How the Westside Demanded a Piece of the Anglo Pie
Stories my nana told me ... Deathdogs
In the Fifties, the only way for a Chicano resident to get into Tucson's exclusive El Rio Country Club was if you were a caddy or a restaurant worker. The club membership was predominantly white because "golfers only" were permitted -- and 99% of the golfers were white. This is called de facto discrimination -- racism by fact or circumstance -- as opposed to racism de jure which is by law (e.g. the Jim Crow Laws).
The residents who did get into El Rio, the caddies and the restaurant workers, noticed how big the place was, how green the grass was, how perfect the club looked. Over time, people in the surrounding neighborhoods -- especially Barrios Hollywood and Sovaco -- started to think. "Why is there this really nice park with green grass, ponds, and trees in our neighborhood, and my kids have to play in the streets with no sidewalks or any pavement, or walk all the way to Menlo or Oury Park?"
In 1967 a City Council Democratic slate -- headed by Mayoral candidate, James Corbett -- entered the Westside neighborhoods looking for support. Some of the Westside leaders made a quid pro quo with the slate: "We'll get you Westside voters if you get us a park." The slate promised that they would get a piece of the El Rio Country Club and make it into a park. Soon after the slate won the election, Alberto Sanchez -- a Westside neighborhood activist -- and several other Chicano residents went to the new City Council members and said, "Hey, congratulations about your win, so let's talk about the park." The Councilmen acted as if no promise had been made. Frustrated and angry, the Chicano leaders went back to the Westside and got a petition drive going.
The neighborhood leaders went door to door in Westside neighborhoods like Barrios Hollywood, Anita, Sovaco, and Old Pascua, and collected over two thousand signatures. Activists like Salomón Baldenegro, Jorge Lespron, and Frankie Wood took all the signatures to the City Council. Four hundred people from the neighborhoods came with them. Recently interviewed, Salomón Baldenegro said the activists -- a.k.a. The El Rio Coalition -- were trying "to let the Council know that [the activists] weren't there for themselves. They were there for the people."
Despite the Coalition's efforts, the Council denied the Westside demands for the park. City Councilman Conrad Joyner gave a speech saying the City "had to protect the integrity of the golf course."
Months passed and Chicano residents became increasingly frustrated. The Coalition decided that petitioning wasn't working; it was time to take it to the streets. Such political action culminated in the 1969 takeover of the El Rio Country Club.
Neighborhood residents and supporters -- including the Black Student Union from the University of Arizona, the South Park Area Council (ninety percent African American), Eastside residents and area farm workers -- gathered at St. Margaret's Church and made their way to the El Rio Country Club. When they arrived at the club's parking lot, some neighborhood activists gave speeches on the bed of a pickup truck. After four or five speeches, Salomón Baldenegro got up to speak his part. But then Mrs. Sacramento Rodriguez, a sixty-year old woman, spoke out in Spanish, "Ya basta de tanto hablar! Este es nuestro parque! Vamos a ver nuestro parque!" (Enough of talking! This is our park! Let's go see our park!) Mrs. Rodriguez led her son and two daughters into the club's entrance. The crowd followed her lead and made their way into the park. It was the first time inside the gates for many Westside residents. They saw the sharp contrast between the luxurious club grounds and their own barrios, many of them still without paved streets or sidewalks.
More marches and political actions followed, including run-ins with the police, arrests, a sit-in at the Country Club restaurant, and negotiations with the City.
Finally, by 1971, the City made good on its word. A northwestern section of the club was made into a park (later named Joaquin Muerrieta Park) and an eastern section became El Rio Neighborhood Center. The people of the Westside learned an important lesson: with perseverance and organization, you can march your way out of segregation. (Sources: Salomón Baldenegro interviews, 6/19/97 and 7/10/97; Jorge Lespron interview, 6/25/97; "250 Invade El Rio for Picnic, Tour," Arizona Daily Star, 8/16/70; "El Rio a Moral Issue," Tucson Daily Citizen, 10/2/70) How has racism changed? "Racism used to be a lot more obvious. In my parents' time, there used to be signs reading no mexicans, blacks or dogs. Nowadays, people know that it's wrong....but instead of saying it out loud it can be in their actions. For example, Anglo managers [are sometimes] more sensitive to their Anglo workers [versus] other races." (Jorge Lespron, 6/25/97) "Racism is ....more unnoticeable....you may not think that you're a racist, but you do things not knowing." (Salomón Baldenegro, 6/19/97) "Racism has become more creative. Our [Westside] schools lack equal funding for example." (Margaret McKenna, 6/26/97)