Growing up in the Colorado ranching town of Pagosa Springs, young Julian Samora read a sign at a park entrance that stung his soul: “No Mexicans, Indians or Dogs.”
It was 1930s America, an era of economic desperation and, in some places, casual racial callousness. In the spiritual furnace of such encounters with Anglo America, young Julian forged a steely determination to prove his worth and affirm the dignity of his people.
The adult Samora, who taught at Notre Dame from 1959 until he retired in 1985, became a pioneering scholar and the author of books that were integral to the establishment of Mexican American studies as an academic discipline. Believed to be the first Mexican American to receive a doctorate in sociology (from Washington University in Saint Louis), Samora transformed the lives of an entire generation of young scholars, instilling in them a vision of the heroic possibilities of a life of social activism informed by rigorous scholarship.
Even more than his groundbreaking books on such topics as immigration and medical sociology, Samora’s legacy is the dozens of Mexican American scholars at universities across the United States. The professor, who died in 1996, was remembered in The New York Times as having “turned Notre Dame into a virtual magnet for Mexican American graduate students, many of whom received doctorates and went on to high academic positions in Mexican American studies programs that proliferated in the wake of [his] success.” In more than two remarkable decades at Notre Dame, he was their mentor and benefactor and guide.
“He made such a difference with his teachings and with what he encouraged us to do that none of our lives was the same afterwards,” says Gilbert Cardenas ‘73M.A., ‘76Ph.D., a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin who also directs the Inter-University Program for Latin Research. Cordelia Candelaria ’72M.A., ’76Ph.D., a professor of English literature at Arizona State University and a research scholar at the Hispanic Research Center there, adds, “He taught me that the work of a professor did not end at the classroom door, that it was also how you lived your life.”
Samora’s students and colleagues at Notre Dame speak with an almost reverential admiration for his ability to maintain a calm dignity in social or professional confrontations.
“He burned with a sweet fire,” says Notre Dame sociology professor Andy Weigert. “When most people burn, it’s with a hot, bitter fire. But his essential sweetness as a man is what made him effective with so many different people, from students to scholars to politicians and community people.”
At a memorial service at Notre Dame, Weigert called Samora “un hombre duro y dulce” — a man both tough and sweet.
Jorge Bustamante ’70M.A., ’75Ph.D., Samora’s first graduate student at Notre Dame and now the director of Mexico’s prestigious College of the Northern Border, tells a story that illustrates those twin qualities. It is set in 1971, Washington, D.C., where Samora was asking an official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to permit Bustamante to enter the United States without papers in order to document illegal immigration.
The INS official resisted the proposal, Bustamante recalls, because it “had the potential of observing skeletons inside some closets.” Samora, taking a different tack, then “casually dropped some names” of government officials he’d known in his work with the National Commission on Civil Rights. He closed his pitch by invoking the cause of objective scholarship and authoritative research.
In fact, Bustamante had already completed the work and only needed INS approval so that Samora could recognize him in the jointly written landmark book Los Mojados: The Wetback Story, which was soon to be published by Notre Dame Press.
Samora got the approval, and Bustamante says that when Samora told the story, “I got the good news behind that half-smile of his, which always looked to me as sort of male version of the Mona Lisa’s.” Once again, the hombre duro showed that he was also quite dulce.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Mexican American issues were almost universally ignored by academia, Samora leveraged his scholarly achievements and personal charm to win the Ford Foundation grants that financed his work at Notre Dame. He used a $450,000 grant to provide scholarships to graduate students and to bring other pioneering Mexican American researchers to the University for seminars. “The graduate seminar he had every semester covered a whole range of topics — from border and immigration, to culture and the humanities and demographics,” says Cardenas.
“He exposed us to some of the best minds in Mexican American studies,” says Juan Garcia ’74M.A., ’77Ph.D., an associate dean at the University of Arizona and the author of a forthcoming book on Mexican Americans in the Midwest before the Great Depression.
“He brought them in and left us alone to pick their brains,” Garcia says, recalling the experience as exhilarating. “Before I was a grad student, I had never known a Mexican American scholar,” he says. “If I saw a Chicano in a school, he was probably the janitor.”
“Chicano” is a term that is no longer widely used today, now that Mexican American studies has won broad acceptance and the confrontational mood of the past has been largely replaced by a spirit of “alliance politics” and cooperation.
“But at that time we were all firmly Chicanos,” Garcia says. And militant activism, especially on behalf of farm workers mobilized by Cesar Chavez, charged the politics of the day with drama and confrontation.
Samora did not call himself a Chicano, preferring the politically neutral term “Mexican American,” Garcia says. “Some people criticized him for not being militant enough, but it was just something he was not comfortable with.”
Samora recognized the importance of social activism and sometimes joined Cardenas and other students in picketing South Bend supermarkets selling grapes from farms that refused to sign contracts with Chavez’s United Farm Workers. But even on the picket lines, Samora maintained a calm civility.
“Sometimes the rest of us would block traffic or yell at people not to buy grapes or even go into the store,” says Cardenas. “But Julian was always very courteous. He would stop the picket line on the sidewalk to let people pass. Sometimes the rest of us would exchange insults with the customers, but not Julian.”
Cardenas, who was part of a group that took over the pulpit during Mass at Sacred Heart Church in the spring of 1970 to demand that the University hire more Hispanic faculty, acknowledges that there was at the time “generational tension” between Samora and angry young Chicanos.
“We thought we knew what was right and we were out to change the world in 20 days,” he says. “Julian had a much more realistic idea of what we were up against. He took the longer view.”
Fearing that Cardenas would abandon his studies to engage in political struggles, Samora challenged him. “He would constantly tell me, ‘You need to be a scholar first and foremost.’ He said, ‘Anybody can be on a picket line, but not many people have the opportunity you have to get the training you need to really make a difference.’ He said I had to understand what my primary mission was.”
“It finally sunk in,” Cardenas says. “The community things were important and seductive. But I credit him for keeping me focused, for making me see that education was our best vehicle for empowerment. I’ve never lost my activism, but I am grounded as an academician.”
The University of Arizona’s Garcia says Samora wanted Mexican American graduate students who were committed to making a difference for their people. “But he knew that the greatest way he could have an influence was in helping develop us as a generation of scholars. He wanted us to prepare ourselves intellectually to make a difference. He wanted us to be able to do research. He wanted us to have discipline.”
While Samora was inspiring his students with a sense of mission, he also nourished them by giving them a home away from home. Samora and his wife Betty, who preceded him in death, had the students over for frequent meals that featured Betty Samora’s homemade tortillas and rich, spicy chili.
“When I was homesick, sometimes I would go over there just to hang out,” says Cardenas, who recalled working in the yard where Julian grew grapes for his homemade wines. “He and his family were my anchor point.”
One of the group’s unofficial members was Cordelia Candelaria, who was pursuing her doctorate in English. “I wasn’t one of his students,” she says. “I happened to be from the Southwest and happened to be a Chicana. That was enough reason for him to include me in their lives.”
“I didn’t appreciate how unusual that kind of personal interest in a student was until I got my first job,” says Candelaria, who sometimes hosts graduate students at her home for a poetry reading. “When he and Betty opened their home to us, he was modeling a behavior that we didn’t even know we were soaking up.”
Samora’s life was about broadening the horizons for others, about removing the barriers that for him were always symbolized by that sign outside the park in Pagosa Springs. “He loved to tell that story,” says Andy Weigert. “He never let it go. He translated it into a lifetime of the most intense devotion. That’s why his dulce, his sweetness, was so amazing to me.”
Samora told other stories of bitter experiences in Colorado. He was forced to repeat first grade because his English was judged deficient. In high school, when he was assigned a leading role in a play, the entire cast walked out. Memories of the former episode must have surged within him in 1971, when he began a graduate seminar with the emotional announcement of a Supreme Court decision.
Jorge Bustamante remembers that moment as the only time he saw Samora’s cool detachment break in a professional setting. Struggling with his emotions, Samora told his students, “Today will long be remembered as a day when an injustice was corrected. . . . As of today, it has been declared illegal to prohibit children to speak Spanish on the school grounds.”
Jim Langford, director of Notre Dame Press, which published several of Samora’s books, says Samora was instrumental in giving voice to other Mexican American scholars who’d been having difficulty getting their works in print.
Notre Dame Press published several books on Samora’s recommendation. “You could trust him,” says Langford, remembering that Samora had “none of the pomposity that some academics display. If he felt strongly about a book, that was enough for me and our board.”
One of the books Samora recommended was Barrio Boy by Ernesto Galarza. Considered a classic, this pioneering work on Mexican American life is one of the press’s all-time best sellers.
“This was at a time when Mexican American scholars were not receiving much recognition,” says Langford. “Julian made sure that those with ability were recognized and got published. I think that inspired a lot of people.”
To advance the cause of human rights for Mexican Americans, Samora cofounded the National Council of La Raza, the leading Mexican American civil rights organization. Herman Gallegos, the other founder, hails Samora as a leader “who helped us gain the confidence of the power and worth of our ideas.” When Hispanic women were asserting activism within the larger movement, Gallegos points out, Samora resigned from the board so a woman could replace him. “He never thought he had to be out front,” Gallegos says.
Samora devoted so much of his time to mentoring and promoting others that the depth and breadth of his individual accomplishments are almost staggering. He published more than two dozen books or major articles, he served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Public Health Service, Census Bureau, Department of Labor and a variety of foundations. His roomful of awards included a special presidential award from Notre Dame, a White House Hispanic Heritage Award and the Order of the Aztec Eagle from the government of Mexico.
Despite Samora’s remarkable record, there is little of his legacy at Notre Dame. His papers are at the University of Texas. Michigan State is home to the research foundation that bears his name. The Mexican American Studies program at ND has withered, and the dozens of scholars who earned Ph.D.s there are scattered across the country.
Gilbert Cardenas says Samora didn’t want his papers archived at Notre Dame “because he wasn’t convinced that the University would take care of them.” Samora, says Candelaria, was deeply disappointed at what he saw as its indifference to attempts to sustain his work. However, she says, Samora reacted as he had to the sign in Pagosa Springs: “He learned long ago to face adversity, swallow it and go on.”
Perhaps more importantly, Julian Samora’s legacy can be found throughout this country in the scholarship and teaching of his former students — and in a society changed by his life and work.
Jerry Kammer is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a senior research fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Samora's legacy, meanwhile, was reinvigorated at Notre Dame shortly after the publication of this story. The University's Institute for Latino Studies opened in 1999 with Gilberto Cardenas as its inaugural Julian Samora Chair.