Growing up in Arizona: ‘An uneasy peace’

By Doug Snover

Grover Canyon, Arizona, in the late 1930s might easily have been Mexico.

Everyone there, like Sammy Echeveste, had Hispanic surnames, spoke Spanish, ate traditional Mexican meals, and danced to traditional Mexican music. Extended families shared houses that were small and cramped, without electricity or indoor plumbing. Many of the men, if they had jobs at all, worked in a nearby copper mine while the women cleaned houses and did laundry for Anglo families in nicer neighborhoods around nearby Miami and Globe.

The sons and daughters of Grover Canyon mixed with Anglo boys and girls only at school. It wasn’t always peaceful. There were lots of name-calling, fistfights and stone throwing after school on the long walk back to Grover Canyon, recalls Echeveste, now 72 years old.

“It was an unwritten rule that the Americans stayed out of Grover Canyon and that the Mexicans stayed out of the American canyons … All lived in an uneasy peace, apart from each other in most activities,” the Kyrene Corridor resident wrote in his autobiography, titled simply, “Grover Canyon.”

It is the story of how Sammy Echeveste left Grover Canyon and Arizona behind him and discovered the world.

Echeveste says when he left Arizona he never looked back, spending most of his adult life in Europe, where he married an Austrian woman named Berta and raising two young daughters in foreign lands.

But at some point he did look back. And he decided to write what he saw.

“Grover Canyon” by Samuel P. Echeveste won the Mariposa Award for best first book in the 2005 Latino Book Awards sponsored by Latino Literacy Now. Echeveste personally handles sales of the book, which is not yet available through Changing Hands and most other local bookstores. Arizona State University lists one copy of “Grover Canyon” on order for its Hayden Library Chicano collection.

It is a difficult book to read. Echeveste is not a polished writer and he tends to jump around in his narrative. But what makes the book almost painful are the prejudices that Echeveste encountered in Grover Canyon and in every other part of the world.

To read “Grover Canyon” is to wonder if prejudice is a universal human trait.

Echeveste believes it is.

“Prejudice was born the day the second man was born,” he writes.

“I wish that I could say that I was not prejudiced but I know I am. At times when I hear or see things, my hair stands up like it does on a cat when it is ready to fight. Somehow one learns to live in the world that we cannot run away from. Life is like the dog that chases his tail and goes in a circle ’round and ’round only to come back to the same spot. I was born in Arizona and like my father told me years ago, ‘You will always return to where your umbilical cord is buried’.”

Echeveste lives in a large, comfortable house in southern Tempe. He built much of the furniture himself – bookcases, chairs, tables and desks. He is officially retired, but spends hours energetically promoting “Grover Canyon,” which he paid a Scottsdale printer to publish. Berta works in Phoenix for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, part of the U.S. government. Their daughters, both graduates of Stanford Law School, are attorneys outside Arizona.

Arizona does not fare well in Echeveste’s book. In fact, a reader might conclude that Echeveste abhors the entire Southwest from Texas through California.

“The lesson I remember most from my first day in school in September of 1938 was that we Mexicans were second-class citizens: unwanted, unloved and hated by the Americans. I have never forgotten my first lesson because it was reinforced throughout the many years living in Arizona and California,” he writes.

“My short experience outside the southwestern states while in the Army gave me a new perspective about life. I liked what I found outside the area in which had been raised. In Washington state, I felt free, unlike in Arizona and California,” he writes in the “Grover Canyon” prologue.

Echeveste readily admits in “Grover Canyon” that prejudices went both ways:

“Outside Grover Canyon was the American world. They were the infidels with strange ways: uncouth and Protestant. A Mexican stayed in Grover Canyon except when he had to venture out to earn his living. The fellow Mexicans he could love, hate, fight, sing and dance with. The Americans were the bad, mysterious strangers from whom you stayed away and were best avoided.”

Prejudice. “Most of it wasn’t directed at me,” he told Wrangler News on a hot afternoon in the cool of his home.

“I tried to write what is around me that I see but not necessarily directed at me.  Somehow, my family walked through a lot of it but they didn’t jump in.”

The more Echeveste traveled, the more he saw.

“Everywhere I’ve been the people are prejudiced against a different group,” he said.

“What I tried to explain, to concentrate on, was what happened in Grover Canyon as a Mexican boy from the prejudices I saw around me. But as I developed in my life and I went away to Phoenix, to the Army, where I served in Korea, and then lived in Europe, I realized that prejudice was not the ‘Gringo-Mexican’ thing. Prejudice was everywhere you went.

“The French didn’t like the Germans. The Italians in the north didn’t like the south Italians. The Austrians didn’t like the Germans. The Poles hate the Germans and the Germans hate the Poles. It goes on and on. The Basque in Spain have been at it from Day 1, fighting the government all the way.

“I went to Norway, and I thought, way up there in this little corner of Nordic people, they probably don’t know prejudice. Then I found out that the Norwegians hated the Swedes with a passion.”

Echeveste confesses in his book to his own pet prejudice – Texans. He writes that his brother warned him to, “Stay away from the Texans at all costs. They have a special hatred for us.”

Twenty years later, before he was married, he went dancing in Frankfurt, Germany with “a very pretty, tall, blond, blue-eyed Anglo … the perfect type that I loved.”

“I asked her where she came from and she said, ‘Texas.’ I must have made an ugly face because she asked me if she said something bad,” he wrote.

“I said, ‘No, I was just think about something.’ I did not lie. I was thinking about something and it was that I never date her again.”

Echeveste and his wife, Berta, might never have returned to the United States but for their daughters’ educations.

“We were very happy living in Italy. We had a good life. The reason we wanted to come back to the United States was I wanted my daughters to go to school in the States and qualify for scholarships.” Both girls attended Corona del High School and the University of Arizona before attending Stanford Law School.

“I didn’t miss Arizona. I didn’t miss the Southwest,” the outspoken Echeveste said. “I didn’t miss the problems that Mexican-Americans have in the Southwest.”

Echeveste writes of a “high brick wall” that separated Anglos and Hispanics in Grover Canyon. People on both sides of that wall hold it up, he suggests.

His outspoken opinions anger some readers, he acknowledges. Most of them are Mexican-Americans, he said.

On page 222 of the first edition of “Grover Canyon,” Echeveste offers his advice to Mexican-Americans. He readily admits it is controversial stuff.

Item 1 – Learn the language of the country – English.

Item 2 – Learn the social customs of the country.

Item 7 – Allow the children to be Americans. In time, they will be anyway, so do not impede their progress.

Echeveste calls himself American, not Mexican-American. “No doubt I’m an American. Others can label me what they wish. But I’m an American first, an American second, an American third.”

So what is the ultimate message of “Grover Canyon?” Ironically, Echeveste said the message is better said in his cousin Nacho’s words than in his own. He ends “Grover Canyon” with Nacho’s description of their family, which includes these lines:

“The predominate ethnic strain is Mexican but I doubt there are more than a handful who call themselves Mexicans. This does not mean we are not proud of our Mexican heritage. In most cases, we love the traditions, we love the food, we love the music; but we also love all the traditions that we have picked up along the way. We are different. We are uncommon, but we are much Americans. I call each of us a thread because together we are transformed into the fabric we call ‘family’.”