Portales’ fight for social justice important

Helena Rodriguez : CNJ Columnist

Welcome winners …. insurgents and rabble-rousers.
Those are the words that greeted people Sunday at a presentation at the Memorial Building in Portales called “The Struggle for Social Justice in Roosevelt County, 1965-1980.”

Dolores Penrod, an event organizer, said those are the words the Portales News-Tribune published in reference to student and community activists who made local headlines during the Civil Rights era as they fought to bring bilingual education to Portales in a landmark case, Serna vs. the Portales Municipal Schools. Activists staged a sit-in at Eastern New Mexico University to bring ethnic studies to the campus and spearheaded the launching of La Casa de Buena Salud, a now multimillion-dollar health care organization.

As Penrod, who was a big part of the local fight for social justice, gave this welcome, I thought about how many things still haven’t changed. People are still being called insurgents, militants or liberals in the continued fight for social justice.

However, the words of one former community activist rang true in my mind.

“They would call us militants, but I would say we were passionate,” said Frank Sanchez who was among a group of AHORA (Association to Help Our Race Advance) students at ENMU arrested in the 1970s for refusing to leave the president’s office. The students wanted to talk about implementing a Chicano studies program. ENMU did implement the program.

The meeting on Sunday was a reunion for many people and a reliving of local history. For me, it was also a reliving of my childhood because my parents were among these community activists whom Penrod referred to as heroes and heroines.

I was proud to be seated with my mom and dad, Katie and Julio Rodriguez, but I was particularly proud that my daughter, Laura, as well as my nieces, were present to hear firsthand from my parents and others about this fight for social justice.

It is so important that kids today know these things. Many adults in this area are probably not even aware of the events that took place from the 1960s to 1980s, and that bothers me. Just this week when Rosa Parks, the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” died, I heard one person on TV remark, “That’s all water under the bridge.”

It may be water under the bridge, but as long as that bridge is still there, people need to know the obstacles that had to be overcome to get above that bridge.

A great part of this area’s history has never before been written and, thanks to Penrod, it’s now a 133-page document available for public viewing.

“It’s the winners who get to write history,” Penrod said as she presented the first copy to Dr. Elizabeth Galligan, an assistant professor of bilingual education at ENMU who has received a grant to do research on the Serna vs. Portales Municipal Schools case. She also gave a copy to Gene Bundy, the Special Collections librarian at ENMU.

Many names were mentioned, including Sylvia (Larez) Montaño, a former ENMU student who worked with a group of community activists to bring affordable health care to the area by founding La Casa de Buena Salud. Penrod said it was Montaño who brought her a copy of a proposal that Penrod used to write a grant application.

It felt good to see many of these people finally being given credit for their hard work, including my mom, who was the first Hispanic woman elected to the Portales City Council.
I urge people to go and read this newest document at ENMU’s Special Collections, which chronicles the local fight for social justice. In addition, Penrod has donated many newspaper clippings.

It is important that even these not-so-good parts of history be remembered because they brought out positive changes we enjoy today. Part of that change has been in attitudes. Penrod said many people who started out as antagonists later had changes of heart.

“Antagonists can become your allies,” Penrod said. “Some people told me that it was because that was the way things had been done, they had always done it that way and didn’t understand there was another way.”

Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: Helena_Rodriguez@link.freedom.com