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IN MEMORIAM: Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Legendary Chicano Scholar, Activist and Poet

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Salomón Huerta, Dr. Juan Gómez Quiñones, Oil on canvas, 2018

 By  Álvaro Huerta, Ph.D.

 Anti-Mexicanism is a form of nativism practiced by colonialists and their inheritors.

Tuesday, November 11, 2020 marked 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 have not only lost one of the finest scholars and public intellectuals in the Americas but one whose academic tenure and scholarly contributions were among the foremost in the world.

The esteemed historian and writer was born a Mexican in el sur (Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico) and died a proud Mexican/Chicano in el norte (Los Angeles, California). That his passing occurred during a time when the Mexican continues to be otherized, marginalized and pejoratized serves as a sobering reminder of the staggering loss his death represents for la raza.

For over 50 years, JGQ dedicated his life to uplifting the people of the sun through his superior scholarship, dedicated mentorship, political action and eloquent words. While his contributions across several disciplines 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, alongside living icon 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-founder of the CSRC’s Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; NACCS (National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies) Scholar Recipient, 1990; renowned poet who also wrote stunning prose.

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
—Juan Gómez-Quiñones, 5th and Grande Vista: Poems, 1960-1973, 
Colección Mensaje, NY. 1973.

One word: brilliant! Professor Quiñones 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 and created scholarly books, peer-reviewed articles, essays and collections of verse for spaces only offering the best and the brightest Western Civilization offered. He did so through published work, speeches and memoir without succumbing to fear or forgetting where he came from.

Witness or, more particularly, the witness frames the process of social movements for change beyond a generational approach by emphasizing actors, motives, and actions… To witness means to know and to provide evidence.

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 had something on his mind. 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 did for me, I’ve always heeded his friendly and warm requests. That’s what familia is all about.

I first met JGQ in 1985, at UCLA as a freshman math major reared on L.A.’s East Side—where he hailed from himself. 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 Anglo, 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—200+ pages per book without pictures!—to read in a quarter or semester? I’d 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 was a serious undertaking. When he walked around North Campus at UCLA, he was rarely without several books under one arm and a sheaf of student papers for grading in the opposite hand.

Constantly thinking, reading and writing, he was often oblivious to his surroundings. One day, for instance, I and several cohorts enrolled in his small seminar course on historiography waited half-an-hour for JGQ to arrive and lead the class discussion. In his absence, we formed a posse to locate our favorite instructor, intent on rescuing him if need be. We found him in his office, where he was deeply engaged in a writing project.

As I've said before, while JGQ was stoic, like my late Mexican father, once you scratched beneath the surface, he revealed himself to be a sweet and caring teddy bear. Nonetheless, during my initial encounters with such a renowned scholar, I was intimidated. Over 30 years later, I still recall knocking on the door of his 6th floor office at Bunche Hall, to which he would always reply with a gruff, “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.” 

Dr. Álvaro Huerta (l.) with his mentor Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones (circa 2015).
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 went with fellow student activists or MEChistas. We joked about minoring in “JGQ Studies,” while simply hanging out to discuss politics or sports. He was never one for small talk or chisme. Unlike most academic giants, he rarely talked about himself or how he grew up.

While he was among the first wave of Chicanas/os to pursue post-secondary education, he never took credit for his extensive accomplishments. Instead, he credited the collective efforts of the committed educators, youth, activists and other agents of social change throughout the Chicana/o movement and beyond.

Concerning our involvement in MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlán) at UCLA during the mid-1980s, we could always count on JGQ for unconditional support whenever we organized a protest on campus or in the community. For example, when we initiated a hunger strike at UCLA—one of the first, if not the first at UCLA or any other UC campus state-wide—in solidarity with undocumented immigrants, we knew that JGQ had our back.

Though it meant foregoing class, he neither scolded us nor punitively deducted grade points. Instead, he encouraged us, imparting a fundamental lesson that I now pass on to my own students and colleagues: knowledge comes from practice.

Later, when several of us—all former UCLA students—organized Latino gardeners in Los Angeles against a leaf blower ban approved by the L.A. City Council in 1996 (an ordinance making leaf blower use a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail), we sought his help to lobby then Councilmembers—Mark Ridley-Thomas, Jackie Goldberg and others—who had voted in favor of the a posteriori racially discriminatory law.

On a personal note, and much to my surprise, when I invited JGQ to help celebrate my marriage to Antonia Montes—likewise a MEChista, educator, activist—in 1992, he showed up. From then on, we became homeboys and would soon become colleagues. Dr. Quiñones graciously counseled me during graduate studies at UCLA and UC Berkeley. He endorsed me without reservation when I entered the job market and sought work as a university educator.  Whenever I experienced racial micro-aggressions, academic hazing or pinche bullying, I never flinched because I knew that I could count on my academic homie, JGQ. 

Juan was and will always be my professor, mentor, homeboy, activist ally and colega. He taught us that, as Chicanas and Chicanos, we too had a history—a proud history that merited more than cursory inclusion public school and college curriculums.   

The point of learning about Indigenous past is not to… be immobilized by history. …[but] to demolish the old presidio.
Juan Gómez-Quiñones. Indigenous Quotient/Stalking Words: American Indian History as Future,  Aztlan Libre Press, San Antonio, TX. 2012.

Despite our generational divide, we had much in common: Mexican roots; native sons of L.A.’s storied East Side; doctoral degrees from the University of California; political activism; a commitment to notions of respect and confianza (some-thing absent in the academy); musical tastes (oldies); art (Chicano); food (anything Mexican); fermented libations (mezcal); sports (boxing); poetry aficionados; educators as well as mentored; and defenders of the otherized, racialized and pejoratized…

Human issues can be resolved with humanistic solutions. Immigrants are not strangers; they are family. 
—“Foreword” by Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Reframingthe Latino Immigration Debate: Towards a Humanistic Paradigm by Álvaro Huerta, San Diego State University Press, CA. 2013.

Moving forward, l’ll humbly do my part to maintain and expand his legacy through my own lectures, writing and musings, etc., I only wish that I’d been able to tell him in person four magic words before his passing: “I love you, Juan!”

¡Viva JGQ!

Dr. Álvaro Huerta is an Associate Professor in Urban & Regional Planning and Ethnic & Women’s Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a featured Brooklyn & Boyle columnist.

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Brooklyn & Boyle is a print and online magazine dedicated to Art & Life in Boyle Heights and Beyond. The publication features Brooklyn & Boyle stories from the Greater Eastside LA arts scene, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East LA, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, South Pasadena, Cypress Park, Arroyo Seco, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock, places every bit as creative and cultured as one another while aware and active in support of authentic arts and creative projects which support community integrity and respect for the history and heritage of the many Eastside neighborhoods.

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