Roberto Reveles, 86, is living democracy. A civil rights activist, his CV includes 24 years as a congressional aide and 12 years as a gold mine executive, three years as President of ACLU-Arizona, decades of volunteer service for numerous civic and cultural concerns, and leader of one of the largest marches in Arizona history.
He was born to Mexican immigrants in the rural mountain town of Miami, Arizona in 1932.
Reveles, or Bobby, as his childhood friends call him, grew up in a “pretty diverse” neighborhood of mostly Yugoslavian and Mexican families.
He attended the newly opened elementary school for Apache, Mexican and Mexican-American students. It was a beautiful building, now the Bullion Plaza Museum. Across the highway was a little building for the handful of African-American students, and up the hill, Inspiration Addition School, for the ‘light-skinned’ Americans.
“From the very beginning it was obvious to me with every daily experience that things were different, “ says Roberto, recalling the experience of segregation at school, church, the movies and the YMCA.
He remembers thinking he was ‘less than’ because of the color of his skin.
“Oh, hell, yes, I thought it,” says Roberto. “Because everywhere you turn, you’re being told you’re less than white people.”
Things started to change when the World War II soldiers returned home to Miami, determined that the rights they fought for overseas be honored here at home.
“They would not tolerate what they previously tolerated in our community,” says Reveles, impressed by their determination of the men, and how they ran for public office.
The community began to integrate. The pool and the ‘good seats’ opened to all.
“It was more a transformation than a revolution,” Roberto says.
The experience had big influence on him, a young adolescent at the time.
“All of that had a very strong impact on the development of my social conscience.” Roberto explains. “It emphasized, for me, the contrast of treatment.”
Despite gratitude for his upbringing, Reveles is aware anger of the anger that wells up when he recalls the mistreatment. He hopes his efforts will keep others from experiencing it.
“I think that has been the main driving force and energy in my life,” he reflects. “Because I just can’t tolerate seeing people abused, and I don’t care who it is.”
After high school, Reveles joined the U.S. Air Force. He served as a court reporter during the Korean War, and decided to pursue a career in Diplomacy.
His military connections catapulted him into the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, one of the best schools in the country.
Four years older, Roberto found himself out of sync with the other students, who seemed more interested in the Russian suppression of the Hungary uprising, than in the fight for civil rights currently underway in their own country.
“It was a challenge,” Roberto says of his college experience. “But I stuck with it.”
He graduated in 1962, and had a successful 30-year career spanning public and private sectors. As both a congressional aide and a mining executive, Reveles engaged in the legislative process. He retired to Arizona in 1992, and became a social activist l, often advocating for the civic participation of Arizona’s Latino community..
Reveles has an extensive list of volunteer affiliations and appointments; they range from public policy, energy and the environment, to education and the arts. He is a long-standing member of Arizona Hispanic Community Forum, and volunteers with Humane Borders.
In 2006, as co-founder of Unidos en Arizona and founding President of Somos America / We Are America, Reveles led one of the largest marches in Arizona’s history, joining in solidarity with other parts of the country to protest HR-4437, federal legislation that would have made it a felony to give aid to an undocumented immigrant, including acts of mercy.
The march drew ‘a mass of humanity’ that flowed from the fairgrounds to the state capitol. Reveles can still evoke the feelings of the day — excitement for the turnout, fear of a disruption and potential disaster.
He speaks of the snipers on the rooftops, and his eyes well up.
“Law enforcement with automatic weapons, guarding us,” says Reveles, there to protect our right to peaceful assembly.
It was a peaceful event. The bill failed in the Senate.
The State of Arizona, however, went to to pass S.B. 1070, a law requires police officers to request legal documentation from anyone they suspect is undocumented.
Fear of the Other
Reveles considers the huge turnout in 2006 a response to the level of fear that undocumented workers were living under– raids of neighborhoods, being arrested doing daily errands, losing family members.
“The terror that people lived under,” Reveles states, “permeated both communities.”
He proclaims that today, as for the last 20 years, that the main driving element in Arizona politics is fear.
“We have perfected it now to a science,” Reveles abhors, and says it starts at the top.
“Self-serving office holders, starting at the governorship, promoting the free exchange of capital, but restricting the free movement of labor,” says Reveles, referring to the border strike force.
“Historically the presence of law enforcement has been used as an intimidation tool in Arizona,” Reveles remarks.
Reveles now lives in one of the few non-beige houses on a long stretch of upscale homes in Gold Canyon.
An American flag flies high in front. In back, past the the pool and putting green he rarely uses, is his art studio.
On the back wall of the huge studio hangs the immigration card his family used for legal entry to the U.S., magnified 200-fold.
His grandfather was the first to come. His wife and children followed, among them, Roberto’s mother. He never knew his father.
A clay bust of his mother, sits atop a white pedestal, unlabeled.
“She never felt it was critically important to become a citizen,” Reveles explains that his mother was content to be a permanent resident, and renewed her green card each years at the post office.
“Then again,” says Reveles, “it was pretty much an open border.”
To contextualize the freedom of movement immigrants experienced in pre-911 times, Reveles tells how his grandmother, living in El Paso Texas, would cross the border to stay with relatives when she gave birth, “so her children would be Mexican citizens.”
In 1972, Roberto’s mother, Antonia Apodaca Contreras, became a U.S. citizen. In so doing, she earned the right to vote, for her son, who was running for public office.
“I wanted to make sure that everyone had access to the American Dream,” says Reveles of his 1972 run for Congress. “And I was promoting healthcare for elderly, promoting equal rights, obviously, and promoting withdrawing from the [Viet Nam] war.”
Reveles lost his congressional race, but two years later, Raul Hector Castro was elected Governor of Arizona. To date, he is the only Hispanic to hold the office. He, too, is honored with a clay bust in Roberto’s studio.
A carving of mother and child, in rose-colored stone, honors his daughter, Rebecca. He began the sculpture before he knew he would lose her, and her sister, to breast cancer.
He moves onto a paper mobile. It’s a messy piece depicting the path from Mexico to the U.S. Hundreds of tiny white crosses hang from a halo beneath an American flag.
“The lives lost on the journey each year,” he explains.
Reveles implores people to notice the positive change and influence that comes with each wave of immigration.
“There is an opportunity, with planning,” he says, “that people can be absorbed to reenergize an area.”
He remarks on the aging population and shortage of willing and able workers right now in Arizona and our country.
“There are young people who are wanting to come in and be part of this wonderful experiment we call America,” he says. “Those people coming across the south border — they’re Americans. South Americans. Central Americans.”
Roberto is quick to note the dynamic is not unique to the southwest. Remarking on immigration and refugee challenges in other parts of the world, he concludes,
“It’s a global phenomena.”
Legislative change. Public protest. Volunteer action. Voter turnout.
When asked which actions are most effective, and most needed, Reveles says,
“All of the above.”
“It is such a massive challenge.”
Does he see change as a result of all the effort?
“Yes, things have changed, but the underlying stresses remain. We no longer have open segregation. But there is de facto segregation based on poverty, language skill.”
He cites tighter restrictions on access to voting and the push to cut funding for public language classes as ways new laws sustain built-in biases.
“For example, in south Phoenix, in the sixties, during election time the government announced that federal agents had been invited into Arizona to monitor voting places to ensure that voting is done only by authorized citizens.”
When Reveles called the Maricopa County Assessor’s office to inquire about alleged cases of voter fraud, he learned that only five cases filed; none had illegal intent. The federal monitoring did have impact, of another kind.
“Soon as those announcement was made, our challenge as folks interested in getting people to come out and vote, our challenge grew exponentially,” Reveles says.
INTERACTION WITH OTHERS
Despite setbacks and creeping cynicism, Reveles sees potential for reducing fear between people of different backgrounds.
In various community positions, Reveles has talked with countless Arizonans, from midwestern transplants to middle school students. He learned many were new to the area and unfamiliar with the history of the region.
“Many did not know that under force of arms, the United States honorably took nearly one-third of the landmass of Mexico in the US-Mexican War,” says Reveles.
He also learned how little interaction there was between the Latinos and the whites.
“It’s the lack of interaction that leads to the growth of fear of the other,” says Reveles.
“ If we don’t associate with people who speak a different language, we can’t understand them, and there’s a tendency to assume the worse, and assume they think the worst of you.”
A polished speaker, Reveles can reel off a number of personal tales of how when people come together, they can see their similarities and appreciate their differences.
“I am hopeful,” he says. “Because those cultural traits of cuisine, music, art forms, they energize and make life interesting.”