Impressions of a Son by F. Geoffrey Samora

Cover for Pulido: Moving Beyond Borders: Julian Samora and the Establishment of Latino Studies. Click for larger imageI was asked by the editors to respond to the essays written in the book, Moving Beyond Borders: Julian Samora and the Establishment of Latino Studies.  Julian’s former students recall encounters with him and his wife Betty that impressed them and changed their lives. I am the fourth of Julian and Betty’s children. I practice in South Bend, IN as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, specializing in marriage, family and individual therapy.

As I read the essays of my father’s former students I was impressed by the impact that my parents had on their lives. I knew most of the writers of those essays in the book Moving Beyond Borders, while they were students in Julian’s cohort. I attended parties with them, told jokes, studied, argued and grew up among them. I think that I was privileged to know them. It is a treat to read the tributes to Julian and Betty. I am also made aware that my life growing up was unique in the perspective that was afforded me. Being Julian’s son, I was able to joke with him in the way only a son can. I could be irreverent and down to earth when most graduate and undergraduate students were in awe of him. I respected and loved him first as a father and secondly as a scholar. The unique aspects of a parent/child relationship are different from the mentor/student relationship but similar in many areas. I was humbled by the affection that was expressed in the essays and proud of the many students who are vital to the continuing legacy of Julian Samora.

I am aware that until now, not much had been written about Julian’s first book, La Raza; Forgotten Americans. Many of Julian’s former students, Samoristas, as we call ourselves, wrote of their excitement when they discovered the book. It prompted many of them to aspire to follow Julian’s lead into the Academy. Jose Hinojosa, for one, reported in his essay about the number of students that he had stewarded through the process of earning undergraduate and graduate degrees thus emulating the work of his mentor. Julian’s early scholarship engendered in many a desire to study under him.

I purposely chose not to become an academic as I was most interested in quicker results. Being a marriage and family therapist affords me the opportunity to monitor change on a weekly or even daily basis. I prefer the hands on, front line work. This may be the activist in me. I don’t remember my first encounter with Julian Samora as it was soon after the occasion of my birth in mid-August of 1953, the year he earned his Ph.D. from Washington University, St. Louis, MO. I do, however, remember many subsequent encounters and they will be the subject of this essay.

I recall, as an eleven year old, when Julian and Betty first began talking about Julian’s plan to write a book. I believe it was 1964. Julian had a desire to study his people from a two pronged perspective. First, there was little scholarly work being done about the subject at that time and second, he believed that knowledge was power. He believed that if people in decision-making positions understood the situation, policies would change. His purpose was to inform first and influence later from within the system. That stance frustrated many activists and prompted critics to suggest that he could be more effective if he demanded change by confrontation, accusation and notoriety. I remember Julian being as patient with his critics as he was with the system. The impression that I came away with from that encounter was this; I had asked my father if he was a genius because in my immature mind it stood to reason that if you could write a book you must be a genius. He was humored by my question and responded that he was about average in intelligence and that he just worked hard. I look back to the message that was transferred by that encounter; hard work will get you results just like superior intelligence can.

My mother related a story to me about the assistant manager of a local hamburger joint, where my two older brothers and I had all worked; he remarked that my mother had sure taught her sons how to work. My mom was very proud of that fact and I learned that hard work will get you respect just like superior intelligence can. I scoured the oxidation off copper water pipes while flat on my back under the restaurant’s commercial sinks, all for .80 cents per hour. I learned that superior intelligence doesn’t get you out of the responsibility to keep working while on the clock.

As a school boy I often watched my father work on his book. His schedule was to work at the University all day, return around 5:30PM, eat dinner with the family and then retire to his study to work. I learned that I could interrupt him if I had a question related to school-work. In all the years that I asked him for the definition of a word, I never stumped him. The definitions he gave sounded like a verbatim dictionary definition and as I proceeded through high school, college and graduate school I continued to try and stump him. I don’t know if he ever caught on to my game but I learned from these repeated encounters that his superior intelligence came with humility and responsibility. He had a self imposed responsibility to the larger community and a responsibility to his family.

My mother also accepted a responsibility to the larger community and family which explains her willingness to share her husband’s time and effort for the greater good. She and Olga Villa-Parra, along with Concepcion Nino, founded El Campito Daycare Center in the 1960’s. They provided daycare and Head Start pre-school for the children of migrant farm workers. El Campito is in operation to this day. The establishment of the daycare center allowed farm workers to drop out of the migrant stream to study or work in local factories. Migrant farm workers then put down roots and stabilized their families, allowing their children to complete high school. This led some to pursue college and attain the social capital that goes along way towards upward mobility.

Mom dragged us to picket local grocery stores in support of the United Farm Worker’s Union as we boycotted grapes and lettuce in the sixties and seventies. She joined a group of Julian’s graduate students as they picketed in front of and in the Sacred Heart Basilica on campus at Notre Dame. Julian had to practice patience as he watched his wife and graduate students cause trouble on a Sunday, asking for changes to some University policy they thought unfair. Looking back on that time, I owe my mother and father a debt of gratitude. Without their influence I would not have had front line experience in activism.

On a personal level, I remember being called into the house during summer vacation to read for an hour each day. This was after the third grade and I was resentful of the intrusion on my play time. My mother called me inside to read under the guise of cooling off for an hour during the heat of the day. I would repair to the basement which was cool and less humid. Carrying a book and a cold glass of Kool-Aid, I would sit quietly and soon came to enjoy reading. One of my playmates was bold enough to knock on the door and ask for me to come out to play. My mom was crafty and told him that I could play if he brought a book over to read. Before I knew it my three best friends and I would read for an hour in my basement everyday that summer. Looking back I think I must have been in need of remediation. I believe my mom taught me to read and to love reading in one fell swoop. She impressed my friends who from then on thought of me as the ‘smart’ one of the group. I learned that setting an example can lead to respect and that perseverance pays off with greater skills. I can read pretty well to this day!

I remember an encounter with my father regarding education. As a high school senior, I wanted to take a year off from my studies before starting college. Julian was against this. In his tenure as a college professor, he had seen many students take a year off to work with the intention of saving some money and returning later to finish their studies, only to quit their studies and keep working, never to return. My response to his objection was to state that it was my decision about my life, and I wasn’t going to college immediately after graduation. After a pause to collect himself, Julian looked me in the eye and said that he had one obligation to me and that was a college education. And then he said that I owed him one thing, and that was to get a college education. I reluctantly agreed to apply to one college hoping that I wouldn’t get in. To my father’s delight and my chagrin, I was accepted at Notre Dame. Looking back on my experience, I am grateful for a Notre Dame education and the opportunities that have come my way because of it. I learned that obligations fulfilled often end well and that wisdom can spring from difficult differences of opinion.  

On a tougher note, I remember watching my stressed out father arrive home from the University and head straight for the kitchen sink. Under the sink was a bottle of rye whiskey, Kessler’s ‘smooth as silk’. After two double shots he would turn to the family and greet us saying, ‘how was your day?’ I learned early on that he wanted to hear what work I had accomplished, be it school work or household chores. He wasn’t overly interested in my sports participation or my social life. He accepted these distractions from work and understood them to be necessary to balance one’s life. I learned that drinking alcohol was a man’s ritual and that it was an ineffective stress reducer. In fact, mood altering drugs can cause a great deal more problems than they solve; leading to high blood pressure, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver to name a few. As a grown man, I look back on his repeated struggles with alcohol as evidence that my father was capable of mistakes. He was human and had faults like all of us.

I remember him as a man whose strengths far outweighed his weaknesses. He was a strong but fair disciplinarian who teamed with our mother to raise us. He was a good male role model even though he was raised by his mother and grandmother without much contact with his biological father. As I indicated earlier, I am a Marriage and Family Therapist. I often use anecdotes from my childhood to illustrate to my current clientele how a healthy discipline system should work: parent involvement, a united front, family meal time spent talking with one another not watching television. I emphasize in therapy the importance of teaching children good manners. It goes a long way towards developing and maintaining good mental health. Psychologist, John Reed, in North Carolina, has written on the subject. His research indicates a direct relationship between good manners and happiness.

One of my last encounters with Julian was in Alburquerque, NM, at my sister Carmen’s house. As my family and I gathered to say goodbye we knelt and asked for his blessing. He became emotional as he made the sign of the cross and asked God’s benediction on us. My impression of that encounter was that a life well lived will reap benefits. And that family time is extremely valuable especially when one’s family endured time apart for the benefit of others.

A colleague of mine spoke about the resentment he experienced at his physician father’s funeral. Hundreds of his father’s former patients crowded out the family and close friends. He reported that this was a microcosm of his experience growing up. His father’s life was not his own in many ways. He recalled his mother being the one he turned to in times of need. His father’s patients always came first. I remember Dad’s funeral and thinking that I didn’t want to share him with La Raza any longer. I quickly reconsidered that stance when his obituary was printed in newspapers around the country. Major papers in New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles and other cities announced his death and catalogued his achievements. I was startled by the coverage. I hadn’t realized the impact he had made over the years. In retrospect, the impression made by that indirect encounter keeps me in awe of the achievements that a poor kid from Pagosa Springs, CO accomplished against tough odds.

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