Thursday, February 16, 2012


A Mexican Immigrant’s Act of Honor


Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

While Arizona’s single brief Civil War skirmish at Picacho Peak between the Texas-led Confederates and Union soldiers from California, on April 15, 1862, is annually taken out of mothballs for celebration, perhaps the state’s most enduring story of honor during the war remains one Mexican immigrant’s courageous act in the face of the Confederate occupation of Tucson.

On Valentine’s Day in 1862, Jefferson Davis signed the territory of Arizona — in truth, southern Arizona, below the 34th parallel — into the rebel states as their westernmost capital. It took the Civil War to bring such long-sought territorial recognition, which came with competing claims and declarations. As the United States Congress dallied, Confederate sympathizers had first gathered in Mesilla, N. M., on March 16, 1861, and hastily claimed that the greater Arizona territory would not “recognize the present Black Republican administration.” A subsequent convention in Tucson elected a delegate to the Confederate Congress.

When the Confederate flag rose from the mesquite poles in Tucson’s depopulated main plaza, the Johnny Rebs were joined by Mark Aldrich, a merchant from western Illinois who had been indicted for but not convicted of the murder of the Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and had also served as mayor. The remaining citizens and merchants in the occupied town, like the mining pioneer Sylvester Mowry, sided with the Confederate forces. A Republican from Rhode Island, Mowry took advantage of his entrepreneurial spirit to provide lead from his mines for their ammunition.

One Mexican immigrant stood his ground for the Union.

Estevan Ochoa, impeccably dressed, strolled the streets of Tucson like a benevolent don over Tucson’s territorial version of Tammany Hall. One of the Southwest’s most enterprising businessmen in the pre- and post-Civil War era, he had amassed a small fortune from his shipping business and pioneering ventures in cotton, livestock and mining.

Ochoa had served on a special committee with Mowry as a delegate at a convention in 1859 in Las Cruces, N.M., calling for the organization of Arizona as a separate territory. Having immigrated only two years before, he was at 28 already a leader in the emerging territory. He had been praised by The Weekly Arizonan newspaper for his “beautiful and happy style peculiar to himself requesting every member of the meeting to labor diligently and energetically in the good cause in which they had embarked.”

Contemporaries, journalists and historians alike, in fact, always proffered the honorific title of “Don Estevan,” perhaps to justify Ochoa’s influential role in an increasingly Anglo-dominated gentry.

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.

In truth, a third army held more sway in Arizona than the rag-tag remnants of any Union troops or the occupying force of the Confederates: the Apaches. Their threat worried the self-appointed governor of the Confederate Territory of Arizona, Texas Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor, as he raised his army across the Southwest.

In the spring of 1862, Baylor took the barbarism of slavery one step further for the American Indians, writing to his commander in Tucson: “The Congress of the Confederate States has passed a law declaring the extermination of all hostile Indians. Use all means to persuade the Apaches of any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them all together, kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray the expense of killing Indians.” (That declaration cost Baylor his governorship, though he managed to remain in the Confederate Congress.)

The Confederates stayed around less than modern-day snow-bird tourists. By the summer of 1862, Union forces from California sent them fleeing from Tucson. Mowry was arrested as a “Confederate sympathizer, spy and traitor” and imprisoned briefly in Yuma. One Confederate deserter, Jack Swilling, would eventually migrate north and found the city of Phoenix.

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.

President Abraham Lincoln finally signed Arizona into existence as its own territory on Feb. 24, 1863.

Adorned with bamboo bird cages and meandering pheasants and peacocks, Ochoa’s hacienda in Tucson after the Civil War became the watering hole for the town’s most prominent families and visitors and enlightened schemes.

Mild-mannered, famously courteous and generous, he liked to roll his own tobacco cigarettes in corn husks. When he married later in life, he reportedly showered his young bride with the best linens, silks and elegant clothes imported from Mexico’s more urbane trading centers.

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.”

The military chronicler John Bourke, who served on the Apache war campaigns with General George Crook, described Ochoa as “one of the coolest and bravest men in all the southwestern country.” Bourke quotes a fellow pioneer’s tribute: “He was a typical frontiersman, bold, aggressive, and fertile in resource, laughing danger to scorn, rarely daunted by any obstacle, and in brief, possessing just those qualities which are essential in the foundation of a new state.”

But it was Ochoa’s defense of the Union that remained his greatest legacy in Tucson. Five decades later, with the territory on the cusp of statehood, the Arizona Daily Star reminded its readers that the Mexican-American pioneer was unique in his Union stance.

Sources: “The Creation of the Territory of Arizona,” B. Sacks, Arizona and the West, Summer 1963; Tucson Citizen, April 2, 1872; Tucson Citizen, May 22, 1875; Tucson Citizen, October 27, 1877; “Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941,” Thomas Sheridan (Tucson: University of Arizona Press 1986); “Preserve the Old Landmarks,” Arizona Daily Star, Dec. 29, 1910; “Pioneer Portraits,” Frank C. Lockwood (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1968); “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” Washington: GPO, 1897.

Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers, author of “Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland,” is currently at work on a history of Arizona politics, “State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream” (Nation/Basic Books, 2012). More on his work can be found at:

Jeff Biggers

Arizona's Precious Knowledge: Blockbuster New Film Chronicles Ethnic 
Studies Battle 

As ethnic studies defenders in Arizona prepare for the latest showdown in 
the state's controversial ban this week, a blockbuster new film 

chronicling the unknown back story behind the crisis is gearing up for 
national release.

Rarely has a film been so timely and downright revelatory.

Casting aside the inflammatory rhetoric and national headlines of the 
anti-ethnic-studies instigators, Precious Knowledge provides a clear-eyed 

portrait of students, teachers and their community struggling to deal with 
the nation's most unnerving campus witch hunt in recent memory. Tracing 

the political roots of the legislative ban -- and the program's own 
mandate and success to alleviate the long-time achievement gaps among 

Latino students -- Precious Knowledge's riveting pacing and compelling 
portraits will astonish, infuriate and inspire viewers.

In truth, Precious Knowledge is the type of unique and powerful film that 
could ultimately shift public perception and policy on one of the most 
misunderstood education programs in the country.

In a balanced but unabashedly passionate film directed by Ari Luis Palos 
and produced by Eren Isabel McGinnis, Precious Knowledge serves as a 
remarkable and seemingly more honest counter argument to last year's 
widely acclaimed Waiting for Superman, the documentary film on charter 
schools and the failure of public instruction.

The stakes in Precious Knowledge are somehow even higher: We meet students 
who emerge as their own advocates to not only defend their right to a 
decent education, but their very existence and cultural heritage.

The film celebrated its premiere with a sold-out crowd in Tucson in March. 

With over 50 percent of Latino students failing to graduate nationwide, 
Precious Knowledge walks the viewers through the relentless battle over 
several years by headstrong anti-ethnic-studies extremists in Arizona to 
outlaw Tucson's Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. Based in six 
Tucson high schools, the MAS program graduates 93 percent of its 
college-bound students.

In the process, Precious Knowledge reveals the ideological and political 
fervor afoot in Arizona and underscoring the anti-ethnic-studies ban and 
anti-immigrant measures, which claims the MAS courses promote the 
"overthrow of the government" and ethnic resentment. At the same time, the 
film places the founding of the ethnic studies program in the larger 
historical context of Tucson's long-time struggles by the Mexican-American 
community for better education and an end to discriminatory policies. A 
sign from the famed 1969 walkouts, led by Chicano activists, resonates 

"We dare to care about education."

No one is more attuned to the political hijinks and hypocrisy than the 
young students featured in the film -- Pricila Rodriguez, Crystal 
Terriquez, Gilbert Esparza and Mariah Harvey, among others -- who 
transform over the course of the film from shy, uncertain kids "in the 
back of the room" to become engaged and academically-grounded defenders of 
their program and confident public speakers and organizers in their 

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