Pinto’s granddaughter should take his place in Legislature

It has been exactly one week since the family of late New Mexico State Sen. John Pinto laid him to rest on private land near Tohatchi. Under a cloudy sky and a cool breeze, the children and grandchildren of Sen. Pinto gathered and said their final goodbyes.

Tommy Arviso, Jr., portrait

Tom Arviso, Jr., CEO and Publisher, Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc.

Naturally there were tears of sadness but the family also had happy smiles because they knew in their hearts and minds that their father and grandpa was reunited in Heaven with the love of his life, his wife Joann.

Mr. and Mrs. Pinto were together on Mother Earth for almost seven decades. They were married for 65 years before her passing in 2017. They had four children – Cecil, Flora, Galen and Karen.

Last Thursday afternoon, the family respectfully buried Sen. Pinto next to his wife. Now they are together forever in God’s Kingdom.

Over 1,000 people packed the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup for the senator’s funeral services on May 30. The cathedral was filled to capacity and so the church used a nearby hall to seat the overflow crowd.

My brother Tim and I sat way in the back, in the second-to-last pew of the church. From there we could see the huge assembly that came together to pay their respects to Sen. Pinto and to support his family.

Plenty of government officials were in attendance including President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer, Navajo Nation Council Speaker Seth Damon, and former leaders Peterson Zah, Albert Hale and LoRenzo Bates. New Mexico Congressman Ben Ray Lujan was there along with many of Sen. Pinto’s fellow legislators, both current and past, from Santa Fe.

Plus there were many other officials from the New Mexico and Arizona state and county governments, nearby tribes and pueblos, and Gallup Mayor Jack McKinney.

Primarily though, the church was filled with hundreds of Sen. Pinto’s family and friends. Everyone had their own stories and recollections of the senator dating back to the 1950s and 60s up to the present.

On May 17, Navajo Technical University presented Sen. Pinto with an honorary doctorate degree at their spring graduation ceremony in Crownpoint.

NTU President Elmer Guy said he was shocked when he was notified of the senator’s passing just one week later. He recalled that after Sen. Pinto received his honorary degree on stage, he declared with a big smile that he was now officially ready to start performing medical operations and that people could start making their appointments.

At the funeral service, Sen. Pinto’s granddaughter, Kellie Lynn Arviso, delivered the eulogy in English, followed by Evelyn Pinto, wife of Cecil, who spoke in Navajo. The overall theme of the eulogy was, “He never gave up.”

Sen. Pinto was the oldest of seven children in his family and because they were poor, he began working at an early age to help provide food, clothing and shoes for his family. He spoke only Navajo as he grew up and didn’t start school until he was 12 years old. He began his education by learning how to speak English with a classroom full of students that were six and seven years old.

Alluding to the senator’s short stature, Kellie joked that that was the only time that her grandfather stood taller than everyone else in the room.

Kellie said her grandfather had to work extra hard in school to get caught up with his age group and to pass the required English language exam. He flunked the first two times he took the English test and then passed on his final try.

“He never gave up,” said Kellie.

Eventually, Sen. Pinto graduated from high school in Torrance, California. He then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps where a fellow enlistee teased him about his size and taunted that he would never get through boot camp and become a Marine. The senator again worked extra hard and graduated from Marine boot camp while the other guy failed and was sent home.

Sen. Pinto was then trained as a Navajo Code Talker but World War II ended before they were deployed. He was honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines at the age of 21.

Upon returning home, Sen. Pinto found employment with the Navajo Tribe’s social welfare department where he began working on behalf of his Navajo people and helping anyone that he could. Little did he know, but it was then that he began his career as a public servant. He would serve up until his death on May 24, 2019.

“My dad helped people all his life. He helped all people, not just Navajo. He helped everyone who needed help up until his heart just finally gave out,” said Galen Pinto, at the reception following the funeral. “If his heart didn’t give out, he would still be helping all of you right now.”

Because he realized that education would help him to become a better public servant, Sen. Pinto went to college in 1952 and earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Later, he would also earn a master’s degree.

After serving as a McKinley County Commissioner for six years, he decided to run for the New Mexico Legislature and he won handily. He began his career as a state senator in 1977 and he would continue to serve up until his death. His current term will cease at the end of 2020.

Sen. Pinto earned the respect of thousands of people, especially fellow government leaders, during his illustrious career. He accomplished that by following his personal belief of working hard to help all people get the basic needs to survive.

He tried his best to make sure people had enough food and water, a safe place to sleep, good clothes, a job, and access to education. He felt that if a person had those basic elements, they could work and survive and be happy.

At the end of the funeral service, Sen. Pinto’s coffin was draped with an American flag and he received full military honors and recognition by a U.S. Marine color guard outside the cathedral.

As we all filed our way outside the church a sudden volley of three loud gunshots by the Marine color guard got everyone’s attention. My brother and I were both startled by the first shot, as were others.

In my mind, I pictured the senator chuckling at us as we all jumped with surprise. He was a proud Marine veteran and the honors bestowed upon him by the Marine color guard were right and just.

A huge reception at Red Rock State Park in Church Rock, New Mexico, took place right after the funeral service. Again, there were many, many people there. Everyone was served a big delicious lunch, courtesy of Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise.

Shannon Pinto, granddaughter of Sen. Pinto, was the main speaker and she thanked everyone on behalf of the Pinto family. Sen. Pinto’s children, Flora Pinto, Galen and then Karen Arviso, followed her.

They all spoke passionately of their father, their family and all of his accomplishments and wishes. They said his work was not done – not until the expansion of U.S. Highway 491 is fully completed – and that someone would need to continue on his work and legacy as a state senator.

Sen. Pinto was re-elected in 2018 in District 3 and his current term runs through the end of 2020. A successor to his seat in the Senate needs to be appointed by New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham in the near future.

District 3 includes parts of McKinley and San Juan counties. Therefore, the two county commissions are responsible for nominating persons to the governor for consideration as Sen. Pinto’s successor.

The Pinto family would like to see Shannon Pinto succeed her grandfather and they support her nomination. Shannon, 45, hails from Tohatchi and is the daughter of Cecil and Evelyn.

She spent an enormous amount of quality time with Sen. Pinto for many years. She drove him to Santa Fe and sat in on many legislative sessions and meetings, supporting her grandfather and watching and learning the whole time.

In fact, Karen Arviso said it was her father’s wish that if something were to happen to him, he wanted Shannon to carry on his work because she knows what he did and still wanted to do as far as state legislation goes. He would be proud to have Shannon serve as his successor for many years to come.

Shannon has submitted her letter of interest and her résumé to both the McKinley County Commission and the San Juan County Commission, seeking the nomination to serve as the successor.

I know Shannon to be an intelligent, friendly and caring young Navajo lady. She is willing and able to carry on her grandfather’s legacy as a humble, hard-working public servant of all people everywhere, and not just in District 3.

Just like Sen. Pinto, Shannon deserves our support to serve as a state senator. If she is given fair and equal opportunity, I sincerely believe that Shannon will make us proud, just like her grandfather.


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About The Author

Tom Arviso Jr.

Tom Arviso, Jr., is the CEO and Publisher of Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc.