2015-2016 Common Experience Theme Chair
» Dr. Jesse Gainer, Associate Professor, Curriculum and Instruction
I think that anyone who seeks to discover his inner being by remembering will find the will to invent himself continually as desirous of loving all mankind.... Why not emphasize also that the most human thing possible for man is to possess the desire to love his neighbor, the other?
— Dr. Tomás Rivera
If you drive south from the Texas State University campus in San Marcos, in less than three hours you will be in another country. The line that marks the present geographical border between Mexico and the United States is a political border that not only divides the two countries but is also a point of confluence. People's history, culture, languages, and family relationships continue to live and traverse the border in fluid ways as they have for centuries before the United States and Mexico made claims and struggled over the control of the land.
In the last two decades, immigration issues and the growing Latino population in the U.S. have received increased attention in politics and media. Unfortunately, the tone used by both suggests Mexico and the United States could be two worlds apart. Recent security concerns in the United States contribute to the militarization of the border area with the growing presence of the border patrols, militia groups, and the building of multimillion-dollar security walls to restrict or retain people on each side of the border. These assorted barriers sustain profound gaps in understanding the full context of immigration.
However, transnational relationships between Mexico and the United States are founded on fundamental human dispositions, ranging from wanderlust to acts of survival, and these pathways do not adhere neatly to the boundaries established by political systems. Moreover, there are people whose ancestors have lived continuously in the area on both sides of the current physical border. Missing from much of the political discourse are the human stories. Through the ebb and flow of migration processes, the stories that occur on both sides of the border belong to both countries. These stories persist because they have been shared and reflect collective lived experiences. Many of these stories transcend political boundaries altogether and unite people, creating an environment of understandings about the richness and complexity of the human experience.
These stories make up the fabric that weaves together communities, binding people together around common purposes and shared values. They provide lenses that help the reader to interpret the world, past and present, and to filter new experiences. Stories help us develop our identities and help us envision possibilities for acting in the world to create social change.
Tomás Rivera, a Distinguished Alumnus of Texas State University, understood the importance of stories for remembering, discovering, and expressing people's will. Rivera was born in Crystal City, Texas, and throughout his childhood he traveled with his family as migrant farmworkers. After graduating from Texas State University, then Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Rivera earned a Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. He is known as an author, an educator, and the first Latino chancellor in the University of California system. Central to the work of Dr. Rivera was his commitment to the improvement of life conditions for Mexican Americans. He placed great importance on education as a means for upward mobility and for the creation of a more just and equitable society. He embraced the notion of the power of story as a process of intellectual emancipation and positive identity formation.
Dr. Rivera's stories were intended to be much more than entertaining narrative prose and poetry. He viewed writing as a ritual; he referred to Chicano literature as a "fiesta of the living." In other words, stories reflect the values and life-experiences of people and by putting stories and experiences into writing; they are valorized and can serve to form human bonds — community. Stories affirm identity. Therefore, Rivera's stories serve as counter-narratives that resist mainstream representations that often cast Mexican Americans in negative and derogative terms through a deficit lens.
In his work, Rivera paid special attention to children. He saw children as observers and discoverers who interpret and invent realities based on their experiences. He believed that if children are surrounded by stories that affirm their identities in terms of community, language, and shared histories, they are better equipped to face obstacles in life and to express agency in the world.
Rivera recalled the power of stories in his own childhood. Although he did not see his culture and life-experience in books he read as a child, he was immersed in stories of adults at the migrant camps where his family stayed while doing farm work. In his seminal novel, …y no se lo trago la tierra / …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Rivera included a character named Bartolo. This man was an itinerant poet who came to his town in South Texas to sell poetry. This iconic character was based on a real person from Rivera's childhood. Recalling Bartolo and his poetry, Rivera stated that hearing the poems, which included names of the people in the town, was his first contact with literature from his people and it left huge emotional impact. Recounting the advice of Bartolo, Rivera stated, "I recall that one time he told the people to read the poems out loud because the spoken word was the seed of love in the darkness." Stories, especially when shared with others, have the power to unite people, validate experience, and challenge unjust social conditions.
In this spirit, The Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award was established in 1995 at Texas State University. The mission of the award is to promote children's books that provide authentic and strong portrayals of the Mexican American experience in the United States. The Rivera award-winning books provide children with opportunities to connect to texts that show characters, settings, language, and topics that reflect the richly diverse life experiences of Mexican Americans. As Rivera himself espoused, stories can affirm positive identities for young Mexican Americans, and, through a focus on a specific cultural group, they can also highlight universal themes of humanity. The Rivera Book Award seeks to ensure that students today and in the future will never feel that they do not exist or belong and that they have ample opportunity to see their lives reflected through positive representations of their community in texts.
Texas State University's mission statement includes the shared values of "diversity of people and ideas." Since 2011, Texas State has held the designation of Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), which means that at least 25 percent of its undergraduate enrollment is Hispanic. President Denise Trauth rightfully pointed to the challenge of recognizing the service aspect of HSI when she stated, "It is not enough to recruit talented students from all ethnicities — we must also continue to retain those students and see that they graduate."
Dr. Rivera's message about stories being fundamental to positive identity formation is key in developing and sustaining students' academic identities and achievements at Texas State. Multicultural understandings are not only beneficial for Hispanic students but also are necessary to sustain a vibrant society for everyone.
In this vein, the 2015-2016 Common Experience theme will pay homage to Dr. Tomás Rivera, in keeping with his legacy, to ensure that students today and in the future will never feel that they do not exist or belong and that they have ample opportunity to see their lives reflected through positive representations of their community in texts. The theme of "Bridged Through Stories: Shared Heritage of the United States and Mexico" will highlight the work and values of Tomás Rivera as well as those of others from all walks of life who have contributed to the fabric of our common understandings of the world. Through specific attention to connections between stories of Mexico and the United States, this theme will highlight multiple perspectives that contribute to community building, affirmations of identity, and collective struggles to make the world a more just place for everyone.
Dr. Rivera was a hopeful person who even in the face of tremendous challenge never gave up his resounding belief in the goodness of humanity and social values. A constant theme in his work is searching — the quest for community, for equity, a rightful place in society, self-determination, and a voice in the political establishment.
This theme serves as a means to celebrate our diversity and learn from the richness of living in a pluralistic society. In homage to the life and legacy of Dr. Tomás Rivera, distinguished alumnus of Texas State University, the common theme unites our community and recognizes the importance for all people to ritualize their existence by remembering, searching, and expressing agency. The many stories that bridge the United States and Mexico bring to the forefront our common goals for equality, access, and building of community for all people.