One of the blessings about returning to New Mexico was that it put me back in touch with Jose Armas.
His death on June 27 was a personal blow, not just because I’ve known him my entire life, but also because he knew Albuquerque – especially the Hispanic community – inside out.
My thought was he would be an indispensable resource as I navigated a new job with a “community engagement” hook.
We had a reunion a week after I started my job at the Journal in November – the first of what I had hoped would be many conversations.
Alas, it was our last. But it reflected much of who Jose was.
I met him at his house on the West Side overlooking the Rio Grande. We caught up on family and he showed me photos of Sandhill Cranes that he had taken nearby. He was an avid photographer and visual artist.
He was many things. The Journal’s Rick Nathanson’s news obituary summed up Jose’s many achievements as a social justice warrior, scholar, organizer, newspaper columnist, magazine editor, political commentator and founder of a publishing house.
But he was always quick to say he wouldn’t have achieved so much without the inspiration and support of his late wife, Linda Morales Armas.
She was amazing in her own right. I admired Jose, but I adored Linda.
“There she is,” he said, pointing to a photo he had taken.
“I’ve never forgotten those blue eyes,” I said. Linda was a Mexicana from South Texas, just like my mom. My dad, Merle Smith, and Jose had become acquainted through the VISTA program, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, when they were both in Texas in the late 1960s.
Later, after we drove to Garcia’s Cafe on Central for lunch, he told me something I didn’t know.
“Merle was responsible for helping me become training director for VISTA New Mexico,” Jose said. Growing up, I had a vague notion that our families were connected through some kind of shared “Chicano power” experience. But I didn’t need to know much beyond that. Jose and Linda were fixtures – always there. Always accessible, supportive and caring. Their home was always open to us. But I hadn’t seen them since graduating from high school in 1986.
The waitress took our order. We traded a few journalism anecdotes. He told me he was helping Manny Aragon write a biography and showed me an outline of the book’s major areas of exploration.”It’s about the rise and fall of arguably the most powerful Latino public servant in the country,” he said.
I said I was looking forward to reading it. But what I really wanted to know was what Jose thought was the biggest challenge facing the state right now. What followed was a 20-minute dissertation on the state’s “broken” education system.
“The largest threat to New Mexico’s future is the continuing failure to educate Latino kids, who make up 63% of all students,” he said.
I didn’t know Jose had been one of the organizers of the lawsuit that eventually became known as Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. Jose was a leader in the Latino Education Task Force, which enlisted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, to represent the interests of Latino students. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty represented the Native American community.
A judge’s landmark ruling directed the governor and lawmakers to follow existing laws and provide “sufficient education” to culturally distinct underserved communities that make up the vast majority of the state’s student population.
Despite the legal victory, Jose lamented that nothing has changed because he had yet to see a comprehensive plan established with a singular goal of eliminating the achievement gap.
“The state of the education issue is such that the (Public Education Department) has proposed another set of programs and funding that they want, none of which are addressing the fundamental problem, as far as my community is concerned,” he said. “They continue to not want to address the reality that the education system we have today has got to be disbanded and phased into something completely new.”
This was before PED issued its “Martinez/Yazzie Discussion Draft Action Plan,” which sets targets to reach by 2025. Knowing Jose, who provided a blow-by-blow overview of how every administration since Bill Richardson’s has kicked the education equity can down the road, I think he would have questioned whether the targets do enough or are even realistic, given PED’s track record.
Yet, he made a difference. Someday, when New Mexico lives up to its constitutional obligation to provide sufficient education to all students, kids who graduate prepared to enter the job market or attend college without remedial help will be standing on the shoulders of this “giant” who stood maybe 5’5″ in real life.
At his memorial service on Friday, cards were distributed to mourners with a quote from something Jose wrote for the Daily Lobo in 1990. I think it sums up his activist mindset nicely:
“I participated in the Chicano movement of the ’60s and ’70s. It was a conservative movement. The principal intent of our activism was to be allowed to be Chicano. Our movement was activist, even radical and militant, but founded on conservative thought. We wanted to hold on to our language, culture, traditions – we even wanted to preserve our barrios.”
Bien hecho, Jose.