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Interview with Dionisa "Nicha" C. Coates



Dionisa "Nicha" Coates was born in Cambria, Minn., on Oct. 9, 1928. She attended kindergarten in Chaska, Minn., and finished schooling in St. Paul. She worked for the government in Washington, D.C., for three and a half years, then returned to St. Paul. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Experiences of her youth - personal history - the Spanish Speaking Cultural Club - the bilingual/bicultural program in the St. Paul public schools - educational opportunities for young people - organizations she is a





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Transcript of an Oral History Interview with DIONISA CARDENAS COATES July 10, 1975 Interviewer: Grant A. Moosbrugger

This interview was conducted as part of a series on the Mexican American in Minnesota. Dionisa Cardenas Coates, also known as Nicha C. Coates, was born and raised in Minnesota; Educated in St. Paul schools, she enjoyed a career working for the government for several years, after which she has dedicated herself to her marriage and motherhood. She has shown a keen interest in civic and social services, holding membership in organizations including: The Mexican American Task Force on Education; The Spanish Speaking Culture Club; West Side Health Center; The Wilder Foundation; Board of Directors of the Neighborhood House; member of the Metropolitan Council on Ageing. Dionisa's great concern for the ageing and the young people will doubtless lead her to continued contributions to our society. This is ~ transcript of a tape-recorded interview edited to aid in clarity and ease of comprehension for the reader. The original tape recording is available in the Audio-visual Library of the Minnesota Historical Society.

INTERVIEW WITH DIONISA "NICRA" COATES July 10, 1975 Interviewer: MOOSBRUGGER: Grant A. Moosbrugger

This is Grant Moosbrugger interviewing Mrs. "Nicha" Dionisa Coates, also known as "Nicha" Cardenas Coates, for the Mexican American History Project for the Minnesota Historical Society, on July 10, 1975. We.'re at her home on Dodd Road. Do I have your permission to record

this interview so that it will be the property of the Minnesota Historical Society? COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: Yes. When and where were you born? Can you tell me about your parents,and

how many brothers and sisters you have? COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: I was born on October 9, 1928, in Cambria, Minnesota. Cambria. In what part of the state is that?

I think it's in the southwest part of the state. And you are one of how many children? One of five. I have two brothers: Joseph and Theodore; two sisters:

Margarita and Jovita. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: What are your sisters' married names? Margarita is married to John Corral, and Jovita is married to Duane Souter. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: My brother Joe is married to Rose Jimenez. Ted is

Where were your folks originally from? My parents were from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Both came from the same town? Yes, from the same town. near Sabinas Hidalgo. Although my father was born at another village


What are their names? My father's name was Jose Cardenas. Leon. He was born in Bustamente, Nuevo

My mother's name is Refugia Ramirez Cardenas, and she was born

-2COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: in Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon. Do you know approximately what year they moved to the United States? It must have been in 1920. Where did they first live when they came to the United States? At the time that my father crossed over to the United States, they used to allow people to walk across to work. as a family. They worked in Texas. They just walked over

I just remember some of the names

of the towns where they lived; Bridgeport, Austin, and Dallas, Texas. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Do you know what type of work your dad did in Texas? I suppose labor.

I think he worked at one of the hotels.


Adolphus in Dal~as, I think. He also picked cotton. MOOSBRUGGER:

He probably worked in the kitchen.

Do you recall their telling you when they moved circumstances they moved North?


or under what


Well, the living was pretty meager, and they were kind of desperate. Then a "contratistas" asked them if they wanted to go somewhere where they could earn a living. a·box car. I'm not sure. I think they came by railroad car, like You would have to interview my sister

or my mother for that information. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Are your folks still living? My mother is still living. So 'your family probably came under a contract to work in the fields? Yes, to work in the beet fields. Do you recall what part of the state they first lived in? I think they first lived around New Ulm, because I lolas born in Cambria, which I believe is southwest of New Ulm. MOOSBRUGGER: Do you know approximately what year they moved to the 'Twin Cities?

-3COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: I was about five or six years old at the time. That would have been about early 1933 or 1934. brothers living around the Twin Cities now? COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Yes. What schools did you go to? I went to Lafayette. to the Twin Cities. We lived in Chaska, Minnesota before we moved There was a big hotel owned by the American I remember When Are your sisters and

Sugar Company, and a lot of Mexican families lived there. one of the families was Cruz.

I went to kindergarten in Chaska. Then I went to

we moved here, I went to first grade at Lafayette. Roosevelt Jr. High, and I graduated from Humboldt. MOOSBRUGGER: COAlfES: From Humboldt, that would have been what year? 1946.

I think I was the only Mexican that graduated that year.


were some before me, a few of them, but, I think that year I was the only one; because there isn't any other Mexican in my year book. MOOSBRUGGER: You mentioned that you were the only Mexican who graduated from Humboldt in 1946. Did you have any experiences that made you feel iso-

lated or different? COATES: Well, yes. I felt different because, although I hung around with a

lot of Jewish kids from the West Side, I think I was the only Mexi-" can and the only Catholic that belonged to a Jewish group. It just

didn't work out because on Friday nights they could do things and I couldn't even eat meat. out of the group. It was kind of hard. Eventually, I dropped

I think Ann Richker and I were the only ones from I went to school mostly

the West Side who were Gentiles and Catholic. with the Jewish kids.

Most of the Mexican kids whotwere my age went So, I did feel isolated. I never went

to Mechanic Arts High School.

to any of the games or anything like that.

We lived on the lower West

Side and we had to walk, it just wasn't convenient to walk that far.



I felt that had there been more Mexican kids in my class, it would have been a little easier to attend different things, especially school dances. Yes, I feel that I missed out on some things.


I know that you have been active in a lot of organizations and activities since high school. Could you tell us something about

your activities and organizations? COATES: Right after high school, I went to work for Group Health. From I

there, I went to Washington D. C. to work for the government. was in Washinghon for three and a half years. Paul and continued working for the government. active in anything.

I came back to St. I was never really

I always wanted to get involved in politics,

but because of the Hatch Act I couldn't get involved. MOOSBRUGGER: Maybe we should clarify that the Hatch Act is the law that stip-

ulates that government employees of a certain designation cannot actively get involved in politics. COATES: So, I never got involved in that. olic, single adult groups. the Mexican Community. I did belong to a couple of Cath-

Then in 1969-70 I became involved with

There was some kind of meeting at the church, I dropped

and I joined an organization called "Chicanos United".

out of that because our political views and philosophy were not the same. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: The group and: yours.

What are some of your philosophies? Does that make sense?

I'm an activist, not a militant. Yes.

I actively work for things, but not in a militant way.

At least I

don't think you can be a militant when you've taken every other course of action and it fails. tactics. Then I think you might have to use some militant

But, [ don't believe in being militant for the sake of mili-

-5COATES: tancy. we1;"e MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: I think that a lot of the members in the Chicanos United tYJ?e,


You couldn't abide with that type of thinking? No. I don't like mob rule and that sort of thing.

Do we still have a Chicanos United group that is an active one? They were active for a couple of years, up until two or three years ago. out. I think most of the older people who belonged to it dropped It was a younger group that got involved. They just seemed to

care about themselves, more that they did the total community. MOOSBRUGGER: Have you found your philosophies changing during the course of the last few years? rather stable? COATES: I think in the past few years my philosophies have changed, because I am getting involved with people. Now I'm more socially conscious Or have your philosophies, your outlook, remained

about things that are happening, especially what is happening to the Mexican Americans. I think you have to get away from things. We

had lived in a total Mexican community. great because we were all there.

We thought everything was

It isn't until you get away from

ti, and then go back that you see all the laws, or that life could have been better. MOOSBRUGGER: Things have a better perspective when you are in the midst of it. We

haven't touched on the things which are very central in any person's life; your marriage, and children. COATES: I'm married to Curtis E. Coates. Would you like to tell us? We were married in October, 1966.

We have one son, Erin, who is almost eight years old. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: MOOSBRUGGER: How did you meet Mr. Coates? I met him in "Riza", which is a Catholic Adult Club. Did your marriage move you from living on the West Side and give you a chance to get this new perspective of life; by moving out of it?



We moved out of the West Side community when the Urban Renewal took over. This was when you were still living with your folks? Yes, in the early fifties. I think we moved in 1951. The area had been

flooding, and they were buying the homes.

Supposedly they were going to I think my

tear it down, so we really had no choice but to move out. philosophy really changed as I've matured more.

I've gotten more involved

and grown more conscious about the things in the world, and things around me. MOOSBRUGGER: What are some of the organizations, the activities,that you find compatable with your philosophies1 COATES: Some of the things that you're doing now1

Now I'm active with che Spanish speaking and I'm the volunteer director of the Spanish Speaking Senior Citizens, which is an outgrowth of the Spanish Speaking Cultural Club. When they were thinking of starting the

Spanish Speaking Cultural Club, it wasn't going to be a group to work with senior citizens. seniors. It was Felipe and Felipa Ramirez who worked with the She worked with them while she was

This started out very small.

going to college. wasn't working. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES:

She asked me to help her and I would help her when I

When you refer to "her", whom are you refering to? Mrs. Felipa Ramirez. Then I took over the group. They sent me Gary. I asked RAP, Ramsey

Action Program, for help. enlarged the group. MOOSBRUGGER:

Between Gary and I, we

Is the Spanish Speaking Seniors the main club? social organizations?

Are they primarily


The Spanish Speaking Culture Club or the Senior Citizens? Either. The Spanish Speaking Culture Club is more of a social welfare type organization. Their main objectives are social and educational. Therefore, one

-7COATES: of our primary units was to work with the Seniors. Since I had the time, At the be-

I devoted most of my time to really getting the group going.

ginning, Mrs. Ramirez just had a few seniors; when you have one car and you're going to school, you just try and get some people together and do the best you can. enlarged it. Then when Gary and I had a chance to work on it, we It's kind of

At times we had twenty or better Seniors.

hard, when you don't have transportation, to get as involved as you'd like to get. MOOSBRUGGER: We have about fifteen active people.

So one of the problems is getting the people who have transportation, getting all the older folks together?



We meet once a week on Wednesday, which is our social day.


taken the seniors to educational and social events. have w,orked since they were very young.

A lot of our seniors

They did have a little social life

on the old West Side through their dances, but they hadn't really been aware of what's around them. other different places.

They had never been to the Capitol and

We have taken them to the Alexander Ramsey House, We take them to see something differ-

the Gades Farm and the Griggs House. ent every week.

It is really great to see how much they appreciate it

and how well aware they are in spite of the lack of formal education that a lot of them have, in our eyes. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: The Griggs House on Summit? Yes. It has a lot of French influence in it. These Seniors were very

up on things. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Yes, it can be.

It's surprising how much they do know. Where do you meet? Sister

During the winter, we meet at Guadalupe Area Project, GAP. has been very good about allowing us to meet there. we meet at the Neighborhood House.

During the summer,

It's been about two years now, and



we're really active with the group.

Ramsey Action Programs took care of We did quite a bit of

the transportation and paid the Neighborhood House. traveling.

Then after that, their budget didn't have enough money, so we We just had our cars. Gary and I drove. Some-

had to rely on our own. times it's just me. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: What's Gary's 1as.t name? Gary Gorman.

This past year we've had DART, which stands for Dakota It is a group funded by the Governor's

Area Referral and Transportation. Council for the Ageing. them a lot. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Good.

They have been very good, and we have been using

Do you have any fund raisers? We haven't had any lately, but they have done a We have sold them They work with other

For the Seniors, yes.
lot of hatd work:

crotcheting and different things.

at the church and we did take some out to St. Cloud. Seniors and they sold some other things.

We are going to be involved, Most of the funds will

hopefully, in the Aquatennia1, selling something. be for bus transportation and that sort of thing. MOOSBRUGGER:

Can you recall what philosophies, on the part of your parents, helped you. to develop your own philosophies?


My father was a very outgoing person until his health bothered him. guess I like people and I got that from my father. people. I've always communicated with people.


I like being around

Even as a child, I commun-

icated well with the older people.

I think I especially like working with I really like working

these people because I have known them all my life. with people. There is more satisfaction.

I worked for the government for The money was good

22 years, or something like that.

I had a good job.

and I would like to go back when Erin is older.

I would maybe like to go

back to government work and collect a pension, but yet at the same time I'm not sure, because the government doesn't permit you to do that type of




Social Services are what I really like, because I see what I'm Government work, you don't see right away.

really doing. MOOSBRUGGER:

Under the Hatch Act you wouldn't be permitted to work for the Spanish Speaking Cultural Club?


Oh, I'm sure I could. involved.

What I mean is that I couldn't get politically

When Senator Mondale was running, we had a group of Mexican That was the first time some of us had gotten

Americans for Mondale. involved. MOOSBRUGGER:

Was there any particular reason why-you got involved with a group for Mondale?


Well, first of all he's a liberal. stands for social welfare. same as mine. a group.

I'm a liberal more or less.

And he

His philosophies have been more or less the

I felt that he might be able to help Mexican Americans as

So I felttcommitted to him.


Could you tell us some of the areas in which services should be provided for the Mexican American, that have not been provided in the past?


There are social services for everyone. need a different thing. things. problem.

But the Spanish speaking people

It's difficult for them to ask for different

If they just wanted medical care, it might not be too much of a All of these things are difficult for people who can only speak I think that agencies; Government, State, and Federal; I think it's about time they were

one language.

just haven't responded to these needs. made aware of it. MOOSBRUGGER:

That's one of the things I want to see happen.

Many of our citizens', who are limited in their abilities to communicate in English, needs are not met equally with those who are able to communicate in English?


That's right. apart.

They have culture differences,ttoo, that sort of set them

I think people have to be aware of these differences to be able

to understand them and communicate with them.

-10MOOSBRUGGER: Nicha, could you tell us some of the things that have been done by our public institutions? Educational institutions, primarily Roosevelt Jr. Things that have' been done specifically Or perhaps things that haven't

High and Humboldt High School.

or primarily for the Mexican American? been done, that should be done? COATES:

Well, some of the things that have been done, but haven't been done by the schools, is the bilingual program at Roosevelt, Cherokee, and Riverview schools. It was the idea of the Mexican people themselves. They

worked very hard to get it approved and get it going through the schools. I think it really hasn't started. But it will start this fall. I think

that it will be very good for the community because it's going to give some type of identity.cta. the children. They"are going to be


identify themselves a Mexicans and start to be proud of their language; whereas in the past, when I was growing up, we all lived in the same area and we all spoke Spanish. We were all in a ghetto. But as people kept

going to work, and as they moved away, some people lost the language. The reason we kept the language is that we were all together. Some of

the people who had to move away as children lost their language and culture. I don't think that's good for any kid. If you're a visable minor-

ity, like a Black, Indian or Mexican ••• lf you are a Mexican kid, and you are the only Mexican kid_lin the school, you know they are going to know that youare different. you different. You aren't going to understand what makes

I think children need to know what makes them different and The thing that bothers me is that when I lived

what makes them unique.

on the West Side, the schools never taught us what the Mexican American contributed to the society in America. and Indians. We always talked about cowboys

We all went to the cowboy and Indian movies, but nobody

said the cowboys were brought in by the Mexicans, or the rodeos, or any



of these things that are as American as apple pie. learned this.

The kids never

They were never aware that some of these things were If they know these things when they are little, If they want to be different, then they can But when First

their contributions.

it would make them proud.

say, "I can afford to be proud, I've given the same thing." they didn't, it made a lot of kids ashamed of their Spanish. of all, our parents weren't educated.

We thought that the Spanish We

they spoke wasn't very good, and it really wasn't that bad. were ashamed to be different.

We wanted to be like everyone else. We

So we tried to put away the Spanish, and that wasn't necessary.

spoke Spanish at home or in the community because it was necessary. But when we got away from it, we wanted to become Anglos. want to be different. We didn't

Even though we were dark skinned we wanted to

say, "I am Nicha Coates," or whatever they wanted to call me. But you didn't want them to say, "She's a Mexican." You wanted, at that time,

to think back and be accepted all the time as just another person and not beca"se I had a brown face. Even now, I want to be accepted for I want to be able to share

myself, rather than for my nationality. those things with others. I am.

I want to be accepted first of all for who

I don't want people to say, "I don't like her because she's a

Mexican," without them getting to know me as an individual. MOOSBRUGGER: Will this bicultural/bilingual program be mandatory for any group of children or is it 100% voluntary? COATES: It's voluntary. program. parents. The parents are allowing their children to take the

It seems that there are quite a few parents, a lot of Anglo So the strange part of it is, a lot of the Anglo parents want But the Federal Govern-

to have their children enrolled in the program.

ment can only afford to give you so much money, because there isn't that

-12COATES: much money available. who really need it. Naturally that means it's only going to the ones That's unfortunate, because it seems to me if you

are going to put a system of education in, that it should be for the benefit of everyone. It would also be enriching the Anglo children, as well You know,

as the Mexican children, and they would be able to understand.

if you had Anglo children in your class, they will be learning about your background, about your cultural differences. you easier. They are going to accept

And not only that, I think that they are going to be enrich-

ed culturally. MOOSBRUGGER: The way it looks now, this program will be over subscribed. You're pre-

dieting that some will want to take the program,and will want to enr011 their children in the program, but will have to be turned away. COATES: I'm sure, because there isn't going to be that much money for it. As far

as I'm concerned, the district had promised a bilingual program and they should have funded it. from their own district. They should have started it on their own, funding They should have waited for Federal funds, because I think that they should increase the bud-

Federal funds can come and go.

get and put their district's money into the propram, so that everyone can benefit at the school where the program is being served. Then those

Anglos,Blacks or anybody else who wants to take advantage of the program is able to do so. What annoys me, is that this program wasn't initiated But there were cultural differ-

until the Mexicans made an issue of it. ences. that.

There was language difficulty, and they never bothered to teach In the suburbs, children in grade school were taking Spanish. It

wasn't a necessity for them, it was an enrichment.

But there was a need

on the West Side, and the Mexicans themselves had to prove to them that it was needed. I'm annoyed because the people have been taxpayers all

these years, and they entrusted the school district with the education of their kids, and their kids were getting the worst education possible.

-13COATES: The Mexican American Task Force on Education, which I am a member of, has been bringing a lot of issues to the school board. ing scores, the Mexican American schools had bad grades. As far as readAll these If a kid

children's were very bad.

And so the kids got short changed.

can't learn how to read to begin with, whether it's English or Spanish, if he isn't going to learn in his early years, he's just going to be a failure. It's just geared that way. You have to learn how to read

and follow directions.

Even to be a janitor and know how to operate,I, Our

some of the janitorial equipment, you have to know how to read. kids are reading far below level.

I think the people have to bring Hopefully someday '"their kids

up the issues and fight for these things. will be getting an adequate education. MOOSBRUGGER: Very good.

You mentioned, just now, a Task Force on Education of which Perhaps you could enumerate for us some of the organ-

you 1 re a member.

izations in which you are active? COATES: The Mexican American Task Force on Education, the Spanish Speaking Cultural Club, of which I was secretary, and the West Side Health Center, of which I am Vice-Chairman. I am a member of the Guadalupanas. This

past year I have helped with the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine at Our Lady of Guadalupe. I'm a volunteer Directbr of the Spanish Speaking

Senior Citizens Group, I'm on the Boara of the Neighborhood House, and I'm on the Metropolitan Council's Advisory Committee on the Ageing. a member in the Corporation of United Hospitals and on the Advisory Committee at the University of Minnesota for Chicano Studies. MOOSBRUGGER: Sounds like you keep plenty busy. What's your pet project? Your fondest' I'm

hope for all of the organizations and all the movements you are involving yourself with? If you had a magic wish right now, what type of progress

-14MOOSBRUGGER: would you see done in what area? children? COATES: Both of them are equally important. of so much. I think our kids have been deprived Would it be with the old or with the

The legacy that you can give or leave to anyone, is a wish I would like to be able to see Mexican kids get

for a good education.

the best education, as far as quality is concerned, so that they can be prepared to go into life and make choices. Like if they want to become But they should

doctors or lawyers, or if they want to be a bum, let them. be allowed to make a choice. education.

That can only be done if they get a good They should be able to get

That's what I would like to see.

help if they need it, good counseling and scholarships for those who really want to get ahead. is what they want. Let them become plumbers or electricians if that If a Mexican wants to be President, why stop him? If he wants to be an

Why not let that kid have what other kids have? astronaut, why shouldn't he be one?

We shouldn't say, "No you can't."

I mean, if his education is proper, and if he has a desire and physical ability, he should be able to go ahead. kid because of lack of education. You shouldn't have to stop any

Then of course I would like to see a I don't know how the

lot of work done with the elders, the seniors. seniors will work out.

With the group that I work with now, I know that

these people have been completely deprived of a lot of educational and social things that nave been taken for granted by others. a park like Koposia Park in South St. Paul. Even going to

It isn't that far away from

the West Side, but a lot of people have never been there. never had that chance.


Mexicans have always been the extended family To me, it's really great

type and I hope that that doesn't break down.

to see more of that influence in all of our society.

-15MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Can you mention, for posterity, what you mean by extended families? By extended family, I mean a kid just doesn't have a mother or father. He has a grandfather, grandmother, his aunts, uncles and cousins. body'is interested in his present and his future. to take part in enhancing it. Every-

They are all going

It's always nice to get advice or get That's one thing I hope But this

help, or just to be loved by all these people. we don't lose.

There are some things I'm sure we will lose.

is one thing I hate to see lost.

That and the language, the food, diff-

erent customs, some of these things I just can't see living without. I think that they just add so much to a person. MOOSBRUGGER: What are some 6f the things you do to keep your customs alive for your son? The Mexican heritage and this extra support system that extended

family gives? COATES: Well, I'm married to an Anglo and my child is half Mexican and half French and English. I think he's more aware of his Mexican heritage. He knows phrases and certain words. My child says that we don't

He doesn't know Spanish very well.

I'm going to keep at it until he learns it.

live in the same school district,- he won't be able to take advantage of the bilingual program. I probably will have to send him to Mexico for He has relatives there. We

the summer so he can learn the language. went two years ago. them.

It was hard for him to communicate and hard for They played a lot, but still I

He wanted very badly to communicate.

he missed a lot and I want him to really get to know who they are. want him to really get to know ahd enjoy all of his background. the Mexican foods and he's around a lot of his Mexican relatives.

He likes So I

think the Spanish Mexican influence is going to be greater in his life. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Do you ever have Mexican music playing in the home? Yes, yes we have.

-16MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Do you cook Mexican food? From time to time. foods. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: Very good. Is there anything else you would like to add? This is one of the It's a mixture of everything, but I do use Mexican

I'm glad that this project is finally being done.

things that I've thought about for years, and I've tried to do with my seniors. I've tried to get them to tape. Except when you get all these I have wonderful memories, I don't speak Spanish

people, they all want to talk at the same time.

and I've learned so much by being with the seniors.

in the home because my husband doesn't understand Spanish, and I'm really sorry about that. But I do speak it with my mother and the other seniors.

You know, you get away from it, and the tongue has to come back to it. You have to keep speaking it continuously. I've learned so much from be-

ing with the seniors. It's really' been a wonderful experience for me and I dearly love them. I do as much as I can for them. Social services

for the Spanish speaking, especially for the elders, is one of the things that is going to be my goal the rest of the year and in 1976. MOOSBRUGGER: COATES: That's great. Thank you very much, Nicha.

You are welcome.