“The Mexican American Mirror” at Phoenix Museum of History traces Phoenix’s Latin roots

Trinidad Escalante was a mojada. A wetback. Un illegal.

Actually, I can't prove that. But I can say with total confidence that the woman was Mexican. She was born in Hermosillo, Sonora, and eventually crossed the border. Legally or not? Quien sabe, as the Spanish say. She lived during different times.

After moving with her momma to Tucson during her teens, Trinidad married a white man named Jack. The year was 1864.

Que verguenza, what a shame, you are probably thinking. Yet another Latina getting married too early and getting ready to have barracks of babies. She could have made something of herself.

She kind of did. It turns out that Trinidad and Jack, a couple that was half brown and half not, gathered up a bunch of their brown day-laborer friends and built a fancy canal/ditch irrigation system about 90 miles north of Tucson. That system became the foundation of a dusty Southwestern boomtown.

Forever more, we'll know Jack Swilling as the founding father of Phoenix. And Trinidad Escalante Swilling, swathed in black lace and satin capes, is yo' mojada-maybe Mexican momma of Phoenix.

You can learn this and so much more by letting an hour or two slip by inside the Phoenix History Museum's "El Espejo Mexicano/The Mexican American Mirror." The new exhibit traces the history of Latinos in Phoenix from the rough-and-tumble Wild West days of the 1860s through the politically charged times of the 1960s.

"When the community was founded in 1870, the population was over 50 percent Hispanic," says Elizabeth Moser, who curates the exhibit.

Moser loves to talk about Trinidad while showing off her first-lady frock encased in glass. "They met in Tucson and married," she says of the Swillings. "And then settled in what became Phoenix. Her home was 'Dos Casas.' That was what their home was called because it was really a community center where people gathered for elections, religious services, fellowship, meals, and community gatherings."

The Phoenix History Museum created this compact treasure of Latino history peppered with colorful figures like the Swillings after the City of Phoenix Historic Preservation Office completed its first-ever study of historic Hispanic neighborhoods and buildings here in the Valley about two years ago. The study helped the city determine which buildings hold importance to the local Latino community history. Moser and her team used the study as an opportunity to dig deeper.

"We asked the community through newspaper articles, interviews, going out, hitting the ground for artifacts, photographs and stories to share," Moser says. "All of the pieces in the exhibit — virtually all of the pieces — are borrowed from the community, and one of the things we borrowed from another institution were the Azteca doors. These are the front doors to the Azteca theater, which was a Spanish-language movie theater. It showed English movies, too, but it showed performances, movies, Westerns, and things like that for the Mexican-American community."

But Moser is quick to point out that the museum doesn't gloss over some of the darker periods in local Latino history.

"One of the first Catholic churches that was largely built by the Mexican-Americans' efforts and community was St. Mary's Church, right down here on Monroe Street. In the early 1900s, the priests there banished Spanish-language services to the basement. The Mexican-American community, Spanish-language speakers, did not take to that, brought petitions to the bishop in Tucson and were able to start their own church right down the street in Immaculate Heart of Mary church — where it would be Spanish-language speaking."

Moser says that also prompted several Latino families who had donated handsomely to the church to clip-clop down to Immaculate Heart with not only their wallets in hand but stained-glass windows they'd purchased for St. Mary's.

Que tal! There were activistas even back then. Go 'head, Brown Town.