Arizona’s Mexican Heritage: An American Story

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On February 14, 2012, the state of Arizona will be 100 years old. Parades, projects, concerts and commemorations are already in the works for the centennial celebration, and more are being registered every day at Arizonans are encouraged to come up with their own legacy projects, something educational, lasting and accessible to many, and that truthfully portrays Arizona history.

By Pete R. Dimas

The state legislature has charged the Arizona Historical Advisory Commission (AHAC) with the duty of reviewing proposals of legacy projects. AHAC has already approved over 70 of them, which are listed at Of the ones chosen so far, only one focuses on the critical role played by people of Mexican descent in the formation, development and future of Arizona. That project is a documentary series entitled Arizona’s Mexican Heritage: An American Story. The target date for completion of the documentary is February 12, 2012.

The documentary series is a project of the nonprofit Braun-Sacred Heart Center, a 501(c)3 corporation formed to save the Old Sacred Heart Church from demolition, just west of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and to promote the preservation of community memory through museums and community research. Responsible for the accuracy of the series – critical for its success – are historians Dr. Christine Marin and I. We initially met in the first Mexican American history offered at Arizona State University in the fall of 1970. Dr. Manuel Servín taught the class and was a mentor to both of us.

Dr. Marin is from the mining town of Globe, where she clearly saw the role of the hardworking miners, and particularly saw the struggles and successes of the Mexican American miners, her dad being one of them. Her parents’ hope for a better life gave her the support necessary to leave her hometown and come to the Valley to attend Arizona State University. Having to work her way through school, she gained employment at the university library, where Dr. Servín provided the impetus to gather and preserve items critical to the historical record of Latinos. This led to the creation of one of the most important archival collections on Mexican Americans in the United States, the Chicana/o Research Collection of the Hayden Library at ASU. Her dedication to her work has resulted in numerous prestigious awards, research grants and teaching opportunities, and all the while, she continued to slowly and persistently acquire the academic requisites to be awarded a doctorate in history at Arizona State University in 2005. Anyone who has ever done research on Hispanics in Arizona has met and depended upon Dr. Christine Marin.

I, on the other hand, am a Phoenix native, but my parents aren’t from here. My father, a World War II veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star and became a POW in the Battle of the Bulge, came from old New Mexico families. My mother, born along the Colorado River, came from old Sonoran families. When I went to school, my father would not tolerate grades less than a B. Even though he didn’t go past eighth grade, he had a sense of history. I remember studying “the pioneers” and he would say, “You come from the real pioneers!”  But I never found myself in my history books, no matter how I tried.

When I was in high school, my father went with me to see the counselor, who advised I be put in work-study “so he’ll be able to get a job.” My father refused to go along, so I ended up in a college prep curriculum. I continued to study history; I was good at it and enjoyed it, but still no sign of me among the pages. When I went to ASU so that I could become a high school history teacher, my first advisor, a history professor, told me to get out of history, because few people get paid to do what they like. This time I refused.

And this is when I met my new advisor, Dr. Manuel Servín, and when I finally saw myself in the context of history. Things started making a lot of sense. Dr. Servín was the first person ever to tell me I had what it took to get a Ph.D., which I eventually did. Studying my history, which required understanding at least U.S. and Mexican history, was a liberating process. I went on to teach U.S., Chicano, Arizona, and Mexican history at Phoenix College, from where I recently retired, and continue doing research when I can.

The point here is that two well-qualified historians are very involved in Arizona’s Mexican Heritage: An American Story, along with a number of collaborators who understand that our state needs to acknowledge the part of its history that remains largely unknown to the vast majority of its people. Among the collaborators of the project is the School for Transborder Studies as well as the Center for Community Development and Civil Rights, both at Arizona State University. The documentary video and graphics editor is Richard Dimas, who played a major role in helping me produce the documentary Los Veteranos of World War II: A Mission for Social Change in Central Arizona, which has been distributed to 300 schools and libraries across the state. As project director, I am responsible for the project’s production. Arizona’s Mexican Heritage will encompass four themes and have an accompanying textbook, which will also be distributed to schools across the state.

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