Last week, while I was meeting with a community organizer who works for Albuquerque Interfaith, she asked me, “Who do you think of as your heroes?”
I answered off-the-cuff, too quickly while trying to be clever. “I think all my heroes are dead—they were all shot, assassinated, during the ’60s.” I was thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., of Malcolm X and of the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby.
Later in the week I found myself still thinking about the question, feeling dissatisfied with my answer and resolving to be better prepared for it if anyone ever inquires into my life’s role models again.
Then on Friday I finally realized there was someone I should have mentioned, Frank Sanchez of Roswell, a man I’ve long looked up to as a genuine New Mexico hero. I’d like to explain why, because his story deserves to be better known.
The University of New Mexico faculty agrees with me. They awarded Frank an honorary doctorate at UNM’s Spring Commencement ceremony. The previous day there was a reception at Zimmerman Library where many of his friends gathered to congratulate him in person and to share Frank Sanchez stories.
His life and his accomplishments need to be widely recognized and understood. I applaud UNM for taking the risk of selecting a community activist, an asker of embarrassing questions and an inveterate rocker of boats for this honor. He is precisely the type of hero we desperately need more of in these times of an overly docile and gullible electorate, and I am proud to note that UNM was willing to honor Sanchez’ contributions to our state.
Usually at most universities the faculty members who make such decisions choose the safe route. They’ll recognize a writer, a businessman or a political figure whose aura might reflect additional luster to the academic reputation of the school itself and whose name earns easy recognition in the media.
In contrast, Frank Sanchez has never been a household name outside of the southern New Mexico communities where he has labored tirelessly for social justice and political equality for minorities. But for Hispanics and blacks in Artesia, Roswell and Carlsbad, and for Native Americans in New Mexico Pueblos, the name Frank Sanchez, community organizer, carries great weight.
At his reception the UNM librarian noted that Sanchez has turned over almost 100 boxes of his personal papers to the university, a rich documentary resource for historians interested in understanding the importance of the battle for Civil Rights that was waged during the second half of the 20th century in New Mexico, not only in Selma, Delano or Wounded Knee.
Frank grew up in Roswell. After graduation from Roswell High, he went to college in Portales, where in the late ’60s he became a student activist and one of the organizers of the ENMU Chicano student organization. In that role he got his first exposure to the effects of discrimination on minorities—and to the power of the picket line in combating those effects.
In Artesia, shortly after he graduated from Eastern, he helped organize the city's blue-collar workers’ union. The predominantly Mexican-American union membership voted to go on strike when the all-white City Council refused to recognize them.
The union lost that fight in court but the battle awakened the Artesia minority community to the importance of political involvement. Today, 35 years later, they participate fully, on an equal footing with white voters, in selecting political leaders to represent them.
In the ’70s Sanchez began battling the concept of “at large” school board and City Council seats in Roswell. It was a device used in many communities to practically guarantee that minority voters would have no representation on government panels, a way of diluting minority voting strength.
With the help of many grassroots organizations and voting rights attorneys, Frank won that fight. Today the Roswell school board and City Council have members elected from districts. Consequently, the minority community has been able to elect many of those members … to the benefit of the entire community.
Sanchez challenged the State Legislature’s redistricting plan during the ’80s. He won again when the courts ruled it unfairly split the potential voting power of Pueblo Indians in northern New Mexico and of Mexican-Americans in southeastern New Mexico. Since that victory there have been many minority representatives sent to Santa Fe from southeastern New Mexico … where there had previously been none.
Those are just a few of the battles Frank Sanchez has spent his life waging. In the past 20 years he has become an important national figure in the effort to move private foundation philanthropy toward involvement with social justice issues by funding initiatives in black, Mexican and Native American communities, especially those which are poorest.
He works now as a representative of the Needmor Fund and as a board member of dozens of organizations which continue his lifelong passions for equal justice and opportunity. He is on the road several days each week, flying cross-country to meetings and packing a briefcase as crammed with papers as any corporate lawyer’s.
But Frank Sanchez and his wife, Hilda, still live in Roswell. New Mexicans by birth, they remain ones by choice. For them the struggle never ends. Thank you, Frank. May the numbers of your resistant, questioning protégés multiply greatly.