“Not a single one of my all-white faculty ever suggested that I go on for a Ph.D., even though I was one of their better students,” Garcia said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
The lack of encouragement stuck with him but did not stop him.
Garcia went on to the University of California, San Diego, where he earned a doctorate in U.S., Latin American and Chicano history. He’s devoted his life to taking the long-invisible stories of Mexican Americans and weaving them into the fabric of U.S. history.
“Chicano history is U.S. history,” Garcia told Noozhawk.
In the past 50 years, no one has written more about Mexican American history than Garcia.
The longtime UCSB Chicano and Chicana history studies professor has documented the Mexican American civil rights struggles through the 1930s until the modern day.
It’s a history that was largely invisible before Garcia researched it and wrote about it, resulting in more than 20 single-authored books that tell the story of Mexican American contributions.
“It’s not that I am being asked to do it, but I need to do it,” Garcia told Noozhawk. “It’s part of who I am.”
Garcia is set to be honored and recognized this weekend at the sixth biannual Sal Castro Memorial Conference to discuss the Chicano movement and history of Mexican American civil rights struggles.
The second day of the conference will feature a special symposium on the work and legacy of Garcia, who retired in August after more than 40 years as a professor at UCSB.
The conference is scheduled from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the McCune Conference Room, 6020 HSSB.
Garcia will speak in a lecture titled, “Why I Write Chicano History.”
Much of Garcia’s work centers on telling the stories of Mexican American contributions that are not in history books — until he wrote them.
“Memories of Chicano History: The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona” tells the story of Corona, a man whose parents fought in the Mexican Revolution and who was an early labor organizer and fighter for economic justice.
He wrote “Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice,” about high school teacher Castro, who led the East Los Angeles High School walkouts in 1968 to protest inequities in the public school system.
His first book, “Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880 to 1920,” shares the stories of how Mexicans were discriminated against in Texas, as well as their early fights for equality.
Garcia said much of those stories and history would not be known if he had not written the books.
Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, a UCSB Chicano studies professor, said Garcia’s writing opened his eyes to pieces of history he didn’t know existed.
In the book “Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930-1960,” Armbruster-Sandoval learned about Josefina Fierro deBright, an activist who fought against discrimination in the Southwest after the Great Depression.
“I was mesmerized by the book,” Armbruster-Sandoval said. “No one had ever told me about that before.”
Garcia shared the stories of Mexican Americans that had not been told.
“He highlighted these little-known figures and began to insert Mexican America history into American history,” Armbruster-Sandoval said. “He developed this generational take on Mexican American perspectives in the United States.”
Garcia was born in El Paso to a Mexican father and American mother. He played basketball and football in school. On a trip to Del Rio, Texas, the night before a game, he attended a “teen canteen,” which were like discos for young people.
“I went to ask this Anglo girl to dance, and she looked at me and said, ‘I don’t dance with fellows like you,'” Garcia recalled. “I didn’t know how to react. That didn’t happen to me before. It was like a slap in the face.”
A few minutes later, it dawned on him that she meant Mexicans and Chicanos, and he realized he and his teammates were in an unsafe situation.
“So we got out there,” he said.
After receiving his degrees, he landed his first job as a history professor at San Jose State University. Eventually, the university asked him to teach a Chicano studies class.
Around this time, a generation of activists was emerging out of East Los Angeles.
“I wouldn’t be what I am, professionally speaking, without the Chicano movement,” Garcia said. “When I came to California in 1969, I was introduced to it — hot and heavy.”
Groups such as the Brown Berets participated in rallies and marches at the same time that there were national demonstrations related to the feminist movement and civil rights and Vietnam War protests.
“The movement created the opportunity for me to get that job as an instructor at San Jose State,” Garcia said. “In some ways, the work that I do in Chicano history is to give back to the movement. I have always felt indebted to the movement.”
He said very few Chicanos in the 1960s were in colleges, much less in graduate school, adding that he hopes his writings will inspire others.
“I want to use history as a way to help empower my students or those who read my work to give them a sense that Chicanos have had a long history, a rich history and a history of struggling for their rights,” Garcia said.
There’s much work still to be done, he said. Higher education is aware of the contributions of Mexican Americans, but the kindergarten-through-grade-12 system is still behind, Garcia said, adding that disparities still exist.
“We still have a very racialized, systemic system in this country that does not allow people of color, especially, to have as much mobility and advantages as others, so the struggle continues,” Garcia said. “That’s what inspires me, that the struggle continues, in different ways.”
The Chicano movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s fought to attain things such as political representation, but more work is needed, Garcia said.
“Not everything has changed because we have a lot more Chicano-Latino teachers, principals, vice principals, counselors, even people on school boards,” Garcia said. “Many of these problems still continue.”
What is needed are “change-makers,” he said — and a lot of patience. Castro, the man who led the walkout in east Los Angeles, once told him, “You have all these Chicano-Latino teachers, but the issue is how many of them are change-makers.”
They have to be able to take on their principals and school boards to avoid just buying into the status quo, he said.
Garcia said he remains optimistic because changes have occurred.
“By struggling, that’s how the changes take place,” Garcia said. “It’s not by wishing for them and accepting the status quo. You have to raise your voice.”