A new but familiar struggle

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By Wenona Benally Baldenegro

On April 1, 2011, I attended Dr. Cornel West’s talk, “Borders to Democracy,” at the University of Arizona to listen to him share his insights on race and immigration with university students and Tucson-area residents. In his introductory remarks, I listened to Brother West tell the crowd how good he felt at the time to be in Arizona – the state at “the epicenter of the human rights struggle.” I embraced the welcoming affirmation that our state, rich with diverse cultures and deep histories, is at the forefront of a new civil rights movement led by a new generation of young people inspired to fight for a better tomorrow.

For many young people in Arizona, the struggle for social justice began a year ago when Gov. Brewer signed S.B. 1070, Arizona’s controversial law requiring police to check the immigration status of individuals suspected of being in the country illegally. Meanwhile, for other youth, the fight began in 2006 when former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne began his crusade to eliminate the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program by drafting H.B. 2281, the state legislation banning the teaching of ethnic studies courses in Arizona’s public schools.

However, for my father-in-law Salomón R. Baldenegro (“Sal Sr.”) and other veteran activists of Arizona’s Chicano movement, the recent wave of hostile measures targeting the Latino community is something they’ve experienced before in their past. In a recent Tucson news article (Tucson Weekly, Mar. 31, “Being Baldenegro”), Sal Sr. shared his memories of fighting for equality and justice in his early 20s when he helped lead the Tucson student walkouts in 1969 and the El Rio Golf Course takeover in 1970. Like many civil rights activists of his generation, their courage to take up the fight for civil rights was driven by a hope that future generations would not have to undertake the same battles. In the article, Sal Sr. remarks, “We all hope as parents that the struggle we fought, our children won’t have to fight again. … We fought our battles against racism and discrimination, thinking, ‘Now you guys can just live your lives,’ but what is going on now in Arizona, we all have to do something about it.”

Today in Arizona, the younger generation finds itself at the doorstep of a new but familiar struggle. Tucson Unified School District students and alumni are currently in the midst of a battle to save the district’s ethnic studies programs. Last year, undocumented students risked deportation after staging a sit-in at Sen. McCain’s Tucson office to garner support for the DREAM Act. Last year, more than a thousand students walked out of several high schools across the state to protest S.B. 1070. Like their counterparts in the 60s and 70s, all are inspired by a common vision for positive change – for a better future.

Inspired by the previous generation’s stories of courage, the next generation recognizes they must pick up the torch and carry on the struggle to protect the gains achieved by those who came before us. And this is why I am exploring a run for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona’s Congressional District 1. At a time when our most vulnerable communities are under attack, we need strong leaders to stand up for the rights of everyone to pursue opportunities for a better life. I hope to do my part to help the youth achieve not only their own dreams and aspirations for a better life, but the dreams and aspirations of their families and communities.

Wenona Benally Baldenegro, a member of the Navajo Nation, grew up in rural northern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. She graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University. Wenona is a Harvard-educated attorney who also received her master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She has dedicated her professional career to helping financially struggling families and neighborhoods rise out of poverty. Wenona is married to Salomón F. Baldenegro, son of Mexican-American civil-rights icon Salomón R. Baldenegro. She is currently exploring a run for the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona’s Congressional District 1.

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