Opinion: The prejudices and discrimination Latinos faced date back to Arizona’s territorial days. They also emboldened generations of heroes who rose in resistance.
Terry Greene Sterling | opinion contributor
As the American West was opening up to white non-Latino settlers, extensive traveler and journalist Richard Hinton wrote a popular Arizona guidebook for prospective newcomers.
“The Hand-Book to Arizona: Its Resources, History, Towns, Mines, Ruins and Scenery” was published three decades after the United States won the Mexican-American War, thus acquiring most of what would become Arizona and setting the Mexicans who lived there on a treacherous path. What’s more, Hinton’s guidebook came out a scant 13 years after southern Arizona and the rest of the Confederacy were defeated in the American Civil War.
Those two pivotal events in Arizona history, plus the fact that many members of Indigenous nations in the state had either been slaughtered, or had died of disease, or had been confined to “reservations,” would not only shape Arizona’s politics and prejudices that continue to this day but also embolden generations of heroes who were willing to resist them.
And such prejudices were clearly on Hinton’s mind way back in 1878, when he warned prospective settlers about “Mexicans.”
He described them as “quite primitive” with a “shiftless way.”
Hinton used the catch-all term “Mexicans” to identify American citizens of Mexican descent as well as Mexican immigrants. The label has been embraced by many non-Latino whites to identify generations of Mexican immigrants and American citizens who have called themselves Hispanic, Mexican American, Chicano/a, Latino/a or Latinx.
Early Phoenix was heavily influenced by the Old South
When Hinton published his guidebook, Phoenix was a tiny farming community founded by an ex-Confederate soldier. The settlement, now a city, is widely thought to be named after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. After all, early Phoenix was built on the ruins of Indigenous communities.
But the word “Phoenix” is also a post-Civil War code word for a rebirth of the South, writes Edmund Drago in his book “Confederate Phoenix: Rebel Children and Their Families in South Carolina.”
And given the discriminatory policies that have reigned over Maricopa County for well over a century, including policing, I can’t help but wonder if early settlers named Phoenix after the code word instead of the bird. The influence of the Old South is undeniable in early Phoenix.
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For years, local zoning restrictions forced most people of color to live in overcrowded, segregated neighborhoods. And while Mexican labor largely built the town and nourished the profitable farmlands surrounding it, “Mexicans” were routinely stereotyped by the local media in a way that reflected the town’s sentiments.
“‘Treacherous greasers’ were especially denounced by the local press, which gave considerable space to their violent exploits,” writes Bradford Luckingham in “Minorities in Phoenix: A Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1992.”
The Arizona Republican, the ancestor of this newspaper, depicted “Mexicans” as brawling drunkards and thieves who upset white women.
It’s not at all surprising that “Mexicans” were occasionally lynched in early Phoenix.
There was so much more that made life difficult for “Mexicans” in historic Arizona. A state miscegenation law outlawed the marriage of whites to most people of color, including those with visible traits of Indigenous DNA. A voter suppression law that required literacy tests. Unfair wages. Unlawful deportations of Mexican American citizens to Mexico.
Joe Arpaio became the patriarch of xenophobes
Alfredo Gutierrez’s dad Samuel, an American citizen born in Arizona, was illegally deported to Mexico in the 1930s. Samuel eventually returned to Arizona and became a union activist in Miami, an Arizona mining town.
Gutierrez as a child got to witness firsthand what resistance to civil rights abuses could accomplish.
Thanks to the movement his dad joined, “Mexicans” were finally paid the same wages as whites in the mines. Schools and swimming pools were desegregated.
That childhood experience shaped Gutierrez’s lifelong commitment to social justice.
Mentored by Cesar Chavez, Gutierrez was elected to the Arizona Senate when he was 26 and soon became the majority leader. Gutierrez told me that the legendary Republican power broker Burton Barr once said to him, “You are one of the smartest Mexicans I have ever met.”
Starting in the mid 2000s, Gutierrez became one of many leaders of a Latino-led resistance that stood up to the powerful politico who became the patriarch of modern Arizona xenophobes – Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The son of an immigrant, Arpaio for several years in the mid to late 2000s hunted immigrants in Maricopa County. “You go after illegals. I’m not afraid to say that” he once famously said. “And you go after them and you lock them up.”
His massive immigration-themed traffic sweeps did a lot more than that. They ensnared American citizens and provoked terror in Latino neighborhoods. Arpaio also enforced new state laws meant to criminalize and deport unauthorized immigrants.
Arpaio, who has always claimed he is neither a racist nor a xenophobe, was nevertheless enormously popular with those in his mostly white base who viewed “Mexicans” in much the same way as Richard Hinton et al. had viewed them many decades before.
A new generation fought these influences
Given Arizona’s history, most who joined the resistance to Arpaio took his actions personally.
The resistance was made up of thousands of heroes and heroines who stood on the shoulders of earlier activists like Cesar Chavez and Samuel Gutierrez.
And while Central Americans, Indigenous folks and non-Latino allies took part in the resistance against Arpaio, most of its members were “Mexicans.”
Lydia Guzman united families with loved ones caught up in Arpaio’s raids. She gathered plaintiffs for a federal court case in which a judge would find that Arpaio and his deputies had indeed engaged in unconstitutional policing.
Guzman also set up a hotline that was the only place some felt they could turn to for social services and advocacy. And she assisted the U.S. Department of Justice in its civil rights investigations of Arpaio. Her activism so consumed her that she lost her house to foreclosure and her husband to divorce.
But she never gave up, and in the end she triumphed.
Carlos Garcia, now vice mayor of the city of Phoenix, was born in Sonora and spent much of his boyhood as an undocumented immigrant in Arizona.
He became an activist in college and blossomed as a young leader in the Puente Human Rights Movement. This group of young immigrant and citizen activists was instrumental in the resistance because it carried out brave street actions that forced the public not to ignore the impact of discriminatory policing on the Latino community in Maricopa County.
Thanks to the tireless, yearslong work of this resistance, Arpaio is no longer in office. And Arizona’s constitutionally sketchy state immigration laws have been mostly defanged or stopped by the courts.
The same ills remain, but the resistance persists
But the influence of the Old South still remains in Arizona. Many see it in the Maricopa County ballot count and voter suppression efforts in the Arizona Capitol. Others see it in ongoing discriminatory policing of people of color in Maricopa County.
The resistance is still standing up to these forces, and serves as a model to those who want to stop what’s tearing the nation apart – civil rights abuses, institutionalized white supremacy, xenophobia and voter suppression.
In short, the same ills that were rooted in territorial Arizona when Richard Hinton wrote his guidebook still exist today. Still, there’s a chance they can be tamped down in this era of demographic change and movement towards racial reckoning.
There is a way for just about everyone to become engaged in social justice. The movement to stop Arpaio and Arizona’s immigration laws was made up of everyday folks. Day laborers and politicians. Hotel maids and lawyers. University students and engineers. Undocumented immigrants and American citizens. People of color and their white allies.
They battled for their civil rights on the streets, in voting booths, in the public square, in the halls of Congress and in the courts.
They didn’t give up. They lost some battles and won others, but they trudged on.
And in the end, they were, and are, on the right side of history.
Terry Greene Sterling is a three-time Virg Hill Journalist of the Year. She’s the coauthor of a new nonfiction book, “Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance,” which tells stories of Arizonans on both sides of a battle for civil rights and American identity in a time of demographic change. On Twitter: @tgsterling.