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Nuestra Historia: Donnelly under attack; Melody targeted

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By Jesus L. Lopez

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For the Optic

Undoubtedly, the national civil rights struggle of the 1960s found its way to Las Vegas, and helped awaken here a long dormant yearning for Hispanic inclusion in the affairs and governance of Highlands University – and two local politicians in particular were the first to take up the cause.

As noted in our previous column, by the mid-1960s, Highlands President Thomas C. Donnelly had set an unprecedented record of achievement at the university, especially in the school’s capital expansion, due in large part to the influence of powerful state Sen. Gordon Melody, who had represented San Miguel County in Santa Fe since 1948.

In the eyes of two local leaders, however, the Donnelly-Melody achievements could not mask the total absence of Hispanics at all levels of governance at Highlands, from the Board of Regents and administration, to faculty, and on down to clerical, secretarial and support staff. For Tiny Martinez and Junio Lopez, the university remained isolated from the Hispanic community — an insular and elitist anachronism perched atop the highlands east of the Gallinas River.

By 1965, Tiny Martinez was in his third term as District Attorney, having taken the office in 1956 from Republican incumbent Jose Armijo, younger brother of District Judge Luis Armijo. Martinez had also taken control of Old Town politics, both as chairman of the West Las Vegas School Board, and close ally of Old Town Mayor Chief Gonzales. By the mid-1960s, Martinez and Gonzales were also leaders of the faction seeking to wrest control of the Democratic Party from Sen. Melody and his titular Party chairman, Apolonio Duran.

The other local leader who in the mid-1960s began to clamor against the “Donnelly Regime” was Junio Lopez, who had been Republican mayor of Old Town from 1958 to 1962.

During his two terms as mayor, Lopez had spearheaded transformational infrastructure improvements in Old Town, gaining national recognition for the west side as an “All American City.” The publicity had also earned Lopez the Republican nomination for Congress in 1962. (See “Mayor Junio Lopez and His ‘All American City,” and “Old Town Became Children’s Playground,” Nuestra Historia, Sept. 6 and 13, 2013.)

At about the same time in the mid-1960s, Junio Lopez and Tiny Martinez began publishing separate and distinct newspapers, having one overriding commonality. Both Martinez’ Revista Norteña and Lopez’ Alpha News began to challenge the “Donnelly Regime” at Highlands, and the “entrenched Anglo establishment” in East Las Vegas. (In our series on the history of Las Vegas newspapers, Nuestra Historia devoted a column to each periodical, in “Tiny Martinez’ Revista Norteña,” and “Junio Lopez and the Alpha News,” April 19 and 26, 2013.)

La Revista first appeared in 1964 and published intermittently for about three years, with no definite publication schedule, Martinez himself acknowledging that his newspaper published “as the need arises.” Already known as the “Mama Lucy Gang,” Martinez and his retinue of friends and political associates penned the varied articles which filled the pages of La Revista, and the newspaper was often composed in the restaurant where the group congregated on the Old Town Plaza, run by Mrs. Lucy “Mama Lucy” Lopez, the writer’s mother.

La Revista’s deliberately provocative and sometimes incendiary style aggressively espoused Hispanic rights and inclusion at Highlands, and railed against what Martinez dubbed the “Donnelly Regime” and the “elitist Anglo establishment” in East Las Vegas. In a mixed news-editorial style, La Revista condemned Highlands for its “systematic exclusion” of Hispanics from the university’s governance.

The Alpha News emerged in 1965 and was published by Junio Lopez in the one-story brick building he had recently acquired on the north Old Town Plaza. Unlike La Revista, Lopez’ newspaper was a traditional periodical, published weekly on a regular schedule and containing all the fare of a standard newspaper. Like Martinez’ Revista, however, the Alpha News also took up the cause of Hispanic inclusion at Highlands University, and Lopez ran scathing editorials accusing President Donnelly and his associates of “deliberately excluding Hispanics from the faculty and positions of authority at Highlands.”

In addition to the tenor and tone of their newspapers, Martinez and Lopez shared another strong belief — that the status quo at Highlands was directly linked to Sen. Gordon Melody, and that no real change could be effected while the university remained ensconced under Melody’s formidable power and protection. So it was that in the winter of 1965, in different venues and among different supporters, both Democrat Tiny Martinez and Republican Junio Lopez began making plans to challenge Gordon Melody, whose senate seat was up in the spring of 1966.

Gathering at Mama Lucy’s, Martinez and his gang would soon decide on a candidate to challenge Melody in the upcoming Democratic primary. Just a half block away, at his Tru-Parts auto supply store (now Plaza Antiques), Junio Lopez would have the same thoughts for the general election. In either event, the power behind the “Donnelly Regime” was in the sights of Las Vegas’ two most strident Hispanic leaders.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.