It has been a hard week for the Mexican-American community in Phoenix and Arizona, as two irreplaceable leaders have been lost in the space of a few days. First, journalist and arts booster Ruben Hernandez passed away over Veteran’s Day weekend. Now, word comes that Former Representative Ben Miranda passed away on Friday morning.
We were colleagues and sometimes friends. I am not going to pretend that I always got along with him, or that he was easy to get along with. This is not a knock against him. He was difficult for the right reasons. This is a short way of saying that he may have been a pain in the ass, but he was a pain in the ass because he was a man of convictions who believed that it was necessary, a belief that was validated by what he managed to accomplish. Actually, I remember once having called him a pain in the ass, to which he replied “You know it, brother.”
Which brings us to another point, even when we disagreed, Ben recognized that we wanted the same thing, and we never lost respect for each other. He always called me “brother.”
When I first got to the capitol, Ben and I were both new. Ben, however, had a month of seniority on me and knew Phoenix, and the dynamics of the Mexican-American community in the Valley, more than I ever would. I would have been lost were it not for his efforts to mentor me and I am still grateful for his generosity.
Ben had a colorful and accomplished legal career. A colleague once noted that his last name was the same as the plaintiff in the landmark Miranda vs. Arizona, and Ben noted that Ernesto Miranda, while not a relative, was once a client. Ben even still had a signed Miranda card from the days when the destitute Ernesto sold these on the Maricopa Country courthouse steps. Ben lived history.
Ben attended at least a dozen different schools growing up, a consequence of his upbringing in a family of migrant farm workers. He sometimes told the story of how the farm worker kids in Gila Bend would have to walk to their dilapidated school, choking in the dust kicked up by the bus full of Anglo farmer kids who would taunt them on the way to their much nicer school. Majority legislators dismissed the story as fiction or otherwise irrelevant, though I am glad that he told it. Suburban conservatives needed to be reminded that their Arizona of tract homes and golf courses was not the reality for so many of us who actually grew up here.
Ben came back from Viet Nam with a Bronze Star, attended college on the GI Bill and went on to law school at ASU, where he was one of the few Mexican-Americans in his class. Having graduated with honors, Ben struggled to find work because he still did not have a proper suit. Nonetheless, once established, he gained a reputation fighting for causes in the community and for his pro-bono work, his activism informed by his own struggles.
Ben ran for the legislature multiple times before getting elected. He lost his first race to no less than Senator Alfredo Gutierrez. Heck, if you are going to lose, lose to the best, I suppose. Once in the legislature, he quickly became a thorn in the side to the Republican Majority, particularly on the Judiciary Committee, where he fearlessly pointed out the Chairman’s bullshit.
Ben’s came into the legislature at a time when Republican demagoguery on immigration was just starting, and he remained there through the culmination of this fever with SB1070. Though this was a defeat for the people and causes that Ben had been fighting for his whole life, he did not lose heart and remained the happy warrior.
Seeing that so many of the legislators who were attacking immigrants and Mexican-Americans were Mormons, Ben concocted a scheme to petition the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City directly, arguing that what was happening at the capitol potentially undermined LDS efforts to expand in Latin America. Though someone put the kibosh on this before it went too far, LDS involvement in the later successful bi-partisan effort to recall Russell Pierce (R-Mesa), the architect of 1070, seems to confirm that Ben was onto something.
Personally, my favorite Ben Miranda moment came in 2003, when he brought a imam to the floor of the House to do the opening prayer. This was apparently the first time a Muslim cleric did so in Arizona. The day that Ben chose to do this happened to be the day that the United States invaded Iraq. He was always a provocateur.
Folks have been lamenting that Ben will be impossible to replace. I see this as a good thing. Ben’s entire life was dedicated to making sure that others would not have to go through what he went through growing up. His work in the community including service on boards, his civil rights advocacy, labor organizing, and mentoring students, assured that there would be no more Ben Mirandas, and that was is greatest success.