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Cecilia Esquer - The Legacy of a Chicana Activist

Cecilia Esquer Cecilia Esquer with guitar Wedding Day - Cecilia and Elias Esquer Career Begins in Fighting for Social Justice Cecilia Esquer and Hillary Clinton Picture of Cecilia and Elias Esquer

Cecilia Teyechea Denogean Esquer was born in Superior, Arizona in 1942.  She reported that her teachers made her feel inferior, un-American and insisted that Cecilia identify herself as Spanish instead of Mexican. Cecilia and her classmates were punished for speaking Spanish, even outside the classroom. Her parents shared similar experiences, and they wanted a better education and more opportunities for their children.  A combination of her mother’s strength and respect for education, and her father’s willingness to make the move, made it possible for the family to move to Phoenix in 1954.

A Career of Service

In Phoenix, Cecilia attended Lowell Elementary School and, with the assistance of a faculty scholarship, graduated from Phoenix Union High School in 1959. She received a scholarship to Arizona State University (ASU), where she was named Outstanding Business Education Student and became president of the local chapter of the honor society, Pi Omega Pi.  With her bachelor’s degree secured, Cecilia accepted a position at Ray High School in Kearny, Arizona. She returned to ASU in 1964 and earned a master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American Literature.

In 1965, she married Elias Esquer. He was the youngest child of a prominent Latino family in Tempe. His parents, Eduardo and Rita Esquer, came to Tempe to work the farms in 1940. Six years later, they moved with their 10 children into the predominantly Mexican American Victory Acres neighborhood. In 2007, the city named Esquer Park after Elias’ family. Cecilia taught Spanish at McClintock High School in Tempe from 1965 to 1966 and from 1968 to 1970. It was there that she confronted the unjust ways in which the Yaqui Indian and Mexican American students from Guadalupe, Arizona were mistreated.

Fighting for Social Justice

Cecilia became passionate about minority rights and realized a great need for more Mexican American lawyers. In 1976, she earned her juris doctorate from Arizona State University and began practicing law. Esquer's life work included serving as chief counsel of the State Attorney General's Public Policy Division; an appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the Legal Services board of directors; and organizing for civil rights leader Cesar Chavez's farm workers' movement.

Serving the Public

Esquer was also a legendary figure in the Democratic Party, serving on the Democratic National Committee, as well as serving alongside Hillary Clinton on the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation, the federal authority responsible for legal aid to the less fortunate. In addition to her public roles, she served behind the scenes in roles ranging from grassroots activist to senior advisor on Democratic campaigns in Arizona spanning four decades.

Educating the Future

Cecilia was a faculty member at Phoenix College for many years where she chaired the Justice and Legal Studies Department and is credited for bringing it great notoriety as the top program of its kind in the Maricopa Community College District.

Cecilia authored a book titled "The Lie About My Inferiority, Evolution of a Chicana Activist," and worked tirelessly for equitable treatment of minorities and women, and to raise awareness of the political strength young people have.  In 2011, Cecilia was posthumously recognized for her efforts and named as one of the Arizona Latina Trailblazers. Her life story and many contributions to the community are preserved for future generations through the Arizona History Project.  

A Legacy Grows

The Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association established the Cecilia Esquer Legal Studies Scholarship in Cecilia’s honor for students majoring in legal studies at Phoenix College when she passed away in 2010.  Cecilia liked to use the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to describe herself as “an ordinary person who has been blessed with extraordinary opportunities and experiences.” However, many thought Cecilia was far from ordinary. She was fearless and spoke her mind, especially when it came to matters of social injustice, racism, and politics.  

The Esquer family honors Cecilia’s memory and legacy through generous support for the endowment in her name, expanding access for future generations through a recent gift of $10,000.  If you would like to learn more about establishing a legacy endowment, visit phoenixcollege.edu/legacy.

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