The Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff is highlighting a group of people who literally helped build the city. The exhibit, Todos Unidos, chronicles Hispanic’s experience in Flagstaff, from the late 1800s to the 1950s. It was an era rife with discrimination and segregation. KNAU’s Aaron Granillo spoke with some descendants of Flagstaff’s first Hispanic families, some of whom are featured in the exhibit.
Many of the families migrated from Mexico. Others were Spanish and Basque. Museum curator Breann Velasco shows me some of the everyday items they used when they settled in Flagstaff.
“We have the tortilla making machine, which is kind of, like, a smaller version of another tortilla machine you’ll be seeing soon,” says Velasco. “And then over there we’ve got the tamale steamer, which was one of the first few objects that started to lead us into this whole discussion. This whole exhibit.”
Velasco wanted the exhibit to expose the untold stories of how Flagstaff developed; stories she says were buried under an incomplete, anglicized narrative.
“We realized, you know, there’s a huge gap in the community’s history here,” says Velasco. “So, we thought, you know, we really need to acknowledge it. We need to acknowledge this lack of history.”
She spent years sifting through stories, photographs, and old pay records. Velasco’s research revealed unfair labor practices and widespread discrimination. When Dustbowl refugees drove through Flagstaff, they were given jobs held by Hispanic workers who already lived here, like Vicente Dominguez. His son, Jesse, 67, say his father never got over that.
“He hated the Oklahoma people,” Dominguez says. “They just got hired, my dad would be let go for a week or two or months. You were dispensable I guess.”
Dominguez still lives near the same Flagstaff neighborhood his father moved to from Mexico more than 100 years ago. He remembers when Hispanics did most of the grunt work in town. Schools were segregated. The white families had grass baseball fields. Dominguez and his siblings played on dirt.
“We were one of the last neighborhoods to be paved,” says Dominguez. “Because it was the forgotten little neighborhood. It’s for those people. I hate to say it that way, but that’s the way it was.”
A lot of Hispanic families lived in a neighborhood called Los Chantes. It was built by the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company for mill workers. Flagstaff researcher Delia Muñoz shows me the site where the original houses were. It’s now a shopping center.
“So, this is where the entrance was to the Chantes,” says Muñoz. “So you have little house, little shanty houses.”
Muñoz has spent decades documenting the city’s Hispanic’s history. She’s third generation Flagstaff. One of her grandfathers worked the lumber mills. The other laid railroad tracks.
“They were not allowed, per se, to go over on the other side of the track,” says Muñoz. "They kind of had to remain over here on this side because of the language barrier. It divides culture and language.”
Muñoz has produced an extensive oral history project, in partnership with Northern Arizona University. She recorded more than 30 interviews with Flagstaff’s Hispanic pioneers, like Emily Garcia Alonzo. She was about seven when her family moved to the city in the 1920s. Here’s a clip from that interview:
Garcia Alonzo: Talk about discrimination! You couldn’t go anywhere if you weren’t Anglo. Because they had someone there at the door and they didn’t let you in.
Muñoz: Was that on north side of town or the south side?
Garcia Alonzo: Well we didn’t have…
Muñoz: You didn’t have anything on the south side?
They couldn’t even go to church. Hispanics were not welcome at the city’s Catholic Church of the Nativity. So they built their own. They deducted money from their pay checks, and sold food to buy the malapai stone they laid by hand. Muñoz says today, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church remains a pillar of the Hispanic community, open to anyone who wants to worship, regardless of ethnicity.
“It’s where people met. You have mass, and they interact, selling enchiladas, tamales, whatever," says Muñoz. "This brought people together. So they really held on to this hub, the church.”
There’s an old black and white photo of Muñoz's aunt and uncle on the church steps, after their wedding in the late 30s. It’s one of dozens of photographs now on display at the exhibit, Todos Unidos. Muñoz hopes it serves as a reminder of the price so many paid to build the city.
Todos Unidos: The Hispanic Experience in Flagstaff is open through April 2018.