Julian Samora, 1920-1996

by Richard Lamanna

Julian Samora, a much loved and esteemed colleague and friend, died February 2, 1996 at his daughter’s home in Albuquerque, N.M. He was 75 and had been suffering from a rare disorder of the nervous system.
Julian was born in Pagosa Springs, Colorado in 1920. The harsh discrimination that he encountered through much of his early life undoubtedly played a crucial role in his determination to advance the cause of Hispanics and all minorities in American society.

He received a bachelors degree from Adams State College in Colorado (1942) and a masters degree from Colorado State University in 1947. In 1953 he became the first Mexican American to earn a Ph.D. in Sociology and Anthropology (Washington University, St. Louis), with a dissertation on “Minority Leadership in a Bi-Cultural Community.”

Julian had a long and distinguished teaching career. He taught at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Michigan State University before coming to Notre Dame in 1959. In his 25 years at Notre Dame he served as Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology (1963-1966), founder and director of the Mexican-American Graduate Studies Program (1972-1985) and Director of Graduate Studies (1981-1984). He also served as visiting professor at the University of New Mexico, 1954; Michigan State University, 1955; Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, Colombia, 1963; University of California, Los Angeles, 1964; and the University of Texas, Austin, 1971.

Julian had little use for abstract theory–his work always had a practical dimension with clear policy implications. Among his numerous publications were: La Raza: Forgotten Americans (1966); Mexican Americans in a Midwest Metropolis: A Study of East Chicago (with Richard A. Lamanna) (1967); Mexican Americans in the Southwest (with Ernesto Galarza and Herman Gallegos) (1969); Los Mojados: The Wetback Story (1971); A History of the Mexican American People (with Patricia Vande Simon) (1977 revised in 1993 with Cordelia Chavez Candelaria and Alberto Pulido); and Gunpowder Justice: A Reassessment of the Texas Rangers (with Joe Bernal and Albert Pena) (1979).

In addition to his scholarly work, Julian was active as an advocate. He was a member of numerous commissions and boards dealing with public policy, including the President’s Commission on Rural Poverty; the President’s Commission on Income Maintenance Programs; National Upward Bound; the Indiana Civil Rights Commission; the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; and the National Assessment of Education Progress. He also served as a consultant to groups such as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Rosenburg Foundations, the Ford Foundation, the John Hay Whitney Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes for Mental Health, the Bureau of the Census, the National Science Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution.

This remarkable record of scholarship and service did not go unnoticed. Julian was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Among these were a John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship; a Sydney Spivack Fellowship; the La Raza Award from the National Council of La Raza, and an honorary doctor of Laws degree from Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, Texas. On the occasion of his retirement in 1985 he received a Special Presidential Award from the University of Notre Dame and the White House Hispanic Heritage Award. In 1987 he was appointed Martin Luther King-Rosa Parks Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. Shortly thereafter, Michigan State University created the Julian Samora Research Institute in his honor to continue and expand his pioneering research into the Chicano experience in the Midwest. In a ceremony in Mexico City in 1990, the Mexican government awarded him its highest civilian award for non-residents, the Aguila Azteca (Aztec Eagle) Medal.

Of all his accomplishments, Julian was most proud of the more than 50 students of Mexican-American heritage he recruited and guided through his graduate program in Mexican-American Studies. Many received graduate or professional degrees and currently hold key positions on university faculties throughout the country including Colorado, Michigan State, Nebraska, New Mexico, Notre Dame, and Texas. As one of his former students noted, “He lured us away from the security of our barrios across the Southwest to the isolation of Midwestern academia. For Chicano students on that alien campus, his home became a home-away-from-home.” Julian and his wife Betty literally opened their home and their hearts to the numerous students who were following in his footsteps in embarking on a career in the social science. Many of them, like Julian, had to overcome enormous odds in getting to where they were.

Julian was a pioneer in so many ways. His early studies of folk medicine and the role of ethnicity in the understanding of sickness and health broke new ground in that field; his work for the Ford Foundation on population and fertility in the Third World was ahead of its time. His studies of immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border were also impressive. But, perhaps the most important achievements were his early recognition of the importance of social science research in changing policies and conditions that affected the disadvantaged, and cultivating a generation of social scientists who would continue his important work of exposing and overcoming the barriers to realizing the American dream. This I believe is his true legacy.

He successfully combined his scholarly work with a passionate interest in promoting social justice and preserving his Hispanic heritage. His success was in no small part due to his warm, generous, and unpretentious nature. In spite of his well deserved reputation here and abroad, he never forgot his origins and was equally at ease with all kinds of people: presidents and peons, scholars and activists, students and deans, Chicanos and Anglos, blacks and whites, North Americans and South Americans.

Dr. Samora, whose wife Betty died about ten years ago, is survived by a daughter, Carmen, of Albuquerque, three sons, John of Denver, David of Santa Fe, N.M. and Geoff of South Bend, IN, and three grandchildren.

On April 13, 1996 a festive memorial service combining both Spanish and Anglo traditions was held at the University of Notre Dame and was well attended by his numerous former students, colleagues, friends, and family members.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Julian Samora Scholarship Fund established in his honor at Michigan State University.