by David Safier
The Star runs a regular feature where it tells the history of some of the people who had local streets named after them. Yesterday it profiled Estevan Ochoa (1831-1888). It's a nice story, portraying a man born to a wealthy Mexican family. He set up mercantile businesses in New Mexico and Arizona, was financially successful and respected, served in the territorial legislature, was elected mayor of Tucson and has a street named after him. Nice stuff. Nothing to complain about. Except . . .
Left out of the Star bio are Ochoa's two greatest accomplishments -- his willingness to give up everything rather than swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and his central role in setting up Arizona's system of public education at the state level and using his own money to build Tucson's first public schools.
If I were a Hispanic child or Hispanic adult, which I'm not, I imagine the two parts of his bio left out by the Star would be the ones I would most want to hear. Those are the core aspects of Ochoa's greatness and his legacy -- the qualities, I think, that would make me most proud to share his ethnicity. The Star's omissions are yet another reason this city needs Hispanic-centered education, like the Mexican American Studies program. Anglos learn the glowing accomplishments of Dead White Males (and occasionally Females) everywhere we look, often to the exclusion of some of their less noble qualities. The forgotten, invisible parts of Hispanic history, especially those that inspire and enlighten, deserve to be told as well. (NOTE: I'm a newcomer to the Hispanic history of the U.S. It wasn't part of my K-12 or university education. I'm trying hard to make up for my inadequacy in this area and am grateful to those in the community who are helping my education along.)
Jeff Biggers wrote about Estevan Ochoa in his recent book, "State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown over the American Dream." He went over similar material in an online piece for the NY Times (A Mexican Immigrant’s Act of Honor) and another piece on Huffington Post. I know Biggers is a careful historian, but I also know he has a political agenda, so I decided I should check what he said about Ochoa to make sure it was accurate. I found books online, one from 1915, others more recent, as well as other materials that corroborate Biggers' historical storytelling.
You can read some excerpts from Biggers' NY Times piece below the fold if you want more information. You should. It's fascinating and inspiring stuff.
Ochoa — who was born in 1831 in Chihuahua, Mexico, and whose family held huge land grants and traced their coat of arms to the historic 16th-century Cortes expedition from Spain — could have made a tidy little war-time fortune meeting Confederate demands as a conduit of wagon supply trains. With the Texan Confederates occupying his town, Ochoa had to make a choice. The historian Frank Underwood narrates the dramatic moment from the perspective of the rebel captain:
Mr. Ochoa, you realize, of course, that the United States no longer exists. I trust, therefore, that you will yield to the new order, and take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy and thereby relieve the necessity of confiscating your property in the name of the new government and of expelling you from the city.
Politely and unflinchingly Don Estevan replied: Captain Hunter, it is out of the question for me to swear allegiance to any party or power hostile to the United States government; for to that government I owe my prosperity and happiness. When, Sir, do you wish me to leave?
Ochoa, who was allowed to take his favorite horse, 20 rounds of ammunition and some rations, set off across Apache country alone.
Some claimed Ochoa heroically foretold the state’s destiny on his departure — “I will yet live to see you drive out of here in a worse condition than you are now sending me” — and indeed, he returned to the Old Pueblo and re-established his various businesses.
In 1875, while serving as Tucson’s mayor — the first and only Mexican-American to do so — and president of the school board, he upstaged a recalcitrant territorial legislature and a domineering Catholic bishop by single-handedly raising the funds, and donating the land, to build the town’s main public school. (Three years earlier, as chairman of the territory’s Committee on Public Education, Ochoa had founded the first enduring public education system in Tucson after earlier efforts had failed.)
In the spring of 1876, the Arizona Citizen declared: “Ochoa is constantly doing good for the public,” and concluded, “Ochoa is the true and useful friend of the worthy poor, of the oppressed, and of good government.” With the school completed in 1877, Ochoa literally placing on the last “shingles to build a ramada on the front side” of the school house, the same newspaper raved: “The zeal and energy Mr. Ochoa has given to public education, should give him a high place on the roll of honor and endear him more closely than ever to his countrymen. He has done much to assist in preparing the youth for the battle of life.”