Following her Heart: Mary Alice Cisneros blends private and public roles

When Henry and Mary Alice Cisneros returned to San Antonio in 2000, they made an unusual but fateful choice. Despite their fame and new fortune, they decided to settle down in their old West Side neighborhood where both had grown up. Nobody would have blamed them had they moved into The Dominion or another exclusive enclave, but true to their hearts, they chose to make their home in the community they have tried to help since Henry’s days as city councilman and mayor. The day I arrive to interview Mary Alice, their airy, sunny home surrounded by a white picket fence is alive with activity. A couple of workers are figuring out how to transform a bathroom into a closet (“I need more storage space,” notes the lady of the house), the housekeeper is busy with a multitude of tasks, and Mary Alice’s sister, Virginia, who lives across the street, drops in to say hi. Incongruously, a huge poster depicting the human heart is laid over the living room coffee table. It was hanging in son John Paul’s study, explains Mary Alice, but she took it down to have it framed. Now 25, John Paul lives in New York, where he works for J.P. Morgan Chase as an analyst.

Gracious and low-key, Mary Alice shows me around, pointing out the various mementos of her and Henry‘s lives — awards, gifts from high places, objects they have collected, even a White House Easter egg. Many of these objects bear Henry’s name, but when I emphasize that the article is about her, she says simply, “It’s hard to separate us.” True enough, but since her election to City Council in 2007, San Antonio’s former first lady has emerged as a public personality in her own right. After her four-year stint as councilwoman ended, Mary Alice was named president of American Sunrise, a nonprofit organization the Cisneroses founded together in 2001 to help their neighbors by providing educational and housing support. Modeled after the New York Harlem Children’s Zone, the organization focuses on a single-square-mile area and tries to achieve measurable and visibly significant improvements.

Their chosen square mile in Prospect Hill includes some of the poorest population in San Antonio. “In his travels as HUD secretary and also through his degrees (in urban planning and public administration), Henry learned that the health of cities comes down to neighborhoods,“ explains Mary Alice. “Having been on the council, I, too, know the difficulties people face in trying to sustain their neighborhoods. When we came back to San Antonio, we came with the desire to help our old neighborhood.” Since its inception, American Sunrise (AS) has rehabilitated about 15 houses in the area that were then sold at affordable prices to local families. But that costly activity has been put on hold for the time being while AS devotes its energies to mentoring children in summer and after-school programs as well as assisting their parents in acquiring life-improving skills. One such program takes place in the Learning Center right behind the Cisneros residence, where some 45 elementary and middle-school kids from the San Antonio ISD receive intense reading and math training. Thanks to a partnership with Texas A&M-San Antonio, American Sunrise recently implemented a computer-based reading course called ReadingPlus that produced results in only six months. On average, reading skills improved by at least three grade levels.

“Forty-five percent of SAISD students drop out of school,” says the organization’s unpaid president. “Dropping out is not an option at American Sunrise. We talk to parents, too, and tell them that we are going to assure that their child becomes a productive member of society.”

More recently, the nonprofit has also purchased the old Carol Burnett house on Commerce with the intention of turning it into a second learning center for another 50 or so kids. Mary Alice confides that they are trying to get Burnett herself to show up for a fundraiser and photo op when she comes to town in March to perform at the Majestic. While we are talking, she gets several calls from AS employees informing her on the progress of the negotiations.

Wife, mother, activist

Mary Alice Perez grew up only seven blocks away from where she lives now. Her parents supported nine children by operating a grocery store and bakery. Naturally, the kids had to help, and that was where the young girl first learned about caring and compassion. “We waited on customers, helped them and carried the groceries to them if they were sick and couldn’t come to the store,” she recalls. “My mother, Annie Perez, brought us up to be involved in the community. Through her own involvement, she showed us that one person can make a difference.”

Mary Alice met Henry, three years her senior, when she was only 13. The two found themselves playing baseball in the street with a bunch of other kids. To this day, he remembers that she struck out during the game, she says, while she prefers to think of the occasion as the day she met her future husband. It took them a few more years, but following the completion of his first master’s degree from Texas A&M, they tied the knot in their parish church in 1969. From there on, Mary Alice followed her husband for several years as he advanced his career through jobs in Washington, D.C., including a White House fellowship, and later, through additional post-graduate education at Harvard. Though offered a professorial position at M.I.T., Henry eventually decided to return to his hometown to teach at U.T.S.A. and explore public service. The rest is San Antonio history, as he went on to serve on City Council followed by four terms as mayor, pushing economic development, high-tech industries and urban revitalization. Democratic Party leaders and the nation as a whole got to know him as a rising political star, which eventually led to his appointment as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration. “My role was to be a supportive wife at home,” says Mary Alice, who by that time was already the mother of two daughters, Theresa and Mercedes, both now married and mothers themselves. “It was a challenging time for me because I also needed to be out in public with my husband. I enjoyed most that we were helping San Antonio grow, ensuring that people had jobs and could stay in San Antonio after getting an education.” Though reserved by nature, Mary Alice contributed in her own way by serving on a number of boards and commissions.

Their seemingly charmed lives, however, came to a halt when their third child, John Paul, was born with a serious heart abnormality that threatened the baby‘s survival. To make things worse, at about the same time, Henry’s affair with his fundraising aide, Linda Medlar, became public, putting the marriage itself in jeopardy. As devastated as she must have been, Mary Alice knew where she was needed the most. “I pretty much dropped out of being (the city‘s) first lady and committed myself to my son,” she says. “I am a woman of strong faith, and I believe that God put us here for a purpose, and my purpose at the time was to nurture this child to health. I became a full-time mother.” At age 4 1/2, John Paul finally underwent a life-saving operation at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the spouses eventually reconciled. Of the infidelity and subsequent turmoil that terminated her husband’s public service career, she only states the obvious: “We survived. I believe that the hardships made me stronger. Life throws you a curve, and you bear it and hopefully grow. One must push through difficult situations.”

She certainly did. As Henry built a successful new career in the private sector, his wife found her own ways to follow her heart. Once John Paul was safe and grown-up, she was free to explore new horizons. As a good Hispanic wife, Mary Alice actually asked her husband for permission to run for City Council, but she was determined to follow in his footsteps and serve her district. Though criticized by some constituents as not being sufficiently responsive to their needs, she is philosophical about it: “Unfortunately, you can’t do everything for everybody. There’s not enough money in the budget for that, so you have to pick priorities. I did not want to make any false promises.”

Among accomplishments, she cites both her individual initiatives and the goals of the council as a whole: the extension of term limits, the creation of green spaces and community gardens, infrastructure improvements and pushing for green energy. But she readily admits that she had hoped to get more done.

Today, our former first lady appears not only confident but also happy in her role as “godmother” to the American Sunrise children. After our interview, she leads me out through the yard and a back gate to visit the Learning Center. Some boys are playing ball in the tiny parking lot, but Mary Alice invites them all to use her backyard, where the Cisneroses installed artificial turf following last summer’s drought. The kids run in, take their shoes off and spread themselves over the lawn in an instant. A few stop for a minute to share their news with “Ms. Cisneros.” She knows all their names and their issues. She chats with a little girl about her spelling test, examines the rash on a boy‘s arms and pats a little guy on the head when he tells her that “today is my birthday.” The kids clearly love seeing her. There’s plenty going on inside the center as well. Since it’s Friday afternoon, the youngsters are mostly having fun; no computers or homework today. The inviting smell of baking cupcakes spreads through the building as I visit with 9-year-old Natalie, who informs me that her reading ability has jumped five grade levels since she’s been in ReadingPlus. Natalie plans to go to college and become a doctor. Meanwhile, a college student who works part time at the center shares with us her worries about the upcoming summer, when she won’t be able to live in the dorm. Without fanfare, Mary Alice offers to help her, too.

As we walk back into the now quiet house — the workers and the housekeeper have left — she jokes that she’s practically adopted all those kids. Her own children may be far away, but Mary Alice now has 45 others to worry about, soon to be 100.

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