The American Artist: A Naturalized Citizen, Painter, and Valley Legal-System Translator, Ramon Delgadillo Was Refused Entry to Arpaio's Jail Because He Didn't Carry Proof of Citizenship

Editor's note: This is one of a group of individual accounts of racial profiling by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's forces.

Ramon Delgadillo hardly fits the bill of those who have been profiled because of race or ethnicity by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies.

Light-skinned, with hardly any accent to betray his Mexican roots, he comes across as someone who could be a professor of English lit at a Valley university. Though his hometown is Tijuana, Mexico, he has lived in America most of his life, and in 2000, he became an American citizen.

His home near Central and Camelback in Phoenix is large and tastefully decorated. Mayor Phil Gordon was once a neighbor. On the walls hang some of the big, brightly colored canvases he's known for painting. One of them, titled Taco Bombing, shows dark-blue planes dropping explosive Mexican vittles onto the world below.

Though Delgadillo has a bachelor's degree in art from ASU and has been featured in books such as Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Art, it's as a Spanish-language translator for the Maricopa County courts system that he's earned a living for more than a quarter-century. These days, the 60-year-old is semi-retired, though he still translates on a freelance basis for various lawyers, and sometimes the courts.

In 2007, Delgadillo became the center of a controversy over Sheriff Arpaio's then-newly instituted policy of barring illegal immigrants from visiting prisoners at county jails. Signs were posted at jail entrances advising the public that the undocumented were not allowed in. Forms for jail visitors inquired about immigration status.

During a routine trip to Lower Buckeye Jail to translate for a public defender meeting with a client, Delgadillo checked a box on the new entry form showing he is a naturalized U.S. citizen. But because he could offer no proof of his naturalization, he was refused admittance. This, even though he had presented his court ID to the guards.

"When you get your citizenship," Delgadillo said recently, "they don't tell you that you have to carry that paperwork always with you. And they don't say, 'There are two classes of citizens. The first class are the ones born here, the second are [those not born here].' You know, we have the same rights. There's no difference."

Indeed, once the press got the story, Arpaio had to admit the error, and the MCSO changed the form so that it did not discriminate against naturalized citizens. It was a rare moment of retreat for Arpaio. Nevertheless, the MCSO maintained its policy of threatening those here illegally with arrest if they dared visit someone held in his jails.

Delgadillo has not forgiven or forgotten the incident. He sees a direct link between the sort of prejudice toward Mexicans he has observed in Arizona, and in Arpaio's reactionary policies singling out Latinos. He openly abhors Arpaio's abuses of power, such as the MCSO's nighttime raid on the Mesa public library in 2008, and the recent incident involving MCSO detention officer Adam Stoddard ( In fact, Delgadillo happened to be on a translating assignment for another case, and was sitting in court when Stoddard swiped documents right off the desk of defense attorney Joanne Cuccia, in plain view of the court's video camera.

"I could not believe it," said Delgadillo. "I thought, 'What is this, [East] Germany? The Stasi? This is ridiculous."

Yet it was his outrage at the treatment of Latinos by the Sheriff's Office that inspired what may be his most provocative painting to date, Crucifixion, a four-by-six-foot image of an MCSO deputy pointing his pistol at a kneeling Mexican prisoner, who is dressed in black-and-white stripes. On the prisoner's outstretched palms are red stigmata. Around the prisoner's head is a golden aura indicating sainthood.

The piece is hanging at the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix as part of its debut exhibit of Hispanic artists, "Visiones." Delgadillo said he does not consider himself religious. But he drew on the Catholic iconography prevalent in Latino art to convey what he considers to be the victimization and sacrifice of an entire people.

Also in the back of his mind was the story of Sister Dorothy Stang, an American nun murdered in Brazil in 2005 at the behest of wealthy landowners angered by her activism on behalf of land reform and the environment. Stang once taught Catholic grade school in Phoenix, and would tutor farm workers' children in English in her spare time. She counted as one of her pupils Delgadillo's wife, Kathy Hansen. The nun's killing was recounted in the 2008 documentary They Killed Sister Dorothy.

"Stang was shot in the middle of the jungle," stated Delgadillo, his dark-brown eyes flashing. "She was a friend of my wife's, and I guess I had this idea of someone being executed just for being who they are. Someone representative of the suffering of the people."

In the painting, no bullet has yet been fired. The scene has been freeze-framed before the culmination of violence, and it could be interpreted as a metaphor for the current state of affairs in Maricopa County regarding the sheriff and Latinos.

"Something is going to happen," said Delgadillo. Of the painting, he adds, "It's at that moment, on the edge, just before that something takes place.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons