“The Lie About my Inferiority, Evolution of a Chicana Activist”

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Cecilia D. Esquer, went from being a high school teacher to becoming a passionate defender of civil rights, and an attorney.
Before she passed away last year in December, she published a memoir that tells not only her own story, but it also chronicles the fight to overcome stereotypes about Mexican-Americans.
Andrea and Marcos Esquer talk about their mother’s life and book.

José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. I'm José Cárdenas. Hispanic heritage month starts today and ends on October 15th in the United States. It's a time to recognize the contributions of Latino-Americans and celebrate Hispanic culture. We start off the month by honoring Cecilia D. Esquer. She was a high school teacher, long-time defender of civil rights, attorney, and a published author. Cecilia was 68 years old when she passed away in December last year. A couple months before that, she published her memoir, "the lie about my inferiority; evolution of a Chicana activist." It chronicled the struggle to overcome stereotypes against Mexican-Americans. With me to talk about her life and book are her children Andrea Esquer and Marcos Esquer.
José Cárdenas: Welcome to "Horizonte."
Andrea Esquer: Thank you.
Marcos Esquer: Thank you for having us.

José Cárdenas: It's great to have you. The occasion is sad, and her book's a serious book. A lot of important issues discussed. But there were light moments. One being how she met your father. So Marcos, why don't you tell us about that.

Marcos Esquer: Well, I think my sister would rather.

Andrea Esquer: She borrowed a car from her roommate to get to Tempe high school where she was student teaching and when she drove into the parking lot, she couldn't reach the brakes because she was so short and she had to literally stand up and as she's pulling into a parking space, she sees the security guard in front of the car and stops the car and gets out and starts yelling at him. Tells him he's crazy. Does he want to get killed? And he says, do you always drive that way? It's dangerous. And that's the start of a beautiful relationship.
José Cárdenas: That included a life of activism. We'll show you pictures of the things involved in rallies. Before that, Marcos, we gave an indication of your mother's life and she did a bunch of things. Fill out the picture, where she came from and what she did before she became a lawyer.

Marcos Esquer: Well Cecilia was born in a small mining town in Arizona; she went to Arizona State University where she achieved a degree in business education. And later on went to get her masters in Spanish. Later on, she started to attend rallies at the center here in Phoenix and she had a challenge, supposedly to buy -- by Cesar Chávez, there weren't enough Latino attorneys. And that was the motivating factors for her to get into law school and she graduated from law school in 1976.

José Cárdenas: She talk being the experiences she had before going to law school as a teacher that made her want do something about the discrimination. Fill us in a little about that too.

Marcos Esquer: She saw quite a bit of discrimination going on with -- discrimination with the students in regards they weren't being equally educated. Being taught at an equal level. And she was one of the few who stood up and said, why? Why is this not going on? And I think it led to her becoming an activist.
José Cárdenas: We've got a picture of your mom and dad at one of the rallies. We are going to put it up on the screen. It's right there. At -- I don't know if you remember which incident this was or which rally it was, Andrea?

Andrea Esquer: It was a rally in 2007 when all of the immigration -- the hatred around immigration in Arizona was starting to reach its height. And Phoenix had a rally that was about 100,000 people that attended, I believe. And they went back to their roots. This was something they hadn't done for a while and marched and made signs and proud to be part of this statement that -- that whatever laws are passed are not going to stop us from achieving everything we can.

José Cárdenas: But this is the kind of thing they've done many, many times over the years. And part of your mom's life, as an activist, included services for community and services on the national board.

Andrea Esquer: Right. After she graduated from law school she was contacted by the Carter administration and she was nominated to serve on the legal services board on the corporation board. Which gives money to all of the legal services programs around the country. She served on the board with Hilary Clinton and during that time, there were attempts to try and limit those types of programs and cut the budgets and they defended the budgets and really fought to ensure that people who couldn't afford legal services had a place to turn to. It was one of her passions. She ended up actually practicing law in the Indian legal services office in Arizona and south of the valley.
José Cárdenas: And was she on the board when they had their confrontation with President Reagan?

Andrea Esquer: Yes.

José Cárdenas: And one the members fired because of him?

Andrea Esquer: She got a call from the person who was supposed to be taking her spot, President Reagan had not yet been sworn in as president, and they had made what they called recess appointments but because he was not president, he couldn't make nominations or appoint people to positions and she was able to get everybody together quickly, on December 31st, on New Year's Eve and she was able to stop -- they were going to defund legal services, the board was going to vote to defund them all and she was able to stop that action and make them follow the rules and really all she was asking them do was follow the rules. Make the appointments correctly, and if you're going to defund, you have to -- you have to put it through congress.

José Cárdenas: And Marcos, you touched on this a little bit. Your mother's evolution as a Chicana activist. The main title, ‘The lie about my inferiority', what was she referring to?

Marcos Esquer: She was referring to -- One of her biggest motivations was a lot of -- the peace advocates, Martin Luther King, and in a speech he gave in -- I believe 1963, to the southern Christian leadership, he spoke of a lie about our inferiority, and a lot of it had to do with, you know -- had to do with identifying people by skin color and discriminating based on that.
Andrea Esquer: And mom talked about every time she got a new job or when she was admitted to law school, that people thought she got there because of the color of her skin or gender. And it was always a -- she had to continue to prove herself. Even in her last position at the attorney general's office, there were people who questioned whether she was actually capable of doing the job. And you know, once they got to know her, they realized she was extremely capable, but it was always that notion she had to prove herself more than somebody else.

And she talks about both forms of discrimination, color and gender and concludes her brown skin was perhaps the biggest obstacle or what created the most discrimination.

José Cárdenas: She found it was harder to be Latina, Hispanic, than a woman. And found it was -- people judged her because she was -- she had darker skin and that it was an immediate judgment, as soon as they saw her. And it wasn't because she was a woman.

José Cárdenas: And made assumptions about her capabilities.

Andrea Esquer: They made assumptions about her capabilities and background and where she might have grown up and it was hurtful and painful and hard.

José Cárdenas: Speaking of growing up, I want to talk to you about growing up as Cecilia's children. We've got a couple of pictures of the family. One that's interesting for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which because the woman in the middle of the picture is a widow.
Andrea Esquer: Yes.
José Cárdenas: Tell us about that Marcos.
Marcos Esquer: My mother, she was very family oriented. As much as she was involved in politics and activism. All of her spare time went to both my father and us. And she really, really valued that quality time. With us. So we went -- we got to go on trips and got to meet some interesting people and one of them was the widow of Pancho Villa. And gosh as a kid, I was more interested in going to play outside and didn't see the relevancy at the time and here it's impactful who we were able to be exposed to at a young age.

José Cárdenas: Here's another picture, your mom's graduation
Andrea Esquer: Law School graduation.
José Cárdenas: Graduation from law school.

Andrea Esquer: We're with our grandparents.

José Cárdenas: What was it like growing up the daughter and son of a woman who was pursuing perhaps one of the most difficult careers, in terms of studies at this point and then becoming an active lawyer?

Andrea Esquer: She had a very stellar reputation as a hard worker and especially when I came back, I went to the University of Arizona, and when I came back, looking for jobs, people would see me and, oh, you're Cecilia's daughter. And it was intimidating because she had small feet but big shoes to fill. She was happy when she came home and said I was asked today if I was Andrea's mom. And that was a big deal for her.

José Cárdenas: Sure. Marcos, as I understand, you had mixed feelings when your mom had more time to spend with the family, including preparing the family meals.

Marcos Esquer: Yeah.
Marcos Esquer: There were a lot of times when we were younger that my father cooked the majority of the meals. And so when mom would have a little bit of free time and want to go to make dinner, I was always the -- preferred my dad's cooking. [Laughter] He taught me how to cook, so, you know, I was very partial to his cooking.

José Cárdenas: We've got about a minute left. Let's talk about what the book means to -- to the audience your mom was directing it to. What was she trying to say?

Andrea Esquer: In her words, she want people to understand in order to make change, you have to get involved. It doesn't matter what level you get involved, you don't have to run for office, you can help a candidate run for office, but if you don't get involved and if you don't voice your concerns, you're not going to make change and change only happens with involvement.

José Cárdenas: And Marcos, it was a message to young people?

Marcos Esquer: I really think that was -- that was a core value for her. As she got older, she really wanted to empower the youth. She wanted to show that, look, these are situations that I've been in, but they're still going on and there are subtleties but we still fight every day for, you know, inequality. And I really think that became a relevant motivation for her to do her book.

José Cárdenas: Thank you both for joining us on "Horizonte."

Marcos Esquer: It was an honor.

José Cárdenas: To talk about your mother, a remarkable woman.

Andrea Esquer: Thank you.

Andrea and Marcos Esquer:Children of Ceclilia D. Esquer

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