In Memory of Tomas Atencio

By Janet Murguía, President and CEO, NCLR

The Hispanic community, and the nation, lost a hero on July 16, when Tomas Atencio, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of New Mexico, passed away at his home in Albuquerque after a long illness.

The son of a Presbyterian minister whose family traced its history in New Mexico to the 1700s, Atencio was a Marine “wireman” in the Korean War, whose job was to check and maintain communications lines running through the rice patties and frozen mountains, often under sniper fire. He had degrees in philosophy, social work, and theology, and he authored or coauthored numerous works, including Albuquerque: Portrait of a Western City (Albuquerque: Clear Light Publishing, 2006) and, most recently, Resolana: Emerging Chicano Dialogues on Community and Globalization (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009). Tomas is perhaps best known for founding community-based academies dedicated to resolanas, or grassroots dialogues. A core concept of the resolana is that all participants are equal and discussions take place in the open, where, according to Papago Indian tradition, the sun is shining and everyone can see and hear what everyone else says, all at the same time.

Atencio’s ties to the National Council of La Raza ran deep. His brother Amos was the long-time CEO of Siete del Norte, one of our oldest Affiliates, and served on the NCLR Board of Directors. Tomas himself worked with two other NCLR Affiliates, the Mexican American Unity Council and the Colorado Migrant Council, as well as Siete del Norte, where among other things he pioneered culturally competent mental health care innovations, battled against heroin traffickers, inspired and catalyzed the development of small family farms, and in the process mentored the next generation of Latino community leaders. He also played a key role in convincing my predecessor, Raul Yzaguirre, to take the job as NCLR’s CEO in 1974, and all of us who have followed in his footsteps are grateful for that profoundly important act. For these and other achievements too numerous to list, Tomas Atencio earned NCLR’s Maclovio Barraza Award for Leadership in 1997.

But what his family, friends, and admirers will remember most about Tomas Atencio was his unique combination of fierce passion, sharp intellect, and gentle spirit. He dedicated his life to striving to help us all find, in his own words, a “new humanity that tears down all class and racial barriers.” May he rest in peace. May his ideas live on forever.

You might also be interested in: