One of Miami Arizona’s most important civic leaders of his generation, Otto G. Santa Anna passed away on July 16, 2011. Otto was born in Miami, Ariz. on Oct. 16, 1927 to José María Santa Anna and Carmen Galindo de Santa Anna. His parents had earlier come to Miami from New Mexico on a horse-drawn wagon. Otto was born in a town that segregated its children by race into four public schools; a town where Mexicans were paid 60 cents on the dollar of Anglos for the same work, and where unions excluded Mexicans on the basis of their race. He grew up in a town whose municipal government supported a Chief of Police who freely discriminated against people of color. Santa Anna dedicated his life to making his home town a better place to live, by fighting some of these injustices.
He and his brothers and sisters grew up in Miami; Otto attended the segregated Bullion Plaza School and graduated from Miami High School which he attended from 1941 to 1944. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1946, and served oversees during the occupation of Japan. After his tour of active duty, he returned to Miami to stay. In 1953 he married Alma Sofía Arriola in El Divino Salvador Presbyterian church, and he served in this parish as Sunday school teacher, elder, deacon and in 1974 as a Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church.
Alma and Otto had four children, all of whom also graduated from MHS and went on to college and professional careers. While his children went to college to earn a degree, Otto did it his own way. He helped create a local branch of Eastern Arizona College, and then earned an Associate of Arts from there in 1972. After his children finished college, Otto went back to school to earn a B.S. degree from University of Phoenix in 1983.
After returning stateside from his Air Force stint, Otto felt the sting of racial discrimination in 1951 when he was denied a machinist apprenticeship at Southern Pacific Railroad, expressly because he was Mexican American. He later worked in the various mining companies in Miami, as a heavy duty truck driver and in the tire shop.
A Teamster, he rose to become Chief Steward for the Miami local. He negotiated several union contracts, including one bringing to an end an infamous nine-month long strike in March 1968.
Beyond fair wages, Otto’s team won an unprecedented cost-of-living provision as well as funded and vested pensions. From this leadership position, he also worked across the unions to eliminate the discrimination that once affected him, negotiating equal treatment for apprenticeships without racial, age or gender bias, and instituting training for new members to know their own union rules.
In 1962 an act of police brutality led Otto to become involved in civic affairs. A Miami policeman beat Eduardo ‘Guayo’ Esparza Sr. without provocation. The notorious Chief of Police Welch had recently died. Welch had been police chief since the 1920s, maintaining corrupt control of Miami with violence and intimidation. The Mexican community was often the target of his brutality. Welch allowed brothels and illegal gambling places to flourish. So, Miami’s citizens were not surprised when the city council failed to fire or even reprimand the police officer for beating Esparza. Miami, a classic “Company Town,” was run on behalf of the mining companies. But this was the last straw.
A committee of 17 citizens, Mexican-Americans and Anglos, including Otto, decided to organize an alternative slate for city council. Mexican-Americans, who had been dissuaded from voting for years, were the key. However, the committee worried about physical violence, so they organized a “kitchen to kitchen” campaign to register Mexican American voters for the first time. There was tremendous push back from the entrenched powers.
The committee initially sought to run a racially balanced slate, but in the end Otto, David Barragán, Aurelio Flores, Robert Barcón, Salvador Portillo, and ‘Turk’ Benson (the non-Mexican).
At the time the local newspaper, the Silver Belt, ran editorials questioning their campaign tactics which avoided publicity, as it failed to note that the slate was filled with WWII veterans.
In the end three of the slate won in 1962, and a new era of Miami politics began. Otto did not win a council seat in the first election, but he went on to serve seven terms as Miami councilman and other civic organizations such as the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
Santa Anna also worked hard for Miami’s and Arizona’s most vulnerable populations. Otto served on Foster Care committees for Gila County and the State of Arizona for over 20 years, at one point worked with a committee of state supreme court judges to draft statutes to give these defenseless children greater protections. He also served as in the Inter-Mountain Behavioral Health Association, as a board member and president, on the Board of Directors of the Miami Memorial Library.
Most importantly, Otto was never a politician. He was a civic leader. He did not compromise his deeply-held values to curry the voter’s whim or favor; he always expressed his arguments rationally in plain talk. His guiding principle was to improve the quality of life in Miami, and he never sought personal aggrandizement at the expense of Miami’s citizens.
As one of his last civic leadership roles, he led the fight to save the Bullion Plaza School from demolition. Bullion Plaza was the original Mexican school from segregation days before the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. Otto initiated funding proposals to renovate it and to convert it into the Bullion Plaza Cultural Center and Museum. He was proud to have had a hand in saving this cultural and historical treasure.
Apart from his devotion to God and Miami civic life, Otto was a loving husband, brother, and father. With Alma, they supported their children’s education. He taught them compassion, integrity, and openness by example. Above all, he taught them faith and to be of service to others. His infectious ear-to-ear smile and a bear hug are unforgettable. Starting during a union strike, he built his home on Live Oak Street of which he was immensely proud. He was generous with his friends and neighbors, and ready to jitterbug at any Miami social event.
He was preceded in death by his parents and brothers. Otto leaves behind in loving memory his wife of 58 years, Alma Santa Anna of Miami; his sister, Norma Gauster of Connecticut, two sons, Otto Jr. of Los Angeles, Aaron of Alexandria, Va.; two daughters, Adria of Tucson, and Sonia of Albuquerque; and four grandchildren.
Services for Mr. Santa Anna were held Friday, July 22, 2011at Divince Grace Church in Miami, Ariz.
Assisting the family; Lamont Mortuary of Globe.