Being Baldenegro

For these Tucsonans, fighting for Chicano rights is all in the family

When Salomón Baldenegro Jr. and his younger brother were little boys, their mother and father took them to protests urging shoppers to take up Cesar Chavez's call to support struggling farm workers.

When Baldenegro Jr. looks back at those days, he realizes he was luckier than most Mexican-American kids from his generation.

He was experiencing Chicano history.

Baldenegro's father, Salomón Baldenegro Sr., is considered by many to be the leader of Tucson's Chicano movement in the late 1960s and 1970s, part of a brown civil-rights tidal wave that simultaneously swept through other Southwest states.

"I did grow up going to protests and being told stories about our history and what came before," Baldenegro Jr. says. "Yes, I guess my life was like a Chicano-studies class."

Baldenegro Sr. is featured prominently in Arizona State University Professor F. Arturo Rosales' book Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement—which happens to be one of the books criticized by Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne in his battle against ethnic studies, particularly the Mexican-American Studies Program in the Tucson Unified School District.

In the late 1960s, Baldenegro Sr. was inspired by Chicano-movement activities taking place in California, and he brought together other college-age Mexican Americans in Tucson to help organize student walkouts at Tucson and Pueblo high schools, in an effort to force the district to address concerns about bilingual education and overcrowding.

In the spring of 1970, the group organized in Barrio Hollywood and protested at the city-owned El Rio Golf Course for a neighborhood park. They succeeded, and the El Rio Neighborhood Center and Joaquín Murrieta Park were created.

But when Baldenegro Jr. attended Tucson High Magnet School in the early 1990s, following in his father's footsteps was not on his mind.

"I rebelled," Baldenegro Jr. says. "I wanted to do something else. I was at that age where I wanted my own thing. I wanted to play soccer, listen to music and hang out with my friends."

At the UA, he majored in media arts, and after graduation, he worked at KVOA Channel 4 and then the city's Channel 12 station. During the 2009 city budget cuts, Baldenegro Jr. was laid off, and decided to move to Washington, D.C., where he had family.

"I got this great job working for (a nonprofit called) SER-Jobs for Progress, and I was paid well. I knew the work I was doing was good. It opened my world, but at the same time, I wasn't working directly with the community," he says.

As the anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic-studies rhetoric spewed from the Arizona Legislature and regularly made national news, Baldenegro Jr. says he grew more worried about home.

Two weeks before Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, Baldenegro Jr. moved back to Arizona.

"I saw all those bills, and I knew the shit was going to hit the fan. That's when I also knew I needed to go home. I needed to help and be part of fighting against what was going on," Baldenegro Jr. says. "I came back expressly to work in my community and be with my family."

When Tom Horne is confronted by opponents of HB 2281, the ethnic-studies law he helped draft when he served as the state's superintendent of public instruction, he sometimes describes the opponents as thugs—people who are a result, he says, of what happens when students take these "anti-American" ethnic-studies classes.

On Tuesday, March 22, Horne debated civil-rights attorney Richard Martinez on the constitutional merits of the ethnic-studies law at the UA James E. Rogers College of Law. Horne continued to argue that the Mexican-American studies classes divide students by race and create young men and women who feel victimized and oppressed.

Of course, Baldenegro Sr. has a different perspective. Several of the TUSD ethnic-studies teachers were mentored by Baldenegro Sr. at the UA when he taught Chicano history classes and worked as the assistant dean of Hispanic student affairs.

"My heart soars like a hawk with pride. I don't know how else I can explain it," Baldenegro Sr. says about these young teachers and Chicano-rights leaders as he sits shoulder to shoulder with his oldest son in the family's dining room at their home near Tucson High. "Not just for my son, but for all of them. It just makes me very, very proud, as it should all of us. I can't see a damn thing that we should not be proud of. They are speaking out, organizing and confronting evil, trying to change things for the better."

Living across the street from Tucson High has its advantages, both for Baldenegro Sr. and the ethnic-studies teachers at the school, who regularly ask the retired professor to speak to students—allowing them to hear directly from a man they read about in their book on the history of the Chicano movement.

Baldenegro Sr. laughs at the idea of being a living part of history, but now more then ever, he says, this is an important time to honor and recognize that history—in order to learn from it and to fight the anti-Mexican legislation making its way out of Maricopa County.

Baldenegro Sr. grew up in Barrio Hollywood at a time when Mexican-American students were punished if they were caught speaking Spanish at school; their names were anglicized, too. Any forms of cultural expression were completely discouraged, he remembers.

Baldenegro Sr. also had personal struggles with school. At the age of 17, he got into trouble for fighting, was thrown out of Tucson High and was placed at the Fort Grant State Industrial School, a reform school for boys.

At 18, he was released and tried to return to Tucson High to get his diploma, but the principal wouldn't allow that—until his mother hired an attorney.

Baldenegro Sr. finally got his diploma from Tucson High at the age of 21 and headed to the UA. However, he put college on hold as he got involved with the anti-war movement during Vietnam, and then the Chicano movement, starting the Mexican American Liberation Committee, which organized the Tucson student walkouts in 1969 and the El Rio Golf Course takeover in 1970.

In 1971, Baldenegro Sr. worked as the director of student services at Pima Community College. After a year and half, a job opened up that he says was a perfect fit for him: He became the director of the Youth Services Bureau.

"The main purpose of the Youth Services Bureau was to keep kids from going to reform school, and soon, we developed the largest and most comprehensive youth agency in the state," Baldenegro Sr. says.

Among others, he hired Raúl Grijalva and Martinez, the attorney now representing the 11 TUSD ethnic-studies teachers who are suing Horne and the Arizona Board of Education. He also hired Dolores Carrión, who now teaches art at Pueblo High as part of the Mexican American Studies Program.

"We were the first agency to start shelter care for runaway kids, and (we started) a halfway house for kids transitioning from the Department of Corrections. We were also the first in the nation to target kids sniffing spray paint. A lot of people saw it as mischief, but we saw it as a drug problem and got the city codes changed, which forced stores to keep spray paints locked away and not (be) sold to minors," Baldenegro Sr. says.

When Ronald Reagan became president, the federal funding that the Youth Services Bureau depended on went away—and so did the agency.

"I spent my life working as a fulltime organizer, so I decided I'd better go back to school and finish my degree. I was a freshman in 1965 when I was at the UA, and I finally got my degree in 1986." He also began working on his master's in bilingual special education and started pursuing a doctorate.

It wasn't easy looking for a job back then. Baldenegro Sr. says he didn't always make friends when he worked as an activist, and felt that at one time, he was being blackballed. Nonetheless, he got a job as assistant dean for Hispanic student affairs at the UA in 1989.

He put his doctorate on hold to do that job and to teach in the UA's Department of Mexican American Studies. But in 1998, Baldenegro Sr.'s contract as assistant dean wasn't renewed. Although the community rallied behind him in an attempt to force the administration to reconsider, that never happened.

Baldenegro says he was essentially fired because he upset a lot of people after writing a piece in the Arizona Daily Star where "I referred to a whispering campaign to get me fired."

However, he was offered a position as a senior research analyst on minority-retention issues and was able to continue teaching.

"I still had the opportunity to work with students, and that always meant a lot to me," he says.

Shortly after Baldenegro Jr. returned home from Washington, D.C., he went to a 24-hour ethnic-studies vigil outside of Tucson High. There, he met up with friends who were equally concerned about what was happening to the state and to the community they loved.

In December 2010, he joined Patrick McKenna—a Barrio Hollywood resident and former aide to Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll—and others to organize an exhibit and celebration for the 40th anniversary of the El Rio Golf Course. (See "Honoring History," Dec. 16, 2010.)

Baldenegro Jr. also volunteered with the Randy Parraz campaign for U.S. Senate, where he reconnected with Miguel Ortega, a former aide to Tucson City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich; Ortega was at the time running his own campaign for the TUSD board.

During the Parraz campaign, Baldenegro Jr. says, he worked with and became friends with David Abie Morales, who has a blog called Three Sonorans, along with Jessica Pacheco, Wenona Benally, Diana Uribe, Maricela Robles, Katie Eddleman and Ruben Romero.

Together, these friends meet regularly to talk politics over beer and coffee. In January, they decided it was time to become more formal and start a group called the Southern Arizona Unity Coalition (

"Our goal is to get the entire community behind ethnic studies. Up until now, it's been the same people who support it, and it has to be the entire community that gets behind this fight in order to save the program," Baldenegro Jr. says.

The strategies he and his friends use sometimes come out of the playbook used by Baldenegro Sr. in the early days—which isn't always about making friends, but instead is about what Baldenegro Jr. describes as "taking ownership of our community and the destiny of our own community.

"What we're doing is certainly challenging the establishment—and one of those establishments is the Democratic Party."

During the last election season, Baldenegro Jr. says, Democratic Party leadership and its candidates didn't always do enough to defend ethnic studies or come out forcefully enough against SB 1070. When the party and Tucson-area politicians endorsed former Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman's U.S. Senate campaign, Baldenegro Jr. and his friends decided it was time to speak out.

"We felt that what he represents is not in keeping with what we feel represents the Latino community whatsoever," Baldenegro Jr. says, pointing out the Glassman family's agriculture business in Fresno and its use of migrant farm workers. "But Randy (Parraz) was supporting us from the very beginning and taking a stand against SB 1070."

Baldenegro Jr. admits his outspokenness didn't make him or his group friends in party circles, but he says he hopes it was a good reminder to local politicos that the Mexican-American community's support can't be taken for granted.

"We want to work with the Democratic Party, but we want them to take a strong stand for us. We are in a new civil-rights movement, and they should be part of that," he says.

Baldenegro Jr. says he expects the Unity Coalition to speak out during the next election season and lend support to candidates—especially those interested in defending the Mexican-American community. But as a first project, the Unity Coalition held a formal awards luncheon in late February to recognize the 11 TUSD ethnic-studies teachers and to honor the memory of Consuelo Aguilar, a TUSD Mexican-American studies alum who later became a staff member. Aguilar died of cancer two years ago at the age of 26.

"It was an opportunity for us to show the community what we are really about: the love of our community—that is No. 1 for us, and what drives us is this special program, ethnic studies," Baldenegro Jr. says. "I was overwhelmed and overjoyed by the cross-section of people in the room. That showed me that we do have a lot of support."

The success of that project doesn't mean life's been easy for Baldenegro Jr. since he returned to Tucson. He worked for the YWCA on a grant-based youth project, but that ended several months ago. There's no doubt life would be easier if he stayed in Washington, D.C., but then again, Baldenegro Jr. explains, if he hadn't returned, he never would have met his fiancée, Wenona Benally, while they worked for the Parraz campaign.

Of course, living in D.C. would mean he'd miss out on being in Tucson.

"We're different than other communities. In Tucson, we have this deep pride in our Mexican roots and Mexican culture," Baldenegro Jr. says. "I could have stayed in D.C. or moved to California, because it can be so frustrating ... but the fight is here. It's incumbent upon us to fight for our community and give voice to those who have none. That's something that really drives us in the Unity Coalition."

While his father's legacy is a driving force in Baldenegro Jr.'s life, the work of his mother, Cecilia Cruz, has been just as important.

"One of the things my mom really taught me and my brother was a respect for women, and that's a part of the Chicano movement that has gotten overlooked," Baldenegro Jr. says. "I saw her not only fighting for civil rights, but also for women's rights."

Cruz, who grew up in Winkelman, is the daughter of a mine labor organizer. He inspired his daughter, but when she protested in the 1960s and 1970s, he wasn't pleased, and reminded her to stay focused on completing her college education.

"'What are you getting involved in that for?'" she says he'd ask her. "'I didn't send you to school to do that. Stay focused. You are going to school so you can get the same wage as a white worker.'"

Then she met Baldenegro Sr.—and got even more involved.

"He has such a clear vision and definition of what is right and wrong. It was appealing to me and a lot of people around him," recalls Cruz, who is one of the founding members of the Pima County/Tucson Women's Commission.

Cruz says that she and her husband didn't make a conscious effort to expose their sons to protests, but they helped her teach her children what was right and what was wrong, and provided opportunities to explain racism and chauvinism.

Those teaching moments provided the family with a little humor, too.

"There was a (clothing store in Tucson), and the workers were being exploited—not getting paid—so we took them to the picket line. We told them, 'The workers are being exploited,'" Cruz says.

"(Baldenegro Jr.) was in preschool at the time, and he said to his brother, 'We have to go because the store explodes workers. How dare they explode workers.'"

Taking up the cause of Chicano rights was hard work, and Cruz and Baldenegro Sr. say it's disheartening to see the new anti-immigrant legislation and the attempt to kill ethnic studies.

"We all hope as parents that the struggle we fought, our children won't have to fight again. During the Depression, those people struggled, and our parents survived the Depression, hoping we'd never go through those struggles, too," Baldenegro Sr. says. "We fought our battles against racism and discrimination, thinking, 'Now you guys can just live your lives,' but what is going on now in Arizona, we all have to do something about it."

Cruz says she remembers when Baldenegro Jr. called to tell her he was leaving D.C. to return to Tucson. "I felt very conflicted, telling him, 'But you have a job,' sounding like my father. But he's trying to do the right thing, so how can I not support him?"

Cruz and Baldenegro Sr. also remember how difficult the good fight can be on family and marriage. When Cruz was a little girl, and the miners had to strike, her family struggled while her father worked to make sure mine workers were paid a fair wage. Being married to Baldenegro Sr. came with death threats and false rumors used to discredit their work.

"I grew up in a house where my father was beaten and called a communist, and we had to make sacrifices for him to continue his work. In our own marriage, I saw Salomón give up a lot to lead the movement. Knowing that, I have those same concerns for my son and other people I see out there today."

Those concerns rarely cross Baldenegro Jr.'s mind, he says. He and other Unity Coalition friends have spent recent weekends in Mesa collecting signatures for a recall effort, started by Parraz, against state Senate President Russell Pearce.

"It's just another part of the fight," Baldenegro Jr. says.

His father wonders if people like Pearce or Horne understand what they're doing to Arizona—not involving the loss in business due to the state's image problem, but involving the revitalization of the Chicano movement.

"I don't think they have any notion of the power they are unleashing," Baldenegro Sr. says. "... They read Census figures as much as we do, and that's what's scaring them. We are the largest-growing group, and they are not. None of this has anything to do with the border. In a matter of time, we will look back and say, 'What the hell happened?'

"It's clear now what happened: They overreached and became so outrageous. We'll say, 'They were so arrogant, and they thought they could do whatever they wanted.' They'll find out soon that they can't."