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.”