This May, Professor Jose Angel Gutierrez (Political Science) will retire after 22 years at UT Arlington. A Chicano activist and community organizer during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, Gutierrez has organized several state and national groups over the past six decades and has brought a wealth of knowledge and experience into the classroom. Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Gutierrez to discover how much has changed since those early days, and how much is still left undone.
Q: You came to UT Arlington from UT Dallas in 1992. How much have the students changed over the past several decades?
A: The diversity in the classroom has changed a great deal. There’s a huge number of females in the classroom now. They were a minority group when I started. There’s also a large number of international students, which can be challenging, but they study a lot. Sometimes their performance makes the domestic students appear smug, like they don’t have to study. But I like to push the envelope and challenge my students, to push them to greater levels of thinking and concept-building. There is also a lot more racial diversity at UTA these days; more Asian students, more Hispanic students, more black students. I try to cater to them as well and change my orientation to lessons on women, on blacks, on Mexicans in every class I teach.
Q: What was your approach to teaching?
A: I try to make the class exciting for my students. I have a simple philosophy: I don’t think students can’t learn; I think teachers can’t teach. So I work at it, to maintain their attention for 50 minutes or 90 minutes. I’ll do just about anything to keep that attention and help them follow what I’m presenting. Back then, lessons were mostly verbal with some handouts. Now, it’s all PowerPoints and less arguments and discussion. The technology has changed how we present the information. But my approach has been basically the same: keep them engaged through the stories we share.
Whenever we talk about the Chicano civil rights movement and the leaders, I’ll say, “well, I was there, I was involved.” I went to those meetings with black leaders before (Dr. Martin Luther) King was killed. So I can talk with my students about my firsthand knowledge of the issues among those groups. The storytelling can be a very useful learning tool.
Q: You were born in 1944 and lived much of your childhood in Crystal City, Texas, southwest of San Antonio. What was life like during that time?
A: Growing up there was terrible until I realized I could do something about it. I took over the school board, the city council, and the county, created a political party and changed South Texas. The civil rights movement I was involved in was the desegregation of schools in Crystal City. It was Mexican and white. Brown and white, not black and white. I wasn’t able to go to a local college. I had to go to Kingsville, the only four-year school reachable geographically, money-wise, etc. So there were those battles, as well as the battle for political power. I was a part of all that when I first graduated high school and started at community college. When I came back seven years later, I replicated that movement and got involved in all aspects down there.
Q: Bridging an educational gap is part of what prompted you to begin the “Tejano Voices” series in 1996. How did you approach that work and research?
A: I think my main contribution to UTA is a large collection of oral history interviews in the library. There are about 225 interviews, mostly Mexican Americans, a handful of Anglos and about 15 African-Americans. These were public figures in political science. I wanted to know about their paths to power. We talked about their biography, their early childhood and education, their best moments and worst moments. In most of those, I tried to do some quantitative work by looking at the most effective leader, most effective issue, and such. Some of the interviews have been used to make books, and I used several for one book, Chicanas in Charge: Texas Women in the Public Arena (Rowman Altamira, 2007). Oxford Press is interested in a sequel on men and leadership, but I don’t know if I’ll get to it right away.
Educating my students and showcasing the contributions of Mexican Americans is part of the reason I wanted to get all those interviews. But the tragedy is they’re all on VHS tapes and the library hasn’t digitized them yet. So most students don’t know they’re there. They can look at the transcripts and hear the recordings, but they miss the visual that comes with listening to the audio and seeing the personalities come across the screen.
Q: Was elevating that group a central reason for organizing the Center for Mexican American Studies in 1994?
A: We wanted students to be able to study the history and heritage and contribution of people of Mexican ancestry. We can’t continue to vilify them as they do in the textbooks. Every kid sees a paragraph on the Alamo, and if you’re Mexican, you say, “I don’t want to be associated with them.” It makes them feel bad and leaves them defenseless. I think we deserve more than a paragraph and need a more balanced, nuanced perspective. That’s why I did the oral histories — to show the world what contributions have been made.
Q: In addition to teaching, you have a law degree and have spent time as a county judge and an executive in various state agencies. What will you do in retirement?
A: I’m not sure. I’m thinking about returning to lawyering and working with my law office. I may work on another book. I’m retiring from teaching but I don’t know what’s next.