Central Valley’s Manuel Muñoz on the Right Page

“But there’s a gesture to bring the students in, and then there’s the infrastructure that needs to be in place to assist them.”
— Manuel Muñoz, Author, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona
Manuel Muñoz, Author, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona

Manuel Muñoz, Author, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona

During a film studies class at Harvard nearly 20 years ago, Manuel Muñoz was watching a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho when a background detail caught his eye.

In the scene where Janet Leigh’s character is driving along a stark high-way in California’s Central Valley, a sign appears bearing the name of Gorman, Calif., a small town located near Muñoz’s hometown, Dinuba.

“I was shocked,” says Muñoz, a University of Arizona assistant professor. Muñoz decided to become a writer that day, and to write about the Central Valley, something that critics say he does brilliantly in his debut novel, What You See in the Dark, which arrived at bookstores in March with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.
Not only does the novel flesh out Muñoz’s impressions of the area, it’s also based on the filming of Psycho in the late 1950s, when Hitchcock’s cast and crew rolled into town.
“If you can find an entry point into art, it can trigger all sorts of wonderful things,” he says. “I learned that lesson when I saw Psycho at Harvard. Part of my affection for that film is that it reminded me I had a particular place and that my place mattered. It’s always been my fear – and remains my fear – the Central Valley will be forgotten.”
Muñoz is on quite a roll. He’s the author of two collections of short stories: Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003) and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He received a 2008 Whiting Writers’ Award and a 2009 PEN/O. Henry Award for his story “Tell Him About Brother John.”
He also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
His work has appeared The New York Times, Rush Hour, Swink, Epoch, Glimmer Train, Edinburgh Review and Boston Review and has aired on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts.
But What You See in the Dark could become Muñoz’s commercial breakthrough, the novel that vaults him to the A-list of popular Hispanic writers. Among the reviews:
“stellar first novel ... with a subtlety of Hitchcock himself.” (Publisher’s Weekly)
“Refreshingly innovative. ... Muñoz has upended the conventional crime novel. ... Nice work.” (Kirkus Reviews) 

“[The characters’] voices will haunt me for some time to come.” (Julia Glass, author of The Widower’s Tale and Three Junes)
Much of Muñoz’s life reads like a movie script. Growing up in Dinuba (population 15,000), he began working in the fields with his family in fourth grade, picking and packing fruit in heat that often climbed above 100 degrees. For relief, he jotted down “silly little” stories and buried his head in books, notably The Wizard of Oz as a child and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as a teen. Both books opened with departures.
In the late 1980s, Ivy League schools began recruiting in the Central Valley, which is how Muñoz found his way to Harvard. But he says his encounter with a Harvard rep at a local college fair set the tone for turmoil to come.
“The Harvard rep was asking me what my goal was, which at the time was to be a high school teacher,” he says. “The rep was trying to convince me that for an ambition like that, a state university would be perfectly fine, that Harvard wouldn’t necessarily be the place to go to train as a high school teacher. That’s completely incorrect, of course.
“The Yale rep overheard that and wooed me over to her table. I had never heard of Yale. I had no clue. I was a very naïve student. Very isolated. When you don’t have access, you don’t know.”
Muñoz’s introduction to life outside the Central Valley was only beginning. Leaving the Fresno airport in tears, he had no idea how he was going to buy books. With just $100 in cash, he dropped $20 on the cab ride to Harvard Yard, then waded into a crowd of prep-school graduates.
“My first semester was extraordinarily difficult,” he says. “I felt isolated from everything. It made it very difficult to make friends and speak up in class. That’s one of the things I’m cognizant of as a professor. I watch my students and their behavior and try to think of ways to keep them included and make them feel they have something to contribute. Many of them are very quiet in class and then turn in a piece of writing and it’s spectacular.
“I credit the Ivies with starting the work to diversify their student bodies,” he adds. “But there’s a gesture to bring the students in, and then there’s the infrastructure that needs to be in place to assist them. Twenty years ago, it was a very lonely place for a kid of color.”
For relief, he began writing short stories. “That’s one of the reasons the writing took off, because it’s such a private activity,” he says.
Muñoz eventually found mentors at Harvard in two writers, Susan Dodd and Jill McCorkle, who encouraged him to consider an M.F.A. program. He picked Cornell, then had second thoughts until Cornell Professor Helena María Viramontes phoned his mother back in Dinuba.
“She stepped in and made it very clear to my family that they were going to give me a lot of guidance,” he says. “She understood the family dynamic of a Chicano student and what I was facing.”
Cornell was as liberating for Muñoz as Harvard had been inhibiting. He came out of the closet sexually, explored gay themes in his writing, vigorously defended his writing in the classroom and stretched his talents – all under the direction of Viramontes, whose mentoring skills influence him today at the University of Arizona.
“One of the things I remember most about Helena is that she had a line of students outside her door who weren’t even English majors,” he says. “Word had gotten around that she was a professor who was open to talking to you as a young scholar. That’s been sort of my model as how to be of service to your students as a professor.”
Muñoz moved to New York City after Cornell, took a job with a publish-er, wrote during his free hours and started sending stories to editors.

His first book of short stories, Zigzagger, received encouraging reviews:

“Muñoz has created a wholly authentic vision of contemporary California – one that has little to do with coastlines, cities or silicon,” novelist David Ebershoff wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. “Muñoz’s Central Valley is a part of California – a part of America – that has yet to see many liberations: gay, women’s, or economic liberation from restrictions imposed for so long on people with brown skin.
“If his vision is full of despair, so is the reality that his characters must endure; he is much too truthful a writer to present false hope. Zigzagger ... heralds the arrival of a gifted and sensitive writer.”
Muñoz continued to expand beyond traditional Hispanic themes in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, his second collection of short stories. The Whiting Award confirmed Muñoz’s reputation as an elite young author, enabling him to focus on his first novel, which is set in Bakersfield.
As the novel unfolds, a young aspiring singer falls in love with the most desirable young man in town. That’s the backdrop when an actress and legendary director arrive in Bakersfield. But an ill-fated love affair between the local residents soon overshadows the making of an iconic movie.
Because the novel is based on Psycho and includes noirish elements, Muñoz says his pitch for the book met with initial resistance with some publishers, who hoped for a traditional immigrant novel. Lacking a conventional guidepost, Muñoz went through five drafts over five years, wondering at times if he was on the right course. He steered his way through the stress by recalling publishers’ objections to his first collection of gay-based short stories.
“It can be very discouraging. You think ‘Maybe I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing,”’ he says. “They felt as a Chicano writer I should have a certain set of concerns, and when those concerns weren’t necessarily evident in what I was proposing, they had no other way to read it. I was being typecast.
“A very valuable lesson Helena instilled in me was an understanding for myself about why I was writing. If I was writing to be published, to be famous, that wasn’t a particularly good reason to commit yourself to art. If there are other diverse human reasons for what you’re doing, then you’re going to meet success no matter where you go or what happens to your writing.”
Had he been born 20 years earlier, Muñoz says his options as a Hispanic writer would have been limited. But the game changed with the success of the first wave of Hispanic authors, who paved the way for Muñoz and his peers.
“The generation before realized there had to be a way to reach down to the ones who were trying to come up. They opened the doors, and they’re pulling us through. That was tremendously important to me. It’s our oblig-ation to help the next generation. The more we build the literature, the more the next generation will have access to different ideas.

“I’m very hopeful.”

Anthropologist Michael Vásquez - Digging into the Future

When Michael Vásquez began visiting the Hopi Indians 20 years ago, the Northern Arizona University (NAU) anthropology professor ran into a serious obstacle: generations of anthropologists before him had thoroughly alienated the tribe.

 “Anthropologists published books, got tenure, while native communities haven’t gotten anything,” he says.

Michael Vazquez

Michael Vazquez

That’s no longer the case, thanks to Vásquez and a new wave of anthropologists who have redefined the study of the ancient past by rejecting their own past.
Rolling up his sleeves, Vásquez embedded himself in a Hopi village, working in the dirt and dust with residents and eventually developing inter-active programs at the village and at NAU, where a Hopi student recently earned a Ph.D.
Over the years, Vásquez has also waded into the fields with farmers in Norway, Mexico, Guatemala, the San Joaquin Valley, and in Navajo and Havasupai villages – an unusual career arc for a city boy from San Francisco.
But his contributions hardly end there. Currently, Vásquez is helping develop public achievement and other culturally engaged curriculum pro-jects for Latino children in Arizona. He chairs the Coconino County Hispanic Advisory Council and was elected to a spot on the Flagstaff Unified School District governing board in November.
In 2009 Vásquez received the University’s President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow Award at NAU, his academic home for 21 years.
“One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate about working here is that we graduate the highest number of Native American students in America in a school that isn’t tribally run,” he says. “In our department, we do things quite differently.”
What makes a good anthropologist? A sense of alienation from the mainstream culture helps, says Vásquez.
“As I tell my students often, I think to be a good anthropologist you have to be marginal to your own culture. By that I mean you have to have questions about it and look at it in a critical way,” he says. “In my case, I was sort of on the margins of several cultures. My grandparents on one side were from Mexico; one of my grandparents on the other side was from Italy; and the other, from Puerto Rico.
“So I grew with a blending of all those cultures, which gave me a perspective on America and each of those cultures that isn’t very common. It took me a while to figure out that anthropology was the discipline that dealt with those kind of cross-cultural and diversity issues.”
A respect for education seems to be part of the Vásquez family’s genetic makeup. His father was among the first Hispanics to earn a degree from Stanford; both he and his wife taught at a Bay Area community college. Each of their five sons is a teacher.
“We were raised to value education. I spent a lot of my time reading,” he says.
It was as an undergrad at Cal Berkeley that Vásquez’s interest in anthro-pology was piqued. “I took a class from Ralph Nader’s sister back in the late ’60s. It seemed like something I wanted to do, but it took me a couple years to take the next step,” he says.
Next Vásquez moved to a Mayan village in Guatemala, where he met his wife, became a woodcarver’s apprentice and spent countless hours in the fields.
“A lot of what I learned about anthropology and the world in general I learned there,” he said. “A friend, who also was a kind of mentor, told me: ‘Miguel, you got two ears and one mouth: use them proportionally.’ In other words, shut up and listen. I did that.

Michael Vazquez

Michael Vazquez

“A lot of my [anthropological] work was with farmers. They don’t have a lot of time for people who stand around with clipboards and ask a bunch of ridiculous questions.
“But if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, they’re willing to sit down and share what they know. And what they know is considerable. It’s that kind of traditional knowledge that’s being lost to the world at a time when we can most use it.”
After living in the U.S., Vásquez and his wife returned to Guatemala, living in a remote mountain village where only a
handful of Mayan residents could afford shoes.
But violence was in the air.

“We were working with the people to improve their situation,” he says. “But the country was on the brink of civil war. The mili-tary built a garrison nearby; these people sup-ported a guerrilla movement. They said: ‘Look, it’s going to get dangerous around here. You have a wife and a little boy. We can’t protect you. You need to go home.’
“But we still go back periodically to Guatemala. My wife’s family still lives there.”
Back in the U.S., Vásquez entered graduate school at Cal Davis, earning a master’s in inter-national agriculture and a Ph.D. in anthropology, at age 40.
“My four brothers were up in the balcony at the graduation ceremonies. When they called my name to give me the degree, they yelled out in unison: ‘It’s about time.”’
At Northern Arizona, Vásquez found a hospitable place for his interest in agricultural anthropology. The Hopi have lived in the Southwest for more than 2,000 years, many of them on three mesas topped with ancient villages built of stones. A motorist northbound from Phoenix toward Flagstaff on I-17 can make a short detour and drop down to the past in a matter of 30 minutes.
But initially, the distance seemed much farther to Vásquez. Not long ago, archaeologists remained in their remote trenches, cataloging artifacts and focusing on the material remains of past civilizations while paying little heed to native people.
“The natives didn’t really have a voice, and anthropologists wouldn’t –or couldn’t – speak for them,” he says.
With his Batavia Terrace Project, which physically restored 700-year-old terrace gardens, Vásquez engineered a change in the relationship with the Hopi.
“They’re some of the oldest gardens in existence in the U.S. Every summer over nine years, I had students from Northern Arizona who worked on the project. And we got grants to hire young people from the (Hopi) village to restore the terraces. It provided their kids with the chance to get their hands in the dirt and earth and to experience growing things,” he says.
As ties between the department and the Hopis developed, Vásquez helped develop a Ruins Preservation Training Workshop for unemployed Hopi youth, which has generated careers in cultural preservation and a new interest in the relevance of anthropology for the Hopi. NAU students and the Hopis have transcribed tapes for tribal archives, developed a cultural curriculum with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, conducted research in cultural affiliation, developed media materials on health and nutrition for the Hopi Health Center, and created the HCPO website, which won the national student award of the Society for Applied Anthropology.
The past isn’t Vásquez’s only passion. In an anthropology class called Peoples of the Southwest, the conversation often turns to illegal immi-grants, a topic of pressing interest in Arizona. Students frequently claim immigrants take jobs from Americans.

“So I do a little experiment and I tell them, ‘OK, I’m a watermelon grower in Yuma, Ariz. I’ve got 500 acres of watermelon that I need to har-vest in summer. I’m willing to pay them more than minimum wage – $10 an hour to pick my watermelons. But it’s 110 degrees, and they have to work until the harvest is in,”’ says Vásquez, whose grandparents came to the U.S. undocumented.
“I ask: ‘how many takers?”’
Contemporary political issues prodded Vásquez to run for a spot on the school board, a post that consumes a good chunk of his time.
“But I’m actually having a good time at that,” he says. “The state legis-lature here and the governor have no regard whatsoever for education. I think we’re No. 49th or 50th in the amount of state funding per pupil. Everyone on the school board realizes we have no choice but to think out-side the box. And so what to some people would be dramatic or radical ideas, in other places or times, well, we’re considering those types of things. And I’m not even the one in some cases who has to bring them up. For example, we’re talking about how in 12 years we’re going to have all the schools in Flagstaff solar.”
In the end, though, Vásquez never strays far from his academic roots.
“Part of my education was in graduate programs here in the United States, but a substantial part of it was working with folks in Guatemala and here with the Hopi,” he says.

Arizona-Bred Kris Gutiérrez New President of Research Associaton

Ithas been nearly half a century now, but Kris Gutiérrez can still picture her school days in Miami, Ariz., a small desert town 90 miles east of Phoenix. She can still see her teachers, spurring her on through another project; her father, coming to another school function after a long day in the copper mines; her friends, cramming for an upcoming exam.

Sentimental memories?
Yes, but they’re also the foundation for Gutiérrez’s groundbreaking work at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Colorado (CU), where she has embedded her research in local commu-nity needs and real-life practice.
“I’ve been thinking about these designed environments for two decades now,” says Gutiérrez, who holds the inaugural Provost’s Chair at CU. “In Miami [Ariz.], there was an environment that supported education, from the school to the parents to generations of students who valued education. The mines were very rich; the economy was stable; there was low unem-ployment. You had a lot of stability. There was an ecology that supported education. I used that experience to design these programs.”
But her contributions extend well beyond CU and UCLA, where she was a professor of social research methodology in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
At UCLA, for example, Gutiérrez helped develop the Migrant Student Leadership Institute, an intensive one-month academic and leadership skills program for high-achieving students from throughout California’s migrant farm-working community Like a page from her own past, young people bloomed in UCLA’s academic-rich atmosphere.
A national leader in education and urban education, in particular, Gutiérrez served on President Obama’s Education Policy Transition Team, is president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), has held prestigious positions as a scholar in Japan and Canada, frequently speaks at international conferences, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 2006-07. Gutiérrez was also recently elected to the National Academy of Education and nominated by President Obama to be a member of the National Board for the Institute of Education Services.
Much of her recent work has been centered on AERA, a 95-year-old organization that represents 25,000 educational researchers in the United States and throughout the world.
“I’ve been very focused on thinking of AERA more as a go-to place for policymakers,” she says. “I want to use our thorough, vigorous research to influence policymaking.”
Adds Lorrie Shepard, dean of Colorado’s School of Education: “Professor Gutiérrez is not content to merely use complex theories to describe what is. She is very influential.”
While growing up in Miami, where ore has been dug from the ground for more than 135 years, Gutiérrez aimed for a future as a teacher. After earning her undergraduate degree at Arizona State University (ASU) in English and reading, she taught in a public school for a couple years and then returned to ASU.
“They needed someone who could teach writing, and writing in partic-ular to Latino students,” she says. “So I took the offer, and there I was at the university, as a baby, much earlier than I had planned. I just knew it was where I wanted to be. I knew I had to get a Ph.D. – one, because I love learning, and two, to have the kind of influence that I wanted to have.”
At CU, she was identified as a rising your star in the graduate school of education. Armed with a newly minted doctorate, Gutiérrez joined the UCLA faculty in 1989 as an assistant professor of education in the division of administration, curriculum and teaching studies – now the division of urban schooling. A familiar figure in Los Angeles area schools, she con-ducted long-term ethnographic studies across various school districts. Traditional programs have been designed with little regard for the people who were supposed to benefit from them, she says. Her research examines learning in designed learning environments.
“I loved UCLA. It was the best place in the world, a place to work with the best researchers in the world. It also gave me an opportunity to work exclu-sively with populations that are low-income and underserved,” she says.

“My parents never missed one parent-teacher conference, one activity – and believe me, I was in all of them.”
— Kris Gutiérrez, Provost, University of Colorado
Kris Gutiérrez, Provost,  University of Colorado

Kris Gutiérrez, Provost,  University of Colorado

It didn’t take long for Gutiérrez to make an impact in Southern California, where her projects included a computer-based learning club for students at an elementary school near the Los Angeles airport. Supervised by UCLA undergraduates, the children played board games, computer games and used digital storytelling designed to motivate them and develop their problem-solving and literacy skills.
“It was based on what we had started in Colorado many years before,” she says. “The goal was to help students develop good program-solving and literary skills through undergraduates we brought to the school. We partnered with computer scientists and cognitive scientists on campus to bring high technology to the after-school program.”
Next Gutiérrez helped develop the Migrant Student Leadership Institute, designed to provide participants with a glimpse of university life. California has the largest migrant student population in the nation, according to the Department of Education. But cultural and language barriers, frequent relocation and economic pressures make getting a high school education a formidable goal, much less college.
But the Migrant Student Leadership Institute enables them to live in the dorms for a month, take a couple of courses, participate in leadership training and get to know students from across the state.
Roughly 50 percent of students applied to the University of California system, with an 85 percent acceptance rate, compared to only 25 percent applying from the control group, with a 75 percent acceptance rate.
The underlying theme – “Yes We Can” – was evident at one graduation ceremony when students broke into a “migrant clap,” a burst of short claps that begins slowly, then picks up speed and force. Farmworkers have used it to spur one another on for hundreds of years.
“People generally think that by the time students are in high school it’s too late,” Gutiérrez says. “We showed year after year how wrong that was. Our students had an extraordinarily high college-bound rate. I hear from them all the time. ‘Thanks for the migrant program; this experience really changed my life.’ ... They’re in graduate school, they’re teachers. So we’ve actually seen the fruits of that program more than any other.
“It was more of a social design experience, where we bring the best of what we know to really serve a population that by all measures is one of the most vulnerable student populations in the country. We had amazing support from the university, from our department, from our school. I think people understood how the university benefited as well as the children. Our job was to show the project was based on sound research and princi-ples of learning.”
The program helped Gutiérrez gain a spot on President Obama’s transi-tion team, the latest in a long list of honors. Gutiérrez received a UCLA Department of Education Distinguished Teaching Award in 1996, the Harriet and Charles Luckman UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997 and a Spencer Foundation Mentorship Award in 1997. She was director of the Education Studies Minor and of the Center for the Study of Urban Literacies. In 2007, she was appointed to a three-year term on the U.S. Department of Education’s Reading First advisory committee, and her research has been published widely in elite academic journals.
“She is known equally as an exemplary methodologist, an insightful theorist, an effective program developer and as a well-grounded empirical researcher,” Shepard says.
“She is acutely aware of past practices that deny opportunities for acad-emic success to children from nondominant communities ... and uses her exquisite understanding of supportive learning environments to design programs that rigorously ensure students’ competence and confidence.”
The American Educational Research Association’s presidential gavel passed from Carol D. Lee of Northwestern University to Gutiérrez at the 2010 convention in Denver. The governing council passed a resolution say-ing it wouldn’t hold meetings in Arizona until the state’s then-new contro-versial immigration law is rescinded, with Gutiérrez wearing an altered conference name badge that read “I could be illegal.”
While preparing her presidential address for the 2011 convention, Gutiérrez focused on another part of Arizona.
“My father was a copper miner, meaning he had shift work. But I was telling him the other day that my parents never missed one parent-teacher conference, one activity – and believe me, I was in all of them. My parents would go to the library to help me do research.
“The whole town was supportive. In my president’s speech, I’m writing about resilient ecologies, and how I used that life experience.”

University of Illinois at Chicago’s Luis Alberto Urrea: From Despair to Acclaim

It was February 1982 and Luis Alberto Urrea, 26-year-old University of California- San Diego graduate, was doing full-time relief work with shanty dwellers in Tijuana’s wretched city dump.

Surrounded by surreal squalor during the day, Urrea slept on relatives’ couches in Southern California at night, broke and depressed and worried about his future. Desperate to start over, Urrea wrote Lowry Pei, his college writing instructor who was now at Harvard, and asked for help.

“I told him I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked him, ‘Could I get a gig out there, just as a janitor, for six months or so?’ He wrote back and offered me a job – as a writing instructor. “I was totally shocked.”

As it turned out, the Harvard job helped launch Urrea on a remarkable career as an acclaimed writer and teacher – he is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) – a path that has given his readers and students unusual insight into the tortured relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and the border that runs like a scar between the two countries. “Growing up divided in half by a barbed wire fence has made me see a border everywhere I turn,” he said.

Today Urrea is the best-selling author of 13 books, and his award-winning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays and short stories come from both sides of the border. His first book, Across the Wire, was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the Christopher Award. He won a 1999 American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody’s Son, and in 2000 he was voted into the Latino Literature Hall of Fame following the publication of Vatos. The Devil’s Highway, his 2004 nonfiction account of a group of American immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won the Lannan Literary Award and was named a best of the year by the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. “Luis Urrea writes about U.S.-Mexican border culture with a tragic and beautiful intimacy that has no equal,” the Boston Globe said.

In 2005, Urrea published The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a sweeping historical based on the true story of his great-aunt Teresa, a Yaqui Indian woman believed to be a saint. “Urrea has created a classic, a tribute and love song to the colorful and vibrant heart of all things Mexican,” said the San Francisco Chronicle.

Urrea also has flourished as a teacher. After Harvard, he taught at Massachusetts Bay Community College and was a writer in residence at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette before accepting a tenured position at UIC.

During his long journey from a Tijuana dump to Harvard and international success, one fact remains unchanged: borders are an ugly reality for Urrea – as well as a powerful metaphor for his work.

Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and a Bohemian society girl from New York, Urrea straddled cultural and psychological borders from an early age. Over time, his mother rejected her son’s Mexican origins, declaring: “You’re not a Mexican! Why can’t you be called Louis instead of Luis?’” The family lived in extreme poverty until Luis was 4, when he contracted tuberculosis and they moved to a San Diego barrio. In fourth grade, a man with a switchblade chased Luis, convincing the family to move again, this time to a suburb where Luis – a blond, blue-eyed Mexican- American – waded into another clash of cultures.

But at Clairemont High School, where filmmaker Cameron Crowe researched Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Urrea discovered literature, the balm that would insulate him from misery. “I spent my allowance on books or records,” he said. “I loved the arts.”

At the University of California-San Diego, Urrea started out as a theater major and ended with a degree in writing. But when his father was murdered in Tijuana – after withdrawing his savings to pay for graduate school for his son – Luis slipped into a major nosedive. He worked on night crews doing janitorial work. He lived in abject poverty. He bounced from apartment to apartment.

Concerned friends set him up with a well-known youth minister, Pastor Von, who did charity work in Tijuana. Slogging through mountains made of trash, Urrea took food, water and medicine to the stooped figures that picked through tons of garbage, befriending many of them.

One day, the pastor said to me: ‘Nobody who lives among these people writes books, and you have an inside view of something no one ever sees in America. You should write about it.’” With a writing career in mind, Urrea set off for Harvard in 1982, a disorienting journey for a man who had never been east of Yellowstone National Park.

“It was so far beyond my comprehension. I was so astonished to be there,” he said. “It was so alien. My first day, my host took me to Memorial Hall and said: ‘this is your classroom.’ It was like being taken to Notre Dame. It had gargoyles on it. I’d never seen anything like that.

“The first class was wild. I was 26, very boyish, had long hair. I remember standing in the hallways where all the students were asking, ‘What’s the dude like?’ I realized they didn’t realize I was the teacher. I said, ‘I’m the dude.’

“We didn’t have a rulebook. We did crazy things like designating ‘Show and Tell’ day. People would bring some insane thing to show and tell. Or we would requisition cars, and we’d head off to Walden Pond to discuss Thoreau. It was really wonderful stuff.

“I was astounded to find out I was getting incredible evaluations. Being Harvard, my high evaluations made me suspect to my boss. He’d say: ‘Your evaluations are way too high for you to be teaching the course properly. They are having too much fun; you’re not teaching anything.’”

In a used bookstore on Beacon Street, Urrea discovered a book about Teresita Urrea, the half- Indian child of a wealthy Mexican landowner. Teresita was both a leader of the silent poor and an accused witch whose followers were massacred.

After five years at Harvard, Urrea took on a full-time teaching load at Massachusetts Bay
College. When his mother died in 1990, he returned to San Diego to take care of family business. “I came out knowing that I could teach, that when I had everything together – my wits and energy – I was unbeatable.”

After writing for an alternative weekly in San Diego for a while, Urrea headed off for graduate school at the University of Colorado, where he discovered a passion for hiking.

“I’d always been fascinated by the Rockies. For physical beauty, it was the best. It changed me forever,” he said. “But also there were writers there I wanted to be closer to. Linda Hogan, Lorna de Cervantes ... I was very lucky because I think it was kind of a golden age that I stumbled into.” Urrea’s career took off in the 1990s with the publication of his nonfiction border trilogy: Across the Wire, By the Lake of Sleeping Children and Nobody’s Son. The books stemmed from his relief work in Tijuana.

Urrea moved to Arizona in 1995 to do field work on Hummingbird’s Daughter. Discovering an Indian branch of his family he hadn’t known about, he immersed himself in Yaqui history, herbalism and other eclectic subjects, yet couldn’t freely write about “the medicine magic stuff” until Linda Hogan, a Native American writer, helped him.

In his early 40s, Urrea made another move, taking a teaching job at the University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette, where he lived next door to author Earnest Gaines. After Nobody’s Son claimed the 1999 American Book Award, job offers poured in, including a tenured position at University of Illinois-Chicago. During his teaching career, Urrea has rarely seen Hispanic faces in his classroom.

“There just aren’t a lot of Latino students who get in writing programs,” he said. “I’ve had a couple here who were extremely talented, but it’s a tough row to hoe. We have a very working-class population, and they have much more practical matters in mind. It’s much more difficult to make that leap to creative writing programs.

“But everywhere I go, I’m talking to lots of Latino students. We’re getting into the next wave of education; they’re starting to expand out into literature and the arts and into writing.” Many of those students no doubt look at Urrea as a role model.

“I think I have a long history of escape,” he said. “I tell people I spent most of my early life feeling like a skunk trapped in someone’s kitchen looking for a window to jump out of. When you’re trapped in a place with hopelessness and with huge dreams until you’re 26 – once they spring the door, you don’t want to stop. I had a lot of energy to keep running for a long while.”

Literature an Enduring Passion for Professor Ester González

It was an ordinary day for most students at Johns Hopkins University. Classes, exams, meetings – the routine routine.

But there was nothing mundane about it for Ester Gimbernat González, a young, ambitious literature student from Argentina.

Filled with anticipation, she stepped for the first time into the campus library, a vast place where every section was lined with books she wanted to read or catch up on.

“When the doors opened, I was so happy, I couldn’t leave,” she said. “I was in heaven.”

Ester Gonzalez

That was 1971. In time, González would enroll at Hopkins, earn a Ph.D, form lifelong friendships with her literature classmates and then embark on a career that eventually led her to the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), where today she shares her enduring passion for great books as professor of Hispanic studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies.

Her résumé is filled with honors. In 2000, the school picked her for the Lucille Harrison Award, its highest honor, for a long career of professional excellence in teaching as well as in professional activity and service. In 2007, her Introduction to Hispanic Literature was named one of the top 10 Spanish literature courses in the nation by the College Board Advanced Placement’s course study conducted by the Educational Policy Improvement Center. The course has been a model for National Advanced Placement high school courses, both for content and teaching practices. The class introduces students to prominent contemporary writers and includes theater, novel, short story and poetry in translation.

“I’ve taught this course a long time. I didn’t realize it was something different. So I was surprised,” she said.

“In my class, we read and talk and write about Spanish literature. It’s a very demanding class. I choose one novel they have to read that is written in Spanish. They cannot take a novel that has been translated into Spanish. They have the final exam on that novel.

“That adds something to that course. It’s a big, big change. They start the class, and the first two weeks they hate me. They finish the class, and they love me, saying, ‘Please send me a list so I can read more like this.’” González has also written four books on writers in Argentina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries and contributed to two other books. To promote their works, she has invited them to UNC and other western campuses.

And she is editor of Confluencia, a Hispanic magazine of culture and literature. Not only has González used her contacts with poets and novelists to bolster its reputation, but she also has encouraged young writers and artists to publish therein, achieving a mix that now includes contributors from Asia, Europe and Australia.

“The journal was very small and modest when I took over in 1993,” she says. “I believe it’s come a long way. We don’t have a lot of subscriptions, but you can read it in many ways,” including online. “It’s an important part of my life.”

González isn’t the only academician in the family. After studying at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina, in the early 1970s, her husband, Luis Jorge González, enrolled in the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Md. (Ester earned a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins). He taught for a few years at Peabody and in Austin, Texas (Ester taught at the University of Texas), before accepting a position with the College of Music of the University of Colorado (CU)-Boulder in 1982 as a professor of composition and music theory (Ester took a job at Northern Colorado).

During Luis Jorge González’s distinguished career, he has won the coveted International Wieniawski Composition Competition with his Unaccompanied Violin Sonata. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1978-79) and has received commissions from the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, Colorado Music Festival, American Guild of Organists, Cosanti Foundation, Austin Music Festival, and many universities and performing ensembles.

The Gonzálezes’ son is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at CU as well as a musician.

“He developed both of our interests,” Ester said. In 1971, Luis had accepted a 10-month fellowship to study at Peabody and, because he lacked a visa that allowed him to return to Argentina and leave again, the Gonzálezes didn’t plan on staying in the U.S. “My plan was to stay in Argentina,” Ester said. “In Argentina, there were hard times politically. It was dangerous.”

Ester Gonzalez1

Instead they stayed in the U.S., a change in plans that altered their lives, setting Ester González on course to become an American academician, a process that began with her first tentative visit to Hopkins’ library. “I couldn’t understand English at all – when I went to the library the first three or four times, I couldn’t find the books. One day, I got on the elevator and went down to the fourth floor. When the door opened and I saw all those books ... it was like Dante’s Inferno, you go down, down, down – except that it’s a paradise.

“I couldn’t leave the library; I lived there for four years. I was there from eight in the morning until night. I had my desk, and I studied and studied. We were a very small group. Just 12 students in Romance languages. They are my family in this country. They are still very close friends.”

After earning a master’s degree and Ph.D., González accepted a position at the University of Texas in the early 1980s, presenting a dilemma for the couple.

“Luis didn’t have a job; he didn’t have a visa. He finished his Ph.D. dissertation and went to Argentina, and I stayed in Texas. I’m a happy person, but it wasn’t a happy situation in Texas.”

The decision that changed their lives occurred when Luis accepted a position in Boulder and Ester took a job at Northern Colorado, about an hour’s drive from Boulder.

“At UNC, I felt right at home from the start,” she said. “I love it here. I love to teach, and I feel so young.”

Meanwhile her husband’s music has been widely performed throughout the United States, and in South America, Europe and Japan. The Gonzálezes’ Boulder home, however, looks more like a library than a conservatory.

“My library has spread to three rooms.”

Patricia Zavella: Exceptional Teacher, First-Rate Scholar, Committed Activist

Patricia Zavella

As chair of Latin American and Latino studies, Professor Patricia Zavella is charged with making things run smoothly in her department at the University of California-Santa Cruz (UCSC).

But her job doesn’t end on the picturesque campus, nestled in the redwood forests and meadows overlooking Monterey Bay.

Zavella spends much of her time in another part of the county – another world, really – the migrant labor neighborhoods in nearby Watsonville. For a decade, the acclaimed cultural anthropologist interviewed and observed migrant people for her forthcoming book, I’m Neither Here Nor There: Mexicans’ Quotidian Struggles with Migration and Poverty.

Though the book should fortify Zavella’s status as one of the world’s leading scholars in the fields of feminist ethnography and Chicano studies, Zavella is already thinking about her next project, a trait that surfaced in the 1970s, when she dove into the emerging field as a Cal Berkeley graduate student.

“People were shaping Chicano studies back then,” she said. “You knew everyone working in the field. You could literally count on your hands the number of Chicano anthropologists. I’d go to conferences with fellow grad students who ended up writing very influential papers in the field.

“So I feel like I grew up with the field, as it changed right around me. It was pretty clear we were pioneers. ... I had no idea it was going to be as big and complex as it has become.”

Today Zavella is a much-decorated role model for a new generation of up-and-coming scholars. With her first book, Women’s Work and Chicano Families: Cannery Workers of the Santa Clara Valley, now in its fourth printing, Zavella became the first Chicana to publish a single-author book focusing on Chicanas. She is the author, too, of Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonies, which features life stories of Latina feminist scholars, a compilation that won the 2002 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. In 2007, she co-edited the new book Women and Migration in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands: A Reader.

Eight years ago, Zavella received the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Scholar Award and also was named one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in Hispanic Business magazine.

And as former director of UCSC’s Chicano/Latino Research Center, Zavella is also credited with increasing understanding of labor, health, sexuality and other facets of Mexicana and Chicana life. Yet despite her accomplishments, Zavella has never abandoned her community activist roots, as she revealed during a 2008 UCSC Founders Day Dinner, where she was honored for her work as a teacher and researcher.

Addressing a stylish crowd at the Cocoanut Grove, just minutes after receiving a standing ovation, Zavella said she felt her late grandmother whispering in an ear, urging her to ask UC-wide administrators to sign a new labor agreement with the union representing gardeners, maintenance workers and food service staff.

“UC contributes to poverty in the community,” she declared. Zavella’s empathy for workers began in childhood. Her mother and grandmother cleaned houses, and her father worked in the Air Force, which meant frequent moves. The family settled for a time in Colorado Springs, near her maternal grandmother, who encouraged her to read. “My sisters say I always had my nose in a book,” said Zavella, who graduated high school in California. “Of course, I don’t remember that.”

Though she won a university scholarship, Zavella decided to go to Chapman Community College instead, becoming the first in her family to attend college. “I didn’t have any good friends who were going to go to the university. I felt very intimidated by the application process and about moving out of my family home,” she said.

After Chapman, it was on to Pitzer College for Zavella and then an M.A. and Ph.D. at Cal Berkeley, where she encountered resistance from the old guard, which objected to the concept of Chicano studies.

“I very much felt like I was out on a limb. I wanted to do my research with Chicanos in the United States. My advisor kept saying there’s no such thing as Chicano studies. You have to be a Latin Americanist. That felt very unfair. It was something that was uncomfortable – but exciting. I just didn’t worry.

“When I found my footing was when I went and did field research for my dissertation. I moved from Berkeley to San Jose, which at the time felt like the hinterlands. Trying to figure out how to do ethnographic research was tough, but I just started talking to people and doing interviews. I did observations with a group of dissident workers. Eventually, I got to the point where it was full time every day and sometimes day and night.

“I felt like I learned a lot, even though I didn’t really feel like I knew how to write a dissertation. I felt like I had something to say, and in the end it worked out.”

Zavella receiving award

Zavella converted her thesis into a book, published in 1987 as Mexican-American women were entering the labor force in increasing numbers. By linking new theories about Chicano family structure and feminist theory, she brought to life the plight of Chicano women who worked in Northern California’s fruit and vegetable canneries.

“It was at a time when the field of Chicano studies was really starting to blossom, and also at a time when there was little work being done on women,” Zavella said. “It was definitely sort of a path-breaking work. “ Following a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Chicano Research, Zavella joined the UCSC faculty in 1983, where she helped build the community studies program, enabling the school to produce some of the field’s most distinguished young scholars. In the late 1990s, she was named co-director of the school’s Chicano/Latino Research Center. In 2003, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies presented its annual Scholar’s Award to Zavella, describing her as “an exceptional teacher, a first-rate scholar and an activist committed to social change.”

At the same time, Zavella was immersed in research for her latest book, which involved more than 70 interviews with migrant people and focus groups and surveys with a hundred more. While trying to pinpoint the causes of poverty, she came across a recurring theme: language. Whether migrants spoke English determined what kind of work they were offered, how socially involved they became outside the home, and how American-born Mexicans treated them.

Some of the stories tugged at her heart: A woman who earned a postgraduate degree in Mexico ended up working in the fields in central California because she couldn’t speak English. A Mexican doctor served tables at a Watsonville restaurant.

“I decided early on I wasn’t going to write just about the heart-wrenching stories. I wanted to write about the ways in which people try to find dignity and occasionally even resist or avoid the exploitation they’re put into,” she said.

“For example, one woman trained in accounting came here without documentation, so her accounting degree didn’t count. She didn’t speak English, so she had to take the only job she could find. She was so demoralized. She finally started volunteering at her children’s school. Eventually, over a long period of time, she started learning English through her church, found another apartment, moved out and eventually she became a paid bilingual assistant (at the school). It was a very modest accomplishment, but for her it was all the change in the world. It’s not the money that mattered but that she was able to get out of the home and do work that was meaningful. She did it for self-esteem. “

Zavella’s latest book also examines migrant journeys to and within the U.S. and the ways in which cultural memory is preserved through Latin American and Chicano protest music and Mexican folk songs.

“There’s a fine line between anthropology and sociology, particularly if you’re working in developed countries like the U.S.,” she said. “Basically, an anthropologist spends a long time in the same place and gets to know the people, the language and has very in-depth relationships and learns what’s going on in relation to a set of phenomena. It could be cultural; it could be religious.”

Because of a remarkable rise in migration in the world in recent decades, cultural anthropologists are increasingly focusing on the U.S. and other first-world countries, fueling the need for more young scholars. Three decades ago, there were fewer than a dozen Latino cultural anthropologists; today, says Zavella, there are more than 400.

“Today I’m one of the old guard,” she says. “That’s fine. It’s really exciting to see young women who are great students building on our work and developing their own analyses, their own books and papers.

“It’s partly driven by the huge increase in immigration from Latin America in the 1990s. In California, Latinos are now the majority of elementary schoolchildren. A lot of people feel the need to understand the population and figure out what’s going on. There are so many changes in the U.S. in relation to the Latino population. The field is flourishing.”