El Legado: A Look Back with Dr. Jerry Garcia

Dr. Jerry Garcia was born and raised in Quincy, Washington and is the son of Ruben Garcia de Leon and Gloria Torres. After serving three years in the U.S. Army, he went on to receive his BA and MA at Eastern Washington University and Ph.D. from Washington State University. He currently teaches at Northern Arizona University in the Ethnic Studies Program. Dr. Garcia has had academic appointments with Iowa State University, Michigan State University, and is the former Director of the Chicano Education Program and the College Assistance Migrant Program at Eastern Washington University.

Dr. Garcia’s research focus is on Chicano History, Latin American History, History of Mexico, Asians in the Americas, immigration, empire, masculinity, and race in the Americas.  Dr. Garcia has published 5 books and over 15 peer-reviewed articles. His forthcoming publications include, “Mexicans, Race, and Immigration: Historicizing the Postville, Iowa Raid of 2008”; and is working on a manuscript that examines the Chicano Movement in Washington State.

In 1998, Dr. Garcia participated as a member of the Advisory Council for the Northwest Folklife Festival, themed Norte Y Sur to center on Mexican American and Chicana/o voices.

Now, 20 years after that Festival, we continue to celebrate Mexican American and Chicana/o culture through our 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond. In honor of this year’s Cultural Focus, we have spoken to Dr. Garcia to hear his reflection on the 1998 Festival and how his legacy has continued over the past 20 years.

What was your experience of Norte y Sur in 1998?

It is hard to believe it has been twenty years since Norte y Sur! I was a graduate student at the time attending Washington State University.

When I look back at this event, I regard it as part of my overall training as a Chicanx and Latinx historian.

My contribution centered on the history of Chicanxs in Eastern Washington. My best memory is working with all the fine people on the committee. We did not always agree on everything, but we worked well together, and the result was a great celebration. My best memory of the program was the opening and seeing the general public’s interest in the Chicanx and Latinx experience in Washington State.

How do you think Mexican American and Chicana/o culture has changed, specifically within the last 20 years?

I would argue that the greatest change over the last twenty years has been demographics. Washington has seen a dramatic increase in the Chicanx population and is more evenly dispersed throughout the state. Due to this increase, Chicanx culture remains highly visible in the state, and just as important, are the various roles Chicanxs have throughout the state. Clearly more needs to be done, but I think we are moving in the right direction. I have family on both sides of the Cascades, which allows me to see the change over time and what I have seen is a critical mass of Chicanxs develop in both Eastern and Western Washington.

Building from the Norte y Sur in 1998, what legacy did you hope to leave behind for the next generation? 

As an educator, I have always discussed the importance of the resiliency of the Chicanx community in Washington. There have been many struggles in the last twenty years and beyond for the Chicanx community. For example, back in 1998 major labor organizing was occurring in the agriculture industry by the United Farm Workers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters seeking better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Simultaneously, housing for migrant labor was well below living standards.

All these issues were met by an outpouring of community mobilization and activism. The Chicanx community in Washington continues this type of activism in the present. One important consequence of the surge in the Chicanx population has been greater visibility of Chicanxs students on Washington campuses. Student activism continues its key role in this arena by actively recruiting students. This legacy of not succumbing to oppression or victimization is important for future generation to build a better future, but also to remember, reflect, and learn from past generational successes.

In what ways have you seen this legacy continue? 

This legacy continues on multiple fronts. One only needs to see the work of Rosalinda Guillen and Community to Community (C2C), a non-profit organization based out of Bellingham, WA that strives for food justice and sovereignty. C2C has been directly involved to ensure farm workers and people, in general, are treated with dignity and respect. The legacy of resiliency can also be seen in the current immigration rights struggle in Washington. The Chicanx and Latinx community in the state continue to fight for the rights of immigrants in the state. We are also beginning to see a critical mass of Latinxs being elected to various political positions throughout the state that hopefully will bring greater change.

What makes you proud of the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture and heritage?

When we examine the Chicanx culture in Washington or the Pacific Northwest, it continues to amaze me that the culture has remained alive and well so far from the U.S.-Mexican border. Yet, part of the answer to this is the continual renewal of the culture via the movement of immigrants to the state year-after-year. My own family is part of this heritage.

Knowing that my family, who arrived in Washington on my mother’s side as early as the 1930s-1940s and my father’s family in the 1950s, provided some of the early forms of Mexican culture to the region makes very proud. My book Mexicans in North Central Washington discusses the arrival of Mexicanos to the region and their contributions.

What advice would you give to the younger Mexican American and Chicana/o generation about preserving culture?

Do not forget your roots. Mexican and Chicanx culture has much to offer concerning a healthy outlook on life and a sense of well-being.

More important, especially to young people, culture is directly connected to your self-identity.

The various forms of culture I have discussed helped me understand not just my family, but who I am as Chicano. Once I understand the rich history that our culture comes from I stood a little taller.

What are your hopes for the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture in the next 20 years?

There is still much to be done and said. From a historian’s perspective, many of our stories have not been documented, only heard. It is my hope that more individuals get engaged with documenting the Chicanx presence in Washington and the Pacific Northwest. In fall 2018 the first Chicano/Latino Museum will open in Seattle. I am very excited about this because people from all walks of life and background can go to this museum and experience Chicanx and Latinx culture and history.

It is my hope that in the next twenty years we see Chicanxs and Latinxs leading change in the educational and political realms.

That the Chicanx community remains vibrant and engaged in building a better future for all in Washington. I have met many young Chicanxs and Latinxs, and I am very optimistic about the future!

To learn more about Northwest Folklife’s 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond: Mexican American and Chicana/o Roots in the Northwest, please visit our website.