Tuesday, November 11, 2020 marks one of the saddest days of my life. On this day, we—the Mexican people on both sides of la frontera and our allies—lost a legend: the one and only, Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (JGQ).
We lost one of the greatest intellectuals not only in the Americas, but also the world. The fact that JGQ was born a Mexican in el sur (Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico) and died a proud Mexican/Chicano in el norte (Los Angeles, California) in a time when the Mexican continues to be otherized, marginalized and pejoratized serves as a grim reminder of this great loss for la raza.
For over 50 years, JGQ dedicated his life to uplift the people of the sun through his superior scholarship, dedicated mentorship, political actions and eloquent words. While his contributions are many, for the sake of space, here go a few: wrote classic books and articles on Chicana/o history, labor, politics and culture; helped establish the theoretical foundations of Chicana and Chicano studies, along with the living legend, Rodolfo “Rudy” Acuña, whom JGQ fondly admired; taught and mentored thousands of students who became leaders in their own right; supported and participated in countless political actions for social, economic and racial justice; lead co-author of El Plan de Santa Bárbara: A Chicano Plan for Higher Education; co-founded UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC); co-founded CSRC’s Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; NACCS (National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies) Scholar Recipient, 1990; and wrote eloquent prose—something that escapes most academics.
Did I mention that he also wrote beautiful poetry?
“My father’s land / is crossed / ribbon like / by stone fences / the wither in the sun / White stones that glisten in the sun, / Stones that ballast a sea of brown hills. / My father whip laid them, / My mother’s tribe fed them.”
—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, 5th and GRANDE VISTA (Poems, 1960-1973), Colección Mensaje, New York, 1973, p. 61.
One word: brilliant!
Like in the case of another brilliant Mexican in el norte, Gloria Anzaldúa, JGQ provided us with a powerful voice against a racist American system that has attempted (and failed!) to erase our history. JGQ took the ashes of our once burnt history by the European colonists (and their inheritors) and created scholarly books, peer-reviewed articles, essays and eloquent poems in elite spaces limited to the best and the brightest Western Civilization has to offer. He has done so—and continues to do so—through his publications, speeches and memories without succumbing to fear or forgetting where he came from.
Dr. Álvaro Huerta and Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (circa 2015).
As I reflect on JGQ, there are no words that I can conjure to heal the immense pain that I’m feeling. I cried when I first heard the terrible news on Tuesday morning and have been struggling to maintain my East Los Angeles composure ever since. I think I lost my street cred! I’m sad because I won’t be getting random calls from JGQ at odd hours when he has something on his mind. I’m sad because I won’t be receiving mail packets of his latest manuscripts for me to review or help get published.
“No worries, Juan, I’ll make sure that the last two manuscripts you sent me will see the light of day!”
Given all that he has done for me, I’ve always heeded his friendly and warm requests. That’s what familia is all about.
I first met JGQ in 1985, when I started UCLA as a freshman, majoring in mathematics, from East Los Angeles—a place where JGQ also hails from. I must say that I was originally shocked to see a Chicano professor at an elite university. Since most of my K-12 teachers were White, I never knew that Chicana/o professors even existed. I was equally shocked when JGQ assigned us books written by brown scholars. Many moons later, I’m following the example of the great Chicana and Chicano authors that I read in JGQ’s classes, especially his fine works.
Speaking of historians, I’ve always wondered why history professors assign at least 5-6 books—300+ pages per book without pictures!—to read in a quarter or semester? I only read one book—John Steinbeck’s The Pearl—throughout my dysfunctional K-12 education! While JGQ practiced this norm, he made it clear to us that the study of history represents a serious subject. When he walked around North Campus at UCLA, he was always carrying several books on one hand and numerous student papers to grade on his other hand.
Constantly thinking, reading and writing, he was oblivious and impervious of his surroundings. One day, for instance, while taking a small seminar on historiography with JGQ, I, along with my classmates, waited for him to teach and lead us in discussion/dialogue for about 30 minutes after class started. We then formed a posse to rescue him from his office, where we found him in a deep state of writing.
As I’ve said before, while JGQ was stoic, like my late Mexican father, once you scratched beneath the surface, he was a sweet and caring teddy bear. That said, during my initial encounters with JGQ, I was intimidated. Over 30 years later, I can still recall knocking on his office door on the 6th floor of Bunche Hall, where he would gruffly say, “Yes!” My response? “Hello, Mr. Quiñones…I mean, Professor Quiñones, I want to talk to you about my paper. I’ve never written a 10-page paper and don’t know how to start. Heck, I’ve only written one 2-page paper, triple spaced, in my entire life!”
Once I got to know him, I learned to announce myself. “Hello, Quiñones, this is Álvaro. I need to ask you some questions about the readings.” Often, I would go with my fellow student activists or MEChistas, where we minored in “JGQ Studies,” just to hang out and talk about politics or sports. He wasn’t fond of small talk or chisme. Also, he rarely talked about himself or how he grew up, especially as one of the first Chicanas/os to pursue higher education when he first entered the university. He never took credit for all of his accomplishments. Instead, he would always credit the collective efforts of the committed educators, youth, activists and other agents of social change throughout the Chicana/o movement and beyond.
In terms of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) at UCLA during the mid-1980s, whenever we organized a protest on campus or in the community, we could always count on JGQ for his unconditional support. For example, when we organized a hunger strike at UCLA—one of the first, if not the first at UCLA and at any UC campus—in defense of undocumented immigrants (November 11-19, 1987), we knew that JGQ had our back. When we didn’t show up to class, he didn’t scold or hector us. He encouraged us, teaching us a key lesson that I pass on to my students and colleagues: knowledge comes from practice!
Later, when several of us, as former UCLA students, became community activists and organized Latino gardeners against the City of Los Angeles’s draconian leaf blower ban during the mid-1990s. (City penalties for Latino gardeners caught using a leaf blower? Misdemeanor charge, $1,000 fine and up to 6 months in jail). To challenge this racist law, we sought help from JGQ to lobby Council Members—like Mark Ridley Thomas, Jackie Goldberg and others—who voted for the ban on December 3, 1996.
On a more personal level, when I got married to Antonia Montes—fellow MEChista, educator, activist—in 1992, I invited JGQ. To my surprise, he showed up. Since then, we became homeboys (and later colleagues), where he counseled me throughout my graduate studies at UCLA (M.A.) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D.). He supported me without reservations when I was on the academic job market. Whenever I experienced racial micro-aggressions or academic hazing or pinche bullying by senior faculty, I never flinched since I knew that I could count on my academic homeboy, JGQ, like in the case of the late Dr. Leo Estrada.
In short, JGQ was/is my professor, mentor, homeboy, fellow activist and colleague. He taught me/us that we, as Chicanas and Chicanos, also have history—a proud history that must be taught in K-12, higher education and our communities.
“The point of learning about Indigenous past is not to relive past practices, or to propose one essentialization over another, or to be immobilized by history. The first stone to demolish the old presidio is our own consciousness.”
—Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Indigenous Quotient/Stalking Words: American Indian History as Future, Aztlan Libre Press, San Antonio, Texas, 2012, p. 39.
Left to Right: Adrián Álvarez, Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Antonia Montes, Álvaro Huerta, Ruben Lizardo and Leonor Lizardo; wedding of Antonia and Álvaro (March 28, 1992)
Despite our generational divide, we shared many similarities: Mexican roots; native sons of East Los Angeles; doctorates from the University of California; veteran activists; practitioners of respect and confianza (something absent in the academy); lovers of music (e.g., oldies), art (e.g., Mexican/Chicana/o art), food (anything Mexican), drink (e.g., mezcal), culture (our own) and sports (e.g., boxing); readers of poetry; educators and mentors; and, our defense of los de abajo, where he paved the road for me and countless others to emulate…
“Human issues can be resolved with humanistic solutions. Immigrants are not strangers; they are family.” --Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (Reframing the Latino Immigration Debate Towards a Humanistic Paradigm 2013, foreword, p. 14)
Moving forward, while I’ll humbly do my part to maintain and expand his shining legacy through my lectures, writings and musings, I only wish that I was able to tell him in person four magic words before his passing: “I love you, Juan!”
For sometime now, I have shared my thoughts during my visit to the Vietnam Memorial in 2006 as my way of honoring Memorial Day:
Reflections on the Wall
My first day in Washington D.C., in the heat of August, straight from the Museum of the American Indian, wearing my T-shirt picturing the Apache Gerónimo and his armed companions and reading, "Homeland Security, Fighting Terrorism since 1492," I walk down the Mall, skirt the obelisk of the Washington Monument, down the reflecting pool, past the white marble Greek temple of the Lincoln Monument, to the Viet-Nam Wall - a pilgrimage to the memorial to "my war," mine not because I fought in it, but because I fought against it - heart, mind, and soul. My intent, a kind of penance, like saying the rosary, is to start at one end to the other and read each and every one of the 58,245 names, imagining a face, an age, a history, a life. I know it will be hard, but do not think it impossible (not one of the five million names of the Vietnamese dead are even alluded to.) I start with one name, John H. Anderson Jr. (PFC, 19 years of age, dead May 25, 1968, I later look up in the log), then several, increasing exponentially. It becomes more and more difficult to focus, the faces, the figures of families, lovers, tourists reflected moving against the mirroring black granite Wall is a distraction, their chatter, at times their laughter, an intrusion upon my meditations. As the Wall grows longer, rises higher and higher toward the center, the names crowd upon each other, pile up high and tight, at times difficult to distinguish, I do not know if for the numbers, the height, for the glare of the sun, or for the tears welling in my eyes. The names, the letters blur, run together.
I begin to skim, to let my attention chance upon a name, a Smith, a Cohen, a Bankowski, an O'Mally, a Chan, certainly a González here and there - every European and many another culture represented by a name. How came they to be there, what history of need, what myth or dream of theirs, or of some recent or distant ancestor, brought them to be "American" and die in a war without sense or reason? After a time my reading becomes cursory, I occasionally stop, kneel to pick up and read a letter, a note of testimonial - of love, of remembrance - left at the foot of the Wall by some surviving wife, sweetheart, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, nephew, niece, friend. A flag here and there, a flower (mostly artificial, a few in soda bottles, wilting in the heat.)
My mind gradually becomes numb, at times almost hallucinatory, wonders -imagines seeing the name there of a moneyed coward with powerful political connections that now inhabits a white house not far away.
* * *
They say the dead live on for as long as they are remembered. How many of these names etched here are still remembered? A few people, holding scraps of paper against the black stone make rubbings. Most hurry by, the kids impatient to reach the end, the names picked there not interesting enough to hold their attention. The names.
Last year, Xochipilli, my men's ritual group, in collaboration with the 'Faces of the War Project,' created an Ofrenda to the Victims of War for the Días de los Muertos Community Celebration at the Oakland Museum of California. The ofrenda stood against the walls lined with the photographs and names of the U. S. soldiers dead in Iraq, the names, without the photographs, of Iraqi dead. The names, still fresh, living in recent memory. Another war, as senseless, as irredeemable as that of Viet-Nam. I am tired, my face wet with sweat and tears I do not bother to wipe away. Tourists look at me, respectfully keep their distance, look away. They sense that this, that of Viet-Nam, is my war; I do not know if my shirt gives them a clue as to why.
* * *
I reach the other end of the Wall, Jessie Charles Alba (Sgt., aged 20, dead May 25, 1968, the middle of the war.)
* * *
Retracing my way up the reflecting pool, I must climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial from which Marian Anderson once sang, from which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream. I stand before the colossal figure of Lincoln enthroned and read his words chiseled into the white marble to his right: " . . . a government of the people, for the people, by the people . . ." A pious hope devoutly to be wished.
Reflexiones sobre el Muro
Por Rafael Jesús González
El primer día en Washington D.C., en el calor de agosto, justo del Museo del Indio Americano, llevo mi camiseta con la imagen del apache Gerónimo y sus compañeros armados que lee, "Homeland Security, Luchando contra el Terrorismo desde 1492." Camino por la alameda, el Mall, rodeo el obelisco del monumento a Washington, sigo la alberca, paso el templo griego de mármol blanco del monumento a Lincoln, al Muro de Vietnam - peregrinaje al monumento a "mi guerra," mía no porque luché en ella, sino porque luché en oposición de ella - corazón, mente y alma. Mi intención, un tipo de penitencia, como decir el rosario, es empezar de una punta a la otra y leer cada uno y todos los 58, 245 nombres, imaginándome un rostro, una edad, una historia, una vida. Sé que será difícil, pero no lo creo imposible (ni siquiera se alude ni a uno de los cinco millones de nombres de los vietnamitas muertos.) Empiezo con un nombre, John H. Anderson Jr. (PFC, 19 años de edad, muerto el 25 de mayo 1968, más tarde busco en la lista), luego varios, aumentando exponentemente. Se me hace más y más difícil enfocarme, las caras, las figuras de familias, amantes, turistas reflejados moviéndose contra el espejo del Muro de granito negro es una distracción, su parloteo, a veces su risa, una intrusión en mis meditaciones. A grado que el Muro se hace más largo, se eleva más y más alto hacia el centro, los nombres se amontonan uno sobre el otro, se amontonan alto y apretado, a veces difíciles de distinguir, no sé si por la cantidad, la altura, el relumbre del sol o las lágrimas que me llenan los ojos. Los nombres, las letras se borran, se corren una contra la otra. Empiezo a pasar los nombres por en cima, dejar mi atención caer sobre un nombre u otro, un Smith, un Cohen, un Bankowski, un O'Mally, un Chan, indudablemente un González aquí y allá - toda cultura Europea y muchas otras representadas por un nombre. ¿Cómo llegaron a estar allí, que historia de necesidad, que mito o sueño suyo, o de algún antepasado reciente o lejano, los trajeron a ser "americano" y morir en una guerra sin sentido o razón?
Después de algún tiempo mi lectura se hace superficial, paro de vez en cuando, me arrodillo a levantar y leer una carta, una nota de testimonio - de amor, de recuerdo - depositada al pie del Muro por algún sobreviviente, esposa, novia, madre, padre, hij@, herman@, sobrin@, amig@. Una bandera aquí y allá, una flor (la mayoría artificiales, unas cuantas en botellas de refresco, marchitándose en el bochorno. La mente se me entume gradualmente, a veces casi halucinante, se desvía - imagina ver allí el nombre de un cobarde adinerado con conexiones políticas poderosas que ahora habita una casa blanca no lejos de aquí.
* * *
Dicen que los muertos viven mientras sean recordados. ¿Cuántos de los nombres aquí grabados son aun recordados? Algunas personas, poniendo trozos de papel contra la piedra negra hacen borradores. La mayoría se apresuran, los muchachos impacientes a llegar al final, los nombres cincelados allí no lo suficiente interesantes para captarles la atención. Los nombres.
El año pasado, Xochipilli, mi grupo de hombres dedicado a la ceremonia, en colaboración con el 'Proyecto Rostros de la Guerra', montó una ofrenda a las víctimas de la guerra para la Celebración Comunitaria del Día de Muertos en el Museo de California en Oakland. La ofrenda se montó contra las paredes cubiertas de las fotografías y nombres de los soldados estadounidenses muertos en Irak, los nombres, sin fotografías, de muertos Iraki. Los nombres, aun frescos, vivientes en la memoria reciente. Otra guerra, tan insensata, tan irredimible como la de Vietnam. Estoy cansado, la cara húmeda de sudor y llanto que no me preocupo de limpiar. Me miran los turistas, respetuosamente guardan la distancia, alejan la mirada. Sienten que esta, la de Vietnam, es mi guerra; no sé si mi camiseta les sugiera por que.
* * *
Llego al otro extremo del Muro, Jessie Charles Alba (Sgt., 20 años de edad, muerto el 25 de mayo 1968, a mediados de la guerra.)
* * *
Retrazando mis pasos a lo largo de la alberca, me siento obligado a subir los escalones del monumento a Lincoln desde los cuales Marian Anderson una vez cantó, desde los cuales Martin Luther King, Jr. habló de su sueño. Paro ante la figura colosal de Lincoln entronizado y leo sus palabras cinceladas en el mármol blanco a su derecha: ". . . un gobierno del pueblo, para el pueblo, del pueblo . . ." Esperanza pía devotamente anhelada.