By Dr. Patricia M. Perea
Before the Feb. 24, 2015 meeting of the University of New Mexico’s faculty senate began, a moment of silence was held for Professor Emeritus of English, E.A. Mares, who had passed away on Jan. 30. Less than an hour later, the Chicana and Chicano Studies program at the University of New Mexico became a department. That the meeting began with an acknowledgement of Dr. Mares, a founder and longtime supporter of the field of Chicana and Chicano Studies in New Mexico, was apt in many ways. As I sat in the wood-paneled Roberts Room in Scholes Hall, the administrative heart of UNM, I thought of the years of hard work that had brought us to that moment.
The Chicana and Chicano Studies program at the UNM was established over 40 years ago. Since that time, it built relationships with faculty across the university. It also built close partnerships with other Chicana/o and Southwest-focused research and cultural centers on campus: Center for Regional Studies, Center for Southwest Research, El Centro de la Raza, and the Southwest Hispanic Research Institute. Many of the scholars who came through the program during those years also worked with these other programs and, as a result of the collaboration, produced scholarship that was rigorous and unique to the experience and history of New Mexico. Some of this work focused on topics such as: Spanish-language newspapers of New Mexico, labor strikes in New Mexican mines, environmental injustices of the U.S. military complex within New Mexico and legacies of New Mexico’s literary traditions.
Although the Chicana and Chicano Studies program could not grant degrees, it continuously provided the field with a collection of dynamic publications.
When I began as a Chicana and Chicano Studies teaching assistant at UNM in 2003, I quickly realized how critical our classes were to the student body of this Hispanic-serving flagship university. These classes filled with students who not only wanted to study Chicana/o culture and history; they also wanted to bring that knowledge into local communities and use it to facilitate change within structures that were often oppressive and damaging to our neighborhoods and schools. Many times, our program partnered (and continues to partner) with organizations such as La Plazita Institute, the Southwest Organizing Project and Young Women United.
Steadily, we grew.
On May 11, 2018, the Department of Chicana/o Studies was approved by the UNM Board of Regents to develop its graduate degree program. We are on the way to offering M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Chicana/o Studies. How did our program progress from departmentalization to one that grants graduate degrees within just a few years?
The answer is it did not. Under the leadership of dedicated directors, it built a solid foundation. In the last seven years chair Dr. Irene Vásquez cultivated and implemented new ways of widening the department’s reach, making it more visible within New Mexico and in the United States at large. In collaboration with Albuquerque Public Schools and teachers at Albuquerque High School, Atrisco Heritage and Highland High School, the department began offering dual-credit classes. In this program students are able to take Chicana/o Studies classes at their high school and simultaneously earn college credit.
During the 2016-2017 academic year, Chicana and Chicano Studies began offering an online bachelor’s degree. This degree, the first in the nation, has been critical in accommodating students that might not otherwise be able to attend the university. Often these students have work or family schedules that prevent them from enrolling in classes offered only at particular times. Online classes allow students to work comfortably within their own schedules. Perhaps these students work graveyard shifts and can only do classwork in the early morning or late afternoon hours; perhaps they are at home caring for family members or are serving overseas. The reasons students might want to enroll in online degree programs are numerous. What is important is that the opportunity is there.
Because Dr. Vásquez and the Chicana/o Studies faculty have dedicated themselves to these programs and methods of outreach, enrollment is up over 300 percent. In a time when enrollment numbers university-wide are down, such an increase is remarkable. In addition, the department has developed courses specifically designed to respond to problems faced by New Mexican communities. Many address environmentally sustainable practices such as seed saving and water conservation. Entire classes are dedicated to the significance of acequias and New Mexican cultural landscapes. From these experiences, students often emerge determined to bring about solutions.
This was always the intention. Decades ago when faculty such as Dr. Mares were working to teach classes with Chicana and Chicano history or cultural production at the center, this was the goal—a department that would cultivate a communal whole.
Dr. Patricia Marie Perea is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her work focuses on contemporary Chicana and Chicano autobiography and memoir.