Mary Frei

 

There is a saying in Spanish, “La lucha es la vida” — struggle is life. I would say it’s the truth. — Linda Pedro

It was the summer of 1980, and Linda was 34. She had been a quadriplegic for 14 years, at a time when Medicaid did not provide home attendant care. She was the single mother of an 8-year-old, living on the edge in Chimayó, New Mexico. Within the disabled community she was a national hero because, two years earlier, when she faced institutionalization for herself and foster care for her son, she successfully sued the New Mexico Department of Human Services. In a landmark decision, a federal judge ordered the department to create a program that offered paid attendant care for Linda and parents like her, so that they could live at home.

Inspired by her legal victory, Linda took on a mission to be useful to others. She traveled to Berkeley, California, to the Center for Independent Living, and took an intensive course in civil-rights law for people with disabilities. When she returned, she created the Río Arriba Committee on Concerns of the Handicapped. She contacted parents of children in Special Education programs, organized a luncheon and sent invitations to every service organization in the county. Many showed up, she remembered, “but some folks from La Raza Unida Party (LRUP) were the only ones who took me seriously.” That led to Linda’s involvement with LRUP.

LRUP was fundamentally about land and water rights. But members learned from Linda that the rights of disabled people were important and being ignored, and that was a battle that needed to be fought, as well. Linda realized that for significant change to occur in Río Arriba County, she had to help LRUP go against the county’s most powerful politician, Emilio Naranjo.

Naranjo—“El Patrón”—was a state senator and long-time Democratic Party chairman. He was also the Río Arriba county manager and, prior to that, county sheriff. His reign was one of nepotism, police brutality and frame-ups of his opponents. Although he had been forced to resign his position as state senator the year before, along with chairmanship of the county’s Democratic Party, Naranjo’s downfall was only temporary. In November 1979, the state Court of Appeals reversed his perjury conviction, citing “insufficient evidence.”

Naranjo had been convicted of perjury in a case stemming from the 1975 arrest of LRUP activist Moises Morales (present-day Río Arriba county clerk). Morales claimed that Naranjo—then county sheriff—and two deputies had arrested him on false charges and then planted more than two pounds of marijuana in the back of his truck. Morales passed a lie-detector test and beat the charges.

Naranjo’s attacks on LRUP had made it a tight-knit, insular organization. But it was not closed to Linda. “I was amazed that they were so open to me,” she said when she joined the party in 1979. In fact, she didn’t say a word during the first six months she attended central committee meetings. Linda bonded with the party’s activists including the founder, Antonio “Ike” DeVargas, and chairman, Wilfredo Vigil. They shared a common desire to spring Río Arriba loose from a stifling political system.

A year later, in 1980, Linda decided to challenge Naranjo in the state senate race. “We were all stoked because Linda was such a dynamic person,” DeVargas recalled. But running for office was something she couldn’t do without an enormous amount of assistance. Every morning, Linda needed to rise early and, with the help of her attendant, get dressed and groomed, a process that took hours and was a far more difficult task for her than for an abled person.

When Linda filed her candidacy that May, she had to be carried in her wheelchair up the stairs of the county courthouse in Tierra Amarilla. This was 10 years before Congress would pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required public buildings to be accessible.

She was driven around the campaign trail in her old Dodge Dart, adapted with a hydraulic jack so she could get in and out of the passenger seat while wrapped in a harness. I remember a campaign rally when Linda said to the crowd, “Somebody asked me the other day why I was running for state senator,” she said, smiling. “I told him it was because I can do more in four years on a wheelchair than Emilio Naranjo’s done in 25 on two feet.”

On Nov. 4, 1980, Linda Pedro received 990 votes for state senator. She trailed Naranjo, who had 5,953 votes, and the Republican candidate, Sam Zeigler, who had 2,631. But it was a time to be proud. Linda Pedro had run on courage, character and integrity. She showed that a quadriplegic and impoverished single mother could take control of her own life. This was the trail that Linda Pedro blazed.
 
Mary Frei met Linda Pedro while reporting on the New Mexico Senate race for the Río Grande Sun in 1980. Frei has reported for the Albuquerque Journal North, Santa
Fe New Mexican, High Country News and other New Mexico publications.