Stanford News

6/3/97

CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (415) 723-2558


History professor a founder of Chicano studies

When freshman Genevieve Aguilar first saw the name Albert Camarillo in a book about Chicano studies, she didn't make the connection.

By the third time she came across Camarillo's name in a textbook, it began to click. The scholar whose work was being cited was the unassuming guy who sat across the seminar table from her on Wednesday afternoons.

"I was like, 'Wow!'" the El Paso native says. "I couldn't believe I was taking a class with this person who other authors were saying was the most influential Chicano historian they'd ever read."

In his muted polo shirts and casual Dockers, Camarillo cuts a low-key profile for the holder of an endowed chair. As the Mellon Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, he is widely credited with training almost half of the university faculty currently teaching Chicano studies in the United States. But for many students, Camarillo is the teacher with the sunny office on the third floor of History Corner, where they can go to talk.

Family photos and brightly colored posters fill the room, and Camarillo puts a frazzled undergraduate at ease in a second with a dry quip.

"Nice background music," he says, above the clamor of jackhammers, to a student who has come to agonize about choosing a major and charting his entire future.

In the classroom, Camarillo passes up the lectern for a seat in the discussion circle. He often will begin by crossing his arms on his chest, tipping back in his chair and fixing each student with a twinkly gaze. Then, when he's good and ready, he'll toss out a topic that plumbs complex issues.

"I'm going to argue that language is the first and fundamental basis on which acculturation takes place, and I want you to talk to me about what constitutes genuine assimilation," he'll tell students in the course he co-teaches with historian George Fredrickson on "Introduction to Race and Ethnicity in the American Experience."

His class on "Topics in Mexican American History" attracts predominantly Mexican American students who bring illuminating personal stories to the discussion. On one recent afternoon, the history of agricultural workers in California's Imperial Valley found new definition with a young woman's account of how her grandparents had followed the seasonal stoop-labor force each year.

"I let them know there's room for that in the discussion, that they can illustrate with personal examples what we've been reading in the literature," Camarillo says. "You can tell that they're trying to make the connections between their own familial stories and the larger historical record."

Sometimes he will touch on his own experience in class. He has told students who feel estranged from campus activities that when he and his brother enrolled at the University of California-Los Angeles in the 1960s, they were two of only 44 Mexican Americans in a student body of 27,000.

"There was no room for me or for the people from which I arose," he says about his secondary school years. "There was no history for me. I was excluded."

Camarillo teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in modern U.S. history, with an emphasis on ethnic and racial minorities in 20th-century cities. He is a past director of the Chicano Fellows Program and the Stanford Center for Chicano Research, and currently serves as director of the new interdisciplinary Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) program.

As associate dean and director of undergraduate studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences in the early 1990s, Camarillo advocated putting students in small classes with senior faculty, and he was an energizing force behind the development of sophomore seminars. Today he constantly juggles his schedule to meet with students on their time, often packing in pizzas for Sunday evening get-togethers.

On June 15, at Stanford's 106th commencement ceremonies, Camarillo will be named a Bing Fellow, making him the first faculty member ever to receive three of the university's most distinguished awards. He previously was awarded the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for outstanding service to undergraduate education and the Walter J. Gores Award for excellence in teaching.

"Camarillo is one of Stanford's most valuable citizens," says Fredrickson, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor of U.S. History and current chair of the Organization of American Historians. "He has contributed more to this university than almost anyone I can think of."

But Camarillo tends to deflect questions about his work and prefers to talk about what he has learned from students in his 22 years at Stanford.

"They bring a dimension of engagement to the literature that makes teaching an absolute joy," he says. "One of the key reasons I'm in higher education is to help shape young minds and careers, but I wouldn't get any gratification if the teaching were secondary to the research. I really have to try to do both."

Issues of inclusion guide much of Camarillo's teaching, research and university service, according to those in his department who know him best.

"Al constantly works to make Stanford a place where people who haven't always had a place in the academy can thrive," says Karen Sawislak, an assistant professor of history and specialist in urban and labor history who is one of many junior faculty members Camarillo has mentored. "He has treated me much like he treats his students ­ with great care, concern and empathy. I don't think he has ever forgotten his own struggles to fit in and to succeed at this university."

Camarillo joined the Stanford faculty in 1975, after earning his doctorate at UCLA and holding faculty posts at Yale University and the University of California-Santa Barbara. He and his family were the first Resident Fellows in Murray House and they also have participated in the Stanford in Washington program.

His first book, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930, was published in 1979 and marked an important transition in the historiography of ethnic Mexican people in the United States. Previously, scholars had explained the apparent inability of Mexican immigrants to assimilate into American society either by focusing on alleged passiveness or clannishness in Mexican culture or by charging Anglos with racism. But Camarillo looked at internal political disagreements and cultural clashes between Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants and saw a more nuanced history.

"The ultimate significance of this more complicated and messy story was that it allowed readers to get a glimpse of just how intricate the process of conquest, ethnic formation, cultural maintenance and exchange and political struggle was for ethnic Mexicans in the 19th and early 20th centuries," says David Gutierrez, associate professor of history at the University of California-San Diego and co-director of the school's Southwest History Project. "The result was that Mexican American history took off as a field of study and other Americans got a sense, often for the first time, of the importance of ethnic Mexicans in the 'general' history of the United States."

In his research, Camarillo has examined the origins of the Chicano civil rights movement, as well as family, labor and immigration patterns in urbanized populations. He has studied the compacts between employers and school districts in California that permitted Chicano children to leave school to help their families with agricultural work, and he once spent 150 hours interviewing the owners of Spanish land grants who had lost their homes and lands to 20th-century gerrymandering.

Thanks to many of the contacts he has made, the Special Collections at Green Library now are considered one of the richest in Chicano/a primary sources in the United States.

"Al's been very much a participant in building and using the collections," says Margaret Kimball, head of Special Collections and university archivist. "He's put us in touch with people whose papers we've acquired, and he also attracts graduate students who are interested in using the collections."

In recent years Camarillo has examined the involvement of Latina women as labor and community organizers, focusing on Luisa Moreno and Josephine Fierro de Bright, who figured prominently in El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Español, the Congress of Spanish Speaking People, in the 1930s and '40s. Of his eight current doctoral students, seven are women involved in Chicana research, analyzing the roles of Mexican American women in labor, community and political organizations.

"His recognition of gender as a key fault line in the understanding of Chicano history has attracted female students who are seeking cognizance of the centrality of gender, and that of women in particular," says Alex Saragoza, professor of history at the University of California-Berekely. "Al has developed a reputation for his intellectual generosity and ability to provide a supportive climate for his students at Stanford, regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or intellectual view."

For his third book, which he has been working on for the past 10 years and hopes to finish by December, Camarillo is compiling a first-ever comparative history of the urban experiences of African Americans, Mexican Americans, European immigrant groups and Asian Americans. Not White, Not Black: Mexicans and Ethnic/Racial Borderlands in American Cities will look at patterns in a number of large metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Tucson, Los Angeles, El Paso and San Francisco.

"It started out originally as a history of Mexican Americans in cities in the Southwest, but bigger questions began unfolding for me and I wondered where that group fit into broader patterns of race and ethnicity in American society," Camarillo says. "I'm trying to ask, 'How does the African American adaptation to Atlanta or Chicago compare with what Italian Americans went through in Detroit?' And 'Does what happened to the Chinese in late 19th-century San Francisco have any bearing on the differences among Mexican Americans in early 20th-century Los Angeles?'"

As chair of the University Committee on Minority Issues in 1988-89, Camarillo oversaw 18 months of meetings and surveys of more than 1,000 students, as well as faculty and staff, to track the depth and underlying causes of racial and ethnic divisions at Stanford. When the committee issued its 244-page report, it found a curriculum "woefully underdeveloped as a vehicle to foster greater understanding" between students of varying ethnic backgrounds, and was critical of the university's record in hiring of minority faculty, noting that it "reveals a frustratingly slow and difficult process."

The findings of his committee's report were not couched in academic back-pedaling, and Camarillo has never flinched from taking visible positions as an activist historian. His name appears on a range of petitions signed by faculty over the past decade, including those that called for a visiting committee to examine the relationship between the university and the Hoover Institution in 1984, demanded the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Persian Gulf in 1991, charged the administration with monitoring the health of Chicano/a students on a hunger strike in 1994, and criticized the termination of Cecilia Burciaga as associate dean of student affairs that same year as "ineptly executed."

He also has been an outspoken supporter of affirmative action.

"As a student of race and ethnicity in American society, I know painfully well the long history of isolation, of separation and alienation," he told a capacity audience at Kresge Auditorium at a faculty-sponsored forum on affirmative action in October 1995. "I, for one, cannot tolerate, and I don't think American society in general can tolerate, returning to what I experienced as a young Chicano out of a South Central Los Angeles community."

Barrio is the word Camarillo often uses to describe the black and Chicano neighborhood in Compton, Calif., where he was born and reared. Although he was the youngest of six children, he was expected to work with his three older brothers on the construction projects their father found throughout the Los Angeles area.

"We dug the ditches and did all the dirty work," he says fondly, remembering the summers he spent learning the cement mason trade from his dad. "I can still drive up and down Venice Boulevard and La Cienaga and see his work."

Compton, however, had little to offer its black and Chicano youngsters but empty days, hot asphalt and much idle time.

"My friends and I were all headed toward gangs," Camarillo told Stanford magazine in 1994. "Of my three closest childhood friends, I'm the only one who survived. Had I stayed, I'd probably be dead."

But the family moved across town when Camarillo was 9 years old and he had a shot at better schools than those his five older brothers and sisters had attended.

Then came the riots of 1965 in neighboring Watts, followed by forced busing to end the segregated school system. Suddenly Camarillo was reunited with his friends from the old neighborhood.

"The black kids they were busing in to our high school were kids I'd grown up with," he says. "So I knew them, and of course I knew the Chicano kids, and I was friends with the white kids, too.

"I was in the middle and had experience with all of them, and I guess that's why I was identified as someone who could help to facilitate some interaction."

As student body president, Camarillo set up a mediating council to douse the smoldering racial tensions. The following year he enrolled at UCLA as a biology major, then bounced between sociology and political science courses. Finally, in his junior year, he took the first Mexican American history class that was offered at the university and knew he'd found his calling.

"That lit the intellectual fires," Camarillo recalls. "Ethnic civil rights movements were emerging full force and I was completely caught up in the field."

Since then, Camarillo and his wife, Susan, have made sure that their three children have the same exposure to diversity that they both found at UCLA. The kids attend public schools in Menlo Park, and Camarillo says he's been impressed by what he's seen in their classrooms.

"Jeff is learning multicultural history that is light years away from the way I was taught," Camarillo says of his oldest son, an 18-year-old senior at Menlo-Atherton High School. "He is engaged and sees himself as a player in the historical drama."

This year Jeff is one of 13 students from Menlo-Atherton who are teamed up with Stanford undergraduates enrolled in the "Poverty and Homelessness in America" course Camarillo teaches each winter and spring quarter. Together, the high school and university volunteers are piloting an after-school tutorial program for children in two local shelters for homeless families.

At a time when more than 15,000 parents and children are experiencing episodes of homelessness each year in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, shelters increasingly are moving out of inner cities into wary suburban neighborhoods. Camarillo got involved in 1984 when he read about the need for a homeless shelter in Menlo Park and saw how local authorities were trying to prevent its opening.

He collected $500 in donations from colleagues in the history department and began attending meetings of the shelter's advisory board. What he learned over the next few years about the fragile network of emergency services that was available to help homeless families prodded him to set up a new service-learning course.

"Al is a progressive educator who is committed to giving voice to people who have not had a voice in the past, whether it's in Chicano studies or in issues facing the poor and homeless," says Jocelyn Lee, a history teacher at Menlo-Atherton who is a graduate of Stanford's Teacher Education Program (STEP) and coordinates the high school tutors.

Camarillo spends 30 minutes interviewing each of the Stanford students who sign up for the course in winter quarter. Of the dozens who apply, he chooses 15 who promise to spend more than 10 hours each week, from January to June, working at the Santa Clara Family Living Center, Bill Wilson School, Haven House, Redwood Family House, Family Crossroads and other local shelters.

"I tell them up front, 'You're about to be engaged in a journey that's going to test you in many, many ways, and that's going to raise profound questions about disparities in our society that you've probably never encountered before,'" Camarillo says.

The students meet twice each week to review assigned readings and discuss their experiences in the shelters. They write literature-review essays and several internship reports, and also keep daily notes in their journals, recording what it's like to return to a comfortable dorm room at night and sorting out the contradictions between stereotypes of homeless people they read about and those they come to know as individuals.

During the past six years, Camarillo has collected more than 120 pages of single-spaced, typewritten entries from his students' journals that he hopes to publish for faculty and students at other universities who may want to establish similar programs.

The students' observations reflect frustrations as well as poignant moments.

"I don't know what difference I'm going to make, or how I can possibly measure it," one writes at the beginning of the course. "But somehow I'm going to do it."

Another young women notes, "I was elated, but completely exhausted. I try to convince myself that being there was really good for them, but it just doesn't seem like enough."

For one student, the challenge was almost too much: "I saw Alonzo crying incredibly hard. He was very upset about something. There simply is too much unhappiness in this place."

Several weeks after the tutoring program began this winter, Jeff Camarillo came home distraught one day. A young boy he had been tutoring at Menlo Park's Haven House had been picked up by Child Protective Services (CPS) and was being sent to a foster home because of suspected abuse by his father.

"It was devastating for the family and just as traumatic for our son," Camarillo says. "The experience made him think about some really tough ethical issues, like whether it's better for CPS to take kids away from their families or somehow let them live together.

"Those are hard questions for any of us, but they're especially hard for 18- or 19- or 20-year-olds who are seeing poverty for the first time, in its ugliest form."

To help his son and his students deal with troubling issues, Camarillo brings his wife to the opening class. A middle-school counselor with a degree in social work and training in mental health, she talks with the volunteer tutors, before they make their first visits to the shelters, about the problems associated with transience and the kinds of behavior they may see.

"These kids encounter enormous emotional, moral and ethical issues that can rock them to the core," Al Camarillo says. "Most of them have grown up with middle-class stability and they go in with a lot of trepidation, but it's interesting how quickly the fear subsides and they're consumed by the experience."

More than 90 percent of the students in Camarillo's class are women, and he does all that he can to encourage the hands-on doing of what he calls "public good."

"Al wants these kids to get a totally true sense of what poverty is like," says Barbara Warner, an educational services specialist with the alternative schools department of the Santa Clara County Office of Education who coordinates the tutorial program in the shelters. "Many of his students end up teaching or working in some capacity for children or for people who are not as well off, and this experience has helped them to decide."

In fact, several of Camarillo's former students are now doing graduate work in social services and public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. One graduate is Rep. Anna Eshoo's field representative for poverty and immigration issues, and another helps to run a coalition for homeless people in San Francisco.

"In my discipline, we don't just want to fill the heads of our students with history," Camarillo says. "We want them to be educated and trained to be fully engaged citizens of the nation.

"These are remarkable young people who are emerging as adults, and many of them will go out there and change the world."

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By Diane Manuel