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Tony Benavides, Lansing's first Latino mayor, dies at 84

Tony Benavides, Carmen Benavides, Carol Wood
Traci Ruiz
(L to R): Former mayor Tony Benavides, Carmen Benavides and Lansing City Councilmember Carol Wood in a 2019 photo.

Lansing’s first Latino mayor, Tony Benavides, has died at age 84.

Benavides first arrived to Lansing from Mexico in 1953 at the age of 15. His first job in the country was working in Michigan’s sugar beet fields alongside his parents.

“His brother, David, was already in Chicago working, paving the way for the family to get here," said Lorenzo López, a longtime friend of Benavides. "Why are they here? To work, provide for their families, establish themselves and contribute to society.”

López says while the first few years in Michigan weren’t always easy for Benavides and his family, the memories of that time were what guided him to build the legacy he leaves behind today.

“He toiled those fields. He knew what it was like to be in a field and needing water. And if you didn't have health care, you needed health care if you had children," López said. "So he felt that need and that's why he was so concerned about our community.”

That draw to help the Latino community would eventually lead Benavides to apply and be selected as the first executive director of Lansing’s Cristo Rey Community Center in the early 1960s. Cristo Rey was the area’s first organization catering specifically to the needs of Latino residents in Mid-Michigan.

During his tenure as director, López says Benavides fashioned a program to support migrant farm workers’ basic needs by providing access to resources like healthcare and educational development.

“He wanted to create a community voice, a way to be heard, and a way to address the many serious issues confronting," López added.

Benavides also believed being at the decision making table was one of the best ways to make change happen. And that's exactly what he did. He ran for a seat on the Lansing City Council in 1982 and won multiple times. In 2019, the city renamed its council chambers after Benavides.

“There was not great opposition in running against him because his ability to negotiate and his ability to compromise," López explained.

In 2003, While Benavides was serving as president of the council, he was appointed to lead the city after then-mayor David Hollister was called to serve under Governor Jennifer Granholm.

“But then when he became mayor, what I think it did, it gave an opportunity for a lot of people in our communities to say: 'Hey, if he can be mayor, we can also be mayors, we can also be on the city council,'" López said.

Lansing City Council Vice President Carol Wood remembers Benavides as a community-centered politician.

Wood explains that when he became mayor, Lansing was in an economic crisis.

"Some employees had to be furloughed, but Tony worked to make people understand what was happening and why," she added. “The work that he did as an executive director at Cristo Rey Community Center and his work as a council member, they intertwined often. Working to try to solve problems for people in the community."

His niece, Linda Sanchez-Gazella worked as his chief of staff during his time as a mayor. She says she will never forget the advice he gave her on their first day.

“You have to be like a duck. He said: 'You have to let that rain pour down on you and roll off just like a duck. Because in politics, there will always be those times. And sometimes, there'll be good times and there'll be bad times. And in those bad times, you have to let the water just hit you. And roll off and keep moving,'" Sanchez-Gazella said.

For her, Benavides was like a second father, someone she always grew up wanting to be like.

"He was a family man, it was important to him to always have like the family gatherings and getting us all together," Sanchez-Gazella added.

Tony Benavides is remembered by his family and close friends for his belly laugh, his compassionate and humble spirit and a drive to help those in need.

The family of Benavides says funeral arrangements will take place next week with Estes-Leadley Funeral Homes.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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