On the Cusp of History

A candidate with strong Tucson ties hopes to become the first Native American woman to serve in Congress

Sitting at the table in her in-laws' dining room in Tucson, Wenona Benally Baldenegro begins like she would any campaign interview, discussing where she grew up and the road that led her to public service.

However, this isn't a typical campaign story—partly because if she wins the race for Arizona's new Congressional District 1, this Democrat and member of the Navajo Nation would make history as the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.

The district is currently represented by Republican Paul Gosar. Like the other districts across the state, it is going through changes that will make this campaign worth watching for Southern Arizonans. The district stretches far north into the Navajo and Hopi nations and the Flagstaff area, but proposed redistricting maps show it spreading farther south, to include Oro Valley and Marana.

Sitting across from Benally Baldenegro, 34, is Carolina Cruz, whom she warmly calls tia, or aunt. Cruz is the aunt of Benally Baldenegro's husband, Salomón Baldenegro Jr.

Cruz and Baldenegro's mother, Cecilia Cruz, grew up in the mining communities of Hayden and Winkelman, where their father, the late Roberto Cruz, helped start Local 886 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, which grew into the United Steelworkers Union Local 886.

Going to these towns with her aunt and other family members for the campaign forced her aunt to reconnect with the family's history in mining and unionizing—and to remember how part of the Chicano movement was born on picket lines.

The sisters grew up watching their mother and father struggle to provide for their family while fighting for better wages.

"It has brought up a lot of emotions that people have put away for 50 years or 60-some years. But going back, the people are so strong, so resilient," Cruz says, tears rolling down her cheeks as she describes her family's history. "When the first union came in, my uncles had come (home from World War II), and they came back to a segregated town."

As her uncles made their way home to Arizona, they saw racism's ugly visage.

"So all of that is our history, and that's why they could no longer (accept half the pay) for the same amount of work," Cruz says.

When the Cruz sisters were little girls, Mexican-American kids could only use the town swimming pool one day a week.

"This campaign has brought back memories," Cruz says. "Yes, some of those memories are hard, but it's been good to be reminded of our history, and Native American history, too."

In these mining towns, residents have told them how refreshing it is to have politicians actually knock on their doors. "That hasn't happened in a long time," Cruz says.

They've also gone into the Navajo and Hopi reservations, bringing members of both sides of the family—Mexican American and Native American—in a concerted effort to get Benally Baldenegro elected.

Benally Baldenegro married Baldenegro Jr. this year. The couple met while volunteering for Randy Parraz's unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. Baldenegro Jr.'s father is a well-known local activist who is credited with helping start Tucson's Chicano-rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His mother's family has strong union roots. (See "Being Baldenegro," March 31.)

Benally Baldenegro grew up in Kayenta, a small town in the Navajo Nation. Her father is an engineer who moved the family there when he got a job at the Peabody Coal mine near Black Mesa. Her parents divorced, and Benally Baldenegro's mother had to return to college to become a teacher to help support her and her three brothers.

"When my parents divorced, she realized, 'I only have a high school diploma. I'm only able to teach as a substitute. I need more than this,'" Benally Baldenegro recalls.

While Benally Baldenegro was in high school, her mother went to college, and she helped take care of her younger brothers. After the divorce, they went from being fairly well-off to being fairly poor.

Benally Baldenegro says education was always important to her. She graduated second in her high school class, and turned down Yale when Arizona State University offered her a full scholarship.

"Coming from a single-parent household, I couldn't turn that down," she says.

After ASU, moved by injustices to the Navajo people, Benally Baldenegro decided to go to law school and was accepted to Harvard. She also received her master's degree in public policy from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

During her studies, Benally Baldenegro did an internship in Canada, working with a native group on health-care issues. She spent another summer in Australia, working for a group doing research on aborigines.

"That's when I decided I wanted to combine my degrees with public policy. So I stayed at Harvard and got a master's in public policy—and that expanded my world even more. My classmates came from all over the world. It was just this fantastic learning environment," Benally Baldenegro says.

After working for a law firm in Portland, Ore., Benally Baldenegro decided to return to Arizona. She was interested in teaching law, so she enrolled in the master's of law program at the UA law school.

"I was on track to become a law professor," she says.

But in January, Benally Baldenegro decided to run for office.

"One thing I have discovered is when I talk about my story, it's not just my personal story. My family and community story is very similar to many stories, not only across the district, but across Arizona, across the Southwest, across America," she says.

That's why her connection to the Baldenegro-Cruz families is important to her.

"It's two different cultures ... but it's all the same story. Really, it's who we are as Americans and as Arizonans—not only our two families and how they came to be, but how our two communities came to be. We are all Arizonans."

Last week, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva formally endorsed her. She earlier received endorsements from the United Steelworkers of America and the Progressive Democrats of America, which should give her a boost with fundraising in a tough primary against former Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.

"We share stories of success and courage and strength," Benally Baldenegro says. "I think that's really what people love about my campaign. It's not only about who I am and what I want to do, but bringing us together."

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