies’

EPISO and its sister IAF organizations continue to work on colonia issues, but that is far from their only focus.

In 1998, EPISO and other partners, including banks, created Project ARRIBA, a workforce training initiative that aimed to move El Pasoans from low-wage jobs to ones that paid a living wage. More than 1,600 people have graduated from the program since its inception.

EPISO and its sister organization, Border Interfaith, also have focused on issues such as wage theft and payday lending that impact low-income families. The organization also has focused on education issues, particularly in the El Paso and Canutillo school districts.

In the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature, EPISO and other IAF organizations in the state helped kill – at least temporarily – a program known as Chapter 313, which grants billions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations by discounting their school property taxes.

House Speaker Dade Phelan has said he’s confident the Legislature will restore the program in 2023. But the effort is gaining national scrutiny; comedian and commentator Jon Stewart discussed efforts to restore Chapter 313 on his Apple TV show Friday.

EPISO’s founders say one crucial lesson they’ve learned over the past four decades is the value of working with people who share their concerns, even if it’s only momentary.

“There are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. So we have to work with people who don’t believe in the work that we’re doing,” Franco said.

“But have something to lose if they don’t cooperate. So it could be a temporary alliance,” Hall quickly interjected.

Alicia Franco, a co-founder of the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, reminisces over old photos at the group’s headquarters on Oct. 12. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Sister Elisa, is preparing to move to the Kentucky home base of her Sisters of Loretto order. Her  brother Edmundo, whose work in San Antonio convinced her she could do something similar in El Paso, died in 2017.

She said she sees EPISO’s primary value in providing civic education to people often left out of policy conversations.

“They need to know what is affecting them and why it is affecting them. It’s like discovering a rotting plant and trying to find what is it? Is it the soil? Is it the water I’m putting on it? What is it that’s wilting that plant?” Sister Elisa said.

“And this is one of the reasons why I love EPISO so much, because it teaches people how to think and how to look at the causes of the problems that they can be a part of solving.”

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.