Rivera's Edge

After a year on the job, U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera looks to be in the right place at the right time

There has been a recent string of border-related indictments: the February bust of INS inspectors taking bribes to allow immigrants and contraband across the border; smugglers of drugs and people were indicted in May; in June a major drug dealer was successfully extradited from Mexico.

Rivera won't comment on any of those cases, but one law-enforcement official thinks that the flow of such cases will grow now that Rivera has been in office for a year and has gotten his office in order.

He meets frequently with the state's Mexican consuls to maintain lines of communication against future snafus.

He traveled to Douglas to attend town meetings and soothe local feathers there. Douglas area residents and city officials were demanding that federal government stanch the human flow of illegal immigrants. Frustrated ranchers on a few occasions held illegals at gun point until the Border Patrol arrived. Rivera visited with citizens to ease their concerns and to let them know that it was not legal to take matters into their own hands.

As mayor Borane points out, Rivera's own immigrant roots keep him from losing sight of the human plight that drives poor Mexicans to enter the U.S. illegally.

"He understands people wanting to work," Borane says. "He understands people having trouble with the system when they get over here. I'm really impressed with his ability to grasp the situation."

Several mornings a week, summer and winter, Jose Rivera jogs along the Arizona Canal. On one recent morning, he reflected on the seemingly lucky breaks he's gotten in life.

"I know if I were starting out now, it would be more difficult to get where I am with my background."

Indeed, he's conscious of the challenges facing inner-city Hispanics. He has visited schools to read to elementary students. He's kept his own kids in central Phoenix public schools so that they would be exposed to diversity. He speaks like the liberal Democrat he is.

But we all make our "luck," and Rivera's lucky breaks are more likely the result of being very bright and very low-key at the same time. He has not had to look for work; like the U.S. Attorney's job, work has always found him.

The first two cases he handled as a Justice Department attorney just out of law school went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He had always thought he'd practice law in Flagstaff, but he kept getting invited here and there--to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Phoenix, to private practice and to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

One of the difficulties of writing a profile about Rivera is that he has no enemies, and his many friends have no anecdotes to tell about him. They uniformly answer queries about Rivera by saying that he's a hell of a guy, a good lawyer with a big heart and a good sense of humor.

"You always get a straight answer from him, but not with a straight face," says Councilman Phil Gordon, a longtime friend of Rivera's.

He reads avidly--biographies, histories, detective novels. He is fond of the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He jokes that his two daughters fight over which of them will get to name her own daughter after a character from Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a character described in another Garcia Marquez novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, as a mother who never leaves the house, but who nonetheless can inform her children on everything that is going on in the world as she sweeps the kitchen.

"I have that same mother," Rivera says.
But he reads those novels in English translation, even though his first language, and the language of his family, is Spanish.

Rivera was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1950 and named Jose de Jesus, to specify not just any Saint Joseph, but Joseph, the father of Jesus.

His mother was born in Flagstaff; his grandfather worked in a lumber mill there but moved to Zacatecas when he heard that silver had been discovered there. Rivera's mother, an American citizen by birth, drifted back to Flagstaff and brought her young family with her.

One of Rivera's earliest memories is of moving from Mexico to Flagstaff when he was 4 years old, and what made it memorable was how badly he had to pee for much of the trip.

His mother had preceded the rest of the family. Rivera, his father and a younger brother came later, boarding a bus in El Paso, Texas. Rivera's father had filled the boys with food and Coca-Cola so that they wouldn't have to get off the bus anywhere to eat, afraid that if they did, the bus might leave without them. And since none of them spoke any English, he was afraid they'd be hopelessly lost in a strange country. Finally he succumbed to the pressure at a rest stop outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, but then father and sons had to deliberate long and hard over which of the two outhouses was the men's and which was the ladies'.

Rivera started public kindergarten without knowing a word of English. He transferred the next year to a Catholic school, where the language of instruction was English, but the majority of the students came from families that spoke Spanish.

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