Sometimes it’s hard to forget about the past, and that’s exactly what I was thinking while sitting in the courtyard at the Tucson YWCA off Bonita Street during the Arizona Cesar E. Chavez Holiday Coalition’s Inaugural Dolores Huerta Awards Luncheon on Tuesday, March 4.
While this was the first luncheon and award ceremony organized to honor the co-founder of United Farm Workers, it wasn’t the activist and icon’s first visit back since her now famous (made Tom-Horn infamous) speech at Tucson Magnet High School in 2006. The phrase “Republicans hate Latinos” made Arizona conservatives huff a collective and most insincere indignation of “Who us?” that forced those good people to show how they really feel beyond the crazy anti-immigration laws that then-Gov. Janet Napolitano was vetoing regularly.
So the more sane folks recognized that Huerta was speaking the truth, and Horne’s introduction of the anti-Mexican-American studies law when he was state superintendent of public schools that specifically targeted the Tucson Unified School district program only made that truth more clear—if you were paying attention.
I wondered during Huerta’s speech if she would bring up that statement and maybe have a special message for Horne, but then I thought about the past two years and how hard it has been for part of the community who worked, some in different ways, in support of the MAS program and classes. A lot has happened since then, and where in the world would she begin, I asked myself.
Also, it really wasn’t a very diverse crowd. You didn’t see many of those who regularly attended those contentious and heart-breaking TUSD school board meetings during former Superintendent John Pedicone’s reign. This was a politically-centered crowd—elected officials from TUSD school board members with current TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, Pima County Supervisors, our mayor and some city council members. Many city and county support staff, and a few other folks who identify as progressives. A culturally relevant curriculum/MAS teacher was there and someone in the trenches long ago —both once very close to former Chicano studies student and teacher Consuelo Aguilar; additionally, a small handful of former MAS students. But that was about it.
So this time in Tucson, Huerta’s comments were not earth shattering. Huerta didn't utter anything that would give Rush Limbaugh a tea-bag hard-on. It was, in many ways, a typical Pima County Democratic Party rally-the-chorus kind of speech—but her comments on feminism and gender weren't lost in the lessons learned the past two year by MAS organizers.
Huerta arrived to a standing ovation and a good UFW unity clap, you know, the clap the kids did in MAS classes that TUSD school board member Mark Stegeman declared as cult-like behaviors. She was seated next to retired Southside Presbyterian Church’s Rev. John Fife along with Congressman Raul Grijalva’s wife Mona and his daughter, TUSD governing board member Adelita Grijalva, Superindent H.T. Sanchez and on the other side of Huerta, TUSD governing board member Cam Juarez.
That morning, Huerta went to Davis Elementary to talk to the students and was made an official Adelita. Juarez declared that the icon was now officially tied to TUSD (at least in ways that really matter—the way it should have been all along, is what I was thinking).
Before Huerta spoke, others chimed in and awards were given. To me, thinking about the difficulties in the community, how important it was that this luncheon be held at the YWCA so that its new director Kelly Fryer would get a chance to address the crowd. Not a tough crowd, but an important one because it signified a path for good healing to begin. There was division between the activist community and the YWCA over MAS that in the end didn’t help anyway. But Fryer strikes me as a bit of a fearless leader who understood the status-quo politics sitting before her and must understand the past.
Fryer told the crowd that she first heard of Huerta from her union organizing grandfather—his gavel sits on her desk and a reminder of the “work before us."
Tucson City Council member Regina Romero reminded folks that Chavez has always had ties to Tucson. While he was born in Yuma, his mother was raised in Tucson and returned often. Our Councilwoman has her own ties to the work of Chavez, growing up in Somerton, Arizona, the daughter of migrant workers who helped her parents in the fields during school breaks.
Huerta talked about Chavez’s mother, too — how she came to Tucson for special pilgrimages to San Xavier Mission every year, how she coined the term "Si, Se Puede," and that she’s where Chavez got his smarts as a community organizer.
Besides reminders of the city council vote taking place that evening for a Chavez holiday, Huerta remarked on feminism and the need for gender balance within the movement and activism, and perhaps there was one message to our lawmakers to support women and immigrants.
“Your people came from somewhere,” she said.
I was struck that it must be an interesting time to come to Tucson in this matter—I remember thinking the same thing of specific writers who attended this past Festival of Books. Being aligned with, who you talk to, who you sit down with, what group of people you speak to—while it may feel like the fires of the MAS movement are quiet and low, the tensions and heart-break between organizers and the community is still very real. I guess if someone arrived inundated with every detail—all aspects of the dirty laundry I’ve been accused of airing—well, you might not ever get off the plane.
It also dawned on me while tweeting that it didn’t surprise me that the Tucson City Council would be voting on a Cesar Chavez holiday later that evening at a council meeting. To be honest, it was made clear during the luncheon that Phoenix had beaten the great progressive moldy pueblo and had already approved a Chavez holiday. So the afternoon and the expected vote to follow felt a bit contrived. The packed city council chambers, the crowd in the lobby and the overflow outside felt, well, orchestrated. But I know that’s not completely true. I know folks there, in their hearts, were excited as they should be about Tucson finally approving a holiday in honor of the Mexican-American civil rights icon.
No doubt, concerns about the city’s financial challenges and cost of creating a city holiday—a price tag of close to $300,000—are valid. I thought about a conversation I had last year with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild about why important Tucson events like the All Souls Procession didn’t get financial support from the city and his warning that there were some tough decisions ahead for 2014 and 2015.
So the past few years, with everything we’ve been dealing with, really those in the packed room at City Hall should have been asking the city council and mayor, “What the hell took so long?”
While wonderful to be in Huerta’s presence, to hear her still kick it and see the faces of everyone at the luncheon and even those who spoke to the city council, Tuesday felt bittersweet. To the city council, Huerta repeated many of the sentiments she shared during the luncheon, reminding everyone of Chavez legacy and his ties to Arizona.
The holiday is needed, she said, to help his legacy be known. She recognized the discussion on cost and mentioned how other places have dealt with the costs, such as sales tax, not realizing those kinds of discussions have been ongoing in Tucson.
Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda said he looked at the figures and the city can handle the cost giving city employees March 31 off. No matter the contrived nature of the vote the evening of the luncheon, I hope employees take advantage of the holiday and hope for real change, and in the end, that even in that highly politicized YWCA courtyard, that even real change or at the very least the beginnings of it, can happen in even our beloved albeit sometimes contentious community.
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