Remembering Gustavo Gutierrez

More from this show

Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of the Arizona chapter of the United Farm Workers and a founding member of Chicanos Por La Causa, passed away at the age of 80. We’ll talk to people about the work and life of Gutierrez, a pioneer of the Arizona Civil Rights Movement.

José Cárdenas: The valley is mourning the death of a pioneer of the Arizona Civil Rights Movement. Gustavo Gutierrez passed away earlier this month at the age of 80. Gutierrez, who was inspired by civil rights leader César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Association in California, organized farm workers in Tolleson in 1968 and dedicated his life to improving conditions for farm workers in Arizona. Joining me tonight to talk to Gustavo's life and work are Professor Arturo Rosales, ASU history professor and long-time friend, and José Cortez, also a long-time friend of Gustavo Gutierrez. Part of your academic career has been documenting the lives of Mexican Americans as well as Arizonans.

Arturo Rosales: I've written books on civil rights in the country. In the summer of 1968, we went to the campaign of Robert Kennedy in California. Of course he was assassinated. We came back and we were told you should meet this guy, Gustavo. I was inspired by this guy. I was a student with a lot of aspirations. He didn't go to college; go to graduate school and so forth. Here is this guy just organizing farm workers out of his own pocket. He didn't get a salary. He rented some houses and so forth. I came from a farm worker family. It was a great inspiration to us. I took some farm workers down there with me. 1968 was a pivotal year. That was the year in which Martin Luther King was assassinated, the year of the poor people's march, the year of the high school walk-outs in California that inspired the muey biento throughout the country. That was the year we started mas at the university.

José Cárdenas: I want to come back to talk about some of the significant accomplishments, including the founding. But José you knew Gustavo very early in your life. Tell us about that.

José Cortez: I met him in Tolleson.My parents were migrant farm workers working in Tolleson. He was trying to organize farm workers. Eventually my parents pulled me in, and I got to meet Gustavo. At first I didn't quite understand what was going on, but having lived the life of a migrant farm worker child, everything came easy for me. I was able to understand what he was trying to accomplish. The anger started to come out. Needless to say, I became a product of Gustavo's teaching, and that's where I got my start in activism in learning about the plight of the farm workers. Especially on the west side.

José Cárdenas: professor Rosales, Going back to the impact that he had, you were one of the founders. We've got a picture commend rating the founding that we're putting up on the screen. Tell us about that and the role he played. This is the picture I was talking about, and we've got Gustavo there. He's the person in the middle.

Arturo Rosales: It was founded as a result of the activism; of the students at ASU. I was one of the student leaders at the time. And some community people. Gustavo was a person who always helped us at Arizona state university, the students, and inspired us. He and another organizer were kind of responsible for egging us on in 1968. It was what gave masa its impetus.

José Cárdenas: Which is a student organization.

Arturo Rosales: The Mexican-American organization. Somehow we decided, hey, we've got problems in the community. So maybe with a sense of arrogance, we went out as students and decided we were going to organize, but we needed community people like Jordy Lopez and Terry Lopez and Terry Cruz. And in 1969, we started La Causa.

José Cárdenas: Rosie Lopez was one of those people as well.

Arturo Rosales: Rosie Lopez was part of masa. A lot of us were not from Phoenix. I was from Tucson. We had a lot of mining people at ASU. We made a connection.

José Cárdenas: It led to the creation of what has become one of the largest organizations.

José Cortez: It started out as kind of a Chicano movement type. We organized a high school walk-out. Involved in that were many of the people that today have become leaders. Well, they're getting along in years like Gutierrez and Lopez and others, including Gustavo. I went off to graduate school, and Gustavo was still here.

José Cárdenas: He was always involved in labor organizing.

José Cortez: Yes, he was. Towards the early '90s, he had a little shift. He started to get involved in the issues affecting the indigenous peoples, particularly issues impacting the different tribes throughout the United States. That's when Gustavo became part of an organization that started as the peace and dignities journey in 1992. It was these journeys that Gustavo -- that really consumed Gustavo towards the end. He put all of his energy into what he was doing. Actually during that time during him doing this I kept track of what he was doing, and I was really inspired and motivated, and I said, you know, one day I'm going to really focus all my energy into helping Gustavo with what he's doing.

José Cárdenas: And tell us a little bit about what's involved because it was a major undertaking that you guys were involved in.

José Cortez: The peace and dignity journeys consisted of a journey at one point starting in the northernmost point in Alaska and then the southernmost point. This run takes place where individuals run in one point from the north to the south and meet up in Guatemala. They met up in Guatemala to meet for the ceremony. You're bringing awareness of the plight of the indigenous people and issues impacting different communities. This year we were trying to bring awareness to the fact that water is a life source, that water is important not just to the Native-American community but to the world in general that and water is being polluted. A lot of water is being misused. And therefore we needed to take care of these resources. The prayer was to bring awareness on this issue. As we were traveling, we would go through different villages. Each village would meet us and host us, provide food for us, water, a place to stay. But at the same time it allowed those that were running to feel the energy being generated through this prayer. It's a tremendous, tremendous feeling of spirituality, and this is what actually captured Gustavo is the spirituality of this run.

José Cárdenas: Perhaps it's irony that he died. He died during this last one. His death occurred during one segment of this latest one.

José Cortez: Actually, I was with him the day that he had the accident. The runners had been dropped off at a certain point in the Grand Canyon to run into the village.

José Cárdenas: And he was supposed to go down.

José Cortez: He was supposed to go down, but he couldn't go with us, and he was supposed to take another route, which was easier. He was supposed to go down in the helicopter, but there was no helicopter available, and he decided to ride a horse.

José Cárdenas: And thus the accident.

José Cortez: That's where he had his accident. Those of us that were there realized this was Gustavo's life and that he was immersed in it and he enjoyed it very much.

José Cárdenas: Arturo, How would you assess his place in the pantheon of leaders in Arizona?

Arturo Rosales: It's not surprising to me that he did what he did in his final years, because he never looked for a job, for example. He always did everything without any great personal ambition. To me, that was the characteristic that I first saw in him in 1968. 44 years ago.

José Cárdenas: And that never changed.

Arturo Rosales: And it never changed. I went off to graduate school and became a professor.

José Cárdenas: But you wrote about the movement, and we're delighted you're here to talk about Gustavo and share his memories.

Arturo Rosales: He's a great figure in Arizona history. In national history, but certainly here in Arizona we should never forget him.

José Cárdenas: And I don't think we will. Thank you both so much for joining us.

The four men of Il Divo
airs June 2

Il Divo XX: Live from Taipei

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

An armed forces bugler playing the trumpet in front of the United States Capitol building.
aired May 26

National Memorial Day Concert 2024

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 26

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: