Times staff writer


It was never in his nature to be passive, and he was never discouraged by the odds he faced.

Because of these traits, along with his eagerness and perseverance to make Laredo a better city, Aldo Tatangelo is a man respected, loved and admired by those who surround him.

During his 12-year tenure as mayor of Laredo from 1978 to 1990, Tatangelo, remembered as the man responsible for the paving of Laredo's streets, establishing a pension plan for city employees, reorganizing the city's street department, developing a Parks and Recreation Department and promoting affordable housing for low-income families.

At the age of 89, Tatangelo, who is still referred to by many as "mayor Tatangelo," remembers his life's struggles, the victories and defeats he endured in helping to make Laredo the city it is today.

Tatangelo was born Sept. 16, 1913, the second of five children - Guido, Leo, Eva and Gilda.

His parents, Nocolo and Bettina Tatangelo were Italian immigrants who moved to Rhode Island in 1910 with the hopes of providing a better life for their children.

In 1917, Nocolo Tatangelo established a jewelry manufacturing plant, and by the 1930s, the factory had prospered so that they changed the name from N. Tatangelo to Standard Ring and Company.

In 1929, when Tatangelo was 16, he dropped out of regular school and went to work at his father's company.

"This was the time of the Depression and my father needed help, so I went to work with him and enrolled in night school," Tatangelo said.

After finishing high school, Tatangelo went on to study plastic engineering and graduated with a degree from Brighton and Stratton colleges.

He continued to work for his father until 1943, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

That same year, Tatangelo married Alice, an employee at his father's company. Tatangelo and Alice would be married for 57 years, until Alice's death in 2001.

While in the Navy, Tatangelo served as fireman first class in the supply department.

In 1945, when Tatangelo returned from the Navy, he established his own sunglass factory in Providence, R.I., Atlantic Optical Products.

"I only had $380 in my pocket but I wanted to start my own business so I did," Tatangelo said.

Two years later, Atlantic Optical Products had grown to 168 employees and was producing an average of 5,000 sunglasses per day, making it the second largest manufacturer of sunglasses in the country.

In 1949, Tatangelo opened a branch in Mexico City with a Mexican associate.

Years later, when he moved to Mexico to supervise the operation, he realized that his partner was not willing to share the authority. Soon thereafter, Tatangelo sold his part of the business.

When Tatangelo's mother died in 1963, Tatangelo decided it was time he and his family moved back to the U.S.

"I had always felt like a foreigner in Mexico. I liked the city, but I didn't think it was a place for my children to grow up in," Tatangelo said.

Tatangelo wanted to live in a border city where he would establish businesses on both Mexican and American sides. After looking at Brownsville and Eagle Pass, Tatangelo chose Laredo.

Once in Laredo, Tatangelo established a jewelry-making factory and went into business with Eulalio Cavazos, a professor at Laredo Community College. But the partnership did not last. He bought out Cavazos and made the enterprise a family business. It was called Frontier Novelty.

Around the same time, Tatangelo established a plant in Nuevo Laredo in which he would assemble jewelry and optical products.

In his first years of residence in Laredo, Tatangelo had not become involved in politics.

But through his business, he had learned of the various issues that affected the Laredo community.

"I had a summer house in Zapata and learned that they had a fire station manned by volunteers, I thought, we could have that in Laredo," Tatangelo said.

In 1973, Tatangelo talked to the Webb County Commissioners Court about establishing a volunteer fire station in front of what is now St. Patrick's Church.

"They asked me when the last time that there had been a fire in that area had been," Tatangelo said. "And so I told them, 'so you're saying that just because I am not sick right now, we shouldn't have doctors?'"

Tatangelo recruited 39 volunteers, and that same year, the fire station was built.

By the 1970s, 75 percent of the streets in Laredo were unpaved and Tatangelo could not understand why such a low standard was allowed.

"Cranston (R.I.) had the same population as Laredo and they had a budget of $1 million while Laredo had a budget of $3 million, and their streets were paved. Why?" Tatangelo said. "They had to put money aside for the snow and the 58 average inches of rain that they had every year. Laredo didn't have to do that, so why couldn't we afford it?"

Tatangelo remembers posing such questions to then-Mayor J.C. Martin, who repeatedly answered by saying that Laredo was a poor city.

Tatangelo then proposed a donation of $6,500 to purchase paving equipment that would be utilized by the city's employees. The proposal was turned down.

But Tatangelo persisted with the paving issue, and for one year, attended every single city council meeting where he discussed the item time after time.

"I believed it could be done, I didn't see any reason why it couldn't," Tatangelo said.

City Council eventually agreed to a paving experiment that took place in a six-block area in San Ignacio.

It was around that time that Tatangelo, who had discovered how manipulated the city was by the "patron system" decided to run for mayor.

"I would go to the city council meetings, and nobody would pay attention to me. I said, 'maybe I should be inside instead of outside looking in,'" Tatangelo said.

But Martin had been mayor for more than 20 years, and had such strong political support that in most of his races, there were no more than two votes cast for the other candidates.

"Laredo was such a closed city," Tatangelo said. "There was a clique, and if you were part of it, you were OK, but if you weren't, then things were not good."

Tatangelo didn't have anything personal against Martin, he just didn't agree with the way he ran the city, he said.

"He always said Laredo was a poor city, but I thought it was a rich city that could do a lot of things," Tatangelo said.

Martin refused to run for a seventh term.

During his campaign for mayor, Tatangelo remembers visiting 10,100 homes in the process.

"I lost 25 pounds!" Tatangelo said laughing.

Tatangelo went on to win the election in 1978 with 9,748 votes.

This would represent a new beginning for Laredo.

"This was a new administration, with new ideas, new things to do," Tatangelo said. "The rest, as you know, is history."

During his 12-years as mayor, Tatangelo made many changes in Laredo, always believing that Laredo was a great city that could prosper.

Looking back over his life and the many changes that he made for Laredo, Tatangelo remains a humble man.

"People want to give me a lot of credit for the things that were done while I was mayor," Tatangelo said. "But there were so many good people that were doing their job, and they could tell me a thing or two. I give credit more to them than I do to myself."

Almost four years after recovering from open-heart surgery, Tatangelo is still concerned about the progress of Laredo and wishes he could be more active.

"I still have many ideas, but physically the doctors don't want me to get too involved. I miss that," Tatangelo said. "I miss being able to sit down and trying to figure out problems. It bothers me."

Sitting on his patio, surrounded by an elaborately adorned backyard, Tatangelo no longer owns any of the companies and remains busy with Kiwanis meetings and local events.

"What you see here is all I have left," Tatangelo said.

With three children-Aldo Jr. Linda and Robert; three grandchildren - Matthew, Nicole and Laura, Tatangelo said he is happy with what he's done with his life and how everything has turned out.

"As a whole, it was alright," Tatangelo said with a far away look in his eyes. "There were more things that I would have liked to do, but hey, you can't get everything you want, right?"



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