Miguel Trujillo Sr. had been a Marine sergeant in World War II and was in the middle of getting his master’s degree from the University of New Mexico.
But there was one thing he still couldn’t do.
Trujillo couldn’t vote.
In 1948, the state’s constitution barred American Indians living on reservations from participating in elections.
So, that summer, the Isleta Pueblo educator waged a legal battle that culminated in a court ruling 70 years ago that won Native Americans the right to vote in New Mexico.
Decades later, Native Americans have won seats in the Legislature and the state’s most populous city appears poised to elect a Laguna Pueblo woman to Congress in a historic election that has received national attention.
But Trujillo, who died in 1989, remains a mostly unknown hero.
“I think it is a disgrace,” said Gordon Bronitsky, who wrote about Trujillo’s case in the 1980s and helped bring the then-aging retired teacher to greater prominence, though he bemoans Trujillo’s continued relative obscurity. “If he had made rugs or made pottery, there would have been an exhibit about him. … but Miguel Trujillo did not fit with what everyone thinks they know about New Mexico Indians.”
Trujillo grew up at Isleta Pueblo. His father died when he was young. That left his mother, Juanita Jaramillo Trujillo, to raise him along with his brother, Bartolo.
Resisting pressure from family friends to drop out of school and return to the pueblo to help his family, Trujillo attended the Albuquerque Indian School and then the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan. That is where Trujillo met his wife, Ruchanda Paisano. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico.
But the war broke out shortly after and Trujillo volunteered for the Marines, serving as a recruiter.
Returning home after the war, Trujillo and his wife both took jobs teaching at a Bureau of Indian Affairs Day School at Laguna Pueblo. He also embarked on earning his master’s degree and joined the All Indian Pueblo Council.
Trujillo seemed to always have a book and was always reading, recalled his son, Dr. Michael Trujillo.
“He had a good intellect and good insight into people,” he said.
And Trujillo believed in education. Both his son and daughter, Josephine Waconda, went into medicine. Dr. Michael Trujillo was director of the Indian Health Service under President Bill Clinton.
“We got to those positions because of his encouragement and saying, ‘you can always do well and you can do always better,’ ” his son said.
But even though the federal government had granted citizenship to Native Americans back in 1924, the New Mexico Constitution still barred them from voting.
The state’s constitution expressly prohibited from voting “idiots, insane persons, persons convicted of felonious or infamous crime unless restored to political rights, and Indians not taxed.”
That last part referred to Indians living on reservations because they did not pay property taxes on their land. It is unclear whether Native Americans could have registered to vote if they lived outside reservations.
But the provision disenfranchised many and prompted condemnation from the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in its 1947 report. The provision did not make any sense, the committee said. That line in the constitution was written before American Indians were granted citizenship, but they were paying taxes to the state and federal government like other citizens.
Protests against this ban, the report noted, had only gained force as American Indian veterans returned to civilian life after World War II.
It was amid all of this that Trujillo went to the Valencia County Clerk’s Office in June 1948. Family have said Trujillo had grown up with the county clerk, Eloy Garley, but knew he wouldn’t be allowed to vote in any event.
Sure enough, he was turned away.
In turn, Trujillo went to court with the help of Felix Cohen, a former federal official who had become a prominent civil rights lawyer and was working with tribes in New Mexico.
They filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court focusing on that one strange qualifier in the state constitution.
For one thing, Trujillo’s lawsuit argued, he paid plenty of taxes. No, he did not pay taxes on his land. But he paid income taxes and sales taxes.
There are other voters who don’t pay property taxes, too, such as renters. But no other group has been barred from voting on the basis that they do not pay property taxes.
And on Aug. 3, 1948, a panel of three judges in Santa Fe sided with Trujillo.
“We are unable to escape the conclusion that under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; this constitutes discrimination on the ground of race,” the court said in its ruling.
The cruel irony that Trujillo had just served in the military but was denied the right to vote was not lost on the court, either.
Native Americans, the court said, “have responded to the need of the country in time of war in a patriotic wholehearted way, both in furnishing manpower in the military forces and in the purchase of war bonds and patriotic contributions of that character.”
“Why should they be deprived their rights to not now because they are favored by the federal government in exempting lands from taxation?” the court asked.
With that, American Indians had the right to vote in New Mexico like other citizens.
Trujillo may have been a hero, but he certainly did not become a household name.
For one thing, there had not been total agreement among Native American leaders about pursuing the case.
Trujillo continued to work as an educator and later as a social worker. He kept fighting for civil rights, too — for immigrant workers and Black Southerners living in the Jim Crow era.
But Trujillo spoke little of his own part in the civil rights movement.
“I don’t remember us ever talking about it at home,” Dr. Michael Trujillo said. “Dad never really promoted himself.”
Then again, it is not as if this piece of history is really over for some.
“It is very recent. This is within my parent’s generation,” said Laurie Weahkee of Albuquerque, executive director of the state’s Native American Voters Alliance.
Standing on Trujillo’s shoulders, she said, there is still work to do in making voting more accessible — particularly for voters in rural areas and at a time when debates over the U.S. census, voter identification and same-day voter registration rage.
Today, she said, the law may say Native Americans have the right to vote.
“There’s still a large part of the community that will say ‘but … ,’ ” she added.