Leading the way

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In commemoration of Women’s History Month, LPM and the Raul H. Castro Institute at Phoenix College will celebrate the life and dedication of four remarkable Arizonans. Join us for a community celebration in their honor on March 27, 2013, from 5:30 – 8:00pm, at Phoenix Art Museum. Free admission. 

By Joan Westlake

trailblazersThroughout Arizona history, when people ventured out to pursue dreams of a better life, there have been legendary Latinas leading the way. The spirits of these women shine brightly, serving as beacons of courage, hope and determination for countless generations. Drawing on their heritage of hard work, caring and generosity, they followed familia-instilled values to help others. Motivated by selfless dedication, they struggled on the paths of service to the community to achieve equality, justice, education, prosperity and all that creates a quality life.

The four Trailblazers that Latino Perspectives Magazine and Phoenix College’s Raul H. Castro Institute honor in 2013 are accomplished in many areas, always driven by strong commitments to their families and neighbors. Each has taken up the torch seeking fairness and opportunity. They often tread a rocky road toward basic human rights, some by taking their fights to a political arena, others in service organizations.

Narcisa Monreal Espinoza

Narcisa-14What extinguishes the spirit of some, only makes others burn more brightly. Discrimination made Narcisa Margarita Monreal determined to achieve and to choose a career that lights the path of equality across the entire nation. Starting with being renamed by teachers because they said “Narcisa” was not English enough in elementary school, she surmounted prejudices against being female and Hispanic all the way to becoming director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Phoenix and being recruited by the Housing Department of Health and Human Services in Baltimore.

She was born with her twin sister on February 28, 1923, in Winkleman, Arizona, near the mining town of Mammoth where her father Vincente Monreal toiled. In the early 1930s, the family moved to Coolidge where her father worked on ranches. She remembers a life rich with family and friends. 

Narcisa experienced the time of segregation when kids were separated into Mexican and Anglo schools. The teachers said “Narcisa” was not an English name, so they changed it to Narcissus, like the flower. It wasn’t until high school that she was able to insist she be addressed by her real name.

Narcisa asserts that the discrimination she encountered made her angry and highly determined to succeed. In the second grade, she was bumped up a grade and eventually was the Coolidge High School valedictorian, both feats unheard of for young Latinas at that time and place.

She met her husband, Jesus Baca Espinoza, in high school. In 1942, before they married, she came to Phoenix, signed up for the Civil Service and got a job at Williams Air Force Base. This position kicked off what became a 30-year career of increasingly prestigious federal positions. 

Narcisa and her husband lived in Eloy, near Coolidge, and had a son and two daughters. She continued to work while raising her family and, in 1959, she transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Salt River Pima Reservation, where she worked until 1968. Realizing that more education meant promotions, she enrolled at Arizona State University in 1963. She received her bachelor’s degree in social work in 1967 while she was working, raising two children and expecting her third. She went back to earn a master’s in 1972.

It was in 1960 that Narcisa became involved in establishing the Tempe Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). She began as Arizona’s LULAC secretary in 1966; she was state director in 1967; and, in 1968, became the National LULAC vice president. While working in Baltimore in 1982, she became president and founder of a LULAC council there.

Because she had acquired  knowledge from studying discrimination cases during the 1960s, Narcisa was asked to go to California with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in 1967. A Phoenix EEOC was opened in 1970 and Narcisa returned here with the title of acting director. Being one of the first Latinas to head a federal commission was a bonfire of accomplishment. In her position, she went to influential men, major companies and national organizations to point out violations, diplomatically but forcefully. 

At the end of the 1970s, she was offered a promotion in the Housing Department of Health and Human Services in Baltimore. With her husband holding down the fort in Arizona, she and her youngest daughter lived on the East Coast until 1983.

She “retired” and became an award-winning realtor and remained active in Tempe, especially at the Historical Museum. She founded one of the city’s most popular festivals, the Tempe Tardeada. It began when descendants of the town’s original settlers wanted people to know that Tempe was founded by San Pablo and that there were Hispanic families living in what we now know as Tempe. Each year the event spreads pride among Latinos and educates those unaware of local history. 

At 90 years young, Narcisa is still involved in Tempe affairs, but is happy to let the next generation keep fighting the battles. She has been researching her family history so that generations to come can follow the Monreal Espinoza legacy of determination and achievement.

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