By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Attendance at SMYDA's fiestas varied greatly over the years. Phoenix Parks, Recreation and Library Department reports as many as 30,000 people at the Cinco de Mayo Fiesta at South Mountain Park during the years between 1989 and 1991. In 1990, when radio station KKFR-FM (Power 92) was a co-sponsor, the event drew so many people that the fire marshal closed down the park. A 1992 SMYDA fund-raising letter to potential sponsors claims attendance as high as 40,000 in one day. Other years averaged 20,000 or less.
While there was no admission fee, the organization sold booth space to local vendors of food and wares and sold advertisements in an annual program for the event. One year, public records indicate, a full-page advertisement cost $300. Much of the cost of the festivals was underwritten by big-name sponsors, including Pepsi, Coors and KSUN Radio. Gloria Cavacos, marketing manager at KSUN, says the station provided as much as $40,000 a year in entertainment, security, staging and advertisement. Pepsi refused to disclose its SMYDA contributions, other than to say that they were both in cash and in product and that SMYDA kept part of the profits from the pop sales. Alex Avilas, a sales representative for the Zeb Pearce & Son distributorship of Coors, says his company both donated cash and sold beer at the fiestas. He refused to disclose how much. Avilas says he doesn't believe the allegations of wrongdoing. The fiestas, he says, did not raise large amounts of money. "If they cleared over $15,000, it was a good year."
But former board members estimate the take at more than $30,000 during peak years. Prior to KSUN's involvement, KPHX Radio co-sponsored the event, dropping about $15,000 in entertainment and advertising. But none of the sponsors ever saw a financial report on the proceeds.
"I didn't know much about the organization," says KPHX marketing director Freddie Morales. "They came to the station asking for help. I decided to do the festival. I thought it was the right thing to do for the community."
If most of SMYDA's finances seem murky, it is clear that the group conducted many transactions in cash. Phoenix police officers, contracted for security, were paid in cash at the end of each shift. Other people associated with the fiestas over the years also remember things being handled in cash. Gomez says that local merchants also received envelopes of cash. Mu¤oz refused to discuss SMYDA's finances, other than to say that the records for previous years were with an accountant and could not be reviewed by New Times for weeks. "I want to make sure that she's in the total, total wrong about this," Mu¤oz said of the charges. Gomez went to Wilcox about SMYDA before going to the Attorney General's Office, but did not get any action. "Mercy has talked to everyone about that," Wilcox says. "SMYDA and her had a fight. I told her, 'Mercy, I think SMYDA is a real good organization.' Quite frankly, I didn't believe it. They're all good people."
Wilcox appointed Mu¤oz to the county citizen's committee that oversees Cactus League baseball in 1994. Most of the directors of SMYDA happen to be campaign contributors and supporters of Wilcox and Leija.
Reaching Into the Schools
In a weird sort of way, Bob Donofrio, superintendent of Murphy Elementary School District, may have created the political spark that set the fire around him. School is the center of the universe on the southwest side, both for lack of anything else and because of the large numbers of children here. Thus, it's a billboard of what's going on in the community at any given time. In this corner of the world, Donofrio is best known simply as "Bob," a familiar figure with a nest of red hair and a purposely unpolished style. And he is not one to refrain from speaking his mind to public officials, cops, parents, teachers or anyone else he thinks needs to hear it.
During the past few years, Donofrio has created offices for social service agencies at his schools and participated heavily in trying to improve the neighborhoods where they stand.
In 1991, Donofrio wrote the grant application that would become Project Care, a $2 million federally funded project to change not only his schools, but the neighborhoods that surrounded them.
The money hired a staff, set up an office and launched after-school programs, neighborhood cleanups and Blockwatch organizations. The southwest corner wasn't begging, hat in hand, anymore, it was coming to buy. The new dollars paid for extra police, city services and staff time.
But more than anything else, Project Care educated a community of people, many of whom didn't even know where City Hall was, let alone how to negotiate the bureaucracy to obtain streetlights and sewers or report a crime.
In relatively short order, people who didn't previously leave their homes to talk with one another were standing together at hearings, opposing liquor-license applications and demanding more from city officials.
Progress seemed to bring with it the confidence to stand up and fight in every direction. But within two years, the money was all used up. Only the fight was left.
For a long time, the schools were immune from the political struggles that mostly played out in the community. Education was something everyone could come together on. That changed this year when the school board voted not to renew Donofrio's contract, usually an annual event.