Nine Thousand Poor Mexican Americans
Outraged at the news, Rose Augustine and her best friend called a neighborhood meeting in South Tucson. They made coffee and handouts for 40, but 9,000 poor Mexican American lined up outside the door. A week before, Rose had looked with horror at the newspaper story. The water she’d consumed throughout her life and the life of her sick children was poisoned by the toxic chemical trichlorethane, TCE.
The water was run off from the nearby missile plant. It had been stored in her neighborhood in South Tucson in leaking ponds that were not lined because they thought poor people would not complain. No wonder her children were sick and perhaps would die. No wonder cancer crawled down the streets of the barrios.
A Spunky Child
Rose had been a spunky child. Her cousin laughed. “You were a plucky kid. I’ll always remember working in the cotton fields, looking up, and, there, your black braids would be bouncing down the rows. You were always running and skipping when we should’ve been working.” It’s true, Rose always had a spirit in her. She lived with her mother and grandma in Tucson’s barrio during the 1940s.
One day she found a little girl crying behind her grandma’s house. Rose asked why, and the small child said she was hungry. Rose, who said she was always nosy, followed the child into the little girl’s house and found the child’s mother too sick to feed her. Rose ran for her grandma to bring help. Her interference saved the mother and the child. Her first organizing, Rose said later.
Life was poor but good for Rose, whose mother worked in a Mexican restaurant to support Rose, her older brother Mundy, Rose’s grandma, and herself. Then her brother got sick with tuberculosis and was shipped to a sanatorium. Worried about the spread of TB, the county health commission, who paid little attention to the impoverished neighborhoods of South Tucson normally, devised a plan to restrict the spread of TB in at-risk populations.
They considered the Mexican Americans to be especially dirty and disease prone because of “unhealthy” cultural practices. Consequently, they set up a “preventorium” in the nearby mountains. The plan was to take healthy children from their parents and put them in an orphanage-like setting and make them live regimented lives, eat Anglo food, break their Mexican American cultural practices, and work outside.
The county chose Rose, who was already mourning the absence of her brother, and swept her away from her beloved mother and grandmother, who were only allowed to visit her once month. “No, I want to go home,” Rose cried to her captors. “This isn’t fair. I don’t want to go.”
Rose slowly adapted to the regime but hated the food. At night she longed for her family and her sweet childhood in the barrio where she slept outside in the summer and watched tiny lights flick on and off as the neighbor men smoked cigarettes sitting out in the dark.
A smaller girl slept next to Rose in the preventorium. She cried day and night. “I want Mama, I want Mama,” she sobbed, then begged Rose to take her home.
Rose sat on the side of the girl’s bed and held her hand. Finally, she waited until everyone else was asleep at night, then whispered to the younger child. “I’ve got a plan. We’ll run away. I want my grandma and mama too.”
Rose and the little girl waited until staff were resting after lunch, then Rose took the little girl by the hand, and they ran down a path behind the buildings. As time passed they hid behind cactus and bent down in a wash. Rose knew the way home because she’d gone to the mountains with her uncle to gather wood, but it would take days to reach their part of town.
They soon drank the little water they’d taken with them. They heard men from the preventorium searching for them, but at night they hid by the edge of the road going down the mountains whenever they saw headlights of cars. Finally, hungry, thirsty, scratched, and dirty, they were caught. Separated, Rose lost track of the other child.
Then two weeks later, Rose’s mother stormed into the cluster of buildings. She shouted in Spanish and English that she was taking her child. When she’d found that Rose had run away, Rose’s mother went to the court house and raised such a commotion the county officials finally gave up and agreed to let her retrieve Rose.
“Running away was the first time I fought the government,” Rose told me years later.
Rose eventually grew up, married, continued to live in the South Tucson barrio, and had children. Then her children got sick with rare diseases. Finally, Rose and others discovered that their drinking water had been poisoned by TCE toxic chemicals when a nearby by defense contractor dumped chemicals into poorly lined ponds near community’s water supply. Rose was furious, called a meeting for forty and 9,000 people came.
“It wasn’t fair,” Rose told me years later when I interviewed her for an oral history project. “They didn’t care at all about us Mexicans. It was like we weren’t even people. Our people got sick and died, and they didn’t even care.”
Rose led the fight against the chemicals, and the government finally declared it a superfund clean-up site. Rose also became an international fighter to end environmental racism. The spunky kid grew up and never stopped resisting oppression.
Special Sense of Justice
I think about Rose during this time of struggle. She is 84 now and too old to protest, but her heart is with those trying to foster a more just society. She hopes for their success and sends prayers for their health. Rose has had a special sense of justice throughout her life, and it continues with her, giving her strength in her old age.