2015 Outstanding Master's University and Colleges Professor of the Year
Associate Professor of Mexican-American Studies
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
I spent my entire schooling never having seen myself reflected in a book. Imagine that. Nobody that looked like me, had a last name like me, and certainly nobody who spoke like me. After all, I have no idea which language I spoke first; Spanish or English. Nobody like me of historical significance, nobody like me in a novel, nobody like me in a poem. Me and my community were completely invisible despite the fact that we occupied the majority of the school.
I was raised by a hard-working single father, Daniel Alvarez, who had the help of my abuelo, Cuco, a waiter, and my abuela, Tati, who cleaned hotel rooms and hospitals until I was in elementary school. She drove nearly 70 miles every day to pick us up from school, make us dinner and watch over us in the summer until my dad came home from work until she passed away when I was 12 years old.
Despite being raised by such amazing, hard-working and loving people, I was embarrassed to embrace my identity as a Latina. After all, not only did I come through an education system in which my stories and experiences were invisible, but growing-up in the 1980s in Miami we were vilified as destroying the once paradisiacal Florida with our Spanish, refusal to learn English, our supposed diseases, "anti-American" customs, and defiance to assimilate. Sound familiar?
In school, I distanced myself from anything that enhanced my Latinidad. I was considered "smart" because my African American Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Linder, said I was. So, from then on, I was tracked as "smart" and into honors classes. Something my dad has always attributed to me being bilingual. Despite this, I went through all of high school not having read a single book. They were boring and dreadful to read. What I did have were sports. They saved me and my dad who is here can probably attest to that since every threat of punishment was tied to not being able to play in a game or something of that nature. I wish I could say that things got better in college, they didn't. Even as a Spanish major I was never exposed in all of my undergraduate career to anything related to Latin@s. In fact, in all my undergraduate career I had only one Latina professor. As a graduate student, it was not until almost my very last year as a student in my PhD program that I realized that Latin@s in the United States wrote books, had a history.
I had a literature, we could write?? It was like this cloud of invisibility was lifted. I existed as part of this country. After all, if the academy validates what knowledge is and Latin@s are not seen as worthy of study, are not part of a mandated curriculum, then we don't exist as part of the institution, we are not producers of knowledge, we are simply consumers of knowledge with nothing to contribute.
My entire career as an educator is dedicated to flipping that paradigm of viewing Latin@ students in deficit terms upside down and to offer students the opportunity to see themselves, their families and communities as having a wealth of assets to tap into. Students are offered the opportunity to study their culture, history, literature and produce knowledge, often alongside their own parents or with community partners. Sometimes, it is just giving the students culturally affirming material. I will never forget Isaac. Isaac told me about when he read George Washington Gómez by Américo Paredes and he continually flipped back to the front cover because he really couldn't believe that a Chicano had written a novel. Isaac, after many years of being in and out of school, not only graduated but went on to attend graduate school in California. On other occasions, it has been a full-fledged oral history project to recover the untold stories of Braceros. Students, identified Braceros in their own families to document their history, put together a one-day symposium in which the speakers were not "academics," but rather Braceros themselves, and worked with the community through plática to envision and create a mural about Braceros. Through our pláticas as we knocked door to door, people generously shared stories, one person we spoke to at an event pulled out her father's Bracero ID that she always carried with her in case one day she could retrieve the money he was promised as part of his pension, one person gifted us with a photo of him and his cousin that we integrated into the mural. As the mural was being painted one of their uncles stopped the car and said those are my nephews and broke down in tears.
Every class I teach students are asked to explore and integrate their lived experiences into their research. They are engaged scholars, but they integrate engaged scholarship with the ideals of decolonial theory and Chican@ epistemology that predate the call for such engaged scholarship. Perhaps one of my favorite stories is that of Anabel & her sister Erika Salamanca who is also here. Both of them participated in a course that I had the privilege of developing with my husband José Martínez, who is also here, Edna Ochoa, and the great Latino poet Tato Laviera, que en paz descansa. This course, Cosecha Voices, asked migrant farmworker students to study the migrant farmworker experience and in particular document their own experience through testimonio writing and digital story-telling. It also archived their work online and required them to share their stories at the university with their families. Thus, again, migrant farmworkers were the center of the production of knowledge and parents were now coming to the university not to be instructed on how to do something, but rather to hear their children tell their stories about being a migrant farmworker and so, the university validated their experience in their language.
Anabel and Erika, both grew up traveling between Texas and California working from a young age in the fields and packing houses of California for months before they returned to Texas year after year. Their parents still migrate to California to work in the fields. As undergrads, however, through our work they participated in over ten conferences, multiple workshops, and mentored middle school students. Neither one of them needed the class for their major, Anabel majored in Business, Erika in Engineering. However, I remember when Erika went before the curriculum committee at our university requesting a diversity requirement. Erika said, I am an Engineering major and you may not think that this has anything to do with engineering but, with her eyes swelled as she could see where the committee was headed, she said it is because of that class that I am here today and that I am making it through this engineering program.
Because of students like Anabel and Erika and thousands more at my university and millions across the country and my own three children; Amaya, Tatiana & Santiago, I am driven to ensure that students are provided a culturally affirming and responsive education. This is an urgent matter because we cannot afford to not do so. There is no such thing as an Achievement Gap for students of color, what exists is an Opportunity Gap. This opportunity gap is not just one of access to college, it is one of curricula and pedagogy. We cannot continue to teach the same things, the same way. I want to thank the Carnegie Foundation and CASE for this tremendous honor. This award not only affirms that the work I am doing is important, but it also affirms the very real lived experiences of the Mexican American and Latin@ communities and students at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley that inspire me every day. I want to thank my dad for all his sacrifice, teaching me about social justice and hard work. I thank my husband, José Martínez for all his support and unconditional love. I thank my dear friend Tato, my sister & best friend Jennifer, my children; Amaya, Tatiana and Santi, my amazing Mexican American Studies colegas and my brilliant students for always inspiring me. Gracias.
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