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Q&A: Lorena V. Márquez

In October 2020, Sam Watts interviewed Lorena Márquez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California Davis, about her latest book, La Gente: Struggles for Empowerment and Community Self-Empowerment in Sacramento (The University of Arizona Press, 2020).

SW: Tell us about yourself and how you came to writing this book.

LM:  I am the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and my parents came to a small agricultural town called Galt and I went through K-12 here and I went to SAC State (California State University Sacramento) and I started learning about Chicana/o history, it was my first introduction as an undergrad, most students in the US don’t learn anything about Chicana/o history until they come to college, and so it was kind of a mind blowing experience I had no idea of anything, I didn’t know any history. And, like a good nerd, I just started reading and I really became very empowered and I just wanted to share that knowledge I thought that if students felt like they belonged that they would fare better. And so, one of biggest frustrations as an undergrad was that I couldn’t pick up a book on Sacramento, there was nothing in terms of Chicano history. There was a lot on Southern California, a lot on Texas, San Antonio, those areas, but nothing on the Northern California region. And I just knew that there was a rich history here because I had learned about it in my history courses and so I just decided that that was what I was going to do. And as you know it is a very long and difficult process, I got my BA in history and MA and then PhD and was just doing research for a very long time. It was very painful in terms of sitting through, maybe, city directories, you know you are just sitting there leafing through to piece together where are these communities, where are Mexicans located, what types of businesses do they have and it was just like putting these very small pieces together and you see that in my first chapter and that was probably the hardest part, doing that first chapter, finding that archival research. And I thought it was important, because how are you going to understand a social movement in the 1960s if you don’t understand what happened before it. For me that was a very important moment and that’s why I like to talk about the Civil Rights Movement as the Long Civil Rights movement as African American scholars have done and I think that probably applies to every ethnic group in terms of organising and that history.

SW: Can I ask, you say your parents came from Mexico, what did they think about your interests – were they enthusiastic about you studying Mexican American history?

LM: Well, they’re happy now. I was the first to go to college, the first and only of seven kids, so no one had gone to college. I’m the middle child, I have five brothers, so I had a very culturally strict household, so I wasn’t supposed to leave until I was married. So, they weren’t really happy when I decided to go to college, and they kind of accepted it but then they wanted me to live with them and I had five brothers, I didn’t even have a bedroom we were so poor, I would sleep on the couch and I would study when everybody went to bed. I felt like I was always, going against the grain in terms of the gender norms that were assigned to me.

SW: There’s so many things about this book that I love and that I think really work. Firstly, I’d like to ask how Chicana/o politics differ in Sacramento as compared to Los Angeles?

LM: For me Sacramento at least was this rural-urban blend. Sacramento is very urban, high density population but it is very much also a rural town because it is surrounded by agriculture – so issues around farm workers, around cannery workers, there very present in Sacramento and it’s almost a part of the Chicano identity here, and you have very urban issues like desegregation and housing, all of these things are playing out. So, I think this urban-rural blend really speaks to the Sacramento experience. Whereas in LA, you’re not really surrounded by agriculture, it’s a different identity and experience altogether. Another thing that I found was that migration wasn’t direct to Sacramento, a lot of folks stopped in Southern California or El Paso or even Chicago before coming to Sacramento. There was work here in canneries, in the fields, in different sectors.

SW: So you begin and end the book by talking about Robin Kelley and James C. Scott and their ideas of resistance really shaping your work. What influence did these models of resistance have on how you read Chicana/o politics?

LM: Scott I read as part of my Latin American minor – I worked with a Latin Americanist and she assigned an amazing array of books on Latin American and for some reason she assigned this Scott book on Malaysia – and this book, this idea of resistance in the everyday and all these other forms that had never occurred to me. When folks are oppressed, they are always reacting to that oppression – it is not one way, we’ve known that right? There are always these tensions between the oppressed and the oppressor. But to think about the most minute form of resistance, whether it’s foot-dragging or lying, all of these things and looking at the oppressed in this light and for me it was just like, ‘Of course!’ You don’t have to go to the street and scream, there’s all these ways people can participate in a social movement and as an active form of resistance – yet we don’t record those instances because they don’t make the newspaper. To think about how to resist can cost you your life. If we look at the Chicana/o movement, it could cost you your job, your livelihood, you can’t feed your family or yourself, the shame the guilt of not being able to provide and all the ways masculinity played out in the 1960s and 1970s.

SW: The case studies you provide are examples of resistance, struggle of great achievement – and Reyes is a great example of this; an amazing example of achievement in terms of workers rights in the canneries and women’s rights in the canneries. But his life falls apart. And each case study has an aspect of failure, it doesn’t match any heroic example of activism, it shows it warts and all. Another aspect of the book is you add a feminist angle, to what has been a traditionally male-dominated historical narrative – you talk about Chicanismo as essentially a sexist political philosophy. What role did gender play in community organising?

LM: Yes, as a Chicana feminist one of my major goals was to highlight women and that’s always very difficult to do when relying on archival research. Graciela Ramirez and Laura Llano are two women who I highlight in terms of understanding activism and the role of women in the Chicano movement – and when I talked to them they really downplayed their importance, significance, their impact. And I often tell my students someone could often say, well I was just a helper, I would just show up and as a scholar you could say, ‘Oh, they’re not important that’s what they told me’ and leave it there. Or you could say, ‘Hmm, why are these women who are at every event, everyone knows who they are, they’re clearly activists, why is it that they’re not using the terminology?’ and then you could break that down. I’m not the first one to talk about activism and leadership, I talk about the work of Dolores Delgado Bernal and how she reinterprets leadership and I think we need to do that with a lot of terms like activism, leaders, because if you don’t reconfigure those terms you’re going to leave out women all the time. Because they were not the public speakers, they were relegated to these inferior positions in the movement, yet they did all the work. Even if you think about the farm workers when they arrived in Sacramento, they were housed by other farm worker families. They were fed, who fed them? That’s a lot of labor. But we don’t talk about that kind of labor. It’s not something we would consider being a part of a social movement, but of course these women were working and so we need to acknowledge them.

SW: I want to talk about the Washington barrio school and the desegregation fight there. Why would Mexican American parents oppose desegregation in this case? What role did this school have in the Mexican American community in Sacramento?

LM: I think that Washington Elementary absolutely played a significant role in the Washington barrio. It not only offered education K-6 to the children of the barrio but after school it offered ESL courses to the parents, the parents were very much a part of the school, there were Spanish language staff who could help them. It was probably the most significant part of that barrio. The teachers had a cultural sensibility and that made a huge difference.

SW: So from the portrait that you paint you can understand why parents would oppose desegregation and the closure of the school. You seem suggest that some of the Mexican American leaders who wanted to close the school and fought against these parents, were possibly well motivated but also influenced by ideas of white superiority and assimilation. Is that right?

LM: I think that Mexican American leaders, stretching back to the 1930s, believed that the way to move ahead economically was to assimilate. And the way to assimilate was not to combine but eliminate one culture and start anew. There was this idea that just by being around whites that somehow you’re going to be smarter – and again, it was always one way, it was never that white kids might benefit from being around Mexican kids. And busing was one way. Parents were like, ‘Why are we having to bus our kids, why aren’t you busing them into our neighborhood?’ And right now, segregation is so far out of control in the US. Desegregation would be completely and utterly impossible in the US today. So why not do what the parents had said in the Washington barrio school in the 1960s. Why not give us the resources? Why don’t you improve our children’s education and curriculum rather than removing the children? And it’s not about advocating for segregation – it’s this idea that the system is so unfair and unequal because of housing in this country that desegregation would be completely impossible now.

SW: I want to ask about the canneries. Canneries in California were obviously a highly exploitative environment. Could you explain how the Cannery Workers Committee forms, what are the groups aims, what do they achieve?

LM: Right. So there is a union that is supposed to represent workers and it is part of the larger Teamsters union, who have largely been a racist union, an anti-Mexican union as we see in the canneries, anti-African American, anti-women. They have suppressed these workers, they’re in cahoots with employers. And we’re not talking about subtle racism, the systemic racism that has gone on for decades for generations in the canneries continues to go unchecked because they are the almighty powers and here are these workers that are dispensable. So racism is alive and well in the canneries and here comes someone who is very fluent in English, Ruben Reyes, who is educated in the US in Arizona and he comes to Sacramento thinking that he is escaping the racism of Arizona and it is more stark and more in his face. He is very much a person of this era, he identifies as Chicano, he understands the Chicano movement and so he says ‘Let’s form our own union’ and they do and nobody takes them seriously but they gain momentum and the timing is right because they are in the middle of a social movement, the Chicano movement is alive and well in Sacramento and they gain all these momentum and he sues his cannery on the basis of race, discrimination against Mexican Americans and he wins – this had never happened before. Then you have other Cannery Workers Committees being formed in San Jose, King City, Modesto, all over Northern California and it’s coming from Sacramento. For me, this is a very telling moment. That tells me that folks are connecting to the Chicano movement, they’re part of the Chicano movement – yet I don’t know of many studies that look at canneries during this time period. If you say the Chicano movement is a working-class movement, well, here are the workers, and we haven’t done any studies of them. How are those people interpreting the Chicano movement for themselves?  I call it a tool-box. They’re literally taking little bits and pieces and applying it to empower themselves. They get a newspaper going, do fundraisers, they sell bumper stickers just like the UFW [United Farm Workers] did, they’re connecting themselves to the causes in Cuba and they’re using Che Guevara and Emilio Zapata and all this iconography is trickling down into the newspaper – so how could you say this isn’t a part of the Chicano movement? It’s right there. It’s the movement coming alive.

SW: Thank you so much.

LM: Thank you – it was great to talk to you.