Opinion: Arizona’s Latino political surge evokes history lesson

Jun 18, 2019, 4:04 AM | Updated: Jun 24, 2019, 3:51 pm
Betty Guardado and Carlos Garcia, new Phoenix City Council members. (City of Phoenix Photos)...
Betty Guardado and Carlos Garcia, new Phoenix City Council members. (City of Phoenix Photos)
(City of Phoenix Photos)

It’s not la reconquista, but it’s a start.

There’s been a growing trend in recent years – in case you haven’t noticed – of Latinos in Arizona and nationwide getting elected to public office.

I think that’s a good thing, and not just because I’m Latino. Funny thing about me: I think a democracy should elect people who reflect the needs and interests of the communities they represent. Is that asking too much?

As a general but not absolute rule, people of color, including Latinos, tend to have a better bead on the needs and interests of communities of color. It’s not rocket science. Most Latinos grow up in predominantly Latino communities. So, they get it.

As for la reconquista, which translates to “the reconquest”, I’m kidding – mostly.

La reconquista, for the historically challenged, refers to either of two historical events in so called Western Civilization. In one context, it refers to the culmination of the 700-year war when the Christian armies reclaimed the Iberian Peninsula (mostly Spain) from the Moors (mostly Muslims) in 1492.

You may not have heard much about that reconquista in school, but we all learned about the guy who “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, which actually has a lot to do with an unrealized reconquista that hits closer to home.

In the last week of March 1969, El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán was drafted at the National Youth and Liberation Conference in Denver, a gathering of Chicano (Mexican-American) youth and political heavyweights from across the country. El Plan was politically radical, even for its time. In essence, it was a blunt reminder to the nation that what we now call the American Southwest was part of Mexico until the U.S. invasion (1846-1848) forced the Mexican government to cough up nearly half of its territory. And before that, of course, this was all Indian country.

El Plan did not call for the overthrow of the U.S. government (no matter what white nationalists try to tell you), but the tone and language of the manifesto was unabashedly militant. In short, it declared, “We’ll be back.”

When? That wasn’t so clear. And probably for the best, since Nixon’s FBI was watching.

Fast forward to 2019. I seriously doubt that the Southwest or the rest of the country will be reconquered anytime soon, but Latinos, not just Chicanos, are making a real comeback.

I call it the American Latino Renaissance. It’s the subject of a book I’m writing.

In Arizona, the Latino renaissance has been fueled by two major developments: the explosive growth of the Latino population, especially between 1990 and 2015 when the number of Hispanics statewide tripled, and the passage of Senate Bill 1070 in 2010.

The impact of rapid population growth should be obvious. Having more people has generally translated into more opportunities for the community to influence the state’s economic and political destiny. Latinos are now about one-third of the state’s population and account for nearly $50 billion in consumer spending, according to the U.S. Census and the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

For its part, the passage of SB1070 ignited a tsunami of Latino political activism in the state. The blatantly bigoted, anti-immigrant bill was crafted by Tea Party honcho and then-Senate President Russell Pearce (later recalled over the legislation), and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, now a Trump loyalist.

Largely as a result of SB1070 and the more recent advent of Trumpism, a record number of Latinos are running and getting elected to public office. They’ve basically said, “We’re pissed and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

The result? More Latinos than ever now serve in the Arizona Legislature, and a record number of Latinos statewide are joining school boards, city councils and other local and regional offices.

For the first time ever, four elected Latinos will serve on the Phoenix City Council. Grassroots activist Carlos Garcia and long-time union leader Betty Guardado will be sworn-in on June 6. They will join councilmembers Laura Pastor, daughter of the late Congressman Ed Pastor, and Michael Nowakowski, president of the Radio Campesina, a radio network founded by the iconic labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Daniel Valenzuela, a former Phoenix City Council Member, ran but lost in a sometimes nasty race for mayor against his former colleague on the council, Kate Gallego. (Gallego is not Hispanic; it was her married name.) In Tucson, the state’s second largest city, Regina Romero has a strong shot of getting elected mayor in a three-way race that includes former gubernatorial candidate Steve Farley.

Nationally, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus now has 38 members, its largest roster ever. Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro is running for president. He’s a longshot, but he’s hardly alone in that regard. Should his presidential bid fail, Castro could be a leading contender for a vice presidential spot on another

In 2017, according to NALEO, a non-partisan association of Latino elected and appointed officials, nearly 6,600 Latinos are serving in elected office nationwide. That was up from 6,011 Latino elected officials in 2013, a 10 percent increase. The four states with the largest number of Latino elected officials are Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona.

What does it all mean?

At this rate, don’t expect la reconquista to happen anytime soon. All the Latinos I know are working hard to take back our country from Trump, not the legacy of imperialist, U.S.-Mexico War-mongering President James T. Polk.

Then again, Polk was said to be hand-picked by President Andrew Jackson, who, not surprisingly, happens to be one of Trump’s heroes. Jackson was behind a series of forced expulsions of Native Americans from the American Southeast in the 1830s that led to the horrific Trail of Tears in which thousands of Indians died as they were marched west by Army cavalry to the Oklahoma territory.

Trump, meanwhile, seems almost equally intent on expelling as many Latino immigrants as he can from the United States. Do we see a theme here?

The good news, unlike the Native Americans of Jackson’s era, more than half of the 60 million Latinos in the U.S. today are eligible to vote.

I think we should, especially since la reconquista is probably still just wishful thinking.

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He writes commentary for He also is the editor and publisher of, which covers Latino news statewide. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James teaches writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.

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Opinion: Arizona’s Latino political surge evokes history lesson