Listening to the unbroken, Southern accent coming from the former city councilman’s lips you would think he was born and raised right here in Chattanooga.
Manny Rico was born in Garland, Tex., with both of his parents Angel and Rita having come from Mexico and working as field hands. Manny’s family was poverty-stricken. He remembers growing up working alongside his three brothers in the fields.
“We were very poor growing up – we didn’t even have indoor plumbing. Both my parents were illiterate.
If it wasn’t for my mother, I would not have finished school,” insists Manny.
At 15, an age imperative for having a male figure to emulate while becoming a man, Manny’s father had passed away.
“When my father died, my FFA teacher, Mr. Turentine, took me under his wing. He was a stern man and could give you a hard look or throw erasers at you,” Manny chuckles. “I got involved in a lot of things in high school. I was on a team with mock chapter team meetings that demonstrated our knowledge of basic parliamentary law and the correct use of parliamentary procedures,” Manny states.
“Mr. Turentine helped me so much in believing in myself and preparing me. I will never forget shortly after my dad had died during my freshman year working the concession stand at the football game. The FFA was closing up one night and someone had reached for the coffee pot. It turned over and hit my foot. I got second- and third-degree burns. My teacher came to my house and stayed all night with me,” Manny says and then wipes away tears.
Clearly his teacher had made an impression on young Manny’s life. “He was a mentor to me. It was a time in my life that I could have gone the wrong way; I didn’t have a father – my teacher was the biggest influence of my life,” Manny maintains.
“I was trying out for a role with the chapter team and I was good at that role, but another kid trying out for it got it. They told me, ‘Why don’t you try out for alternate and learn every part in case someone doesn’t show up?’ and I did. It made me work harder. I remember that and I would use that philosophy later in my life. I knew then that I couldn’t be as good at accomplishing goals as everyone else was – I had to be better. Nobody would ever outwork me,” Manny vowed.
Later, when he worked at a plant, Manny would find out what the hardest job was and learn to do that job to give him job security. “When I went into business for myself, I knew it was a white man’s world,” Manny says without disdain. “I believe ethnic groups are more racist than Caucasians are. I accept that culture. My family is here; I was never around my Mexican culture. I sometimes have trouble with my Hispanic friends who see me achieve that balance in cultures, but I understand that,” Manny contends.
Though being raised in American culture, Manny knows all too well what racial intolerance is. “I was working construction one time and putting tile floors down. A bunch of suits came through the building and someone threw a penny down at me. I felt that they were trying to degrade me. I will never forget that. And there was a time when I used to work on a farm and my boss gave me five dollars to go into a place and buy hamburgers. Five dollars was a lot back then. I went up to the counter to order two hamburgers. The guy standing next to me said to them, ‘Tell him how much they are and maybe he’ll go home.’ Hamburgers were 35 cents apiece and I had five dollars to spend. Things like that stuck with me and I resolved that I would never make anybody feel the way I was made to feel when I was young,” Manny professes.
“I went to work as soon as I got out of high school. I was working by the hour with no benefits and, if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid,” he says. He moved his wife Barbara and son Tracy to Livingston, Tn. to help care for Barbara’s mother. He then came to Chattanooga to find work.
Manny’s brother in-law was working at Comolli Memorials and, when a position came open, he went to work with him.
“I worked there for 15 years. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t get paid for – you have to pay your dues. On weekends, I would hang around the office and learn how to sell.” he says.
“When I bought the business, all I had in the bank was $2,000. I started working from my house, bought a compressor and I would go do engraving on the side for the cemetery. I built it gradually, I didn’t go into debt. It was a big step and took a lot of faith.” Manny’s son now runs Rico Monuments which has been in business for 27 years.
“Paul Chapman and Dick Paul came in my office one day and told me I needed to run for City Council. I had been involved with the Human Rights Commission and the Sertoma Club, non-profits and civic work – so I decided to go ahead and do it. They said they would back me up and they did,” Manny grins, “…wa-a-a-ay back. I pretty much ran a one-man campaign back then. I went door to door. I ran and I lost. I thought I’d never do it again, but four years later John Taylor decided he wasn’t going to run. It was an open seat; there were about five people that ran. I won and was the first Hispanic to ever be on City Council,” he affirms.
“I was never brought up in the Mexican culture. I guess I have been white-washed,” Manny jokes. “Being Mexican didn’t influence how I would run this office. I will not pick out one group and focus on it. I wanted to be councilman for everybody,” he insists.
“When I voted to raise the taxes, a few people wanted to recall me. They also wanted the mayor out of here. There was an incident where one guy was causing trouble. If you come to a City Council meeting you can speak for three minutes, but you can’t do that more than twice in 30 days. Jim Folkner – the one leading this recall, came up there twice and the third time he came up I said, ‘You’re not allowed to talk today.’ The next day he put me on the list to recall and also put Jack Benson on there,” he says.
Manny sensed that the reason Jack Benson was added to the list was to take focus off the fact that only a minority was on the list. According to Councilman Rico, there were three others who voted to raise taxes who were not put on the recall list.
Manny was dealing with more personal concerns during the time this came about. “During that recall, my mother died and my wife found out she had breast cancer. After going through that all at once – nothing bothers me now,” he affirms.
Though decades have passed when a young Manny knew what it meant to go hungry and to do without the very things sometimes taken for granted today; it still resonates with him.
“If people really knew what I had lived through when I was young, they would know that I am probably the most content person in this world. There is not one thing that I want. Growing up like I did, I am very appreciative of where my life is now,” he says.
With the hardship he endured, material things had been important to Manny as a young adult. Acquiring them meant that he was as significant as those who never knew hunger. When he was around 30 years old, his attitude had changed drastically.
“I became a born-again Christian and that changed my whole outlook. I owe everything to God,” he vows.
“I detest people saying they are a self-made man – that is bull. You aren’t anything on your own; there is always someone who helped you along your path in some way,” Manny upholds.
“When I meet somebody, I want them to feel good that they talked to me that day – it’s about them, it’s not about me,” he says.
“I have always told my kids, ‘you are not better than anybody. You might be better off that someone else might be, but you are not better than any other person’,” Manny asserts. “I don’t want to be untouchable.”
With political disputes being multi-faceted, Manny admits, “Sometimes I get frustrated and think ‘gosh, I don’t know if I can really make a difference’,” he says, “but I couldn’t NOT do it. I feel a duty to the city – to the people. Chattanooga has been good to me and they have supported my business. I am so thankful that people have accepted me. Aside from my immediate family here, my friends in Chattanooga are my family,” Manny says. “People don’t care about how much you know – they want to know how much you care.”
Written by Jen Jeffrey of The Chattanoogan