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Nuestra Historia: Otero resigns, students begin protests

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On May 19, 1970, Joe L. Otero stormed out of a Board of Regents meeting at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, having failed to convince his fellow regents to name John Aragon as president of Highlands University. After he left, the three remaining regents named Charles Graham of Wisconsin as university president.

A few days later, speaking from the balcony of the administration building (Rodgers Hall) at Highlands, Otero announced his resignation from the Board of Regents, and draped beneath him was a large white sheet on which was written “Learn Amigo Learn.” Otero said he resigned to protest the Board’s refusal to name John Aragon as president, and to bring attention to the continued absence of Hispanics in any meaningful positions at Highlands University.

To thunderous chants and applause, Otero pointed to the sign beneath him, and said, “They refuse to learn, they refuse to allow change at Highlands.” He then urged the large crowd of students to continue peacefully their protests and demonstrations “until justice is done at Highlands.” As the sole Hispanic regent on the university’s governing board, Otero’s resignation was symbolically powerful, and animated the growing discontent with Graham’s appointment. (In later court proceedings, Otero would testify that the regents never seriously considered Aragon, and that Aragon’s presence on the list of five finalists was nothing more than “tokenism.”)

Even before Otero’s famous balcony speech, Highlands students had already engaged in non-violent protests, beginning the day after the Board of Regents announced Graham’s appointment. On May 20, 1970, student leaders organized the first protest rally, outside Ilfeld Auditorium, attended by several hundred students and townspeople, followed by a march to the Old Town Plaza.

The rally was reported by the Optic, whose news coverage would itself become a fascinating offshoot of the events overtaking Highlands, and still presents a provocative case study of a small-town newspaper beset by an inherent conflict of interest and unmistakable bias: The Optic’s publisher was Highlands Regent Stuart Beck, one of the primary targets of the protests, and his wife, Lois Beck, was the Optic’s managing editor and chief reporter. (See “Beck Family Published Optic 35 Years,” Nuestra Historia, May 24, 2013.)

With that historical perspective and caveat, we recount the Optic’s rendition of the first protest rally staged by Highlands students, as reported under Lois Beck’s byline on Thursday, May 21 1970:

“Several hundred Highlands University students, bolstered by West Las Vegas school officials and Alianza leaders, gathered for a spirited protest Wednesday afternoon against three members of the school’s Board of Regents and their choice of a new president. Almost three hours of oratory from the portal of Ilfeld Auditorium were unmarked by any conflict from the crowd across the narrow street in front of the Student Union Building.

“Bound by ethnic allegiance, a prolonged assortment of speakers brought repeated racist charges against the administration and the trio of regents. A few self-proclaimed ‘gringos’ and at least two Black students supported the charges, but speakers and demonstrators were predominantly Spanish-American. Listeners outnumbered participants, and attendance fluctuated from an estimated peak of 300 to 400, to a faithful finale of perhaps 100.

“Targets of the venomous speeches were John D. Robb, chairman of the board, and regents Frank Peloso and Stuart Beck. Robb and Peloso are from Albuquerque. Beck is the only local member of the board. Absent martyrs of the day were Dr. John Aragon of Albuquerque and Joe L. Otero of Taos. Aragon was the protestors’ choice for the presidency. Otero, Aragon’s lone champion among the regents, resigned in protest without casting a vote after the board named Dr. Charles Graham of Wisconsin State University’s Whitewater campus as the new president.

“Dr. Thomas C. Donnelly, retiring HU president, was also mentioned as an offender. [Regent] Mrs. Margaret Driscoll of Santa Fe escaped the dissenters’ wrath, apparently because she did not attend the board meeting. She had cast a proxy vote for the Wisconsin educator. Graham, too, was vilified in some speeches.

“Sign-carrying students and a closely knit throng of allies cheered the charges of discrimination and racism. The signs proclaimed Aragon’s candidacy, ‘La Raza’ support and Chicano slogans. Threats of violence were few and thinly veiled, but rhetoric was rousing and defiant. Several members of the Spanish American Student Organization made strong suggestions of violence. SASO President Albert Ortega said, ‘Before, I’ve cried to keep SASO down. I’m not going to hold the leash on SASO now.

“Francisco Gonzales, president pro tem of the Student Senate and SASO spokesman, presided for much of the rally. His claim that violence is the only remaining course drew vocal support from only about three persons and sudden silence from the rest of the crowd. Bernie Price, Student Senate president, voiced his approval of the SASO cause but made no mention of violence.”

So began the student protest movement at Highlands University in the spring of 1970, and so too the Optic’s unsympathetic coverage.

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