Julian Samora


If there is a theme in the life of Julian Samora, it would have to be his life- long fight for social justice, for himself, for Mexican-Americans trying to make a living in the Midwest and Southwest, for Mexicans struggling to survive in the border regions of both countries, and for the multitudes of Spanish speaking people identified under the umbrella of Hispanic or Latino in the United States. The numbers of all these groups grew substantially during his forty-year career and he helped in remarkable ways to bring their struggles to light.

Faced with soul-numbing discrimination as a way of life, he was impassioned with anger, pride and determination to change the world he and his companeros occupied. “I think the thing that has gotten me going is discrimination. I tried to be equal to, and as good as, the Anglos. I wanted to make as much money, speak as well, and have all the goodies as the dominant society. But no matter what I did, I was always a ‘Mexican’.“

He was forced to repeat first grade without benefit of testing because Spanish was his first language. All Spanish-speaking kids were forced to repeat first grade presumably to gain sufficient skills in English to succeed in school. When he was cast as the lead in the high school play, Anglo cast members threatened to quit so the teacher deferred to them. When asked how he felt about that he said, “Oh, it hurt so much.” He ran for student body president his senior year in college and lost by one vote. His roommate had cast the deciding vote against him. Years later, Julian quoted his roommate as saying, “Well Julian, I couldn’t vote for a Mexican.”

When he traveled to Fort Collins, Colorado to interview for graduate school, he was turned away from lodging by signs that read “No Dogs, Indians or Mexicans Allowed.” He was finally admitted to a fifth-rate hotel by the owner who mistook him for a traveler from India.

His first goal was to leave Pagosa Springs, a tiny village in Southern Colorado where he was born March 1, 1920. Looking around at what opportunities there were, he knew he wanted an indoor job and indoor jobs required an education. All the Spanish-speaking men he knew were laborers. He had no one to model how to reach his goal as no one in his family had finished high school much less college. It was remarkable that he graduated high school. In 1938, along with 582 other Colorado students, Julian applied for the Frederick G. Bonfils Foundation scholarship, sponsored by the Bonfils family who owned the Denver Post. Julian was one of twenty-nine students that were selected, allowing him to go to Adams State Teacher’s College in Alamosa, Colorado where he graduated in 1942 with a degree in history and political science.

The summer after his sophomore year when he was 19 years old, his mother was ill with breast cancer. He cared for her until she died in July 1939, leaving him an orphan, to face his challenges alone.

In November of 1942, he married Betty Archuleta. She provided him with an extended family, became his most ardent cheerleader, raised their five children, created an open house atmosphere of hospitality wherever they lived, from the humble Quonset hut student housing in Madison, Wisconsin to the palatial house on Avenida Reforma in Mexico City, which was staffed with servants (much to their great embarrassment).

He received fellowships and tuition scholarships enabling him to obtain advanced degrees in 1947 from Colorado State University and in 1953 he earned a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology from Washington University, St. Louis, becoming the first Mexican-American to receive a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology in the United States.

His first post doctorate position was teaching in the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1955, a position for which his life-long colleague and friend, Lyle Saunders, recommended him. Dr. Samora was an assistant professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. Noticing that Anglo doctors did not understand or connect with their Mexican-American patients, Dr. Samora undertook a study on the medical delivery systems of Mexican-Americans in Colorado. The study and the resulting papers and presentations of his ideas in his classes helped develop the field of medical anthropology. Dr. Samora took his observations back to the classroom and through his lectures the medical students developed sensitivity toward their Spanish-speaking patients.He taught sociology and anthropology at Michigan State University for two years in 1957 and 1958. While in East Lansing he volunteered with the St. Vincent De Paul Society, as was his custom in every community in which he lived, getting to know the community of working class Mexican-Americans and helping to reduce their struggle in whatever way he could. Dr. Samora became a national figure in his field and helped found national organizations, but it needs to be noted that his area of concern was born from the personal and local.

In 1959 he was hired with tenure at the University of Notre Dame where he taught until his retirement in 1985. He launched himself headlong into research of Mexican-Americans in many settings and many areas of concern. Among them, rural populations in urban settings, medical delivery systems, educational status of youth and adults, movement of people along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and in the Midwest, rural poor, urban working class people and Mexican immigration.

During his career he served on the board of or was a consultant to the following: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, U.S. Public Health Service, Rosenberg Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Institute of Mental Health, Weatherhead Foundation, U.S. Human Resources Corporation, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., Bureau of Census, U.S. Department of Labor, National Science Foundation, WK Kellogg Foundation, Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission, National Upward Bound, President’s Commission on Rural Poverty, President’s Commission on Income Maintenance Program, Indiana Civil Rights Commission, Mexican-American Legal Defense & Education Fund, National Assessment of Educational Progress. National Advisory Committee to the Bureau of the Census, National Advisory Committee to Immigration and Citizenship Conference, National Advisory Committee to U.S.-Mexican Border Research Program, National Advisory Committee to Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Committee on Opportunities in Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Council on Foundations, University of Notre Dame Press and the Allocations Committee for United Way. He was co-founder, with Dr. Ernesto Galarza and Herman Gallegos, of the Southwest (now National) Council of La Raza, and was instrumental in the founding of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

His greatest accomplishment, he told an interviewer, was his Mexican-American Graduate Studies Program at Notre Dame, which was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1971. He served as mentor and trainer of at least fifty-seven students who went through the program from 1971 to 1985, most of them graduating with advanced degrees in law, political science, psychology, history, government, sociology and economics. These men and woman are his legacy of scholarship and the pursuit of social justice.

Julian Samora was a man with a remarkable sense of humor. To augment his scholarship money in college he would take in laundry, washing and ironing the shirts of the other men in his dorm. Betty remembered him as a snappy dresser. “That’s because,” he said, “I would wash and iron someone’s shirt, wear it, wash and iron it again, then give it back.”

Soon after they were married, they were living in San Luis, Colorado. As was the custom, someone gave them chickens for Sunday dinner, live chickens. Helplessly starring at the chickens Betty had sent him off to butcher, he saw his young sister-in-law, Ruth, at the clothesline. As she tells it, she spent the afternoon butchering and plucking the feathers from the chickens and he spent the afternoon washing and ironing the clothes.

He enjoyed playing handball with his sons and colleagues, sometimes getting off the plane and heading straight for the handball court with his sons before heading home to unpack.

His home in South Bend, Indiana included an acre of property. He grew New Mexico chiles, made wine (which usually turned into vinegar) from the grapes in the arbor, harvested tomatoes, corn and green beans that he helped Betty to put up for the winter. They hosted a Fall picnic for the graduate students and their families that served as an icebreaker for incoming students and a chance to eat “la comida Mexicana” for all the homesick students.

Samora retired from the University of Notre Dame in 1985. In 1989, Michigan State University founded the first major university research center named for a Latino, the Julian Samora Research Institute. Dr. Samora is quoted as saying, “As I told the gathering, it’s about time a major university established a research center for Latinos; that it bears my name is very emotional to me.” In 1990, the Mexican government granted Professor Samora El Orden del Aguila Azteca (Aztec Eagle Award). It is the highest award Mexico gives to non-Mexicans.

In 1989 he started showing signs of a puzzling illness. It was misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease until the fall of 1995. When he received the news that he had Progressive Supra Nuclear Palsy, a terminal neurological disorder, he thanked the neurologist, Dr. Neal Hermanowicz, for telling him what was wrong, for there was relief in finally having the correct diagnosis, and then he cried. For his remaining eighteen months of life the disease attacked his brain stem and he became unable to hold a book to read, he could not hold a pencil to write, he could not feed himself. He was resigned. As he neared death, he became sweeter and more open to the love of his family. The all-consuming drive to succeed was gone. The night before he died, his daughter was awakened by the sound of his struggling to breath. She went to his room to offer whatever comfort she could. As she gave him sips of water, he took her hand and struggled to say, “I am not in pain,” thereby comforting her.

He died February 2, 1996 in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the 148th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Julian Samora Timeline 1920-1996

  • 1920: Born March 1, 1920 in Pagosa Springs, Colorado
  • 1938: won scholarship to attend Adams State Teachers College, Alamosa, CO
  • 1939: his mother, Carmen Samora, died leaving him an orphan at age 19
  • 1942: obtained a B.A. in History and Political Science from Adams State Married Betty Archuleta November 27, 1942 in Monte Vista, Colorado
  • 1942-1943: First teaching assignment at Huerfano County High School Julian Robert Samora born October 11, 1943 in Fort Collins, Colorado
  • 1944-1948: Associate Director; San Luis Institute of Arts and Crafts, San Luis, CO
  • 1947: Received M.S. in Sociology from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO David Dennis Samora born May 18, 1947 in Alamosa, Colorado
  • 1948-1949: Teaching assistant, University of Wisconsin, Madison 1948-49
  • 1949-1952: was a graduate student Sociology/Anthropology, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri
  • 1951: Carmen Mary Ruth Samora born August 24, 1951, Denver, Colorado
  • 1953: First Mexican-American to receive Ph.D. in Sociology/Anthropology Francis Geoffrey Samora born August 15, 1953, Alamosa, Colorado
  • 1954: Visiting professor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM
  • 1955: Asst. Prof. of Preventative Medicine and Public Health, University of Colorado School of Medicine
  • 1957-1959: Associate Prof. of Sociology/Anthropology, Michigan State University
  • 1958: John Mark Samora born May 20, 1958, Denver, Colorado
  • 1959-1985: Professor of Sociology/Anthropology, Notre Dame University
  • 1963-1966: Head of the Department of Sociology/Anthropology
  • 1963: Visiting Prof. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, Colombia
  • 1964: Visiting professor English Department, UCLA summer of 1964
  • 1966: Program advisor in population for Ford Foundation, Mexico
  • 1968: Co-founded Southwest Council of La Raza with Dr. Ernesto Galarza and Herman Gallegos
  • 1971: Director of the Mexican-American Graduate Studies Program that awarded advance degrees to 50 students in Law, Economics, Sociology, History, Psychology and Political Science
  • 1972: The Southwest Council of La Raza became the National Council of La Raza
  • 1975: Julian Robert Samora died
  • 1979: Betty Samora died
  • 1985: Dr. Samora retired from the University of Notre Dame
  • 1989: The Julian Samora Research Institute, the first research institute named for a Latino, established at Michigan State University
  • 1996: February 2, 1996 Julian Samora died in Albuquerque, New Mexico