I write this essay for my family, who taught me how to thrive under difficult conditions, and for my mentors, who supported me throughout my many years as a student. Most importantly, I write this in solidarity with those who are working toward their graduate degrees. After spending nearly all of my adult life working on my BA, MA, and PhD, I am finally on the other side as a professor with a tenure-track position. Although I have “made it,” I realize—as a first-generation college student, as a woman of color from the working class, and as a scholar who specializes in the artwork of US Latinxs and African Americans—that the struggle to succeed within academia continues because it is not yet an equitable place for those like me and the people I am committed to serving.
As I reflect on my journey through academia, my thoughts immediately go to those professors who positively impacted my life. While they dominate my memories, it is my experiences with gatekeepers, marginalization, and a lack of infrastructure for people of color and their cultural contributions that drive my efforts to improve the academic pathway for students and to advance the groundwork previously created by veteran artists, scholars, and curators. Indeed, concerted efforts for equity must be made in institutions of higher learning. For instance, while Latinx undergraduate enrollment increased from 1.4 million to 3 million students from 2000 to 2015, only 19 percent of Latinxs ages twenty-five to twenty-nine earned a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2016.1 In this same year, just 3 percent of full-time faculty were Latino and 2 percent were Latina.2 Academic statistics also paint a bleak picture for African American students and faculty. For Native Americans, the statistics are even worse.
In the field of Latinx art, academic inequities are magnified when focused on the few professors we do have.3 According to the most recent data, there are only thirty tenure-track professors, across disciplines, who specialize in the field—a stark contrast to the 126 tenure-track professors of Latin American art. Of the noted thirty professors, just nineteen of them are in departments with PhD programs.4 As a new assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University, I am now among this small cohort and merely one of six located in departments of art history with doctoral programs.5 None of these statistics begin to describe the intense weight of responsibility I feel for the field of study and my people.
Without a doubt, we must increase the number of professors who specialize in Latinx art. However, we must also increase the number of students who are exposed to the field and see it as a viable future. Since there are so few specialists, our fellow Americanists and Latin Americanists in tenure-track positions must recognize the vital role Latinx art plays within their fields and teach our history to the next generation of art professionals, graduate students, and patrons. While some Latin Americanists have taken up this charge, the phrase, “Latinx art is American art” has become increasingly used by my colleagues to assert the importance of Latinx art to, and its omission from, the US art canon. While the field of Latin American art is relevant to the lived experiences and training of some Latinx artists, it does not account for the vast majority who live, train, and work in the United States. In addition, not every Latinx is part of the Latin American diaspora. Thus, the phrase also highlights how Latinxs and their cultural contributions are continually othered in the United States, which undermines the field and the progress made to advance it.
Our collective efforts should also be aimed at university administrators, pressuring them to fund tenure-track professorships for Latinx art specialists already in the pipeline. Departments would benefit from having these scholars as faculty due to our unique cross-field and interdisciplinary training, which accounts for the racial and ethnic diversity of Latinx artists who also work across fields of study, including contemporary art, American art, Latin American art, and African diasporic art. Furthermore, because the majority of specialists are also Latinx, the perspectives and methodologies we bring to the classroom and in our scholarship are further refined by our lived experiences as people of color. This deepens the rigor of our research and the breadth of knowledge our students and colleagues acquire from us.
Clearly, to increase the professoriate, the field of Latinx art depends on cultivating allies and collective organization. The same is true to increase the recruitment and retention rates of students who will be trained to champion Latinx art across institutions. Only together can we repair the broken academic pipeline and further build systems of support for people of color.
Among Latinxs who pursue higher education, my credentials and tenure-track position make me a statistical outlier. However, to be clear I could have been driven out of academia before I had the chance to complete any of my degrees, let alone earn my professorship. From the high school counselor who tried to deter me, a good student, from applying to college to the art history professor who openly scoffed at my interest in graduate school, I am haunted by the numerous bright futures that they—these particular white women in positions of authority and other gatekeepers like them—succeeded in snuffing out. While the resilience my family instilled in me allowed me to push past naysayers too blinded by prejudice to recognize my potential, I would not have persisted in the long game of my educational pursuits without supportive professors. Three especially stand out: my undergraduate professors Alexandro Gradilla and Joanna Roche at California State University, Fullerton, and my graduate advisor, Cherise Smith, at the University of Texas at Austin. Their willingness to share their experiences coping with and overcoming obstacles in academia as first-generation college students, people of color, and/or women helped prepare me for my own career trajectory. They are also poignant reminders that academia does not have to be a bleak or hostile place, but can be and should be a place where empathy and generosity foster intellectual growth and rigor.
Like many of my Latinx art colleagues, I did not have professors who specialized in the field. Yet my mentors supported my intellectual curiosity when existing structures did not nurture it and they demonstrated the radical potential of higher education. It was in Gradilla’s introductory Chicano studies course where I first learned about the widespread impact of the transatlantic slave trade and the resounding legacy of the African diaspora across the Americas, including Mexico. As a Chicana who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, an area with large African American and Latinx populations, his class opened my eyes to the intertwined histories of these two groups beyond the conflict I so intimately knew. Furthermore, his class was the first time I could imagine how scholarship might foster cross-racial coalition and anti-racist agendas. I also quickly understood how this work might benefit my own Eurocentric discipline of art history. While Gradilla’s course sparked an interest in scholarship, Roche encouraged my research in the politics of race in visual art and suggested I begin this project independently, since CSUF did not offer relevant courses. Through our numerous conversations regarding my readings in the latest research and theory, she assured me that the subject was worthy of study and had value even if it was not widely recognized by my university or discipline.
Even more profound was the moment Professor Roche helped me realize how the pain I carried with me into academia could be channeled into a source of empowerment. As I prepared for graduate school applications, she reviewed a draft of my overly theoretical statement of purpose and asked what my personal stakes were for my scholarly pursuits in art history. She was the first professor to ask me this, and the first to whom I articulated my childhood experiences witnessing racial violence and death. I had recognized the ways in which images were used to reify xenophobia and antiblackness, yet I also found power in work made by artists who challenged stereotypes, bigotry, and white supremacy. Thus, my scholarly pursuit was a concerted effort to prevent acts of racism by researching and amplifying the voices of those who recognized how our lives are and have always been inextricably linked. Professor Roche encouraged me to be vulnerable by uncovering these stakes because, as she suggested, my lived experiences had more authority than the blanket of abstracted knowledge I thought I had to hide them under.
As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, through the many course offerings in the African diaspora and various topics on race across disciplines, I developed a broad intellectual community of students and professors committed to antiracist agendas and the decentering of Eurocentric canons. Still, I questioned if art history could ever truly free itself from its legacy of privileging the cultural contributions of white men. Since most of the courses I took on race were based in anthropology and ethnic studies, and my research seemed better understood and respected in these disciplines, I began to consider leaving art history. However, when an anthropologist encouraged me to “quit” my discipline for hers, I realized that I would be giving up before I had the chance to make a difference. I shared these concerns with Professor Cherise Smith, who suggested that scholarship and academic service within art history could be forms of activism.
Through Professor Smith’s mentorship, I observed how one could use the academic system to advance one’s intellectual pursuits and generate systemic change for members from historically marginalized communities. I saw this in her recruitment and advisement of students of color and those with interests in African American and Latinx art as well as other subjects on the margins of art history. In addition, I witnessed the behind-the-scenes work she did to fund students and create meaningful opportunities for their professional growth, along with the major institutional changes and acquisitions she fostered to regularize diversity. She even taught Latinx art when I asked. While it was not her area of specialization, she recognized the importance of teaching this history to our undergraduate population, and she recruited me to help her build a course on the parallel politics and exhibition histories of African American and Latinx artists. This course and the similar research we perform in our scholarly work are important because they demonstrate shared and interwoven experiences across race and ethnicity, which foster cross-cultural understandings and alliances.
Furthermore, Professor Smith went above and beyond any other mentor in my life by recognizing that I had a life beyond the classroom as a daughter, wife, and mother. She emphasized the importance of taking care of one’s physical and mental health, especially because the burdens of service weigh disproportionately on the shoulders of women of color. Without a doubt, this burden, which leads to burnout, must be lifted from the shoulders of women of color and resources redistributed to them to ensure that they have the time, space, and funds to conduct research, advance their fields of study, and gain the tenure and promotions they deserve. From Professor Smith I learned that being a true ally means using your resources, taking action, and taking care while understanding how these deeds reverberate beyond the confines of the university.
In 2015, at the end of a two-day scholarly session on Latinx art history at the annual conference of the College Art Association, panel organizer Adriana Zavala asked participants how we could continue conversations on the need for advocacy within the field. As someone trained to take action, I immediately proposed forming a professional organization. Working with several other colleagues, we cofounded the US Latinx Art Forum (USLAF) and gained 175 members in our first year. We also implemented data-collection initiatives to uncover and analyze the representation of Latinx art at major academic conferences and to track every doctoral student and university-based scholar specializing in the field across disciplines and throughout the nation.6 In 2016 we became an affiliated society with CAA and, two years later, we are a nonprofit organization. Today we have a membership of more than 360 artists, museum professionals, faculty, and even a few institutions. Our numbers suggest that the field of Latinx art is, in fact, not small at all, but our data confirms that academia remains a precarious pathway for those with stakes in the field. As USLAF marks its fourth year of advocacy, we enter with a strategic plan to activate our membership, foster collaboration, and make educational resources publicly available to reinforce the academic pipeline for Latinx art and to support those who have been, for years, operating beyond it.
My journey through academia has enabled me to see the necessary support systems and infrastructure that must be created and expanded for first-generation students, people of color, and marginalized fields of study. Together, we—particularly those with resources and tenure—must make promises to those who are struggling in academia and those for whom the academic pipeline has already failed. We can no longer afford to talk about diversity, equal opportunities, and inclusion. Instead we must act and champion equal outcomes for marginalized peoples that break down barriers and secure their futures within and outside academia. Furthermore, if art history is to become a more equitable discipline for people of color and their cultural contributions, colleagues and university administrators must break down these barriers with us. To do otherwise will ensure that the discipline becomes irrelevant.
During my first fall quarter as a professor at Stanford, I saw all that is at stake for me in academia represented in José Antonio Burciaga’s The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes (1987–89, Figure 1), the central tableau of an epic mural covering three walls of the dining room in the undergraduate residence hall of Casa Zapata.7 The reimagined scene replaces Christ and his apostles with a transnational, pan-ethnic, cross-racial array of political leaders, civil rights activists, and artists, including Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Martin Luther King Jr., Dolores Huerta, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Frida Kahlo, and Luis Valdez. Behind the seated figures stand additional Brown, black, Asian, and white leaders, activists, and artists as well as portraits of dining-hall workers who have served Casa Zapata residents.8 Together, the group represents the diverse generations of people who, as the dedication painted onto the tablecloth suggests, committed themselves to the betterment of “us”—that is, the students of Casa Zapata specifically, and the following generations of Chicanos more broadly. In a 1988 Los Angeles Times article Burciaga wrote about the mural, he attributed the origins of the dedication to a student who summed up his heroes as “all the people who died, scrubbed floors, wept and fought so that I could be here at Stanford.”9 While I stood in front of the mural, observing the heroes as they looked back at me, I recognized in their faces my family, mentors, and colleagues—all those who made it possible for me to be here at Stanford, too. Indeed, the figures also represent all those I stand for and all those I will fight for, siempre pa’lante, within and outside these walls.