Photo by Wendy Howell.
As communities get set to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month beginning Sept. 15, residents of Williams and Flagstaff don’t have to travel far to learn about the contributions Hispanics have made to northern Arizona.
Using oral histories, old newspaper clippings, historic photographs and city documents, historians and curators at the Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff have created an exhibit celebrating the long and important presence of Hispanic and Latino Americans in Arizona.
“Todos Unidos: The Hispanic Experience in Flagstaff” exhibit highlights the overlooked Hispanic culture that was a significant part of the Flagstaff community from the 1880s to the 1950s.
Under the direction of the Arizona Historical Society, Curators Breann Velasco, Jill Hough and Sacha Siskonen began researching the Hispanic history and the role the culture had in the growth of the city.
What they found was a vibrant culture that was often left out of the city’s written history.
“We took a look at our history from an organizational standpoint,” said Bill Peterson, Northern Division director of the Arizona Historical Society. “We had the story of Flagstaff from one perspective, which was of the rich, white people.”
Peterson said the museum staff spent months researching and began by chasing down often repeated myths and rumors about the Hispanic families of the early 1900s.
“We looked at the churches for one,” Peterson said. “The rumor was they wouldn’t let Mexicans into the Catholic Church so they built another one.”
The staff interviewed numerous Hispanic families in the community who were descendants of those first families and found more oral interviews in the special collections at Cline Library.
They also retrieved records and photographs already stored at the museum and consulted with the Flagstaff Hispanic Historical Society.
“What we found was that many of the original families came for the wages, mostly to work in lumber,” Peterson said. “Some were coming north because of the Mexican Revolution. They were coming to avoid some of the fallout from their political positions in Mexico.”
Through these interviews and historic photos, it became evident that some families moved to the area for better jobs, but many of the relocated Hispanic families came from wealthy homes and prominent positions in Mexico and were escaping political turmoil.
“My grandparents, Jesus and Ignacia Gill, migrated from Mexico during the revolution between the Federals and Pancho Villa,” said a member of the Anaya Family in an interview excerpt displayed at the museum. “Jesus was an educated man and rose to be the mayor of Ario de Rosales and thus was a target of the Villalistas.”
Velasco and her team found most Hispanic families lived in four distinct neighborhoods in Flagstaff, mostly on the south side such as Calaveras, La Plaza Nueva, La Plaza Vieja and Los Chantes.
Many of those neighborhoods were company towns, built by the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company for its employees. With mostly Hispanic families, the neighborhoods created a sense of community despite often lacking running water or electricity. Eventually ,Hispanic owned mercantiles, grocery stores and other businesses moved into the neighborhoods.
After the 1950s, many of these neighborhoods became targeted for urban renewal or student housing, which led to many of the historic cultural landmarks being removed and the Hispanic influence diluted.
Peterson said the museum curators unearthed a lot of history of discrimination of the first Hispanics in the area.
“We have firsthand accounts, second-hand accounts and primary resources,” Peterson said. “One thing we want to emphasize is that this is all based on solid research.”
During the 1910s, the Mexican Revolution was driving families north and when the United States entered World War I another influx of Mexicans incurred to fill the vacant the positions of those going to fight in the war.
When the war ended, the United States attempted to move American soldiers back into the workforce and often displaced the Mexican workers. Many believe this is was the beginning of anti-Mexican sentiment and when mass deportations began.
The museum researchers found that Hispanic and African American laborers were often paid less that their Anglo coworkers. Old payroll record books from lumber companies in the early 1900s, on display at the museum, clearly reveal the discrepancy.
One display at the exhibit is an old crate that represents the life of a laborer in Flagstaff who speaks of being displaced from his job anytime an “Okie” broke down in Flagstaff on his way to California during the Depression. The laborer said his employer would lay him off to give the traveler money to fix his vehicle.
“We tend to think of the Riordans and Babbitts, who were essentially the owners of things, but there were a whole bunch of people here who were working behind the scenes doing all the work,” Peterson said.
The rooms at the Pioneer Museum have other displays documenting education, religion and cultural celebrations from the Hispanics of the early 1900s.
One display case has a city directory that details where students should go to school. “Mexican” students went to the Brannen School and the Dunbar School was for “Colored Children.”
“Todos Unidos: The Hispanic Experience in Flagstaff” exhibit will be on display at the Pioneer Museum until the spring of 2018.