Chicana Voices | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

November 30, 2016 News » Cover Story

Chicana Voices 

Newly tenured Mexican-American women model success for minorities on U of U campus.

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Theresa Martinez reflects on a time of dismay when a fellow University of Utah faculty member distributed to students copies of The Bell Curve, a controversial text that examines intelligence and economic class. She bristles at the memory. For Martinez, a sociology professor, the book lacked academic rigor. But beyond its dubious conclusions, she rejects the publication because it was seen as ammunition for propagators of the idea that certain races are intellectually inferior, and thus naturally fated for societal ills.

Those were delicate days for Martinez, a newer face among the U faculty. She wanted support from her department, she says, which had gained a reputation for "eating its young." Never had a Chicana earned tenure in the state, and as a Mexican-American woman, Martinez was keenly cognizant that she was a pioneer. It was the early 1990s and Martinez, too, started to develop a reputation: She was the Latina newcomer, who gutted dated premises about social injustice—theories that continued to resonate through U classrooms.

"At first I tried to argue back. Some of them said, 'Oh, she's teaching radical ideas.' There were people in my faculty that believed poor people were that way because they had no values. I was teaching things like, 'No, it's a structural issue,'" she says, adding, "The faculty at the time—some of them—were very rigid and very bigoted."

click to enlarge Verónica Valdez
  • Verónica Valdez

Without backing from department higher-ups, Martinez drifted to allies outside sociology, including administration. All the while, she forged on, an outcast in the establishment, with an eye on her tenure requirements and the ticking clock.

After six years as an assistant professor, Martinez was up for review, an arduous quest for most professors, and especially true, one can imagine, for those feeling unsupported. Pressure mounted.

The probationary period—usually seven years—allows professors time to compile an evaluative body of work, but in the interim, candidates plant roots that can be suddenly upended when they aren't granted tenure. Those who are granted tenure are promoted and retained.

"There's this true sense of insecurity because you're working for six years, and they can just kick you out. You're living here, you're raising a family, or you're getting married or you're buying a house, and people can just kick you out," she says.

Around 1996, the department, the chair and the dean, rejected Martinez' tenure application. Not to be defeated, Martinez appealed to the University Promotion and Tenure Advisory Committee. Here she successfully made her case. This was followed by affirming votes from the vice president and then the president, as well. "It was a tough time. I got tenured against the wishes of my faculty," she says. Feeling a mixture of relief and excitement, Martinez packed around her tenure letter, tangible proof of her accomplishment.

This month marks the end of the U's fall semester, as well as the 20-year anniversary of Martinez' uphill climb to academia's vaunted tenure status. Looking back, she can track progress. The sociology department, she says, is revamped with an emphasis on social justice, for example. And the number of minority faculty has grown. This year, in fact, four more Chicana professors at the U achieved tenure, a milestone Martinez says should be celebrated. A tenure class that includes Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez, Verónica Valdez, Lourdes Alberto and Lola Calderon serves as a fond reminder and watermark for Martinez that the university continues its course of diversification.

"These Chicana faculty have been nurtured on our campus and such was not always the case for women of color at the U," she says in an email. "It is high time and it is something to be hailed, recognized and applauded."

While the women present unique success stories, they also share similar experiences. For this reason, the Chicana professors leaned on one another for support as they trudged toward tenure. They offered consoling shoulders at low moments; they enjoyed in each other's victories when things went well. Valdez says they also relied on Martinez' counsel.

"[Theresa] was amazing, having been here and gone through that alone, which I can't even imagine. She was really instrumental in checking in on us, making sure that we had what we needed to be able to get through the process," Valdez says. "In terms of support, I don't know if it would have been as successful without her having been there as the trailblazer for all of us."

click to enlarge Theresa Martinez
  • Theresa Martinez

On the afternoon following Donald J. Trump's victorious presidential bid, two dozen high-schoolers of color jittered inside a Salt Lake City elementary library. The heightened racial rhetoric that both set apart and marred the 2016 campaign has lingered in the thoughts of many minorities, unsure of the real, post-election impact. The ballot results fueled commotion among these after-school program students—Latinos, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. To relieve possible stress pent up from the night before, organizers had the teens scurry outside to play kickball.

Gutiérrez, an associate professor in the U College of Education, remained in the quiet room. She's a faculty advisor with Mestizo Arts and Activism, a voluntary program designed to give youths the tools to guide their lives and their communities by creative and positive action. Gutiérrez planned to have the teens record their anxieties in journals after they'd returned from the kickball game.

The MAA program was part of the body of work Gutiérrez presented to a committee in her tenure portfolio this year. She also helped create family-school partnerships by engaging immigrant and refugee families to be involved in their children's schooling.

"Historically, particular populations have been marginalized in our school system," she says of the family-school partnership. "This was a way to integrate families who oftentime don't have a lot of former formalized contact in educational settings."

Raised in San Diego by parents who immigrated from Mexico, Gutiérrez continued her education at California State University San Marcos, then earned a master's degree from Harvard and finally a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in educational psychology.

She now calls Salt Lake City home. An activist scholar, Gutiérrez is proud that her work takes her into the community. Among budding students, she offers the scaffolding and encouragement that she sought but couldn't often find in her youth.

"Growing up, being told that I wouldn't live past 21, being told I would amount to nothing throughout school, I know what not to do," she says. "I've learned these hard lessons. So I always think about what are things that young people could be going through that I can support them in and make a difference. My work is about community engagement and it's about making a difference in the everyday lives of young people versus just talking about it in theory."

click to enlarge Lourdes Alberto
  • Lourdes Alberto

Valdez, on sabbatical this semester, is also in the College of Education. She has honed her work on language. Valdez instructs ESL endorsement courses to future educators, and teaches graduate-level language classes that examine the convergence of language and community. She also studies how communities help students retain their home languages while learning English in schools.

"I do a language and policy and planning course," she adds, "that's looking at language policy as a field and specifically what does it mean in terms of what the state of Utah is doing around language policy for [English language learners]."

Her department is interdisciplinary, encompassing teachers of philosophy of education, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, immigration and refugee education, among other areas. This was the backdrop for Valdez' tenure journey.

"The benefit of that is that you get to think outside the box," she says. "Just when you think you've got it, they pose questions that broaden your thinking about a topic." But, according to Valdez, professors looking to "build those networks within your specialty area" can find it challenging to do in such a broad spectrum.

She also works with a group of faculty that helps students apply social theories to K-12 and higher education.

Through her own education, Valdez had no Latina faculty as an undergrad at Southwestern University in Texas or at Emporia State University in Kansas. Not until working on her doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin did she interact with faculty members of color.

"I could see how much it enriched my own life. Because of that, I see the value of having a diverse faculty and what it means for the students. Not just in being able to see themselves but in terms of the kinds of questions that they're asking and the kinds of support the faculty can give them—not just academically but also emotionally," she says.

Kathryn Stockton, associate vice president for equity and diversity, says another reason to cultivate a diverse faculty, in part, is because it will entice a diverse student body, which in turn aids student learning campus-wide.

"Diversity is an intellectual issue," she says. "That's something that we underscore."

Citing a Scientific America study, Stockton notes that collective problem-solving improves when a group's makeup is diverse. Her office oversees equity and diversity on campus, which reaches out to diverse students, runs the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs, offering LGBTQ resources, among many services.

Stockton says almost a third of the latest incoming freshman class was non-foreign students of color. The equity and diversity office is also concerned with retaining talented tenured professors, but it's not a simple task. After achieving tenure, the school lost one of the four recently tenured Chicana faculty when Calderon moved to an out-of-state institution.

Recognizing its struggle to maintain a diverse faculty, the Office for Equity and Diversity organized a committee to try to get to the root of the problem. A few years ago, that board came up with a range of strategies to attract underrepresented faculty, including proffering enticing salary packages for qualified, top-level recruits.

The office acknowledges that the faculty is neither as diverse as the student body nor the state of Utah. Its website echoes the notion that a diverse faculty will better serve the community, that "the success of our students can be enhanced by models and leaders of varied backgrounds, and that raising our institutional profile is linked to a climate of inclusivity, facilitated by a diverse campus community."

The campus the four Chicana professors navigated was more welcoming, perhaps, than the one Martinez experienced 20 years ago, but that's not to say they didn't experience alarming pushback from some students. In remarkably similar anecdotes, the Chicana professors say they have witnessed aggressive outbursts from students. The professors attribute these reactions to students' attitudes about their race and gender.

Gutiérrez says studies confirm their experiences weren't abnormal. "Research shows that women of color actually are the most harassed [in academia]," she says. "So many microaggressions happen to us, and I've experienced that since Day 1."

In her earlier years, Valdez recalls a frightening encounter. She was confronted after class by an irate and intransigent student, who screamed at her inches away from her face, she says. Professors of color were commonly thrown into teaching diversity courses, which led some students to assume the instructor sought to push a personal agenda—not realizing these ideas and theories came from an established field of study. Valdez tried to calm the student and recommended he voice his concerns in writing.

"When those kinds of things happen, you hope to have immediate intervention and backing from administration, instead of [responses like] 'You need to deal with this. The student is right and you need to find a way to deal with it.' Most of us were pretty much left alone to figure things out," she says.

click to enlarge Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez
  • Leticia Alvarez Gutiérrez

Diversity in American Literature, a course that fulfills a general English requirement, attracts an array of students from all majors. Standing at the front of such classes, Alberto developed a habit of asking students whether they've never been taught by a faculty of color before.

"The majority of hands go up," she says. "They're saying, 'You're the first faculty of color that I've had.' It makes me sad."

For students who experience diversity in many facets of life, to then walk onto a homogenous campus, she argues, creates a subconscious message that is both untrue and harmful.

"Our job at the U is to produce knowledge and then education students with that new knowledge," Alberto says. "If people of color are not participating in that process, then you get the message that people of color must not produce knowledge, or that people of color must not be able to produce knowledge."

Not until students and colleagues see professors of color succeeding at the academy does this impression break down and dissolve away.

Students from all walks benefit from being exposed to diversity, she says, and for students of color finding a mentor that can relate to their experiences can be the difference between success and failure. Alberto has kept in contact with Latino professors she met as an undergraduate at the University of California Riverside 20 years ago. These teachers helped mentor her and revealed to her a scope of possibilities.

"It just reflects the diversity of our world," she says.

Alberto earned tenure through the English department, which demands publication.

Her book, titled Mexican-American Indigeneities, is scheduled for publication through NYU Press next year. The idea of a Mexican-American is often singular, she argues. They come from Mexico, and they all share certain characteristics including history or language. "But that's not necessarily the case because Mexico is a very diverse place, and one of its greatest diversities is its indigenous populations," she says.

Her own lineage is Zapotec, indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico. That southern coastal state is home to 16 distinct indigenous populations.

"I'm looking at how Chicano authors are depicting indigeneity," she says. "But I'm also looking at how the authors themselves identify and what kind of arguments they're making about indigeneity."

Writing the book was rewarding but isolating, she says. She had to dedicate time alone to research, write and rewrite. She also worked on conference papers and authored various articles.

Alberto now is reevaluating her role and curriculum in a post-Trump-campaign world. She sees an unprecedented fear in students who identify with groups that the campaign implied were holding back America from being great. The president-elect said at various times on the trail that he would bar all Muslims from entering the United States and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. He also made eyebrow-raising claims that seemed to promote sexual assault against women. And Trump has been championed by the so-called "alt-right," a pack of hardline conservatives that includes some white nationalists.

Alberto says all her students could benefit in a class that has a refocused set of novels and discussions, a class that addresses the current political climate. A purpose the academy serves, she explains, is to broaden students experiences and understanding of the world they inhabit.

"They're not just here to get an A and move on with their business degree or their biology degree," she says. "I need to teach them something about being human. So when they go out in the world, they're not afraid to speak up, they're not afraid to defend the other person's rights. That they are speaking from a truly empathetic human experience."

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