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1976 Citizen article recounts the 1970 acrimony over El Rio golf course

This is the lead-in to a Sept. 10, 1976 Tucson Citizen article about the fourth anniversary of the El Rio Neighborhood Center that recounts the protests of the 1970s. It’s rather well done and provides insight to the hard feelings over El Rio.

By Richard S. Vonier
Citizen Staff Writer

Sal Baldenegro remembers a 1970 scene at the El Rio golf course vividly, because he lost an audience.

On that steamy Saturday six years ago, Baldenegro, then an activist leader in the El Rio Coalition, had just climbed up on the back of a pickup truck to rally maybe 300 Mexican-American neighbors who had marched to the golf course parking lot to protest the lack of a West Side community center. He was laying out a pretty good speech, he thought, about human rights and the need to press their cause …. when a 62-year-old gray-haired woman interrupted from the crowd:

“That’s enough talking. Let’s take over this damn thing.”

He watched, mike in hand, as his audience diffused, spilling out in the ripe fairways of the once-private club, scattering the Bermuda-shorted golfers to occupy this grassy symbol of privilege in the center of a half-dozen cramped barrios. For that afternoon they claimed it as their park, lolling under the lofty shade trees, splashing in the cool lake, while runners made quick trips back to their adobe dwellings to gather up picnic food and footballs and guitars.

In the romantic dust that time settles on memories, Baldenegro sees that day as a turning point in the El Rio protests, an incredible act of defiance for the normally polite and passive residents of Barrio Jolle Ville, Hollywood, El Rio, Old Pasqua, Anita and las casas nuevas.

There were 50-year denizens of those neighborhoods who had never before dared to set foot on the clipped carpet of this oasis in their midst, this place where their sons carried the bags for playing Anglos and snowbirds. These were people who had never lifted a sign or marched a step during the tumbling ’60s.

Now they had taken over a golf course, a city-owned symbol of double standard, fueled by frustration and anger over the city’s refusal to give them a park, too, with a neighborhood center.

The dream had started three years earlier out of the smoke of election promises, but it had blurred through the months of meetings, bureaucracy, changed minds, lost tempers and disappointment, until the poor golf course got the misplaced blame. They wanted the center right there – not somewhere else as the planners suggested.

And in the weeks that followed the first occupation there were more picnics on the greens until police dressed for a riot blocked them – so they picnicked right out front in the middle of W. Speedway Boulevard. And they picketed City Hall and harassed tourists, and finally there were scuffles and arrests … and the tension got so hot that church groups, community organizations, news media and a lot of others started screaming too: For Pete’s sake, do something…


From Sept. 14, 1970 Tucson Citizen. Candlelight protest, Sept. 13, 1970, El Rio Municipal Golf Course Photo by unknown Tucson Citizen photographer.

From Sept. 14, 1970 Tucson Citizen. Candlelight protest, Sept. 13, 1970, El Rio Municipal Golf Course Photo by unknown Tucson Citizen photographer.

The story then goes on to describe what the “do something” was – the construction of a park on Silverbell Road and a community center next to El Rio golf course.

Another Citizen story from 1976 adds this about why the protest was not just about political pay-off - getting a community center park in exchange for turning out to help council candidates get elected in the 1960s – but also symbolic. The course was a symbol of Tucson’s racist, segregated past and destroying that symbol and erecting a new one that embraced the Mexican-American community of the Westside was part of the fuel for the protest fire.

The July 3 1976 unbylined article was about Sal Baldonegro’s continued effort to get the city to take down the fence  that surrounded El Rio.

From the article:

Sal Baldenegro, a member of El Rio Neighborhood Center board of directors, said the fence, which is six feet high and in most places topped with barbed wire is a “symbol of institutional racism” against the low-income Mexican-Americans who live in the area. …

“You don’t see a big fence around Randolph Golf Course, along Broadway and Alvernon,” Baldenegro said. “They don’t trust these people around El Rio, but they trust them around Randolph.”

He said the fence still exists because the city’s 1968 deed to El Rio Golf Course carries a permanent condition which states: “…no part of said property shall be sold, rented, leased or occupied to or by any persons not of the Caucasian race, except the same may be occupied by persons employed thereon as domestic servants by the owners.”

City Atty. James Webb said the city’s agreement of sale for the golf course does not include a covenant about race. That portion of an old 1944 title report has been invalid for 29 years because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1947 against such a restriction,” he said. … ”The mayor and council did not buy the property in 1968 with any such condition attached.”

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