History is not a spectator sport…
I taught Chicano history at the University of Arizona, and to make the material more relevant, whenever I could I gave a Tucson perspective to historical dynamics. Fortunately, I had much to work with, for Tucson has been a key player in the realm of Mexican American/Chicano history. Many of my students indicated in their course evaluations that these Tucson connections made history more meaningful to them and made them proud. Here’s a sampling of some of the Tucson-based dynamics I discussed in my classes.
Mutual-aid societies (mutualistas) are an important phenomenon in the history of our community. Mutualistas came about in reaction to nativist groups that sought to keep “foreigners” (which Mexican American s weren’t) and Catholics (which many Mexican Americans were) from being elected to office and from obtaining certain jobs. A common misperception about mutualistas is that they only sold burial insurance to immigrants. To be sure, they did sell such insurance, but they also promoted and engaged in meaningful social and political activism. The first Mexican American mutualista in the country, La Alianza Hispano-Americana, was founded in Tucson in 1894. Soon, mutualistas sprouted all over the Southwest and beyond.
As a result of the activism of La Alianza, the Mexican American community was very much a part of the political dynamics of Tucson politics in Territorial days. For example, several Mexican Americans served on the City Council and one as Mayor, and several Mexican American state legislators were elected during that period.
We founded public education…
This activism paved the way for some enormous and far-reaching achievements. One of these was establishing public education in Arizona. Local Mexican American business leaders donated land for a public school to be established in Tucson and funded the building of what would be the first public school in the area. This laid the foundation of Arizona’s public-education system.
Another was locating the state’s flagship university in Tucson. Mexican American legislators from Tucson cast the deciding votes that established the University of Arizona in Tucson. The state capital at that time was Prescott, and legislators from the Phoenix area wanted to move it to Phoenix. In exchange for supporting that notion, the Tucson legislators insisted that the state’s university be located in Tucson. [It’s said that bar owners and merchants who sold liquor objected to the university’s coming to Tucson on the basis that professors didn’t drink very much and therefore a university would not be good for their businesses.]
Bilingual education and the National Council of La Raza…
Also rooted in Tucson is Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the “Bilingual Education Act,” which gave language-minority children equal access to educational opportunity. Tucson educators Adalberto Guerrero, Enrique Oyama and others brought the issue of bilingual education to the country’s attention in the 1960s. In 1967, Guerrero testified on the issue of bilingual education before Congress. This led to subsequent congressional hearings in Tucson, which resulted in the 1968 passage of the landmark Title VII, a historic piece of legislation that for the first time recognized the validity and value of bilingualism and also legitimated the need for supportive educational programs for students of limited English-speaking abilities.
In 1969 Tucson labor and civil-rights activist Maclovio Barraza conceptualized the Southwest Council of La Raza. He hosted many leaders from all over the country at a series of meetings in Tucson, selling the concept of the Southwest Council. When the council was established (having received a sizable grant from the Ford Foundation), Barraza became the founding president. Over time the Southwest Council evolved into the National Council of La Raza, which has been described as the most comprehensive Latino advocacy organization in the country. [The NCLR recently changed its name to UnidosUS.]
We also do Chicano literature…
Two of the most influential pieces of literature of the Chicano Movement era have Tucson connections. Octavio Romano’s seminal essay, “The Anthropology and Sociology of the Mexican Americans: The Distortion of Mexican American History,” was conceptualized, at least in part, at the University of Arizona in 1967, when Romano was a visiting professor. In those days, “Louie’s Lower Level” was a popular student hangout. Romano had coffee regularly with Chicano/a students at Louie’s. I was one of those students. Romano would explore his ideas with us, and much of what he discussed with us later would appear in his essay. His essay posits the notion that in order for Mexican American history to be truthfully and realistically portrayed, Mexican Americans needed to write about themselves.
“Pereginos de Aztlán” (Pilgrims of Aztlán), by University of Arizona professor Miguel Méndez (1974), chronicles the Mexican experience in the Southwest. “Pereginos” is considered a foundational piece of Chicano literature, a pillar of the genre. “Pereginos” interweaves several themes—border and working-class dynamics, Pachucos, Yaqui heritage—and is the basis for scores of Master’s theses and Ph.D dissertations throughout the country and abroad. Méndez really brought home Romano’s notion about Mexican Americans telling the Mexican American story.
Romano’s and Mendéz’s works inspired hundreds of young Chicanos and Chicanas to become writers and scholars who went on to generate accurate depictions of our community.
And don’t forget the Church…
P.A.D.R.E.S. (Padres Asociados para los Derechos Religiosos, Educacionales y Sociales—Priests United for Religious, Educational and Social Rights), a national organization of Mexican American priests that advocated for the improvement of the social conditions of Mexican Americans held its national organizing Congress in 1970 in Tucson, where its platform of religious-based civil-rights activism was formulated. A Tucson-based group of priests, The Inner-City Apostolate, were heavily involved in forming P.A.D.R.E.S., which pledged and gave support to the Chicano civil-rights movement and was active on many fronts of the movement.
In 1971, at the P.A.D.R.E.S. national conference in Los Angeles, Fr. Alberto Carrillo, of Tucson’s Inner-City Apostolate, gave a speech that analyzed the Church within the framework of majority-minority relations. His analysis provided P.A.D.R.E.S. with an intellectual basis for their challenge of Church policy and for holding the Church to the same standards as secular organizations with regard to issues of social and political inclusion.
Indeed, for Tucson and its residents, history has not been a spectator sport. But what I describe here is true of many other Mexican American communities. It’s just that we are conditioned, I think, to believe that history occurs elsewhere, outside of ourselves, and therefore we do not look for it in our backyard. We should. We are surrounded by history and history makers. c/s