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Vicente Ximenes, rights activist, dies at 94

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Ana Ximenes remembers moving to Washington, D.C., as a child with her father, knowing very little English and sprinting from the school bus to her home because she was Mexican-American and different from the other kids in her neighborhood.

XIMENES: Believed in the dignity of humans

XIMENES: Believed in the dignity of humans

“My dad felt sorry for me but said, ‘You have to fight back and stand up for yourself,’ and I’ve been doing that ever since then,” she said Saturday.

It’s an attitude family members say Vicente Ximenes displayed throughout his life. The longtime grass-roots civil rights activist, scholar and White House appointee died Thursday night in Albuquerque at the age of 94.

Ximenes was renowned both in Albuquerque and on a national level for his work with the Agency for International Development (AID) in Panama and in Ecuador, he was a founding member of the American GI Forum chapters in New Mexico and was appointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by President Lyndon Johnson. He was instrumental in organizing the El Paso hearings, a summit with President Johnson in which the conditions of Mexican-Americans were highlighted, and the hearings led to widespread social change, said University of New Mexico English professor Michelle Kells.

Ximenes’ friend Armondo Lopez first met him in Panama working for AID, where the pair tried to improve education and economic opportunities for Panamanians. The group established credit unions for low-income farmers throughout the country.

“He was dedicated and determined, his commitment – which I saw and understood much more later – to helping others was tremendous,” Lopez said Saturday. “There were a couple of instances where he got out of his sick bed and went to the office, maybe at the detriment of all of us, just to encourage us to keep on trying to make those projects we were involved in a success.”

Born in Floresville, Texas, Ximenes received a bachelor’s in education and master’s in economics from the University of New Mexico in the 1950s. He also received an honorary doctorate from UNM.

One of his early projects, said Ximenes’ son Ricardo, was helping Albuquerque sanitation workers get showers after work. He went on to actively lobby for affirmative action and Mexican-American rights.

During his retirement in Albuquerque, Ximenes remained politically active, heading his neighborhood association and fighting against the building of a nearby Wal-Mart. He also founded the Youth Conservation Corps in New Mexico, according to Journal archives.

“There are millions of people that he helped who have probably never heard his name,” Ricardo Ximenes said. “He always believed in the dignity of humans, that was his driving force. He was a progressive thinker; he still kept up with local politics.”

Ximenes’ daughter Olivia Ximenes said that, although he moved into a retirement home for his later years, he remained sharp and active.

Ana Ximenes said he loved to watch the Rachel Maddow Show, would discuss movies with other people in the retirement home and even tried chair yoga a few months before he died.

“He decided it wasn’t for him,” Olivia Ximenes said, laughing.

Olivia said he was a guiding force for her throughout her life.

“He was that compass that keeps you steady and straight, that was his biggest influence on me,” she said. “I would think every day about what he would say about my actions. He’s that voice in my head, for me he was my compass for living.”

A rosary will be held for Ximenes at French Mortuary, 10500 Lomas NE, at 6 p.m. Thursday, and a grave-side service is planned for 2:30 p.m. Friday at Mount Calvary Cemetery, 1900 Edith NE. The family requests donations be made to the Vicente Ximenes Scholarship in UNM’s English department.

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