Paper helped image of El Rio movement
I am deeply saddened by the departure of the Tucson Citizen. I feel a deep connection to the newspaper, not only as a former Citizen columnist, but also as a Chicano and lifetime Tucsonan.
The Citizen played a significant role in one of Tucson’s major political turning points, and a defining event in the political evolution of the Chicano community – the “El Rio for the People” movement.
The movement started in 1967, when city officials committed to build a park and neighborhood center on a portion of El Rio Municipal Golf Course, which sits in the heart of barrios El Rio and Hollywood, where I grew up.
The barrios had unpaved streets, no sidewalks and no park. With no place else to play, the kids played in the streets.
Barrio residents saw something inherently wrong in our children having to play in the dusty streets while outsiders had a lush golf course.
After trying for years to get the city to improve the area, the commitment to build a park and neighborhood center gave the people hope.
But city officials soon reneged on their commitment. We wrote letters and passed petitions. And when this failed, we held massive public demonstrations, resulting in the arrests of several activists, including me.
The City Council and its agents characterized our movement as being led by a small group of “outside agitators” bent on causing political mischief.
The Arizona Daily Star, perceived to be the “liberal” newspaper, picked up the council’s mantra and editorially blasted us repeatedly.
At the height of the controversy, the Tucson (Daily) Citizen, perceived to be the “conservative” newspaper, asked to interview our leadership.
That call from the Citizen led to a couple of unprecedented events.
The Citizen Editorial Board agreed to meet with us at the Centro Chicano in Barrio Hollywood in the evening. And we insisted that, while we would have designated spokespeople, the meeting would be open to the public. About 70 attended.
Normally, editorial board interviews are held at the newspaper office during business hours.
The Citizen published a detailed report of the interview, with pictures of the participants – “regular” people rooted in the affected barrios.
This gave the lie to the “outside agitators” nonsense. The story was accompanied by front-page editorials, one in English, another in Spanish. The editorials made the point that we were reasonable people asking for reasonable things.
Each local newspaper had previously published a front-page editorial addressing El Rio, but the Citizen’s two editorials, with one in Spanish, broke new ground.
We enjoyed strong and widespread support in the barrios, but people in other parts of town were confused about who we were and what we were about.
The Citizen story and editorials positively affected the public’s perception of our movement. Fortunately, City Hall folks also read newspapers.
El Rio for the People, the dean of the local neighborhood empowerment movement, was a historic phenomenon, a defining moment in Tucson history.
It proved a united community can indeed move City Hall. And it fundamentally changed the political landscape and dynamics of Tucson.
A veritable mosaic of people and circumstances contributed to the success of our movement, which resulted in the establishment of El Rio Neighborhood Center and Joaquín Murrietta Park, two of the most heavily utilized facilities in the city system.
The Tucson Citizen can rightfully claim a piece of that mosaic. c/s