Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Utpa Professor Helps an Entire Community Affirm Its Heritage

Magazine article The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

Utpa Professor Helps an Entire Community Affirm Its Heritage

Article excerpt

As a student in Miami, Stephanie Alvarez learned precious little about her rich Cuban culture. She never even read a book written by a Cuban -American author. "I thiuk we just went through the same old Shakespeare. Van Gogh, Michelangelo, My culture was never affirmed throughout my schooling. We all learned the Western European art forms," saw Alvarez.

Even while earning a Ph.D. in Spanish, she never encountered a book written by an American-born Latino author or learned that Latino Spanish was an important type of language. "1 learned that it was wrong and had to be corrected," says Alvarez. As she was completing her dissertation, she promised herself that the next generation of Hlspanics would have the opportunity to affirm their Hispanic heritage.

Alvarez makes good on that promise every day as an assistant professor of Spanish, director of Mexican-American studies, and director of Cosecha Voices (cosecha means harvest or vintage) at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA). Many of her students have toiled in sunbaked fields as migrant farmers and are descended from Mexican immigrants who (Ud the same. That is their heritage and dte heritage of many in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

In 2010, Alvarez took eight of her students to California as part of her Cosecha Voices program. They visited a number of colleges, sharing their stories about growing up as migrant farmworkers and the obstacles they encountered. They toured San Francisco's mission district and visited Disneyland. When they arrived back in Texas, she asked her students what they liked the best about the trip. The answer surprised her. Rather than saying Disneyland, as she expected, they said the colorful murals that grace die buildings in San Francisco's mission district. "They had never seen Cbicano art before," says Alvarez.

The following fall, as part of a unit on muralism for her Intro to Mexican American Studies class, she showed her students a documentary about the murals of Chicano Park. Located beneath the San Diego-Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan, Chicano Park is a predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican-immigrant community and home Lo the country's largest collection of outdoor murals. "1'hc MexicanAmerican community kind of took over [the park] because the city was trying to take that park away from them," says Alvarez.

Her students' response to the documentan' was intense. "I want to go there. We want to go there. ... We want a mural," her smdents called out as the classroom lights came back on after the documentan'. She told them if they really want a mural, then they have to organize and raise enough money.

Alvarez saw the opportunity for a teaching moment, not for her students alone but for all who toiled in the fields as migrant workers in the entire Rio Grande Valley. Soon after, she would set two goals thai would be instrumental in affirming the Hispanic heritage of those in die valley. First she sought to bring the Smithsonian exhibit called "Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964" to UTPA. But exhibits are fleeting. As a more permanent reminder of the community's history, she envisioned a mural commemorating the Braceros program.

The Braceros program was established in 1942 to fill labor shortages in agriculture and die railroads caused by World War II. Eventually, it became the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. Small farmers, large growers and iarm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico; Texas, Arkansas and 23 other states contracted with Mexican Rraceros to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times. By the time the program was canceled in 1964, an estimated 4.6 million contracts had been awarded.

"The history of the Rio Grande Valley is a history of farmworkers and a history of migrant farmworkers. To this day, it still has one of the largest concentrations of farmworkers in the entire country. The majority of onr students have worked in the fields or their parents have worked in the fields or their grandparents have worked in the fields," says Alvarez. …

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