José Cárdenas: The undefeated Mighty Vandals of Miami Arizona won the 1951 State basketball championship. It’s a story of a team who beat the odds on and off the basketball court. Their story will be told on stage this week for people to see. Here with me is James E. Garcia, New Carpa Theater Company founder and Playright of the Mighty Vandals. Also here is the only surviving member, the starting 5 of the Mighty Vandals basketball team in 1951, Fito Trujillo. It’s an honor to have you both.
James E. Garcia: Thank you.
Fito Trujillo: Thank you.
José Cárdenas: James let’s talk first about the play and how it came to be and then Mr. Trujillo, we’re going to talk to you about your story.
James E. Garcia: The play came about because I had a friend who’s from Miami who had invited me because he says there is a story about my town you should write. We didn’t know what it would be, but eventually stumbled upon the story of The Mighty Vandals the 1951 undefeated Mighty Vandals. I was attracted to it because it's a terrific sports story. They literally were perhaps one of the best high school basketball teams in history.
José Cárdenas: This was before the schools were divided up into divisions. They played Phoenix Carver for the championship.
James E. Garcia: They played Phoenix Carver which was a major school at the time. So I was attracted by this great sports story but also attracted by the fact that here were these young kids, mostly Mexican, Mexican American kids, who were superstars on the court but living a segregated life when they went back to their neighborhoods. Because it was '51, and it was rural Arizona. I liked the contrast of that and what that said about the community.
James E. Garcia: Mr. Trujillo, we talked in the introduction about the beating the odds off and on the court and James referred to the fact it you came from a poor background in what was basically a segregated town.
Fito Trujillo: Yes, I was born and raised there, born in 1932. My mom and my dad came from Mexico. They came into the country in 1924 and went to work for the mines. At that time, the only thing a Hispanic job you could get in the mines was laborer. He worked as a laborer. I had four sisters and three brothers, and all of them went into the service.
José Cárdenas: The elementary schools you went to were segregated.
Fito Trujillo: Yes. I went to an elementary school that was separated. The high school was the only high school in town. When we got out of the elementary school, 8th grade, we went into the high school we were integrated together.
José Cárdenas: As I understand it from some discussions we had earlier, basketball wasn't necessarily your first passion and you had to struggle a little bit before you made the team.
Fito Trujillo: Yes. When I was in high school I was very small. I was only about maybe five-six, five-seven. I bet you I weighed about 100 pounds soaking wet.
José Cárdenas: Quite a jumper I understand.
Fito Trujillo: Yes. I had a lot of spring in me. But I played J.V. ball for two years, freshman and sophomore year. I was lucky if I played maybe 15 seconds, maybe 40 seconds some games. That's about all I really played. One of the things that really got me was when we first started playing as a freshman the coach, he kept 25 players on the team, I was in the 5th team, and he would send the first team to get the uniforms, then the second team, then the third team, then the fourth team. I was on the fifth team. By that time all was left was making the trunks, maybe 40 inches wide and we had to cinch them up.
José Cárdenas: You made the starting five. The championship game against Phoenix Carver High School. What was that like?
Fito Trujillo: Oh, that was a very exciting game. It was nip and tuck from the beginning to the end.
José Cárdenas: I assume everybody predicted Phoenix Carver would win.
Fito Trujillo: Yes. They were the favorite.
José Cárdenas: I want to talk to you about what life has been like for you since then, but James, before I do that, a central figure in your story, in the play, in this whole success of the team was the coach. Tell us about that.
James E. Garcia: Coach Ernie Kivisto, showed up somewhat magically in 1947. He had played for Marquette and for Notre Dame and had quite a career in college but magically showed in 1947 in Miami, Arizona, decided to coach this team and coached it for four years, promising his wife when they won the state championship they would go home and that's what he did. Four years later they went undefeated, they won and he left.
José Cárdenas: That's you in the middle as I understand it, Mr. Trujillo.
Fito Trujillo: Yes.
José Cárdenas: The other thing the coach did for you was make sure you got into college. You and several teammates played for NAU for four years. Then you ended up with the life of public service including serving on the board of supervisors.
Fito Trujillo: Actually, I had one semester to finish school when I got orders to be drafted into the service. Then I put in for a deferment and they gave the deferment. In May when I graduated I got my orders in August to serve in the service for two years.
José Cárdenas: Then you went into politics.
Fito Trujillo: I came out of the service and went and I served eight years as a city council member for the town of Miami, and then I served 20 years as County supervisor for Gila County.
José Cárdenas: Great story. James, what are you trying to show here?
James E. Garcia: First I think we're trying so show there's great history in Arizona. This is not the first story I have done about Arizona, but this is a great one and it often involves our Latino communities very often. This is also a story about perseverance on the court, perseverance off the court. Because these were kids that struggled. The five starters ended up going to college. Most were Mexican Americans, Croatians or Serbians. They managed to go to college at a time when kids like them didn't go to college. So it’s a great lesson for young people to watch as well.
José Cárdenas: It’s a terrific story. Thank you both so much for joining us. Mr. Trujillo, it's an honor to have you here.
James E. Garcia & Fito Trujillo: Thank you.
José Cárdenas: That is our show for tonight. From all of us here at Horizonte, I'm Jose Cardenas. Have a good evening.