Op-Ed: Arizona: “Nazism” in the Saguaro State

This compelling piece was written by Jeremy Burton, and has been cross posted with our friends over at J Spot. Reading the news this morning out of Arizona: The enactment of a piece of anti-immigrant based racial profiling, brought to mind … Read More

By / May 4, 2010

This compelling piece was written by Jeremy Burton, and has been cross posted with our friends over at J Spot.

Reading the news this morning out of Arizona: The enactment of a piece of anti-immigrant based racial profiling, brought to mind the following true story of one family. I hope it sheds some perspective on the hateful debates going on in that State:

We don’t know much about the early life of Felipe Martinez. He was born sometime in the 1820’s under the Mexican flag, probably in one of the northern territories.  What we do know is that in the 1840’s he was living in El Paso, part of a region disputed between the Republic of Texas and Mexico.  When Texas joined the Union in 1846 and the U.S. defeated Mexico in the war that followed, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 ceded the northern third of Mexico to the US and residents of non U.S. origins were given the right by treaty to become U.S. citizens or move south to Mexico within one year.

Felipe stayed in El Paso, became a citizen, and, with his wife Dolores, had several children including Geronimo Martinez, who was born in the Lone Star State of Texas, under the U.S. Flag.

By the early 1870’s the family had decamped to Las Cruces, New Mexico Territory, where Felipe had a store. With the coming of the copper mining boom in the western territories, his son Geronimo worked as a post/payroll rider between Las Cruces and Clifton, Arizona Territory (think of the guys on horseback guarding the stagecoach who always seemed to get shot in the 1st reel of the John Wayne westerns).

Geronimo’s daughter Evangelista was born in Las Cruces, a third generation US citizen, before he moved the family permanently to Clifton. In 1914 in Clifton (now part of the brand spanking new state of Arizona), Evangelista married Santos Colorado, a Mexican immigrant of mixed indigenous (Indian) and European descent who had come north to work in the copper mines.

We know that Santos took his bride back to Chihuahua state to meet her in-laws in the midst of the Mexican revolution.  We also know that the border was essentially porous, with workers going back and forth as the economy demanded, from 1848 until 1924, when the first border restrictions were enacted during an earlier American anti-immigrant fervor that also denied many Eastern European Jews entry in the years before WWII.

Margarita Colorado was born in Clifton in 1915, and though she was a fourth generation citizen, she was of the first generation to learn English fluently growing up. Notably, this was while attending a segregated school system in Clifton (it is a not terribly well known fact that while in the South segregation was a White/Black system, in the South West it was a 3 tiered system of White/Brown/Black).

After several years of working as a copper miner, the boom ended, and Santos moved his family to California where he was very fortunate to find full time work in the seasonal canning industry (in addition to working in the cannery, he maintained the tent camp for migrant workers in the off-season).  He eventually settled with his family in a quiet middle class neighborhood in Antioch, CA, near the northern end of the central valley’s agricultural industry.  He never did become a citizen, and registered every year as a documented resident until he died in 1978.  Evangelista, the 3rd generation citizen, also worked in the agricultural industry while raising her three daughters.  She died in 1981.

As a child I knew Santos & Evangelista, and was the recipient of their love, including (importantly to a toddler) the pleasures of ice cream and peaches in their kitchen.  They were my great-grandparents.

That little girl Margarita married a Mexican immigrant, Jose Casillas Sandoval, whose family came to El Paso, Texas, fleeing the turmoil under the Mexican revolution, around 1920.  His father, a local town leader, had taken the family north en mass to escape the political violence in their home valley (Jose did get his citizenship and served in the U.S. Navy in WWII).  Jose and Marge (as she preferred to be known) lived in Antioch where they raised a daughter, my mother, Diane Marie, a fifth generation citizen while also the daughter of an immigrant. 

Some of Jose’s siblings and their children returned to Mexico after the revolution subsided and to this day members of the family continue to marry across the divide of the border and citizenship status,  with some moving back and forth and maintaining relations on both sides into their 3rd and 4th generations as economic needs and family relations demand.

So why tell this story today?

The story of the Mexicans in the South West preceeds and in many ways has been in tension with the white migration from the east for 200 years now.

The story of Arizona is the story of a strong Spanish/Mexican culture; Exhibit A: the state flower is the "saguaro" blossom.

Throughout this story, the border states on both sides of the Rio Grande (or the Rio Bravo del Norte as its known on its other side), the Gila River valley, and the Colorado river basin, have been a vibrant open place where people went back and forth for jobs and family (remember the Magnificent Seven protecting a Mexican village from bandits?).  Some made it official on one side or the other, and some didn’t; but they all contributed to the economy and the culture. Ninety years after the Mexican civil war, good people in Chihuahua state, like cops in Ciudad Juarez, are again desperate to get their families and children across the border to El Paso, this time for protection as they deal with the consequences of a drug war fed by American demand.

Today I can’t help but think of myself as fortunate.  Fortunate to have this rich legacy and history; and "fortunate" that grandpa Jose was strongly Iberian (that’s Spaniard) in his features & that my mom married a European Jew (my father).

Because 90 days from now, a whole bunch of folks who are less "fortunate" than me and who live in Arizona, some of whom, like me will be 6th, or even 7th and 8th generation citizens will have to carry a passport for protection just to go across the street to 7-11 and pick up a bottle of milk.  Because in Arizona, the onus will be on them, just for looking "suspicious" (i.e. Mexican).  They will be stopped on account of their "raza," and required to provide proof of their documented status, or go directly to jail until they do so.  

Arizona will, in the words of Roger Cardinal Mahony yesterday, enter into a state like "Nazism."

As a Jew, I take the term Nazi seriously.  And as the great-great-great grandson of Felipe Martinez, I understand exactly how tragic and appropriate a term it is as applied to what has happened this week. 

To the people of Arizona:  How can you look yourselves in the mirror without feeling ashamed? 

Most of you came from elsewhere in the past 20-30 years.  Your state has doubled in population, but your actions ignore its heritage.  You have failed to learn about the place you live in and to appreciate the culture and legacy you have come to.

You complain about undocumented workers?  You brought them here!  Your housing boom and desire for services created a demand for workers, and you weren’t going to pay for others to come west with you.  So once again, and not for the 1st time in 165 years, the people of Mexico came to build a better life for you, and for themselves.

So shame on you Arizona, and shame on you Gov. Jan Brewer.  And especially shame on you Sen. John McCain because you do know better.  You’ve embraced hate, and bigotry; scare tactics and the police state.  This action is evil and it, and you, will be remembered in history as modern day hatemongers in the worst history of Ariziona segregationists, rather than in the best tradition of cooperation and opportunity.

A pox on you all!




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