Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine

Speak and you shall be heard

An oral history of Mexican Americans in San Jose

By Alicia K. Gonzales '09


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Family heritage: SCU lecturer Pancho Jiménez ’93 is the artist behind the cover image. And he’s Francisco Jiménez’s son.
There’s a story Sofia Mendoza tells about the day California Governor Ronald Reagan came to San Jose to meet with community organizers. At the time, Mendoza was a grassroots organizer for equal opportunity-education and farmworkers’ rights, and she had a few questions for the governor.

When it came her turn to speak at the meeting, Mendoza recalls, “I just sat right there and said, ‘I want to know why you’re taking men out of the prisons and putting them out in the fields to break the farmworkers’ strike.”

“What is your name?” Reagan asked.

“I asked you a question,” Mendoza said.

“What is your name?” he shouted.

The best was yet to come, as Mendoza tells it. “He was madder than heck. He had a pencil in his hand while I repeated my question over and over again….Finally, he took the pencil, snapped it, and threw it on the desk. I waited as part of it went flying. I stood up and I said calmly, ‘My name is Sofia Mendoza.’”

Reagan didn’t forget it.

In February 1967, members of the United Farm Workers, along with thousands of others, marched to the Capitol steps in Sacramento to oppose Reagan’s proposed imposition of tuition, coupled with budget cuts, for the University of California and the state’s publicly funded colleges. People were none too pleased when a staff member informed them the governor would not speak to them. But in fact Reagan did come out to address the crowd—though at that moment Mendoza was in the middle of her own address. She turned to Reagan and said, “You wait until I finish.”

She did finish, then strode past the governor.

“Hello, Sofia Mendoza,” he said.

Mendoza’s story—and her life history—is one of 14 found within Ethnic Community Builders: Mexican Americans in Search of Justice and Power—the Struggle for Citizenship Rights in San José, California. Edited by SCU’s Professor of Sociology Alma García, Fay Boyle Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Francisco Jiménez, and Professor Richard Garcia of California State University, Hayward, the book brings together in-depth interviews with Mexican American leaders in the South Bay. For this oral-history anthology, García and Jiménez also enlisted SCU students Amparo Cid ’06, Christina Dolores ’05, and Elisa Tejeda ’07 to help with archival research, interview questions, and general editing.

The life histories in this book cover a wide spectrum of styles and approaches to community activism, touching on education, the arts, leadership, politics, and religion. Here you’ll find Esther Medina, the former director of the Mexican American Community Services Agency (MACSA), who was awarded an SCU honorary doctorate for civil service in 1999; ABC Channel 7 News reporter Rigo Chacón, a recipient of the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award; and Deacon Sal Álvarez, founder of the Padres, an organization of Latino Catholic priests, and vice president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. The interviews not only highlight lifetime accomplishments but also address the discrimination, poverty, abuse of human rights, and failures in the educational system these individuals have faced.

García and Jiménez hope that a new generation will derive inspiration from the examples of these and other community builders for combating injustices and contributing to the common good.

“My hope is that people who read the book develop a deeper sense of empathy for those who struggle for social justice,” García says. To Jiménez, these social issues do not just affect Hispanics in San Jose, or even in California, but the collective, evolving story of this country.

“The Mexican American community, the Mexican American experience, is part of the American experience,” he says. “If we are to understand better who we are as a nation, if we are to grasp the essence of our national identity, when we say ‘America,’ we must learn about the experiences of all different peoples that make up our diverse society.”