Thursday, May 16, 2024

Gutierrez, 2023 Historymaker, finally graduates ASU

 Insightful story below about Alfredo Gutierrez from  Daniel Gonzalez Arizona Republic. 

Listen to him tell his story at 

Kicked out of ASU in '68 for protesting, Alfredo Gutierrez finally graduating

Alfredo Gutierrez is one of the most influential Latino leaders in Arizona.

The 78-year-old's long list of accomplishments dates back decades, starting with his service as an Army private in Vietnam. Gutierrez also served as a civil rights activist, state lawmaker and Senate majority leader in the 1970s and 1980s.

He was a political consultant and a migrant advocate in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2002, Gutierrez ran for governor. And more recently Gutierrez served as Maricopa County Community College District president.

His push for fair wages for Latino workers, health care for the poor, community college accessibility in south Phoenix, professional sports stadiums in downtown Phoenix, and protection of immigrant rights created institutional changes that have benefitted millions of Arizona residents.

"Many of us try to create change, but it's not until we create institutions or organizations" that change on a large scale can happen. That is his legacy, said Rafael Martinez, a professor of southwest borderlands at Arizona State University who is working with Gutierrez on a coming-of-age novel based on his life.

Gutierrez's lifetime of public service, social activism and contributions to Arizona were publicly recognized in 1999 when former Arizona State University President Lattie Coor conferred Gutierrez with an honorary doctorate.

But one accomplishment had eluded Gutierrez all these years: a college degree.

Gutierrez never earned a diploma after being kicked out of ASU in 1968 for leading student protests on campus.

Over the years, Gutierrez kept his lack of a college degree mostly to himself, even as he encouraged young people to go to college and fought to increase college pathways for disadvantaged students. Now Gutierrez can finally say he, too, is a college graduate.

He will receive a bachelor of liberal arts from ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts on May 9.


Gutierrez's reasons for going back to finish college

One may wonder why, nearing 80, Gutierrez decided to finish college after already having accomplished so much in his life, including receiving an honorary doctorate. He certainly didn't need the diploma for his resume or to land a job.

"There are a couple of reasons," Gutierrez said by telephone, after a recent fall forced him to cancel an interview at a local coffee shop. Although he was still hobbling around, he said he wouldn't let the injury stop him from walking across the stage at the Hispanic Convocation on Saturday, May 4, and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Convocation on May 9. Both events were to be held at ASU's Desert Financial Arena.

Over the years, Gutierrez spent a lot of time speaking to young people, especially Latinos, about the importance of staying in school and encouraging them to go to college. But the fact that he had never graduated himself gnawed at him.

"It seemed to me at 78 somewhat hypocritical that I had done that most of my life, and I didn't have the discipline, or didn't make the time, whichever the case may be, to go back and finish myself," Gutierrez said. "I just felt I had to do it."

The idea of finishing his degree also posed one more good personal challenge.

"I should have gotten a degree, so I'm going to go do it," Gutierrez said, his voice ringing with a determination forged growing up in a hardscrabble mining town where Mexican Americans struggled against discrimination and segregation.

And finally, graduating also seemed like a good way of getting back at the ASU officials who kicked him out nearly six decades ago.

"I just didn't want to let the b------- get away with it," Gutierrez said. "They just pushed me out, so the hell with it; I was going to go back and get the degree that was denied me, in my opinion."

Why was Gutierrez kicked out of Arizona State University?

Gutierrez grew up in a working-class family in Miami, an Arizona mining town west of Phoenix. At 17, Gutierrez was drafted by the military and spent three years in the Army infantry, including a year fighting in Vietnam as a sharpshooter and carrying out operations as part of a special unit.

While in the military, he realized that the soldiers he met who had college degrees were no smarter than him.

"They had no common sense, I thought, on how to deal with the realities that are imposed upon you in the Army in the 60s," Gutierrez said. "So the idea of going to college became agreeable to me. It was no longer the impossible barrier to me."

When he came home from Vietnam, Gutierrez enrolled at ASU on the GI Bill. He was the first person in his family to attend college.

It was a time of large student protests on college campuses. The civil rights movement, the Chicano movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement were all taking place. Inspired by Cesar Chavez, the farm worker advocate and civil rights leader, Gutierrez helped form the Mexican American Student Organization at ASU, which later became Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztl├ín, also known as M.E.Ch.A.

One of the Mexican American Student Organization's main causes became fighting for Mexican women, many undocumented, toiling in deplorable conditions for low pay at a laundry that washed bedding for sororities and fraternities on campus under contract with ASU.

Gutierrez led protests demanding ASU pressure the laundry to improve working conditions and wages. When the university refused, Gutierrez helped lead a group of students who took over the president's office for several days.

In response, state troopers surrounded the building, the Arizona Board of Regents demanded the students be expelled, and the Legislature asked the governor to call up the National Guard, Gutierrez said.

"It was kind of crazy," Gutierrez said, pointing out similarities to the recent Israel-Hamas war protests at ASU and on other campuses.

Gutierrez said the university was determined to kick him out. He said he was accused of violating a student code of conduct the university rejiggered specifically to force him out. He was given a choice, he said: be expelled with no chance of returning or leave voluntarily with the opportunity to reapply for admission in the future.

"I chose to leave so I could come back," Gutierrez said.

But Gutierrez never went back.

He got married, had a baby and needed money to support his family.

"Life happened," Gutierrez said.

Decades of public service leadership in Arizona

Gutierrez went to California to work with Cesar Chavez organizing farmworkers. He also worked for Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. He was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968.

After Kennedy's death, Gutierrez was among the first to receive a Kennedy Memorial Fellowship to spend 18 months training to pursue a career in politics, public service and social justice. The stipend allowed him to support his family, and the experience was life-changing. It put Gutierrez in contact with some of the day's most prominent and important social justice and civil rights leaders.

"I attended a number of seminars with some extraordinary people, went to Harvard for special programs and in D.C. met with some unbelievable folks," Gutierrez said. The people he met included U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy and J. William Fulbright and political activist Ralph Nader.

In 1972, when Gutierrez was 25, he ran for the state Senate in District 23 and won. Two years later, he was selected to serve as Senate majority leader. Gutierrez spent 16 years in the Legislature, most of that time in leadership roles.

While in the Legislature, Gutierrez pushed for Arizona to finally join the Medicaid program. Since then, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, has provided health care to millions of low-income families and individuals.

After leaving office, the political consulting firm he co-founded, Jamieson and Gutierrez, helped pave the way for the construction of sports arenas in a downtrodden area of central Phoenix. Although the idea of using public money to build sports arenas was politically unpopular at the time, Gutierrez said he saw building the arenas as a way of revitalizing the city's economically depressed core.

Gutierrez also was instrumental in opening South Mountain Community College to serve students in predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods in south Phoenix. He helped found Chicanos Por La Causa and Valle del Sol, two Latino organizations that provide social services to working-class families.

In the 2000s, Gutierrez helped lead grassroots campaigns against the 2010 immigration enforcement law known as SB 1070 and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration sweeps.

In 2014, Gutierrez was appointed to the governing board of the Maricopa Community Colleges. He stepped down as board president in 2018 after a fall caused a brain injury that temporarily affected his ability to walk and talk.

Then, in 2023, Gutierrez decided to return to ASU and complete his degree.

Being welcomed back at ASU to complete novel, degree

Vanessa Fonseca-Chavez, an associate dean of inclusion and student success, was at her office on the ASU Tempe campus last fall when an academic advisor invited her to meet a prospective student. The man wanted to talk about finishing his degree through the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, which is designed to provide flexibility to nontraditional students returning to college at different stages in life.

He was an older gentleman Fonseca-Chavez did not recognize. She said she didn't think much of his age because the college receives many older students, and his name did not immediately ring a bell.

But during a short break, Fonseca-Chavez went back to her office and Googled Gutierrez's name. A long list of articles and entries appeared, highlighting his many achievements, which Gutierrez had not shared.

"Sir, you didn't tell me exactly who you were," Fonseca-Chavez recalled telling Gutierrez when she returned. "I told him I would be so honored to work with him."

Gutierrez told Fonseca-Chavez he was working on a novel set in a mining town in Arizona in the 1960s. The novel is based on Gutierrez's life growing up in Miami.

Fonseca-Chavez and Martinez, the ASU professor, worked with Gutierrez on creating an independent study program based on the novel to earn the final credits he needed to finish his degree. Gutierrez had never written a novel. Fonseca-Chavez helped him develop characters, narrative flow and other literary devices.

Gutierrez finished the novel, which has been edited and will soon be sent to publishers.

Fonseca-Chavez said she was humbled to work with Gutierrez on his novel and degree.

"Just knowing that at the time he stood up for Mexicanas who were working in the laundry at ASU in the 1960s — it's incredible that he stood up for them, and then the consequence of that was not being able to finish a degree," Fonseca-Chavez said.

Now, nearly 60 years later, he has.

Reach the reporter at