From time to time, Rep. Raúl Grijalva gets homesick. After all, Washington, D.C., is a long way from the Arizona Democrat’s district. While he is proud to serve, he misses his family and the familiarity of southern Arizona.
And there is another thing that Grijalva misses.
“The food,” he said during a recent tour of his office. “There is certainly better Mexican food at home.”
While the four-term Congressman can’t find a burrito to rival the ones back home, he has found a way to combat his homesickness. Grijalva has made his space in the Longworth House Office Building look like a slice of the Grand Canyon State. The tiny office is brimming with Native American baskets, southwestern art and all things Arizona.
Along the wall in the foyer hang colorful flags, each representing a Native American tribe that calls his district home. Next to them are several large photographs of southern Arizona, including the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a white stone building surrounded by cacti.
In addition to the photos and flags, Grijalva has mounted 10 Indian masks on the wall. Some have accented noses or horns, while others have crazy hair.
“I have a whole bunch at home. I only brought certain ones,” he says, adding that he has been collecting masks for 20 years. “It’s the nature of living in Tucson.”
The art on the wall isn’t the only thing that makes Grijalva feel at home; many of the staffers working in his office are from Arizona. In fact, four are Tucson natives.
On this particular day, the office is buzzing with excitement. Word has just come down that a judge has blocked part of the controversial Arizona immigration law that would allow police officers, while enforcing other laws, to ask people for proof that they are legally in the country. Staffers are eating celebratory cupcakes as the phones ring off the hook. Grijalva is overjoyed by the news.
“I almost cried when I heard that,” he says.
Immigration issues are especially close to Grijalva’s heart. His father was a migrant worker from Mexico who entered the United States through the Bracero Program, which imported Mexican workers and gave them temporary work visas in the 1940s.
“He was a hard-working son of a …” Grijalva says, stopping himself and reconsidering his words. “He worked really hard his whole life for his kids.”
Behind his messy desk, Grijalva keeps mementos of his father: a sepia-colored photo and a cowhide rope that his father made to lasso cattle. Grijalva’s father loved working on the ranch, but he gave it all up to move his children to Tucson, where they could get a good education. “He gave up ranch life, which he loved dearly, and worked construction as a laborer,” Grijalva says.
He never forgot his father’s sacrifice. Several years ago, there were plans to develop the ranch where he worked, but Grijalva fought the development and won. The space is now home to a working ranch museum where visitors can learn about the history of the trade.
Education has always been important to Grijalva. In fact, he got his political start as a member of the Tucson school board and later became an assistant dean at the University of Arizona. Now that he is a Member of Congress, Grijalva does his best to stay connected to the schools back home, visiting when he is in the district.
In his office, he keeps a souvenir from his time on the school board. Sitting on a shelf beside his desk is a framed, faded, handwritten note that an elementary school student sent the Congressman in 1976.
“This is one of my favorite letters,” Grijalva says. “I thought it was inspirational in many ways, so I kept it.”
The letter reads, “Dear Mr Grijalva, I want to thank you for coming. I think you are very nice. You kept your [campaign] promise. Some other people didn’t keep their promise. I learned a lot about you. I’m more happy because you’re Mexican. I hope you keep being that way.”
“I thought that last line said it all,” he says with a chuckle. The student went on to become an elementary school principal.
In the end, Grijalva’s office serves to remind him of where he comes from and the people and places that helped him get where he is today. The office, he says, “represents all the various interests that I have.”
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