'History tells us that it's possible to change society,' Albert Camarillo says

Al Camarillo

Al Camarillo

Equality, opportunity and public service are the social contracts in a democratic society that matter to American history Professor Al Camarillo.

"These are tangible concepts that, for me, bridge the personal with the academic," Camarillo told an audience gathered Feb. 15 in Memorial Church for the noontime discussion series "What Matters to Me and Why." "It's embedded in who I am to link these ideas of equality and opportunity with public service."

The Miriam and Peter Haas Centennial Professor in Public Service, Camarillo discussed his childhood in Compton, a working-class, racially divided community in south-central Los Angeles. He also talked about the influence of his family and how, as a first-generation Mexican American, he was a beneficiary of affirmative action policies emerging from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Drawing from his own experience, Camarillo said people must "give back" to help improve society—whether it's working at the grassroots or joining a larger movement.

"History tells us that it's possible to change society—if you have the will, commitment—it can be done," Camarillo said. "As a historian, I can tell you, social movements change societies. There was an antiwar movement that had a profound impact on stopping the war in Southeast Asia. [Antiwar activist] Cindy Sheehan has taken it upon herself to try to get other people to join her cause. More Americans need to do that."

Camarillo joined the Stanford faculty in 1975 after earning his doctorate from the University of California-Los Angeles. He is widely regarded as one of the founding scholars of the field of Mexican American history and Chicano studies. He has received the university's three highest teaching and service prizes: the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award, the Walter J. Gores Award and the Bing Teaching Fellowship Award. In 2005, he was awarded the Miriam Roland Prize for Volunteer Service.

The youngest of six children, Camarillo said he was deeply influenced by his eldest brother, the first person in his family to leave the barrio and attend college at the University of Southern California. Although his brother dropped out after a semester, the experience of knowing someone who got to college, coupled with encouragement from his parents who insisted that education equaled opportunity, prompted Camarillo stay in school. But that revelation did not happen overnight. Until sixth grade, he said, he was a terrible student. His first male teacher, who was an athlete, provided the role model the youngster needed. By eighth grade, Camarillo said he knew he was headed for college.

But his three best childhood friends were not as fortunate. They stayed in Compton and died from incidents related to drugs, gangs or alcohol. "None lived past 35," he said. Camarillo said he wasn't smarter than his "compañeros" but that his role models, plus new affirmative action programs in the 1960s, created opportunities for social and economic mobility. Although Stanford rejected Camarillo—his grades were too low—the young athlete was thrilled to get into UCLA, which was renowned for its basketball team. "I played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar," he said with a smile.

Camarillo and history Professor Clayborne Carson, who entered UCLA around the same time, were at the forefront of a wave that fundamentally changed the public university's ethnic makeup. In 1966, the year Camarillo entered as a freshman, there were only 44 Mexican Americans, 80 African Americans and 100 Asian Americans among a student body of 27,500.

"Affirmative action programs allowed universities to think outside the box," he said. "If you think about it, opportunity runs deep in the American psyche. But today [affirmative action] is somewhat maligned. I would argue it has to be at the forefront of all that we think about today in terms of equality."

Even Stanford, which Camarillo praised for creating a "phenomenal opportunity" for him as a scholar, can be criticized for not doing enough to support greater ethnic diversity. "We've done a fabulous job with undergraduates—probably better than any other institution across the country," he said. "But where it really matters in terms of the lifeblood of the institution—think of graduate students, faculty and staff—there's a problem. So we, too, are guilty of inequality as an institution."

In response, Camarillo urged those concerned with equality on campus to raise the issue at every opportunity. "If you don't say it, it's not going to be heard and it's not going to be listened to," he said. Diversity among the undergraduate student body happened only because many people pushed hard for it, he said. The same strategy can be applied to the rest of the university community. "We can't be silent," Camarillo said. "That's our challenge."