Interviewing Dr. Grace Pena Delgado
Dr. Grace Pena Delgado is currently a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Specializing in border lands and the processes of border-making, Dr. Delgado works closely with subject matter related to her own intersectionality, as a Latina daughter of immigrants. With her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Delgado sits as the History Graduate Program Director at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
I first met Dr. Delgado upon taking her class “Introduction to Latino/a American History” in the Spring semester of my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. Though the material we covered was difficult to process and dense in all forms, Dr. Delgado had a way of capturing the attention of every audience member. There was never a day I wasn’t interested in what she had to say, as she inspired me greatly as a strong female leader in an academic position, a place I hope to one day be myself. As a Latina myself, with the same academic dreams of what Dr. Delgado has accomplished, I knew immediately that she would be a perfect subject for my oral history project.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Dr. Delgado was raised in the small town of Whittier, roughly 35 miles outside of central Los Angeles. With four older siblings, herself, and her parents all living in a 754 square foot house, Dr. Delgado spent a lot of her time outside the home, due to a close knit community- typical of a Mexican-influenced childhood.
This close knit, Mexican community played a large role in Dr. Delgado’s self development, as she learned a lot about both herself as an individual, and as a member of a group. Much like many women who grew up in a Mexican community, or around those of Mexican descent, the community effort of raising a child is a very common theme. There are many lessons to be learned from this community environment, and Dr. Delgado recounts learning:
“that it was a wonderful community and that I can be an individual within that. That I wasn’t just subordinated to the group, I was able to stand out as an individual in terms of my own success as an athlete, as a student, you know whatever. But I was also part of a group, and I never really lost sight of that at all. I really understood that my fate goes with the fate of a group, or the fate of a neighbor, or a friend. And you know, I think that is something that I really value as a person. And that is something I translate to my adulthood, you know, where you may be one single individual but I can push against that because ultimately, no one can accomplish anything by himself or herself. And that is a very valuable lesson, you know, especially, when dealing in family, in race, in gender, it all builds this white single male story of achievement which gets you know, so, uplifted, and privileged. When the whole of the American people, you know, live their lives very differently.”
Being of Mexican descent, Dr. Delgado certainly has close ties with the work she does today, but it all was inspired by her own heritage. Her grandparents on both her mother and father’s sides eventually immigrated to the United States, making Dr. Delgado a second generation immigrant after her mother, Santos, was born in Mexico, though her father, Arturo, was born in El Paso, Texas. Dr. Delgado recounts the history of her family’s immigration:
“My grandparents on my mother’s side were born and mostly raised in Mexico until 1944 when the whole family came over. So my grandma was born in Magdalena, Sonora and my grandfather was born in [Ananaeia] (spelling), Sonora. And so my mother and most of her siblings were born in Cananea, Sonora until 1944 when they migrated to Tucson and then Tempe, and then eventually Los Angeles. So the other side, my father’s side, born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, as well as El Paso, Texas. And most of my aunts and uncles on that side are living in Los Angeles currently.”
It was her ethnicity that actually shaped Dr. Delgado’s work as she ventured into the world of academia. In fact, Dr. Delgado recounts, “the subject of my first book, Making a Chinese-Mexican, came out of a conversation of the history of the Chinese people in Sonora, Mexico, from my grandparents. So you can say, that without my grandparents, I would not have the topic of my first book.”
These conversations would go on to greatly influence Dr. Delgado’s work in academia, as she went on to study the specific racialization of Asians within Latinx countries, specifically Mexico. When presented with author Jessica Hagedorn’s writings on Orientalism, Dr. Delgado found many similarities between Hagedorn’s observations on the way in which Asians were diminished in their “intelligence” and “humanity,” and the way in which Asians were treated in Mexico (Hagedorn 74). Hagedorn writes how, particularly in Hollywood, Asian women are “objects of desire or derision; we exist to provide sex, color, and texture in what is essentially a white man’s world” (Hagedorn 78). Similar to what Hagedorn observed in Hollywood film, Dr. Delgado’s research found that Chinese-Mexican women were “othered in terms of their national belonging, and their relationship to Chinese men was not permissible under state code.” These racializations were based on U.S. immigration laws that “were centered on the exclusion of Chinese people. And of course there is a racialized notion of that that gives drive to exclusionary types of law.”
Speaking to these difficult times of racialization during war, life wasn’t exactly easy for Dr. Delgado and her family as she grew up during troubling times in America. Although he won the purple heart for his heroics, Dr. Delgado’s father “came back [from the Korean War] and he simply wasn’t himself, according to my mother. So he was not able to support his family due to alcoholism and depression. And so there were ten, twenty years in which my mother and my family kind of dealt with that. And then my parents separated, they never were divorced. And my mother essentially raised all of us, five of us, by herself.”
Witnessing her mother work tirelessly throughout her life inspired Dr. Delgado in the same way many Latina women are deeply influenced by the matriarchal power of their mothers. However, it was this very environment that also influenced Dr. Delgado’s ideological beliefs, such as her identification as a feminist. Growing up, she “never had a negative connotation of feminism. You know, my mother raised us, and I have four older sisters, there was a lot of feminism in my household.” This greatly influenced how strong headed, determined, and unapologetic Dr. Delgado came to be, as a woman, a professor, and a human being.
Growing up in the tight knit community that she did, Dr. Delgado was always inspired by a multitude of people, including the myriad of adult figures that surrounded her as a child. This list included aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, and even neighbors, all of whom had their own impact on Dr. Delgado and her development as a person. Dr. Delgado describes the way in which her and her siblings were raised as a “community effort,” a very typical aspect of a Mexican upbringing.
However, one person who has always inspired Dr. Delgado was Attorney General Janet Reno, who served under the Clinton administration. Dr. Delgado describes her fascination with Reno, describing her as “a great model for women. The thing that resonated with me about Janet Reno was that she seemed to be incorruptible, she was beyond her approach in a number of ways. She also took care of her mother, she never married, she was a devoted public servant most of her life. So I really was taken by her.” Inspired by Reno’s own determination and drive for justice, Dr. Delgado has dedicated most of her life to another kind of public service: education.
People like Reno are a perfect example of what feminist author Audre Lorde describes as defying the “mythical norm” of what the media presents: the heterosexual, cisgender, white male. Being a woman, and a single, strong headed woman at that, Reno perfectly fits what some would describe as a “role model position.” However, when presented with Lorde’s writing paralleled to the idea of a “role model,” Dr. Delgado takes issue with the term “role model,” as
“it’s very problematic. There are people who are commodified and marketed and visible publicly who we assume should have the ability to lead those people by example or directly, and you know, it’s the creation of media, for the most part. And the idea for a young person to have a role model, maybe that young person is raised in a neighborhood that is full of important people. So yeah I don’t think is one person who can address all needs and have all the answers; it’s just a human impossibility. So yeah, that’s why I really go against this notion of role models for myself, and I want to complicate the idea of role models to role models, and maybe even to community mentoring, rather than one individualized person. It’s a very white middle class invention, you know, the role model. And as Audre Lorde said, it’s problematic, and I would definitely agree with that.”
Working with subject matter so closely related to her intersectionality gives Dr. Delgado a unique perspective on how to introduce the subject matter she teaches. Speaking to her classroom strategies when teaching such difficult material, Dr. Delgado is
“able to strike balance in my classroom knowing that my audience isn’t primarily students of color, you know, they’re white middle class students who are very interested in social change and social justice. So I think I’m able to strike a really good balance in the type of history I tell and why I tell it and how I do, because, you know, the audience isn’t just uniquely students of color.”
Author Anna Louise Keating analyzes in her piece “Beyond Intersectionality” the limits of intersectionality and a desire to “reach beyond intersectionality and into a metaphysics of interconnectedness” (30). Keating writes about feminism moving towards “inter-relationality,” by three methods in particular: “making connections through differences,” “forging an ethics of radical inter-connectedness,” and “listening with raw openness” (Keating 30). Dr. Delgado found each of these methods to be useful and important in modern feminisms, but her discipline in academia struck commonalities with the idea of “radical interconnectedness” quite particularly (Keating 30). Dr. Delgado studies “more complicated notions of what it means to cross a national border, and also how borders have divided people, and are forcing people to choose countries.” In order to reach across these categories of “race, gender, [and] ethnicity,” Dr. Delgado believes in the human notion of finding connections across these systematic categorizations. Dr. Delgado finds radical interconnectedness to be this “understanding of the meaning of human connection. And that is something that, I think, is a wonderful, wonderful notion.”
When studying, researching, and teaching histories of Latinx culture and their borders, Dr. Delgado’s central drive is to “put in conversation the voices of people who are unheard; in the records they are certainly unheard, and you know, unanalyzed and underrecognized. So when I can do that, and bring voice to those people and their experience, that really exhilarates me.”
As a Woman of Color in academia, Dr. Delgado faces a myriad of challenges on multiple levels, from day to day tribulations to institutional level inequalities such as lower pay and fighting for the same respect that her white male counterparts receive. There are also inequalities which are not quantitatively measured, or cannot be equaled out by something like a promotion. As Dr. Delgado points out, “women are still earning 80 cents per dollar that men are earning. There’s a lot there.”
One of the most valuable lessons that Dr. Delgado has learned in her time as an influential Woman of Color in academia is the power one has to limit oneself. When finding oneself in a position of influence in many aspects, it is easy to stretch oneself too thin, trying to be something meaningful or helpful to each and every person. However, as Dr. Delgado has discovered throughout her career, “I don’t have to be all things to all people. I can choose how to spend my time, and to what end.” Dr. Delgado even speaks to junior faculty on this robotization of academia, hoping to start a large-scale conversation about maintaining one’s humanity and free will in such a demanding career. Throughout her career, Dr. Delgado has always attempted to “fight against that internalization of our profession, and becoming academic robots.”
As an academic, there are a great number of ideologies to which Dr. Delgado is exposed to, but I was particularly interested in her beliefs towards feminisms. When presented with one definition of feminism, given by bells hooks in her book Feminism is for Everybody, Dr. Delgado took issue with how simple this definition makes ending sexism seem. bell hooks defines feminism as simply the “end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks, 1). However, as an academic, Dr. Delgado finds this to be the:
“overstatement of the century. Women have been fighting sexism in this country for 350 years, you know, and there are different types of feminist movements over history, and it’s not just some idea fifty years in the making. It’s been a long battle against the patriarchy. There are different types of feminism, and different degrees of emancipation and what it means to be a woman and to be free. What does that mean? I mean it’s surely individualistic, and definitely different from nation to nation.”
While she takes issue with such a simplified definition, Dr. Delgado is impressed with the rapid growth in feminisms in the last decade, particularly within the last ten years. In the generation before my own,
“there was a real stepping away from feminism, especially in communities of color, and I witnessed it, as a young faculty member, and I tried to talk to students about feminism and how it was just an incredible idea that was analogous to lesbianism and seuxal sort of countercultures, and all of this negativity around feminism, and I was shocked, you know, at all this negativity, and the lack of knowledge and ignorance about this idea and how even progressive women, who are now I guess in their thirties, they moved away from it very consciously.”
However, as we witness on a daily basis today, the general public’s connotation of feminism has evolved over the years, as it grows:
“in the context of just disgusting misogyny. Not only in our country, but in the world. And again this is sort of the wonderful thing about social media, is that we made that misogyny very visible, and very quickly visible. But at the same time, it also works for misogyny, as there are now different ways to go about harassing women and expressing this hatred towards women.”
Living in such a controversial time now, Dr. Delgado’s opinions remain as strong as ever, as she fights to give voice to those without. When asked what movement resonated most with her growing up, Dr. Delgado gave the same answer she gave for which movement deserved the most attention now: immigrant rights. With personal familial experience, immigration touches close to Dr. Delgado’s heart in multiple ways, as it is also the subject of much of her academic work. When she was younger, it was the “Sanctuary Movement” of Central American refugees which touched Dr. Delgado the most, as it “was one movement that, you know, cut across Democrats, and Republicans, and rich people and poor people and middle class. It was a wonderful cross sectionality of people who were coming together to, number one, highlight the hypocrisy of the Reagan administration, and number two, provide sanctuary for people fleeing war. It was terrific.”
Dr. Delgado still believes that immigrant rights deserve the most attention as a sociopolitical movement, as this issue “encompasses women’s rights, labor rights, human rights.” She believes that this movement “has been a while in the making and is finally emerging as an important social justice movement. It has been long and long in the making, and I still think we don’t pay enough attention to refugee rights, immigrant rights, immigration reform.”
Speaking to this very issue, Dr. Delgado has written contemporary works regarding the controversy of the DACA bill as she continues to fight to give voice to those without. Featured in a special-issue article among four other scholars critique the new book The Origins of Deportation Policy by Torrie Hester (2017: University of Pennsylvania Press), Dr. Delgado’s writes on “DACA and the Trump administration’s refusal to renew the program. I talked about that in relation to this modern nation state and how we shape immigration control very early on to remove some people and incarcerate some people and this is really a hundred years in the making. One, that we could even make a law like DACA, and two, that we could undo it so quickly. What really remains in the ashes of DACA is this incarceration regime for immigrants and refugees, and that’s what I looked at.”
When it comes to her personal life, Dr. Delgado is a driven, hardworking individual who is inspired by “ideas. The right ideas. What motivates me and excites me is to write a history about a people form a perspective that the general public hasn’t had a lot of in the past. Not a hidden history or a new history, just refocusing the lens on the past on a people and a time and a subject area that is under appreciated.”
Dr. Delgado has led an inspiring, intriguing life over the years which has led her to the position of influence she occupies today as a Woman of Color in academia. As the head of the History Department’s Graduate Program, Dr. Delgado seeks out every chance possible to give voice to those without, using her position of power to assist those in positions of oppression. It is women like Dr. Grace Pena Delgado who have changed, will change, and continue to change the world we live in with their determination, passion, and drive to better the world around them.