WRITING OUR OWN HISTORY!
Alfredo Gutiérrez is doing what many of us should be doing. He not only made history, and is continuing to make it, he is also writing history. His memoir, “To Sin Against Hope: Life and Politics on the Borderland,” (Verso Publications) is more than a recounting of Gutierrez’s life. It does double duty as a straight-talking political history of a slice of the Chicano Movement era in Arizona.
I met Alfredo in 1968. I had organized the Mexican American Student Association (MASA) at the University of Arizona and Alfredo was one of the organizers of the Mexican American Student Organization (MASO) at Arizona State University (both organizations evolved into the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, MEChA). We met to discuss how we could collaborate on Chicano-related issues and forged what would become a lifelong friendship.
Alfredo was born and grew up in the mining town of Miami, Arizona when it was a bustling, booming town whose politics (like those of all Arizona mining towns of the time) were dominated by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), which evolved into the United Steelworkers (USW).
The IUMMSW was not your typical union. It doubled as a civil-rights agency, fighting the “Mexican wage” system, by which Mexican-descent workers were paid less than their white counterparts for the same work, and working to desegregate public facilities in the mining towns. Which is why it was constantly targeted by the government red-baiters. “To Sin Against Hope” provides some great insights into the culture of those mining towns during their glory days.
A huge contribution that the political-civil rights culture nurtured by the union made to Arizona is that a good portion of Arizona’s civil-rights leadership emerged from the mining towns. The union culture of activism and the fact that his father, a U.S. citizen and IUMMSW member, was deported in 1932, at the height of anti-immigrant hysteria spawned by the Great Depression, anchor Alfredo’s lifelong political and civil-rights activism.
Alfredo and his MASO colleagues—many of them also products of Arizona’s union mining towns—started their activist careers with a bang: in 1968 they took over the university president’s office for two days. A local laundry with whom the university contracted was abusing its primarily Mexican American women employees and engaging in union busting. The students were demanding that the university use its financial clout to pressure the laundry to change its policies and practices. The university acceded to the students’ demand, but it made life for Alfredo so miserable that he quit school. In sweet irony, the university would, many years later, confer an honorary doctorate on Alfredo.
Arizona was a hotbed of United Farm Worker union activity in the early 1970s, and Alfredo was right in the mix. He relates some of his UFW adventures, such as sprinting through fields that were guarded by local sheriffs, dropping UFW leaflets that urged the workers to join the UFW strike, as César Chávez and the strikers cheered him on and the sheriffs chased him. César Chávez conducted a 25-day fast in Phoenix in 1972 and commandeered Alfredo’s tiny office in a barrio church for the fast. Alfredo describes these dynamics in an entertaining yet instructive manner.
In 1972, at age 25, Alfredo was elected to the Arizona senate and a couple of years later was elected Majority Leader, the youngest person to hold that position. Alfredo went on to serve 14 years in the senate and was both majority and minority leader. During the 1970s, as the Senate Majority Leader, Alfredo was arguably the state’s most powerful elected official. His DNA and fingerprints are all over the political dynamics of the state and the major legislation that was passed during his tenure.
In his characteristically blunt manner, Alfredo notes—naming names—how many Mexican American/Latino non-profit organizations founded as advocacy groups soon devolved to groups that the government and private foundations throw money at to appease their consciences and keep the Mexicans quiet. Instead of nurturing self-sufficiency, Alfredo maintains, these groups peddle the notion that we are a dysfunctional community of victims (mostly of ourselves).
And Alfredo makes no bones about his disgust with what he sees as some Hispanic/Latino leaders’ attempts to appease those who disparage our community and what he perceives as the restraint of some of today’s advocacy organizations.
To be sure, “To Sin Against Hope” is not exhaustive. Certain important figures and events of the time are not discussed. But the narrative is still powerful and enlightening. Incongruously, Alfredo discusses “Latinos” and “Hispanics,” who had not yet been invented in the 1970s.
Alfredo honestly chronicles those things he did that he now regrets having done, as well as those things he did not do that he knows he should have done.
Those of us who have been in the trenches all these years need to do what Alfredo has done—write our own history. If we don’t, others will, and experience tells us how that usually turns out.
If you want to know how Arizona became ground zero for the anti-Mexican racism we are experiencing today, you need to read “To Sin Against Hope: Life and Politics on the Borderland,” which is available online at iBooks, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble and at bookstores across the country—if your bookstore doesn’t have it, ask them to order it for you. c/s
Copyright 2013 by Salomon R. Baldenegro
To contect Salomon write: firstname.lastname@example.org
The photos of Alfredo Gutiérrez in this blog are in the public domain, the miner photo has been provide with permission by Christine Marin courtesy of the
http://www.facebook.com/GrowingUpInGlobe/group. The Photo of Cesar Chavez is copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions Inc. and is used by permission.