Cecilia Esquer liked to use the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to describe herself : “An ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.” Except Cecilia was far from ordinary. She was fearless and spoke her mind, especially when it came to matters of social injustice.
Cecilia Teyechea Denogeán was born in Superior, Arizona, in 1942. She attended the town’s segregated Mexican school, Harding Elementary, through the seventh grade. In her autobiography, The Lie of My Inferiority: Evolution of a Chicana Activist, published in September 2010, she recounts the bigotry and prejudice she encountered even as a young child. Like the times she was told to claim she was Spanish instead of Mexican, or the many times she and her classmates were punished for speaking Spanish, even outside the classroom.
In 1954, Cecilia’s parents moved the family to Phoenix in hopes of better opportunities for their children. She attended Phoenix Union High school and graduated with a B.A. in business education and a master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American literature from ASU.
In 1965, she married Elias Esquer, the youngest child of a prominent Latino family in Tempe, and together they embarked on a lifelong journey dedicated to education and raising social and political awareness in their community. They joined the United Farm Workers Organizing committee in the 1960s, an experience that turned out to be life changing. They spent many weekends going door to door to register voters, often as many as 300 in a weekend. With their children Andrea and Marcos in tow, they also attended weekly rallies.
The Esquers chartered new territory the following decade. Elias became the first Latino elected to the Tempe Union High School District board, and two years later, Cecilia was elected a precinct committeewoman. In 1973, she was the first Chicana elected as a member-at-large of the Democratic National Committee.
During the fall of 1973, Cecilia returned to ASU to pursue a Juris Doctorate. She graduated in 1976 and began to practice civil law in Tempe, establishing a solid reputation as a political adviser. Her tireless work for the Democratic Party and on political campaigns for human dignity and justice is legendary.
In 1978, while serving as state assistant attorney general, Cecilia was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation, where she served alongside Hillary Rodham Clinton and other notables in the profession.
In 1981, Cecilia joined ASU’s College of Business as an assistant professor, the only ethnic minority woman in a tenure-track position at the college. She continued her teaching career at Phoenix College where she became a faculty member in the Department of Justice and Legal Studies, and director of the Legal Assisting Program.
She “retired” to work on the campaigns of candidates for city and state offices for and within the Democratic Party. When Terry Goddard was elected Arizona attorney general in November 2002, he asked Cecilia to be his chief counsel for the Public Advocacy Division, which included the Consumer Protection and Advocacy Section and the Environmental Enforcement Section.
After a long and notable career, Cecilia passed away at the age of 68 on December 4, 2010. Her memorial service was filled with family and friends who had been touched by Cecilia’s spark.
Cecilia liked to end her emails to family and friends with an inspirational quote by Senator Ted Kennedy, “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dreams shall never die.” Her own legacy is one of hope and inspiration.
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