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Professor raises visibility of history, identities

Deena González finds students eager to learn about race.

Deena González, who came to Gonzaga University in 2019 as provost, is now a senior university fellow and a professor of history, working to raise the visibility of Latina and Chicana (women), the largest ethnic minority in the U.S.

She is considered by the Sophia Smith Radcliffe/Harvard project to be one of the top 50 living women historians in the U.S. Deena also authored the first major, comprehensive reference work on Latino/as in the U.S. with an academic press, "The Oxford Encyclopedia on Latina/os in the United States," and authored a second reference work with Oxford University Press focusing on Latina/o politics, social movements and the law.

From 1991 to present, she promoted the field of Chicana Studies, first at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and then at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, both more racially and ethnically diverse communities than Spokane.

Because the Catholic Church is having more Latino/a and Chicano/a predominant membership churches Deena believes it is important for priests and other clergy to be aware of diverse communities and needs, and to carry on intercultural dialogue so they can interact with increasing diversity.

One issue in dealing with diversity across the U.S. is confusion about who is referred to by the terms Hispanic, Latino/a and Chicano/a.

Deena believes the distinctions are important to understand. Latino/a and Hispanic are terms that don't fit many people, she pointed out.

• "Chicano/a specifically refers to people of Mexican origin living in the U.S. It comes from the Spanish words, 'Mexica' or 'Mexicano.' It was used during the Civil Rights Movement and social justice efforts for farm workers," Deena said.

• "Hispanic implies people are of Spanish origin, but most people who identify as Hispanic in the U.S. are mixed race and indigenous," she clarified.

• "Latino/a is not an ethnicity, but an artificial umbrella for people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and any of the 31 countries of Central and South America," she explained.

Deena believes most people prefer to operate in a space they claim and find empowerment with a positive identity they create for themselves.

"Now there is the piece of adjusting for sexuality, using Chicanx and Latinx for those not wanting to be identified by gender," she added.

"With the Spanish language, which is heavily patriarchal and gendered, gender identity and designations become complex," she said.

"Chicano/a is a scholarly field of study that started in the late 1970s in Northern California. Three universities have doctoral programs in Chicano/a Studies," she said.

After teaching Chicano/a Studies, in 1981 she co-founded Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social (Women Active in Letters and Social Change), that offered summer seminars. Women professors went to the University of California Davis or Berkeley to present papers. It led to The Journal of Latina and Chicana Studies that includes works by Indigenous women. For five years, it was published at LMU. Now it is published at New Mexico State University.

The organization and publications have spread interest in Chicana Studies to bring out Chicana voices and Chicana history, said Deena, noting that when she began graduate school in Berkeley, there were only five Latinas with doctoral degrees in history.

Now there are 108 historians in Chicana Studies and there is a 21-volume book series, "Chicana Matters," published by the University of Texas Press that Deena and Antonia Castaneda edited. It provides opportunities for Chicana professors to publish. 

These organizations and publications have raised awareness of Chicanas, who were once an invisible minority.

Hispanics, Latino/as and Chicano/as are now an influential constituency in the U.S.—nearly 20 percent of the population, with 60 percent of Mexican origin.

The invisibility and underemployment of Latina and Chicana (women) has been countered with hundreds of books and novels, in contrast with four books on Chicanas in 1987.

Coming to Gonzaga after 18 years teaching Chicano/a Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Deena appreciates working not only at a faith-based university but particularly at a Jesuit university.

"Gonzaga has a tradition of bringing in first-generation working class and lower-middle class students seeking higher education in a Catholic setting," Deena said. 

"Students are eager to learn new realities of race and culture. They are surprised to know that half a million Mexicans were deported from California after the Great Depression. They were rounded up and put on trains," she said. "Why do students not know that? There is much work to be done.

"Students are eager to learn and change the world. Many are worried about financial security and the future, so they are interested in practical majors like business," she said. "Because the core curriculum exposes them to a variety of options, they find what ignites their interest and what they are good at doing.

"In a post-Covid environment, our students do not shy away from difficult questions because they have participated in 'productive discomfort' dialogues. Covid has taught us that we can work through a crisis with resilience and emerge cognizant of our mission and values," she said, noting that through spiritual exercises considering economic, racial and social injustice, "students are learning to view the world through the eyes of others.

"The purpose of a Jesuit education is to explore. Students leave well prepared," said Deena, who earned a bachelor's degree in 1974 at New Mexico State University, a master's in 1976 and doctorate in 1985 in history at the University of California Berkeley.

She began teaching ethnic and Latin American Studies at Berkeley before teaching history and Chicano Studies at Pomona College from 1991 to 2001. Then she taught at the Chavez Center at the University of California Los Angeles. From 2009 to 2019, she was professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at LMU in Los Angeles and became a provost of faculty affairs before coming to Gonzaga.

"I grew up in New Mexico, the 14th generation of my family continuing to live there even after the southern U.S. border shifted south. I was raised with a deep interest in social and cultural history, loving my studies at New Mexico University in the archives with original research," she said.

At Pomona, she taught history and became more interested in Chicana/o Studies in an community with a large African American, Mexican American and Latino/a immigrant population, where she helped people apply for IDs, Social Security cards and citizenship, and to register to vote.

Seeking a faith-based university and community, she moved in 2001 to LMU and then Gonzaga, both Jesuit schools.

Growing up a family that was Catholic across the generations, many of Deena's relatives were priests and nuns.

Her family reflected the history of the area. In the 1890s her hometown, Loma Parda, changed to a European-American name, Garfield, so it could have a post office.

"My great-great-great-grandfather to the 10th generation back took out a land grant for a ranch near Albuquerque, where two generations of my family lived, grazing cattle and farming before moving to Loma Parda. My great-great-great-grandmother's family was from the mountain village of Placitas, renamed Monticello, where they were one of seven original families.

"It makes sense that I am drawn to stories about the longevity of Chicano/a families in that location," she said.

In 2010 to 2011, she took a sabbatical to work with an American Council on Education leadership training program, which was preparing diverse faculty for leadership roles. She returned to build diversity in the faculty, moving it from being predominantly European-American white males to be 40 percent faculty of color and from underrepresented groups.

The student population went from 25 percent Latino/a to 50 percent students of color, most whose parents had no college education, she said.

When the opportunity at Gonzaga opened, Deena was ready to serve at another Jesuit university.

"I value faith traditions in higher education, not only in promoting interfaith dialogue with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, other faiths and of no faith, but also in promoting dialogue on race/racism and on sex/sexism," said Deena.

Since coming to Gonzaga six months before COVID hit, she shifted from a provost role of working with faculty to working with special projects with Gonzaga's President and teaching a class in history.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November 2022