Life on the Border


Ron Zuniga grew up on the border between Arizona and Mexico, in a city called Nogales. “My mom used to send us across the border to buy corn tortillas because they were much better there,” said Ron Zuniga. “Being on the border, literally with only a fence in between, you just kind of went through.” But Zuniga had no desire to make a living in his hometown because of the limited job opportunities. After he graduated high school he made sure to get out of town.

Zuniga made the decision to go to the University of Arizona after graduating high school.  During his time there he studied engineering. He vividly remembers carrying a “slide rule” on his belt loop everyday. “The big thing for engineering students was to wear your slide rule on a loop on your belt. If you did that than you were ok”, said  Zuniga.

After college, it was time for him to join the Military. While he was serving in the air force, he met his first wife. He moved back home to Tucson where he got a job on a survey crew.  As a surveyor, he surveyed sites for construction crews to build. “I found a job on a survey crew which I really enjoyed. We had to a lot of work out in the heat in the summer but I really enjoyed it.” Unfortunately, he was laid off during construction strikes.

Later that summer, he went to the personnel office at city hall where he was given a test to be a police officer. “I don’t want to be a cop,” said Zuniga. The worker replied, “What else do you have going for you?” He took the test and about a month later he received three job offers. One from Intel, another from Mountain Bell telephone company which is AT&T today- and the third was from the police station. He took the police job.  Even though he was reluctant to be a cop, he needed a job and that was the only one that allowed him to work nights and finish school during the day.

Looking back on it today, he wonders what his life would be like if he had chosen one of the other jobs. “I don’t think it would have turned out as well, actually, you know it’s hard to really speculate. I’ve never thought about it before” said Zuniga.  He worked his way up the chain at the Station until he became the supervisor of the homicide division.  Working there changed him.  “There were some difficult times: I had to look at children who had been shot by their parents, or killed by their parents.  I’ve had to hold people in my arms who were dying.” He does not enjoy violent cop movies or movies where children are hurt. “I’ve seen a lot of violence in my life. [The Violence] has affected me, I don’t think it’s affected my head in the traditional sense; I think I’m fairly stable. But it’s difficult .”

After working on the police force for many years, he moved on to working in the prison system.  Zuniga describes the prison system as “A society within a society where there’s probably more separation of the races than anywhere else that I’ve known.” While working there, Zuniga saw things no man should ever see. “I saw one guy chase another guy around a room that they were both locked into. He had a knife and the other guy had absolutely no chance.”

Even after working there for many years, Zuniga does not think that the prison system ‘works’.  He believes there should be a separate system for those people who are in there for drugs, or, for those who just went off the rails for 15 minutes  But he also believes there are some people out there who are truly evil.  He remembers one inmate in particular, “I still every once in a while think about one guy in particular, he’s probably out of prison now, but he looked at me in the eyes and told me ‘If I ever get out of here, I’m gonna get you.’”  Every once in a while if he hears a noise in the house, he’ll go look. He is always watching his back.

After working in the prison system for a number of years, Zuniga decided to retire.  He was on his way to work one day and he thought to himself “for my birthday this year, I’m going to give myself the gift of retirement.”  His day now consists of spending time with family, including myself, but he often thinks back to his days on the Police Force and in the Prison System. “You really made me think about the times I had back as a Cop and in the prison system. I wouldn’t do it again, but I enjoyed it. Things have changed. A lot.”