¡Si se puede en Arizona!

By Guest Columnist Apr 02, 2009

by Valeria Fernández Santa Rita Hall, a tiny rectangular building tucked away in the heart of a Phoenix barrio, has come alive again. The place where Cesar Chavez started his three- week hunger strike on May 11, 1972, against inhumane conditions for Arizona farm workers, is witness to a new movement. On Sunday, seven white and Latino community members from the Maricopa County Citizens for Safety and Accountability (MCSA) started a five-day long fast to call for the end of immigrant abuses and racial profiling perpetuated by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies. During the five days of the fast groups of protestors—including families with children—marched hourly into the sheriff’s office to ask for his resignation. There were also organized processions and prayer vigils for those that couldn’t join the hunger strike. The group staged its Chavez-like fast because they want Arpaio to resign immediately. On Wednesday the group scored its first victory when the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors decided to put on hold the acceptance of $1.6 million from the state to help pay for illegal immigration enforcement by the sheriff. America’s toughest sheriff has been feeling the heat lately under the gaze of a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation over alleged civil rights violations. A congressional hearing this Thursday focused on Arpaio’s use of a federal agreement known as 287(g) to give local deputies immigration enforcement powers. “Now we’re to the point that an entire community it’s terrified and afraid to call the police [because of Arpaio’s immigration raids],” said Jason Lopez, one of the fasters. A crowd of people attended the fast kick off on the last Sunday. “They’ve told Cesar [Chavez] no se puede [that it wasn’t possible to organize workers in Arizona]”, said Phoenix councilman Michael Nowakowski to a crowd of people inside Santa Rita Hall last Sunday. Cesar responded: “¡Si se puede en Arizona!” And MCSA is out to prove it can still be done. Numbers of supporters are growing by the day as visitors came to join religious services in the evenings. New people are joining the fast. The spirit of Chavez is present everywhere you look inside the hall. A tiny little room where he fasted for 24 days has become a shrine to his memory. People come and go during the day writing a message of support for the fasters on a white sheet on the wall. For many this is not a new fight, but a continuation of a movement for human rights. Phoenix attorney Danny Ortega got tears in his eyes Sunday night when he recalled volunteering in Santa Rita Hall with Chavez. Back then, it was a community meeting place, a church, and a forum for new ideas. “It’s the same movement,” says Ortega. “It’s against injustice and indifference. Today we’re seeing the same kind of injustice when people are being profiled just for the color of their skin.” Ortega feels the genesis of these injustices is hate. “We’re dealing with a climate of hate, people don’t understand they’re being moved by people who hate,” he said. “Then you’ve got the Joe Arpaio’s of the world making it politically popular to hate.” Fasts can be powerful, said Celia Arambula, a former United Farm Workers of America organizer who served with Chavez in the 70s. “As a person weakens, you see their willingness to sacrifice and that moves the better angels within us,” said Arambula. I can’t help but wonder if Arpaio has any kind of angels by his side.