Ernesto Portillo in the Star studio, Thursday, June 5, 2014, Tucson, Ariz. Photo by Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

Last weekend my wife and I went to a birthday party. When we walked in, we entered a room of living local history.

Between them, a handful of people at the fiesta easily represented nearly 300 cumulative years of Tucson’s history.

And they were overwhelmingly mujeres.

The women, on whose shoulders many Tucsonans stand, are educators, lawyers, activists. They are daughters, sisters, mothers, grandmothers who have led the way in achieving justice and fairness.

They are comadres who, in more than 45 years of Tucson’s history, fought for civil and human rights, advocated for the poor and the mentally ill, championed unions and students, and inspired others to widen and strengthen Tucson’s circle of community engagement.

Their words were heard in Spanish, English or a street mix of both, on the streets, inside classrooms and churches, through Spanish-language media, and in courtrooms and the halls of government.

Their words, in barriospeak, were always firme, reflecting their commitment to their causes and their community.

At the party, while we listened and danced to the Tohono O’odham waila music of Gertie Lopez and the T.O. Boyz, I contemplated the endeavors and contributions of these crusaders:

Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith joined Pima Community College when it opened in 1969 and was at the forefront of creating multicultural and women’s studies there. She later taught Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona. She has long focused much of her research and activism on migration and immigration politics, and cultural and political history.

Guadalupe Castillo began her activism as a UA student in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, she was involved with the Manzo Area Council, which started an international human-rights movement on Tucson’s west side and was the precursor to the Sanctuary Movement, which protected Central American refugees in the United States. Castillo was also an educator in Chicano studies at PCC, and continues to work on behalf of immigrants.

Margo Cowan, a Pima County public defender, helped establish the Manzo Area Council, and has since worked on behalf of undocumented immigrants. She is a leader in the Sanctuary Movement, which continues today, sheltering undocumented immigrants in churches, and she has worked with various organizations including Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths.

Cecilia Cruz-Baldenegro is the daughter of a union mine organizer and a longtime west-side political activist herself. She and her husband, Salomón Baldenegro, established the Raza Unida Party in Tucson, a political party that rejected the practices and philosophies of both Democrats and Republicans. Cruz-Baldenegro was a founding member of the Pima County/Tucson Women’s Commission.

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Nelba Chavez was the former director of La Frontera, a pioneer in mental-health services for Latino and Native American clients. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Chavez as administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, making her the first Latina to head a U.S. public health agency. Under Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Chavez served as deputy director of the state Department of Economic Security.

Isabel Garcia, also a daughter of a mine union organizer, is the Pima County Legal Defender and a founder of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos. She is one of the most visible and vocal defenders of immigrant rights in the country.

Silviana Wood is a playwright and actress who has used the stage and television to highlight social and cultural issues. She was a member of Teatro Libertad, a multiethnic theatre group in the 1970s, which later became Borderlands Theater, a professional theater that has focused on Chicano/Latino themes.

It was Wood’s birthday that her family and friends were celebrating at the Dunbar Cultural Center, which was Tucson’s blacks-only segregated school until 1951, when desegregation came and the school was renamed John Spring Junior High School.

I admire these women for their valor and values. They were unafraid to take up unpopular causes. Their imprints are wide and deep.

And they’re not finished.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187. On Twitter: @netopjr