Voice in the Wilderness: N.D. scholar devotes life to Hispanic ways

by Rosemary Horvath

[Reprinted by permission from the South Bend Tribune, Saturday, November 10, 1990]

While colleagues may describe Julian Samora as a scholar, pioneer and even the “Father of Hispanic Sociology,” the 70-year-old refrains from categorizing his achievements.

“I was doing what I thought was important,” says Samora, professor emeritus in sociology at the University of Notre Dame.

Many sociologists and government agencies think his work has been important too. This Monday, in fact, the Mexican government will honor him and two other Americans of Mexican descent with its highest civilian award for non-residents – The Aguila Azteca.

The award, to be presented in ceremonies in Mexico City, honors those who set examples – those who soar above the ordinary, like the Aztec Eagle the award represents.

The award also marks the latest chapter in Samora’s acclaimed 40-year career. But it’s a chapter he takes in stride.

He won’t speculate why the Mexican government singled him out for the honor. It’s a typically humble response from a man whose sociological studies have become the basis for government policy. Over the decades, he has pointed out the injustices in the education of Mexican-American students, detailed the importance of the migrant labor force in the U.S. economy, and developed the idea of sanctions against employers who violate immigration law.

As for being called a pioneer in sociology, he hesitates to admit it. He supposes that someone else would have done his work if he hadn’t.

As a matter of fact, he’s stingy about detailing any of his achievements.

Samora is a polite man but he seems doubtful that even an interview is in order.

He instead attributes his popularity to the 50 students, all Mexican-Americans, he shepherded through a special graduate program at Notre Dame. Many of them received doctorates and many currently hold key positions on university faculties throughout the country.

The basement office at Hesburgh Library on the Notre Dame campus consists of two chairs, a desk covered with stacks of papers and two filing cabinets with much of the same. Most of his private collection, which not too long ago still flooded the office, has been donated to the University of Texas library in Austin.

Across from the desk is a ceiling bookcase cradling books that either Samora or colleagues authored. He often talks as if he’s reciting chapters from a book, and some of the time, he is.

His subjects range from the importance of census-taking to the importance of voting. He recites passages from his books about classroom discrimination against Spanish-speaking children. He gives some personal accounts of discrimination as early as the 1920s, when he was growing up in a Mexican-American Family.

“Discrimination was in our past, not unlike the black except the black knew it was against the law to go to a white hotel,” he says.

Samora recalls being turned away from hotels in Fort Collins, Colo., “Finally, some guy let me in a fifth-rate hotel down an alley. I wondered why. The next morning we were talking he said, “What part of India are you from?”

It isn’t surprising that he knows the layout of his desk well enough that he can pull a page from a stack or reach for a book buried somewhere. The conversation is similarly precise.

His self-effacing manner only changes when he begins talking about growing up in Pagos Springs in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

“What got me involved in research I’ve done is the discrimination-trying to prove I was equal.”

Incensed at an early age about this discrimination, Samora would do something about it – from learning English quickly to receiving a college education.

“I made as much money as anybody. It was to try to show somebody – the Anglos – that I was equal to them but I’ve never been equal. Who wants to be the equal of George Wallace, for example?”

In his field, few have equaled Samora.

He came to Notre Dame in 1959, as a professor of sociology and anthropology. He chaired the sociology department until his retirement five years ago.

Over the last two decades Samora has consulted for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the U.S. Public Heath Service, the Rosenburg Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

In 1989, Michigan State University took Samora’s name for its research institute that addresses the needs and concerns of Latinos in the Midwest.

Considered to be a “voice in the wilderness” in the 1950s and 1960s, Samora’s research unveiled sociological underpinnings of the Latino culture. His research came at a time when most social scientists were focusing on the concerns of black Americans.

Samora views the civil-rights struggle as benefiting many ethnic groups.

“I gained self-esteem from the ’60s. It produced pride. It did for blacks, and for Chicanos. It did for a lot of minorities,” he says.

What set Samora’s work apart, too, was his own ethnicity. In the 1950s, few Latinos belonged to the discipline. Among his early studies as a social scientist, he showed that providing medical services to ethnic minorities was more efficient if cultural traits are taken into consideration.

Other studies showed the inequality of the U.S. public school system and how it failed to respond to Mexican-American students. One study indicated that tracking minority students discouraged them from pursing higher education.

But many experts consider Samora’s greatest contribution to be his ideas about U.S.-Mexican immigration issues. Some of his views ultimately would be reflected in the 1986 immigration law, which aimed to reduce illegal immigration by making it a crime to employ anyone who lacked proper identification. Employers who do so are to be sanctioned.

Samora suggested as early as 1971 that a card and sanctions on employers would discourage Mexican residents from endangering their lives by crossing the border illegally to find jobs.

Samora, disagreeing with some Hispanic groups today, defends the idea of employer sanctions – believing they will curb exploitation of the migrant workers. Opponents have argued that employer sanctions may discourage hiring altogether, but Samora believes that without sanctions, “Employers could cheat people out of their pay and get away with it.”

Samora’s recommendations were a result of a three-year study in the late 1960s. The research team, funded by the Ford Foundation and led by Samora, studied immigration and the economy of the American companies located along Mexico’s border.

Samora’s earlier studies also showed the importance of the migratory labor force in the U.S. economy. He outlined his findings in an often-acclaimed 1971 book, “Los Mojados: The Wetback Story.” It was written with the assistance of Gilbert Cardenas and Jorge Bustamante, both students in Samora’s graduate program at Notre Dame at the time.

Cardenas is currently a sociology professor at the University of Texas in Austin, while Bustamante is president of a think tank in Tijuana that advises the Mexican government on border issues.

Bustamante also holds the Eugene Conley Chair in the department of sociology at Notre Dame and is just finishing teaching a two-week course dealing with border problems.

He spoke of Samora’s tremendous willpower and achievements. He recalled a touching event from 1971, in which Samora walked into the classroom and announced he had a historic announcement.

“As of today,” he said, “it is illegal to prohibit children from speaking Spanish in the school yard.”

Bustamante says he still gets shivers thinking about that day because the court ruling had meant so much to Samora, who had worked hard to change the policy.

Samora had personal as well as humanitarian reasons to want a change. Samora himself had flunked the first grade because he spoke Spanish in an English-speaking elementary school. It had taken that first year of school to learn English.

“I think I’ve suppressed most of my childhood memories because the discrimination was so hard,” he said. “You couldn’t speak Spanish on the playground, let alone in school. If a teacher caught you speaking Spanish you went to the principal and the principal had a ruler and whacked you.”

Is he satisfied about his influence on social change?

Samora answered, “No, because there’s so much more to do.”