Arcela Núñez-Alvarez, Ph.D. Facing Hate, Promoting Humanity

Arcela Nunez-Alvarez

In 2006-07, hate mail came nonstop to the office of Dr. Arcela Núñez-Alvarez at California State University-San Marcos (CSUSM). It wasn’t the first time she’d been targeted. But this time, the response was to her editorial commentary in a local newspaper on an immigration issue. Scathing e-mails and letters attacked her, saying she had taken advantage of the American system as an illegal immigrant, reaping the benefits of education and health care while she grew up here.

“They knew everything about me,” says Núñez-Alvarez, a history professor and civil rights activist. “I didn’t feel safe.”

Throughout her lifetime, Núñez-Alvarez has witnessed the bashing of immigrants, sometimes subtle, often blatant and, on occasion, violent. Racist hate crimes at the University of California-San Diego garnered national coverage in 2010. And hate messages were written around the Cal State San Marcos campus in North San Diego County.

“There’s a new sense of fear,” Núñez-Alvarez says. “It seems as if we are taking so many steps backwards, as if we went back in time.”

Addressing that fear and finding ways to restore dignity and pride to the Latino community is crucial to moving past the injustices. As interim director of the National Latino Research Center (NLRC) at CSUSM, Núñez-Alvarez is passionate about the center’s commitment to community outreach and awareness. The Oral History Project was launched with the belief that communities are built on personal contributions. Latinos’ personal stories validate their historical presence in a community. The idea of the Oral History Project is to preserve Southern California’s historic multicultural richness one person at a time – and Latinos are paramount in this history.

With the help of the San Diego County Library, the grass-roots outreach effort travels from library to library and stays for several months in a given location. Elders in the community are invited to document and record their personal stories, which are captured through audio/video methods, letters, diaries, professional and business papers, photo albums and artifacts. The Oral History Project also provides an opportunity for cultural engagement when museums, college libraries, city halls, community centers and similar outlets preserve, recognize and exhibit different voices as part of community history. “History can become skewed if told and accepted from only one perspective,” she says. Despite negative media coverage, Latinos have to believe their individual contributions have helped build communities in this nation.

“Our stories fit into a broader collective history. Inclusion reflects the multicultural society we live in. We can move away from differences and aim to find connection of humanity.”

There is no bitterness when she speaks. Instead, Núñez-Alvarez speaks with confidence and the assurance that this is a way to validate Latinos’ positive presence in this country. “The ‘personal’ is core to history in this community, in this nation,” says Núñez-Alvarez. “How do we make everyone in our community feel valued? Where does your story fit in the growth of the U.S.? They all matter.”

Skewed Perceptions

Idyllic images of Mexico and California history intertwining are what Arcela imagined when she was growing up and taking history classes in her native Guanajuato. Her grandpa lived in the United States; his stories were all positive – that there was plenty of everything one could imagine, that no one had to worry about anything, that everyone lived in big mansions, had lots of clothes, and that there were grocery stores on every corner.

Núñez-Alvarez believed her own positive impressions after learning about her homeland in relation to the U.S.-Mexican War. She was taught that Mexican citizens would have certain rights and guarantees after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and California and Mexico would be positively connected. Culture shock awaited her when she moved to Escondido, a San Diego suburb.

“That’s the story I heard there, but here, in high school and college, I heard the opposite – that Mexicans didn’t belong here, that I couldn’t speak Spanish, that I wasn’t welcome. History didn’t make sense. As an immigrant in the U.S., I had to figure out why history had been so skewed.” So poor was her family, their only hope was America. Her father had come many years before them. Her mother struggled. Despite all her labor, it was a desperate time. She sold everything they owned to move. Her family begged her to leave one or two of her six daughters behind to make the transition easier; she refused.

Her mother inspired Núñez-Alvarez beyond measure. “My mom was actually the first female to migrate from our hometown. I never saw her have second thoughts, ever. She said, ‘I’m not going to give up my kids; they’re my responsibility. We all make it together or we all die together.’ We didn’t question her. We had no idea where we were going, nor did we have a choice.” Reality hit them even before they arrived. All their luggage was stolen in Tijuana. They lived with an uncle for a month until they found an apartment.

Her mother worked 12-hour shifts at a textile factory, walking there before sunlight with a purpose, says Núñez-Alvarez. “We were her purpose. She made the move and worked that hard for us. She believed we were here for a good education.”

All the immigrants they came with had a connection to each other because the transition was not easy. At school, Núñez-Alvarez’s older sisters were placed in the ESL program, but at the elementary school, they did not know what to do with the incoming students. “A lot of the kids were being placed in special ed classes because we didn’t speak the language,” says Núñez-Alvarez. “Sixth grade was a waste of time. I just sat in the classroom and didn’t understand one thing that was taught.”

But she had been a good student in Mexico and had solid math skills. With supportive teachers, by ninth grade she was placed in all college-prep classes. “I loved school. There was never a question about doing well. This was the unwritten expectation. We knew that’s why we were here.” Well known as the family of “those six girls” in the district, teachers and administrators helped them get donations of clothes, shoes and whatever they needed so they could concentrate on school.

Because her dad had been a farmworker here in the late ’50s, Núñez- Alvarez and her sisters were able to enroll in a migrant education program. It was their first introduction to college. One hundred migrant students from all over the state took part in a six-week immersion class at the University of California-Los Angeles to try a couple of classes and live on campus. “I took Chicano studies, wrote in the newspaper, was introduced to museums in Los Angeles,” she says. “That changed my life. That’s when I knew what I would do with my life.”

Skewed Perceptions – Magnified

As president of MEChA at her high school, Núñez-Alvarez was asked to make a presentation to the formal school board on behalf of the Mexican students. Her neighborhood was known as Little TJ (Tijuana), and her school was known as “the Mexican” school.

Another school was about to open on the other side of town. People on the board said they wanted to redraw boundary lines of the district specifically so that Mexicans could not be bused over to attend the new high school, says Núñez-Alvarez.

She witnessed the “great divide” – lots of Mexican families on one side of the room and White families on the other side. She saw faces that couldn’t connect to what she said, nor did they acknowledge the Mexican students as the individuals they had known for years. The controversy and buildup of hate and prejudice lasted for almost a year.

“They said we were lazy and didn’t value education,” Núñez-Alvarez says. “We were straight-A students and were upset when we got B’s. They said Mexicans would bring violence to the new school. We just wanted to go to the best schools possible. Their perception was uncalled for, unsubstantiated and humiliating.”

That incident opened her eyes to the truths they faced and raised her consciousness to a new level. Gone were the innocent images of a land of plenty for everyone.

In the end, even though the new school was not segregated, the social perception of disparity affected Núñez-Alvarez for a long time to come. “To me, I saw freedom as White middle class and that’s what I wanted – yet there was such a big divide. It made me ask, ‘Well, where do we fit in here?”

Taking the High Road

Today Núñez-Alvarez attempts to connect teaching with service to Latino communities through her work and personal convictions. With the National Latino Research Center educationally proactive in its approach to community enlightenment and advocacy, she has found a sturdy foothold on which change can take root.

When the NLRC was chartered in 1990 and moved from San Diego State University to Cal State San Marcos, she joined the staff to try to develop the kind of research center that could help enable better understanding of Latino communities and their needs in useful, meaningful and practical ways. “We wanted to look at broader social contacts to find bigger issues.”

Now it conducts and connects local and national research focused on Latinos. Its programs, projects, classes and outreach efforts have covered educational equity, partner violence, mental health, transportation problems, health, medical coverage, cultural competency, food stamps, juvenile justice, environmental justice, civic engagement and naturalization. The center has addressed safety and the issue of parents not sending kids to school for fear of repercussions, of being deported, of being targeted.

Once the center takes on a project, it gathers quantitative and qualitative data and aspects of the given problem, works with agencies and community reps to solve that problem and provides copies of NLRC reports and fact sheets to legislators for action at the next level, when appropriate. Opposition is almost always expected for any given problem, says Núñez-Alvarez. For example, a community effort was once made to provide internationally recognizable identification cards issued by this country for Mexican citizens.

An effort took place at a community church to register people for these standard ID cards. However, Minutemen lined the street with big American flags – but also with horrible signs, yelling the most inhumane and offensive things, she says.

“Innocent people had to pass by them and be subjected to such hate. Moms pushed strollers with all the integrity they could muster, wanting to cover their children’s ears. What an impression on a 4- or 5-year-old. How do we preserve dignity in the face of that?”

Yet her work with NLRC keeps her positive and forward thinking. She still believes there can be a great level of resilience and optimism. “As bad as it is, it’s a big source of motivation for change,” she says. “From an organizing perspective, these are precise moments we wait for – to expose the ugliness surrounding us.”

Of concern are the many kids who feel disconnected, with no sense of belonging here or there, explains Núñez-Alvarez. However, many who participated in the 2006 walkouts, for example, experienced a whole new movement. Students are in a great position to tap into their potential, to figure out their place here and be a positive influence in their communities. In addition, if the younger generation can see its elders’ sacrifices and contributions in building U.S. communities, they might more readily connect the best of both worlds to their roots. Validating Latinos’ contributions to United States history through efforts such as the Oral History Project is one way to strip away prejudices, straighten skewed perceptions and get down to basic facts. Despite the hatred and heartache, ideally there is potential for a bigger sense of human connection.

“This is a teaching moment in history,” says Núñez-Alvarez. “The divide teaches bigger lessons, expects more of us as individuals and will leave a legacy of civil rights.”