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Mary Rose Wilcox: Native Arizonan makes her mark as politician

(KTAR Photo/Holliday Moore)

KTAR News is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, paying tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have influenced and enriched our community in a positive way. This week KTAR News presents profiles of five Arizonans who have become difference-makers in our state. This is part 5 of a 5-part series.

PHOENIX — Anyone who has lived in the Valley for the past 40 years has seen big changes take shape. Some of it of was hard won by a petite politician who is proud of her heritage.

“I’m Mary Rose Wilcox, a fourth-generation Mexican-American,” she said with a wide smile.

Born Mary Rose Garrido to a ranching family who started out in Tucson, they settled in Superior as the mining industry boomed.

“I was a child in the ’50s,” she said as she recalled growing up with limited means.

“We didn’t have medical or dental insurance, and we didn’t have pensions,” but, she said, “in the mining towns the unions were organizing.”

Even though progress appeared to be making its way through the mining communities, Wilcox remembered a prominent color line running through downtown Phoenix.

“Basically, everything below Van Buren was open to blacks and Hispanics,” she said.

The Fair Housing Act was another decade away, which meant Van Buren north was off limits to minorities. “You could work there,” she said, “but you came home south of Van Buren.”

Wilcox’s Mexican Restaurant El Portal sits on the corner of Grant and Lincoln streets in the middle of Phoenix’s first barrio.

Next to it is the Tony F. Soza Legion Post, built specifically for minorities returning from serving in World War II to gather without discrimination.

A teen by the ’60s, Wilcox was hopeful for change and enrolled in the social work program at Arizona State University.

“I came to college during tumultuous times,” she said. “Martin Luther King, voter rights, civil rights, and yet, there was still a lot of discrimination.”

She became an activist for the working class, fighting for union representation on campus and participating in boycotts for farm workers.

“We said, ‘Ya basta!’ We will not be denied!” She met the man who would become her husband, Earl Wilcox, and turned her attention to helping the Yaqui Indians during a federal relocation project.

Her tenacity landed her a position with Democratic U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini’s team as a political aide.

“Dennis gave me the world,” she said. “Before I knew it, I was doing a lot of immigration (case work) starting with farmers.”

When a newly formed and heavily Hispanic District 7 opened a City Council seat in 1982, she looked at her husband while staring out the kitchen window, “And, I said, ‘I don’t think there’s anybody I like who is running. I’m going to run!’ And I won!”

Wilcox championed neighborhood and housing improvement programs. She founded the Hispanic Women’s Corporation a year later, was selected by fellow councilmembers to serve as vice mayor. A decade later Wilcox won a seat at the county level.

“I won 11 elections, the first Hispanic woman elected to the Phoenix City Council and to the Board of Supervisors.”

Meanwhile, District 7’s neighborhoods struggled with rising crime.

“My husband and I were attending a funeral almost every other week.” The majority of the deaths were children and innocent bystanders she said.

She convinced local grocery store chain owner Eddie Basha to donate $50 gift certificates for a gun buy-back campaign.

On the first day, “We collected 175 guns.” Most of them unregistered she said. “There was an AK-47, sawed-off shot guns, and Saturday Night Specials.”

Still, one gun found its way into a county supervisors’ meeting in 1997.

“I was going to vote to enact a tax to build a major league baseball stadium,” which she supported to bring jobs and stability to her district.

It did not sit well for a mentally ill man. On a hot August day, he walked into the supervisors’ chambers, with a gun in a paper bag and, “As I left the meeting, he put the gun to my back, and I screamed.” The gun went off, lodging a bullet in her hip.

“I still have shrapnel this day in my leg. It’s just by God’s help I did not die.”

Wilcox admitted she came close to quitting politics, but then decided that would let the gunman win.
“I said to my husband, ‘That man is not going to take away my right to serve and to help people.’ ”

The shooter went to prison for 15 years, but Wilcox soon found herself in another struggle.

“(Maricopa County Sheriff) Joe Arpaio started going after the undocumented workers,” she said.

The immigration roundups shook her civil rights roots, but did not stop her from laying down the law.

“I had the nerve, as a County Board of Supervisor, to say, ‘Joe Arpaio, that is a federal government job. You are not getting paid and you are violating your budget.”

She said the sheriff came back to the supervisors’ chambers and warned her to back off or suffer. “I said, ‘I’ll suffer!’”

He came back served her with indictments on 52 charges.

“In two months, all of the charges fell apart,” she said, but those threats did damage anyway, she believed.

“When Ed Pastor left Congress and I ran for his seat, I didn’t win.” She blamed part of the loss on Arpaio’s tactics, but she said she didn’t let it destroy her.

“I’ve served 31 years and I’m going to keep serving my community.”

The fact that the immigration raids have stopped gives her a certain sense of strength.

When asked if she felt free in retirement to say what’s really on her mind, Wilcox said, “I never felt my job was to hold back. Because people elected me to be their voice, and if you don’t exercise that voice, why are you there?”

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