Guests filled the chairs eagerly as they awaited an open-to-the-public lecture by Chief Judge M. Christina Armijo on Oct. 26 at the University of New Mexico’s School of Law for the 2017 U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez Endowed Lectureship in honor of Chavez’s legacy.
Chavez became a congressman when there were not many people in Congress that could advocate for minority communities, and he was also the pioneer in the laws that started right before the Civil Rights Era, former Dean and Professor of Law Kevin Washburn said during his opening remarks for the lecture.
“He gave these communities more of a voice, and he was really committed to that...Society doesn’t change, unless people are working real hard to make it change. It doesn’t change easily, and so you need leaders to make that change. So hopefully what we do is inspire members of this community to make a change,” he said.
Washburn said giving introductory remarks about Armijo was a great honor.
“These are remarkable people and it’s a remarkable event honoring somebody who is quite remarkable,” Washburn said. “Chief Judge Armijo is one of our outstanding graduates, and she is quite an impressive person.”
During her lecture, Armijo recalled much of the work that Chavez accomplished and how it affected the fight for social justice, not just in his lifetime but beyond.
“He was a leader not just locally,” Armijo said on Sen. Chavez. “He had the ability to foresee. Even if there wasn’t success at the time that he proposed his ideas and made his suggestions to foresee that eventually we had to have the Civil Rights Act, we had to have down the line the passage of the Fair Employment Practices Act...and I credit him for this perhaps because he was an attorney, he was a lawyer — we had to have (the) enforcement mechanism that is the courts.”
Chavez had the courage to plant the seed and help lay down the first brick in the foundation that later led to the passage of many civil rights laws, she said.
“The word, ‘failure,’ was often used,” Armijo said. “And I thought failure is not a word that belongs in the dialogue or the vocabulary of our discussion in civil rights. It just doesn’t. I didn’t see his efforts as failures. I saw them as the planting of the seed that came to fruition.”
At the end of her lecture, Armijo received a standing ovation from the crowd and was presented with an engraved gift.
Gloria Tristani, Chavez’ granddaughter, said her grandfather was always there for people who faced discrimination — he was always ready to help.
“He was never afraid to speak the truth,” she said. “No matter what the cost. That’s something for today that I think applies to all political parties.”
Tristani was nine years old when her grandfather passed, so many memories of her grandfather came from her mother, who worshiped her father in many ways, she said.
Her grandfather was proud of all of his grandchildren and would introduce them to various senators, Tristani said.
“This particular time...he took me into someone's office,” she said. “I didn’t know what a senator was, (but) I knew it was very important. He told me, ‘I want you to meet Sen. So-and-so,’ and I walk in and there was a lady at the desk. It was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, and it really, really surprised me. That this was a woman and that she was charming and lovely. I don’t think that was his intention; he was just showing me off. But that was when he planted the political seed in me.”
Tristani advises those fighting against political injustice not to give up.
“I really think it’s important not to give up,” she said. “It’s easy...half a century after his death, we’re seeing a lot of the same struggles he was going through. I wonder what he would think of that. And I think, as disappointed as he might be, he would not give up. That’s the sense I get at least from the grandfather my mother told me to remember.”
Nichole Harwood is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She primarily covers alumni and art features. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Nolidoli1.