Salvador Balcorta

Salvador “Chava” Balcorta, who runs Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, isn’t your typical non-profit executive.

And La Fe, with a $27 million budget and 450 employees, isn’t just a Segundo Barrio clinic anymore.

La Fe’s beginnings can be traced to 1967, a single room and a volunteer nurse recruited by a group of working moms and community activists.

Today, it’s a sprawling enterprise with nine clinics between Westway and San Elizario, a charter school, after school programs, apartments, job training, cooking classes and even a recording studio.

Balcorta’s office in La Fe’s culture and technology building on South Ochoa is just a few blocks from the tenement where he was raised by his widowed mother, who worked 12-hour days at Ashley’s cannery.

Just as La Fe exists to change the lives of young people, it changed Balcorta’s life when he went to work there as a volunteer in 1972.

After graduating from Bowie High School that year, Balcorta, 58, followed a path that was anything but crowded, earning a degree in social work at the University of Texas at El Paso, and then a master’s in the field through a UT-Austin program in El Paso.

He was head of community health services at the El Paso City-County Health District in 1992 before taking over as La Fe’s CEO, succeeding Pete Duarte, who was picked to head the county’s Thomason Hospital.

At the time, La Fe had a $3 million budget and about 70 employees.

Although times have changed, the early social justice aims of La Fe to improve the lives of poor Segundo Barrio residents have not. And Balcorta himself hasn’t strayed far from his roots as a militant leftist.

He has largely achieved the ambitious goals born in the 1960s to make La Fe a comprehensive community program that can lift the lives of the people it serves with better jobs, health care services and education than they might find elsewhere.

That aim is expressed in a motto Balcorta still uses: “totalidad de nuestro bienestar” or “our total wellbeing.”

Balcorta admits that some have challenged La Fe’s ambition, and his, to offer wrap-around services that include affordable health care, largely at federal expense.

“I say what’s wrong with that? The community needs it,” he replies.

Balcorta, who has been battling back and foot problems and surgeries for both in the past year, met with El Paso Inc. to talk about the criticism La Fe sometimes gets, how it’s grown, and the people it helps.

Q: How did you become involved with La Fe?

I grew up in this neighborhood. I’ve been involved in La Fe since I was 14. I was hired as part of their support staff in 1973. As activists, we were very involved in La Fe, the Mexican American Youth Association and later with Partido de Los Pobres.

We worked with people in the barrio, teaching them English or playing bingo while at the same time, teaching them how they had to stand up for themselves and start demanding that they have adequate health care, appropriate housing, that their children get equal education. You know, all the gamut of the war on poverty, which is basically what we have undertaken at La Fe.

Then in 1975, the money ran out for the outreach component of La Fe. There was no money to continue. In 1976, I went to work in the City-County Health Department.

Q: Describe La Fe today in terms of its staff and budget.

We’ve got about 450 employees, right around $25 million budget, plus the $2 million budget for the school. Our monies are mostly revenue-captured monies, either Medicaid or Medicare or some private insurance or community pays.

Q: La Fe’s mission has grown from being a health program to an organization providing many additional services, including a college preparatory charter school and housing. Has La Fe come under fire because of that?

We have been criticized because we went from being a health organization to this giant conglomerate, this giant octopus. I say what’s wrong with that? The community needs it.

The same issue that comes up today with not-for-profits, not just in El Paso but around this country. It seems that not-for-profit organizations want to mimic or follow what we have in our national system.

Q: What do you mean?

We’ve got a system that is very categorical. The federal government will give you money for intervention but not for treatment because you’re only supposed to be doing intervention. They’ll give you money for housing but not for health. They’ll give you money for education but not housing or health.

I asked why we have to continue with this categorical mind set. That wasn’t the dream or the vision of the women that were trying to get their children out of the road to fatalism, the road to defeat, the road to violence, to drugs, alcohol, prison and to death. They wanted a new future for their children.

I need to emphasize that they don’t want a hand out. Those women and men were very proud people. They weren’t asking for a handout. They were asking for a hand up, to be helped. They wanted to be involved, they wanted to volunteer.

When I came here, the first thing I started to think about was having a place where you would combine traditional health care with culture and technology and bring them together to see how we could better help children and adolescents.

Out of that came what you see today as the Child and Adolescent Wellness Center, which is your health piece and then your culture and technology piece.

Q: By community pays, you mean people paying for services? How much comes in?

About $1.3 million. We try to charge $20 a visit, $7 for medicine. We don’t push free clinics. We haven’t for 20 years. When we started here people would say “I don’t have any money.” We would say, “Yes, you do. Give me $1, give me 50 cents.”

The staff went a little crazy on me when they heard me ask for 50 cents. They said, “We’re going write out receipts for 50 cents?” I said, “Yeah.”

Q: I went to the pharmacy and they said they provide medicines for no money.

They charge a $7 processing fee, not an acquisition fee.

Q: What was your thinking behind that, no free clinics?

People need to pay for the service that they’re getting. First of all, because that gives them ownership of the center. Twenty years later, we’re still working on it, and I keep bringing up this $1.3 million as an example of how people do want to contribute and be a part of the organization.

Q: How has South El Paso changed?

I would say in the past 20 years, you’ve lost a lot of housing. That’s the reason we started to get involved in housing. You’ve seen urban renewal, which was really urban removal, taking a bunch of our residents to other areas. If I’m not mistaken, South El Paso, in the 1960s and 1970s, had 15,000 or 16,000 people.

The housing was being taken away, and all they were replacing it with was parking lots. Twenty years ago, the population was probably down to 12,000. Now, we’ve got maybe 8,000.

Q: Why did Le Fe get into housing?

Because there had only been 30 new housing units built in 30 years since 1970. We started 10 years ago.

Q: How many units do you have?

Magoffin Park Villas has 91, Durango has 14. On Ochoa, we’ve got four duplexes and then we’ve got Tays, which has three. Then there’s one across the street.

Q: In 2006, Downtown business people and people who wanted to see the Hispanic culture of South El Paso preserved really jumped on you for supporting the city and Paso Del Norte Group’s Downtown revitalization plan. Are you still an advocate of those plans?

Of course, even though I did get hit with it pretty bad. In the beginning it hurt, it really hurt. But if I saw that the people that were criticizing it were doing something, I’d say let them do it.

Q: Are you concerned about gentrification in South El Paso if rents go up, pushing out longtime residents, and people with higher earnings moving in?

No. It’ll happen to a point, but if you organize your people and the residents and if you’re part of the planning process, then you can get some benefits out of redevelopment.

Why can’t we change some of those parking lots into apartment complexes? Why not bring in some box stores? People will stand up and say, “You can’t do this. You’re going to tear down our history.”

Q: Are people healthier here than they were then? And are kids getting better educations with La Fe here?

I hope so. I want to think that we’ve made a significant difference. But I don’t want people to think things are great here. We still have problems with drugs, with kids dropping out of school, with bilingual education and youngsters not learning English until third or fourth grade.

We’ve got students at Bowie High School that somehow have made it though the system without learning English. That is wrong.

Q: What else is going on?

The issue is immigration into and migration out of the neighborhood. Years ago, Segundo Barrio was for the most part a community that had one or two generations living here. You would have grandparents that went to Bowie that spoke English and that were veterans.

People mistakenly point to Segundo Barrio as a place where you always had first-generation immigrants, and that’s not true. A lot of these tenements were built for people fleeing the revolution.

My granddad and grandmother came in 1913 or 1915 as children. Both of them went to Bowie. My father and his brothers were born two blocks away from him, here in the tenements across from Lydia Patterson. My mom was from Juárez. She came here with my dad.

Our family was that perfect example of having two generations here and then having the new immigrants coming in. You would almost immediately see almost like a class system in the neighborhood between people who spoke English and people who didn’t.

Q: La Fe’s mission has grown a lot over the years. In addition to health care services and housing, what else do you provide?

Education, workforce development, policy and research advocacy in San Antonio.

Q: San Antonio?

The reason that we decided to put that office down there was because we wanted them to be able to travel back and forth to Austin to do education, to do advocacy with legislators, to present white papers to them on issues we feel need to be learned about so monies can be appropriated.

Q: Why did you start the La Fe Preparatory School?

The charter school was our answer to what I feel is an inadequate educational system that continues to promote large classes as opposed to small classes, that continues to believe that parents don’t want to be involved in their children’s school. Then, there’s the whole issue of bilingual education and the concept that children will eventually learn English as opposed to having the dual-language concept that we have where children will start learning both languages in pre-k.

Then, of course, we have some of our own pushes, like school uniforms, like teaching children from day one that they’re going to the university, that they should be proud.

Q: How many students in the school?

About 220.

Q: Are they neighborhood kids?

For the most part neighborhood kids, but some outside the neighborhood. Our boundary goes to Sunset Heights, to Scenic Drive, to Wheeling and then back down on Copia.

Q: So, they are the children of the parents who want their kids to get this kind of education. It doesn’t cost any more than public school, right?

Well, it costs them involvement. We push involvement. We’re still working on it, but we can honestly say parents are more involved in our school than the area schools.

Q: There’s more. A food industry program?

We’ve got a gigantic educational kitchen where we’re bringing in vendors so they can be legal in selling their burritos and some of the food on the street. These are people who continue to want to work for themselves. They don’t want the handouts, they don’t want the food stamps, and they don’t want unemployment checks.

We’ve got 60 food carts that we’re working on moving into parts of El Paso so that some of our residents can have a business of their own.

Q: And you also have a culinary arts program? Do you teach people to be chefs?

No, not professional chefs. We teach people how to be smarter shoppers and better cooks. We combined it with what this whole campus is intended to be: a combination of old tradition with new ideologies.

That means when we get people with diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity, we’re going to be able to bring them into our educational kitchen and do a hands-on for them on what it is they should cook, what should be in their diet and, most importantly, push to show them that they can do it.

Q: Are there other organizations like La Fe around the country that are as diversified as this?

Our external auditors from Springfield, Mo., do about 200 community health centers across the country. They have not seen an organization with the diversity that La Fe has in all of the audits that they do.

Q: Do you know if there is any anything that comes close to this in Texas?

There are 68 community health centers in Texas, and no. You know there’s an organization in Los Angeles called TELACU that has exceeded any other non-profit in this nation. Those guys have now become a hybrid of private and not-for-profit, and they are gigantic in East LA and around East LA. Maybe someday when we grow up we can be like them.

Q: In today’s political environment, can you see this kind of organization being created again, given that it has taken 45 years to become what it is today?

I think it’s our responsibility, those of us who have succeeded. One of our future responsibilities is to attempt to duplicate and replicate our model.

What that’s going to take is for us to partner with universities, educations and researchers, so they can come in and write out the model, because we don’t have it written out.


E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.


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