I was born in Houston. Certain branches of the family have been in that part of Texas for several generations, and before that they lived in the Texas/Mexico border region. My grandparents grew up during segregation so they wanted their children to know English. I did not grow up speaking Spanish.
Houston is half Latino and a third African American, with a pretty sizable Asian population too. I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school. The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers. I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.
I was a graduate student in San Diego for five years before I came to Minnesota in 2010. For professors your job market is nationwide and you just land somewhere. I landed at St. Cloud State University. I was hired in the Ethnic Studies department. There was one Native American woman, an Asian American woman and two African American men. I was the Mexican American faculty.
Minnesota was colder than I ever could have imagined. I was afraid to drive in Minnesota snow, but my son was six and daughter three when we arrived and they liked snow. We played in it — made snowmen, went sliding. I tried to look at it through their eyes.
In the city of St. Cloud one main engagement was with my son’s school. There was a Spanish immersion program — which was one of the reasons why we thought we could live there — but he was the only Latino in the school. Their focus was on teaching White kids Spanish, not engaging Latino kids.
There is a Latino population in the surrounding area. I was told that the best place to get Mexican food was at a restaurant in Melrose, a small town about 30 minutes northwest. We went to check it out. There was tiendita next to the restaurant. The food was pretty good. It was such a weird sight — flat, uninhabited land all around, and a dancehall in the back with Mexican people arriving for a baile. I wondered, “Where am I? How did I get to this place and why did these people come here in the middle of nowhere?”
My son got picked on at school because he had long hair and spoke more Spanish than the other kids. We ended up pulling him out of the immersion program and putting him in a neighborhood school.
Had I heard of the White Cloud reputation? A little. I was involved in MEChA at the University of Houston when I was an undergraduate. I had met St. Cloud members at national conferences. MEChA at St. Cloud were a big part of the activism that created the position in which I was hired. They recruited me. They hinted to me about White Cloud — the hostile context in which they worked.
When I first started teaching classes I would have 30-40 kids. In one class there was only one non-white student — a Somali kid. I was new to teaching. I remember the students smirking and snickering to each other as I tried to teach racial formation theory. First I got really angry. I lectured to them, asserting my authority. I know that’s a privilege. My female colleagues tell me it is always a struggle for them to maintain authority, especially when teaching controversial stuff.
I didn’t realize my students came from tiny towns around St. Cloud and northern Minnesota and had very little experience with non-whites. Many of their initial reactions to learning about race, particularly from a person of color, was their assumption that we were attempting to shame them or guilt-trip them. We were coming from different worlds. I had them write response pieces and they would say “There was one Black guy in my high school — one Mexican guy.”
One thing I learned from that situation is to teach White students that they are part of the race process. I had them read How the Irish Became White. That drew some of them in.
I had a number of issues at St. Cloud State. I was finishing my thesis when I began there. We had an agreement that when my dissertation was finished my pay would go up immediately, but I had to struggle for several months to get them to fulfill that promise. We had a union and a Faculty of Color group who were helpful, but it was very stressful. In the end I was awarded my pay. Soon after I was offered the position at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.
I was already planning to move to the Twin cities and commute because of the issue with my son’s school, so when they hired me at the U I was excited. I was eager to be back in a diverse urban space with a sizable Latino population and a real Chicano Studies department. Louis Mendoza, the U of M Chicano Studies chair quipped, “I’m sure Minneapolis seems like a cultural mecca to you compared to St. Cloud.” That was absolutely true.
The U has a great reputation. Smart colleagues. We had an outreach coordinator Lisa Sass Zaragoza and she connected me right away with community. That grounded me with the Latino communities off campus and other social and political groups I was interested in: El Colegio, a Latino oriented charter school, CTUL and SEIU, who were doing labor union work with Latino immigrants.
My first full year it was the 40th anniversary of the department so we had events all year bringing students and community together. In advance of the 2012 election there was a Latino political action committee and I took my students to their events connecting them with local elected officials.
My first two years, me and Louis Mendoza were the only two full time faculty. When Louis decided to leave, we assumed we would begin a hiring process right away. They put us on hold all summer before saying No, they would not replace him!
Before he left Louis had put community people on notice that they might be needed. Now I found myself in the center of a struggle to save the department. We had to reengage the community. I was still acclimating, establishing a social life, finishing my book.
We called a community meeting at El Colegio in the fall. I was amazed when about 100 people came — graduates, undergraduates, alumni (some of the founding members of the department), labor educators, coming out of the woodwork to help us. I learned that this has happened periodically throughout the 40 years of the department. We made a collective decision about what to do. We would demand the position be restored and other positions created. We addressed the structural problems that lead to us having to have such a campaign.
Soon after, a fraternity group on campus had a party called the Galactic Fiesta and Goldie Gopher, the University mascot, turned up wearing a poncho and sombrero — illustrating that it was an administration-endorsed event. Many faculty members including myself wrote letters to the administration pointing out that they were stereotyping Mexicans as a homogenous group. This homogenization, I argued, was part of the long history of systemic violence and ongoing issues of marginalization, that were exactly why we needed Chicano Studies. We had a postcard campaign with a picture of Goldie on one side and a photo of Chicano Studies books addressed to the Dean and the President — letting them know the community was watching and demonstrating to the public the dire need for Chicano Studies.
We followed the students lead on much of the campus campaign. They pressed the new Dean on his plans to hire more people at a meeting with him that attracted dozens of students and community members. He said he was not opposed to considering new hires, but emphasized that there was a process in place that had to be followed. He mispronounced the word: “Chiceeeno” at the meeting, which a lot of the community remembered as an indication of again the dire need for Chicano Studies and the misunderstanding and dismissal of the Latino community by administrators and other people in power.
There was a group on campus called Whose Diversity. They had a whole list of demands, including hiring faculty of color and investing in Ethnic Studies. They invited me to speak and facilitate dialogue among students in a couple of events. It was really good for me to have those experiences across campus. I was in a silo at the U because my classes were majority students of color. It brought me in touch with what it was like, for example, to be a non-white medical student on this campus and how, in mainstream departments, it was hostile to talk about race or gender or homophobia.
Whose Diversity carried out a series of actions, trying to creating a dialogue with administration. When the administration refused, the students began interrupting the Dean and President at events. On a Friday in February 2015, they staged a sit in at the Presidents office.
After the President decided to arrest them all, I told a reporter that when the department was founded in the early 1970s, students sat-in to demand Black and Chicano Studies. At that time, administrators dialoged with those folks and the result was the creation of the department. This time they just arrested them all, a fact that spoke volumes about their unwillingness to engage the students.
On Monday after the sit-in, the Dean of College of Liberal Arts called an emergency meeting of all the Chairs of departments, (the first time that had ever happened in several decades at least.) He announced the University had somehow found some money over the weekend and they were going to hire four people in Ethnic Studies, one of which would be in Chicano/Latino Studies. He stated that the sudden emergency change in faculty had nothing to do with the sit in. Nothing at all.
This spring we hired two people. When they join us in the fall we will have three full-time tenure-track faculty — more than double what it was.
Louis had told me to be ready for an insider/outsider experience when you are a professor working in the institution. The community can say different things and pressure in different ways. I watched the insider/ outsider campaign pay off.
We know we still need to be vigilant. To have a fully functioning department we need at least five full time faculty. It is normalized that our department is supposed to be small, justified by enrollment. It is a business model, “you don’t bring in enough customers you don’t get the investment.” I describe it as abusive — not giving us the resources and human power we need to attract students and then blaming us for not attracting students.
Departments like ours that emerged out of social movements, have a stated objective of tying themselves to marginalized communities and making knowledge useful to those communities so they can solve their own problems. Most of the University is structured around the idea that intellectual inquiry is this disconnected thing that comes from objective research. Ethnic Studies is often characterized by the powers that be as political and therefore not intellectual which is an under-riding reason why I think it is not invested in. It is frustrating trying to convince administrators that we are valuable. We know we are valuable, but they will never be convinced, so our struggle will be cyclical. What seems most important me after recognizing this cyclical problem is that we have a community inside and outside of the university prepared to mobilize and demand that the university serve marginalized communities through investing in Chicano and Latino Studies and other departments that centralize the experiences of aggrieved groups.
I am finding roots in Minneapolis. My kids are doing well at the Spanish immersion program at Emerson school, which is I think 80% Latino. The school is the oldest Spanish immersion program in the state and has roots from the 70s.
As a parent that is a basis for being grounded; knowing the kids are OK.
I live in Corcoran off of 35th Street. It passes the good-taco-near-by test, being close to Lake Street in South Minneapolis and a Latino community. I have a network of friends — other parents of color and social justice folks. I work with a group called Tamales y Bicicletas which is an environmental justice community organization led by longtime community activist José Luis Villaseñor. He has a speaker on his bike. We show up to provide music and a loudspeaker for organizers speaking at the marches. We brought it to 4th precinct occupation rallies to provide the speaker for the organizers.
TyB is challenging the idea that environmental movements are separate from communities of color. It emerged around the bike culture here. Minneaplis is a bike city but in many ways that culture is exclusive. The Greenway goes through Phillips but does not necessarily attract youth of color to participate because it is seen as very expensive. Bike shops and equipment are pricey. TyB has a shop on Lake Street where we teach kids to fix bikes. We go on rides together. We sponsor environmental bike tours in the city, especially South Minneapolis. We go on-location to learn about polluters and the people doing something about it. We also have an urban garden for families and sponsor community harvest meals and give away produce.
I have also made friends through Left Wing Twin Cities, a local chapter of a national soccer movement. We usually play in Powderhorn. We approach soccer as a way of creating community. We have people of all abilities playing together in a way that is not competitive. The point is not to win, but to help each other build our skills and to move away from being hyper masculine and hyper competitive. We encourage gender non-conforming folks to join us. Children play with adults. I take my kids. For my daughter it has been really good. We have a game for women and gender non-conforming folk only and the cis-gendered men and boys cook and cheer.
Professors’ Keith Mayes, Yuichiro Onishi and Erika Lee and I are working on Curricula on Ethnic Studies and history for high school students. We are also training social studies teachers to teach 3 classes: African-American History, Chicano/Latino History, and Asian-American History. It will be required for all freshman students at Roosevelt High school. Some other schools are doing it as an elective.
I am finishing up my book this summer — a study of the Committee of Chicano Rights in San Diego from the 60s- 80s.
I go up for tenure next year. I feel good about that.
And the winter doesn’t shock me anymore.
Yes, I think I’ll stick around.