The root of shame: Congressman Raul Grijalva traces his racial journey

His words say Mexican-Americans can do anything. His eyes see hope where there is none. His feet march for the dreamer, to the point of arrest. 

Every Chicano is a star, in his eyes.

Raúl Grijalva is a once-in-a-generation activist. He is a man whose life mission has evolved to bring equality to a race that has seen little. And when it comes to racism, he has seen it a lot.

Like many Chicanos in this country, Grijalva was raised by parents who only spoke Spanish, and a mother who urged him to get his education. She knew that education would give him power.

Before entering the first grade, he knew his primary colors and his numbers. He knew all that a first-grader needed to be successful.

What he didn’t know, the challenges ahead of him had nothing to do with his intellectual knowledge, and everything to do with the color of his skin.

Administrators stuffed him into a special class. It was class for the Spanish kids. It wasn’t a first-grade classroom. It wasn’t even a place where kids could live out their potential. It was a place to put the Spanish kids until they learned English.

“I spoke the language of home, the language of my parents. It was miserable for us who couldn’t speak English,” he said.

“We were in kind of a funny educational limbo. We were in first grade but we weren’t. All of a sudden, the things we valued became suspect. It wasn’t good enough. We were ‘those kids.’ ”

Punishment came to Grijalva and students like him if they spoke Spanish on the playground. Do it and get paddled. 

The segregation was real. At this age, Grijalva was impressionable. He did whatever he was told to do, and he began to sense that it was fundamentally unjust.

Raul Grijalva stands outside his office looking toward South Tucson (Photograph by Jireh Lopez Jimenez/Arizona Sonora News)

Day by day and week by week, his teachers engraved into his brain that speaking English was the goal and speaking Spanish was taboo. It was the drum beat to his head, again and again.

No Spanish! No Spanish! No Spanish!

Grijalva wasn’t like the Anglo kids. He couldn’t be like them. In his 6-year-old mind, his skin color was something that made him feel less.

No Spanish! No Spanish! No Spanish!

It shamed him. A shame that overpowered him. And he took that shame home.

It was in the eyes of his mother that he later found the truth.

In junior high, Grijalva received an academic achievement award. Only a handful of children did. The ceremony was a time for students to celebrate with their parents. It was a moment for Grijalva’s mother to be proud.

Administrators handed each student a certificate. One by one, they called students names and praised outstanding academic work. Parents stood and applauded.

Grijalva stood alone. He had not invited his mother. 

His mother had no clue. But like all mothers do, she eventually found out. 

Grijalva did not invite her because she could not speak English. He was embarrassed. He had learned to be ashamed of speaking Spanish. To be ashamed of who he was and who his parents were. 

Today, he knows why he did not invite her. It was not the lack of English. It was his shame.

“Somewhere in my subconscious mind, I was embarrassed at the fact that she couldn’t speak English,” he said. “But once I found out my mom knew of my award, it struck me. No one should ever feel embarrassed of who they are.”

This was not normal behavior.

It was taught from a playground in first grade.

No Spanish! No Spanish! No Spanish!

His mother, when they spoke after he knew she knew, told him a common saying among Chicanos: “Mijo, no te olvides que nacistes con un nopal en la frente” — “Don’t forget that you were born with a nopal on your forehead.”

Essentially, she told him to “buck up, man.”

And buck up he did.

The guilt and shame became a fuel that has led him into this generation’s most-recognized radical activists for Chicano rights.

“I began to see race not as an impediment that held you back, but as a tool to hold you back,” he said.

Grijalva committed to himself to make things right for Chicanos. He didn’t know how he was going to do this. All he knew was that he had to do something for himself, for his race and to honor his mother.

Grijalva was a young man during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement and El Movimiento, the revolution by Chicanos during the 1960s to restore land, farm worker rights and education. It responded frustrations of inequality that had been building up for many years. An inequality that shamed Grijalva as a child. 

He also followed Caesar Chavez, his idol and the man of the lettuce boycott. Chavez was Martin Luther King Jr. to Chicanos. 

After graduating from Sunnyside High School in 1967, Grijalva began studying sociology at the University of Arizona. He became a force to be reckoned with in radical groups like the Mexican-American Libertarian Community (MALC), which confronted the university with demands to establish Mexican-American Studies and the recruitment of Chicanos. 

The school initiated a Mexican-American studies program for the 1969 Fall Semester. MALC decided to boycott the “irrelevant” curriculum that was “simply an extension of a Spanish major.”

“It was merely a token which is being used to appease the Chicano community at large and the Chicano student body in particular,” he said.

MALC circulated petitions to boycott the program and accused the university of tokenism to appease the Chicano community. Their work gained support from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts who agreed to make changes.

A year later, his activism grew stronger. Grijalva lead a group to confront Tucson City Council and demand that the city make part of a city-owned golf course into a people’s park. Months of protests later, the group was victorious. The park is named after Joaquin Murrieta, a political leader in the 1960s who resisted racism in the Southwest.

In 1971, Grijalva withdrew from the university to marry Ramona Garduno.

Raul Grijalva speaks to residents at the El Rio Center on December 7, 1978. (Photograph by the Arizona Daily Star)

Grijalva next turned to community service. He became director of the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center in Tucson and directed programs that helped erase the rate of school dropouts, which has always been at the heart of Grijalva then and today.

Two years later, Grijalva took his belief for education and ran for a position on TUSD in 1972. He was unsuccessful.

The next election he tried again, but this time with a group he formed called Mexican-Americans for Equal Opportunity. He used this group as leverage to argue that minorities were excluded from leadership in the district that was more than 65 percent Anglo. A Latino had not been elected for 23 years.

So, at the age of 26, Grijalva joined the TUSD board and served for 12 years.

Once he was on the board, Grijalva resumed his degree work at the U.A. After finishing his degree in in 1986, Grijalva ran for  Pima County Board Supervisors in District Five. He outspent his Republican opponent 7-to-1. The heavy spending and a large district Hispanic population gave Grijalva a major advantage. He won 67 to 32 percent  and served until 2002.

His greatest success on the board was his war with Canoa Ranch and a real estate developer who planned to build 6,100 homes. Canoa Ranch was where Grijalva’s father worked as a bacero in the 1940s. The ranch is now called the Raul Grijalva Canoa Ranch Conservation Park.

Arizona’s population growth left the state needing two more congressional districts after the 2000 Census. Arizona’s District 7 was born. And in his eyes, it was his.

The district’s Latino population outnumbered the rest by over half. Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2 to 1.

District 7 was served to him on a silver platter.

He never faced a real threat from Republicans, and never saw less than 61 percent of the vote. He has been re-elected every two years since. The district number changed after the 2010 census data.

Now, he is the congressman for Arizona’s 3rd District, where he fights for immigration reform, the environment and Dreamers.

In 2015, Grijalva landed a $15 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for tribes in Arizona. The grant went on to aid water quality and infrastructure in tribal lands.

Grijalva has made it a political mission to made immigration less complex. For illegals to become legal. Being the realest he is, he continues to put pressure on congressional Republicans to push reform which he claims to be “broken.”

“In a perfect world, we would have an open border,” he said.

When President Donald Trump threatened to end the Dream Act, established under President Obama in 2012, Grijalva did not hold back.

On Sept. 19, 2017, police arrested him for protesting outside Trump Tower in New York City in a protest demanding Congress defy him and pass an act to protect Dreamers. 

“It’s important to not suffer in silence.”

Grijalva offers advice to those who will follow.

 “I can tell people that it’s going to be fine, that the worm will turn. But in the meantime, we’re going to go through some shit. We want it to end well, but there will be misery through it all. It’s the ugliest part of racism, the soullessness of it.”

Racism. It’s a loud word that divides. But it takes someone ever louder to put it on mute. The mute that silenced him in first grade.

No Spanish! No Spanish! No Spanish!

This is why Grijalva takes the hit. This is why he is willing to get arrested to speak for those who can not. 

To voice the voiceless.

“The silent secrets of racism are kept quiet,” he said.

“I will never be silent.”

Jireh Lopez Jimenez is a reporter for the Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

For high resolution photos and a Word document for this story click here.

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