The Stalwart Pioneer

The Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ceded much of what would become the American Southwest to the United States set in motion a long process of transformation. Many “aspiring landowners” knew of the fresh land and acts such as the Gadsden Purchase further pushing such development. Among the groups who staked a claim in the territory were Mexican settlers (who migrated both before and after the war) making the Southwest, and Arizona, their own.

In the years following the Mexican-American war, and oddly enough just before the end of the Mexican-American war, there were very little to no Hispanic peoples recorded in Arizona. Within just 10 years however, the number jumped from almost nothing to nearly 7,500 people. The Hispanic portion of Arizona grew to nearly 60 percent of the entire population. Not surprisingly then, the earliest settlers of what would become Tempe were Hispanic and inhabited what would become known as the San Pablo neighborhood, located at the base of what has become known as Hayden Butte.

Originally founded by Yaqui and other Native American Tribes (as well as the emerging Hispanic population), San Pablo soon became a large center for Hispanic influence and culture in Tempe. The peoples that moved into Tempe not only helped to bring the city its new culture and history, they were also able to help build it up from its roots. Some helped to build the railroad system as well as other features of the local infrastructure, such as the canals and road system.

It was in this context that one of the town’s early leaders, Chris Sigala, arrived in Tempe and left his mark not only both on the city and the state. Born in Sonora Mexico, Sigala made his way to the Tempe area in 1874 and settled in the San Pablo region although precisely where he lived is hard to nail down; most likely he lived on the fringes of the settlement.

Roughly two decades after migrating, Sigala joined the Arizona National Guard, serving from 1893 till 1896 as part of the C Company infantry regiment. After Sigala’s enlistment terminated, he left the guard until being recalled in 1903 because of a mine strike in Clifton-Morenci mines in Southern Arizona. The advent of the 8-hour day in the United States was a boon for workers, but the Longfellow Mining Company had reduced the workday from 10 to 8 hours but only paid the equivalent of 9 hours of work, meaning the mostly-Mexican labor force faced a ten percent pay cut. In the chaos that followed (including a torrential monsoon that led to significant flooding) the National Guard, as well as federal troops, were brought in to keep order.

The fact that Sigala commanded the C Company in which he had served all those years before (in a strike that was directed primarily against Mexican workers) reveals the complex position of Hispanics in the region. Mexican workers had gone on strike at Clifton-Morenci in an (ultimately failed) effort to obtain greater wages but were not supported in their protest by anglo workers, revealing the underlying labor dynamics in the state. Even so Hispanics maintained significant roles in many communities, as Sigala’s career emphasizes. Nonetheless, the role of Hispanics was becoming increasingly marginalized in an economy and society dominated by Anglos and discrimination.

Sigala was soon inaugurated as Tempe’s constable in 1904. Constables were local police officers who helped keep order although their role was less formal than modern-day police officers. Sigala’s duties included chasing down criminals, assisting the higher ups, and performing various odd jobs in maintaining order. During his time as constable Sigala worked alongside other local notables, such as Carl Hayden whose father is often credited with forming the community and who later served as United States Senator for over 50 years. Although he was busy during these early years with being the Constable of Tempe, commitments like that did not impede his continued involvement with the National Guard. During 1910 Sigala continued to serve on the guard and even accompanied his men into a shooting competition in Ohio of that same year.

In the 1910s, Sigala helped to create the Liga Protectora Latina meant to protect the interests of Hispanics in the Southwest. Like other mutual aid societies of the period, the group itself was a protection and assistance agency that operated all over the greater southwest United States. It also protested segregation/discrimination in schools and in work places, a function necessitated by the growing discrimination against Hispanics of more and more white Americans migrated to Arizona.

Sigala died in 1937, after serving Tempe and the Southwest for much of his life. Unfortunately, Sigala’s contribution to that history gradually disappeared along with the Hispanic barrios where he had lived, which were lost to the expansion of Arizona State University in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as urban redevelopment of the 1970s. Even so, the roots of the effort to recover the stories of Hispanic Tempe and Sigala’s life were being laid in two important developments: the emergence of the Chicano Movement of the 1970s and the creation and professionalization of the the Tempe History Museum in the 1980s. Curators at the Tempe History Museum have been at the forefront of recovering the story of Hispanic Tempe, featuring Sigala’s contributions prominently in exhibitions and collecting photographs and papers about his life. And, indeed, we see now how vital the Hispanic community (and leaders like Sigala) were to the development of Tempe and the state.

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