This week I was called something I’ve never been called—a Chupacabra historian. I’ve been called many things in my life, good and bad, but never that. In the midst of a struggle whose outcome will profoundly affect people’s lives and after more than a year of threats to a once tight-knit community, our cynical Mayor is attempting to pit people against each other in what he hopes will be a historian “throw down.” It's all smoke and mirrors, an effort to distract us from the underhanded actions of a city government intent on enriching their wealthy friends.
At the invitation of the Mayor, self-labeled “grassroots historian” Fred Morales attacked my colleagues and I as “Chupacabra historians” during his presentation at City Council on November 14, 2017. He slandered us as plagiarists and in a written report to the Mayor and Council, committed libel by asserting that I coerced a resident to lie in order to stop the demolition of her home. The lies were outrageous and the incident drew immediate interest from the local media.
Our usually sour faced Mayor even smirked as he said the words. Historian thrown down. You can see it in this video by Jud Burgess below.
Despite our Mayor's glee at the potential "throw down" between historians, no throw down is imminent. I don't think the hashtag #HistorianThugLife exists. Sorry, Mayor.
The unsuccessful manipulation by the Mayor, while momentarily irritating, resulted in something worthwhile for me personally-- it has made me reflect on the concept of "chupacabra historians." As my partner Diana says, thank those who attack you because even those attacks are lessons.
Are there Chupacabra historians? Are there scholars who suck knowledge out of communities for their own benefit? Yes.
Communities have every right to question institutions of higher education and the scholars who work within them. Generations of scholars have entered communities of color, taken the people's knowledge/ stories/ data/ history, used them in academic work, taken credit, and not acknowledged their sources. Or even recognized that in our barrios there are grassroots scholars and theorists whose work is based on their lived experiences.
Communities have every right to demand that institutions of higher learning be accountable to them. Universities take millions of dollars of funding from donors who earn their wealth on the backs of the poor. Researchers accept government funding to invent new ways to police and control immigrant and POC communities. We can't ignore the power relations inherent in the relationship between institutions of higher education and vulnerable communities. We can't ignore the ways in which colleges and universities reinforce inequity.
There are chupacabras among us who suck the life out of communities and turn it into academic publications. There is a grain of truth to the anthropologist cartoon that shows a family hiding the modern-day technology as the anthropologists approach. Academia has a long history of untrustworthy intrusions into people's lives.
Where do scholars of conciencia fit? Each day I wake up and recognize that I am privileged to work with students in a community that I love. I have spent the better part of two decades mentoring students seeking graduate degrees. Like me, many of them are the first generation in their families to go to college or to seek a higher degree. I tell them about my parents who had a third and sixth grade education, who attended segregated "Mexican schools," and who supported my graduate education even though they didn't quite understand what I was doing.
I listen when my students tell me that they don't feel like they fit in academia. Figuring out where we belong can be a lifelong pursuit.
In my city, three percent of Mexican American women have a graduate degree of any kind. Less than 1% of doctoral degrees in the United States belong to Latinx scholars. I was the first Chicana to receive a PhD in History from the University of Arizona, an institution that had existed over a century at the time I graduated. The previous Chicana doctoral student had been pushed out of the program because of her radical politics. I was perhaps the thirtieth Chicana to get a PhD in history at all. We are rarities. This is not a source of pride, but for me, a source of anger that we have been excluded for so many years.
My first semester in my doctoral program at the University of Arizona, a full professor known for his work in ethnic history told me to drop out. I didn't have what it took to earn a PhD. He said my people didn't have a history so there was nothing for me to study. He called fellow students in my class on the phone and told them I was not a scholar; I was simply filiopietistic. I had to look up the word. When I looked it up, it said someone who has reverence for their ancestors. That part was true. But did that mean I wasn't also scholarly?
Students of color, working class students, women students often tell me they are afraid of being found out-- they fear that they are frauds, that they don't belong. The most brilliant among them feel inadequate. I understand that feeling well. I suffered from imposter syndrome even before I had heard of the term, coined by a psychologist in 1978. but let me be clear that we didn't create imposter syndrome. It serves the power structure well. If we are constantly in a state of fear and feeling like outsiders, it undermines our ability to create deep structural change. The fear is real. So is the need to find ways to nurture our own sense of confidence and belonging, both in academia and our communities.
The balance between academia and community is never simple for scholars of conciencia, the contra-chupacabras. Having spent years earning our degrees in order to serve our communities as scholars, academia simply pats us on the back for our service. In academia, "service" is least valued among our three responsibilities of research, teaching, and service. For scholars of conciencia, to be of service is why we worked for our degrees.
How do we navigate an educational system that reinforces inequity while working towards justice? How do we serve our communities when they may respect us as "la maestra" while perhaps viewing us as snobbish at the same time? After almost three decades in academia, I still struggle to find the balance, but I have hope. As contra-chupacabras, we nourish our communities rather than take from them. We welcome people in our community as fellow scholars who know more about their lives than we do. We ask how we can be of service to our comunidades rather than what we can take from them. We don't give voice; we listen.
No historian thrown down here.