Emma Barrientos championed Latino community, arts
Wife of retired state senator died Monday at age 67.
Updated: 12:34 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009
Published: 9:39 p.m. Monday, Dec. 28, 2009
Emma Barrientos, a champion for the arts in Austin and wife of retired state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, died unexpectedly early Monday. She was 67.
Barrientos was an early advocate for the city’s Mexican American Cultural Center and served on the founding board of the Mexic-Arte Museum and as board president of the Austin Museum of Art.
"We all believed that the arts bridges communities, and I think that was her way of bringing the arts to every segment of the population," said Travis County District Clerk Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza, who knew Barrientos for 40 years.
Barrientos wanted cultural options for her five children, but there were few, said Velia Sanchez, one of Barrientos’ closest friends.
So the two women helped establish the Ballet Folklórico de Texas, a Mexican folk dance school and company. Barrientos’ daughters danced at the school.
Like her husband, Barrientos was a community activist and fought to ensure that the talents of Latinos in Austin were acknowledged and celebrated, Sanchez said.
Gonzalo Barrientos said that she marched with him in the streets for social justice and that they shared a philosophy that he was a public servant, not a politician.
"If she ever ran against me, she would have beat me," he said Monday.
She played an active behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s political campaigns, beginning with his first — and unsuccessful — bid for the Texas House of Representatives in 1972.
When her husband decided to run again in 1974, Emma Barrientos said it took her three days to swallow the news because the family was financially strapped, according to a 2002 oral history recording at the Austin History Center.
"We were constantly — our life seemed to be driven by things that we thought … needed to be done, and we worked our finances out," she said in the recording.
He won in 1974 and held that job until jumping to the Senate a decade later . He retired in 2007.
In 1999 , Emma Barrientos served as the president of the Texas Senate Ladies Club, an organization of senators’ wives.
"He was a senator for a reason," said Fred Cantu , chairman of the Austin Tejano Democrats. "She was always making sure that things got done."
The Travis County Democratic Party honored her earlier this year for her contribution over the decades to countless political campaigns. At the time of her death, Barrientos was helping plan next month’s statewide nominating conference of the Tejano Democrats, of which the former senator is the chairman.
She worked for Travis County for 30 years in various jobs, the last with Constable Bruce Elfant, before retiring in 2007.
Gonzalo Barrientos said his wife died within a day of becoming ill. Early indications are that a staph infection near her heart led to cardiac arrest.
She leaves behind her husband, five children and 10 grandchildren.
A rosary service is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Mission Funeral Home, Serenity Chapel , 6204 S. First St. On Saturday, a 10 a.m. burial Mass will be celebrated at St. Ignatius, Martyr, Catholic Church , 126 W. Oltorf St. , followed by burial at the Texas State Cemetery.
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Forwarded by Jose Velasquez