Albert Camarillo looks back on 25 years focusing on race and ethnic studies

by Melissa De Witte on June 3, 2021

When Stanford University began planning for a Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity in the early 1990s, the nation was reeling from myriad racial issues: A video of police beating Rodney King, a Black man, had gone viral and nationwide violence erupted following the acquittal of four police officers accused of assaulting him. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant rhetoric in U.S. politics was on the rise, recalled Menlo Park resident Albert Camarillo, CCSRE’s founding director.

As the center kicks off its 25-year anniversary with an event on June 4 and a new publication on its history, these issues around race and ethnicity remain as relevant today as they were when the center launched in 1996.

“These are not new things,” said Camarillo. “These are the legacies of the past with contemporary manifestations. Almost every single one of them. What it tells us is that race is even more important today than 25 years ago when we established the center, or even in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the birth of ethnic studies.”

When Camarillo came to Stanford in 1975 as a professor in the History Department, ethnic studies was a nascent discipline.

“We didn’t know it would have sustaining power, whether it would catch on, whether programs or faculty would survive and sustain and build,” said Camarillo, among the first historians in the United States specializing in Chicana/o history and the Leon Sloss Jr. Memorial Professor, Emeritus, in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “It was an unknown proposition because it was brand new in American higher education in the 1960s and 1970s.”

By the early 1990s, however, race and ethnic studies had gained momentum at Stanford and other universities, propelled in part by passionate faculty and students, Camarillo explained.
But it wasn’t until Camarillo, along with his colleague, the late history professor George Fredrickson, secured a grant in 1994 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lead a two-year Sawyer Seminar focused on comparative race and ethnic studies that faculty from across campus whose research touched on the topic came together for the first time.

For Camarillo and other seminar participants, the experience was transformative, leading to new ways of understanding race and ethnicity in America.

“It was the ‘aha moment’ for so many of us,” said Camarillo. He recalled sharing his work comparing patterns of African American, European immigrant and Mexican American urban residential segregation in the early 1900s. “When a colleague, I think it was Gordon Chang, asked me about how San Francisco’s Chinatown fit into these patterns, it made me think further about the question. After further reading, I came to the conclusion that Chinatown is, in fact, the first example of a racialized ghetto in American history,” he said.

Through these comparative discussions, it became clear to the cohort that they were onto a new way of doing scholarship. “That seminar was really critical as the intellectual foundation for those of us who wanted to come together and do race and ethnic studies in a much more organized, supported fashion,” Camarillo said.

Over the subsequent years, Camarillo, who was then associate dean in charge of undergraduate studies, worked closely with then dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences Ewart Thomas, and later John Shoven, to envision what a more permanent race and ethnic studies program might look like.

Plans to expand race and ethnicity programming at Stanford were accelerated following a wave of student activism in 1994, including a hunger strike by five students, one of whom was Elvira Prieto, BA ’96, who is now associate dean of students and director of El Centro Chicano y Latino. Two years later, on November 21, 1996, the Faculty Senate unanimously approved a plan to establish CCSRE.

Camarillo said that while he cannot predict what direction race and ethnic studies will take over the next 25 years, he is confident it will be critical for understanding some of society’s most complicated, pressing problems.

Over the past year, Camarillo, along with other CCSRE faculty affiliates, have participated in a task force Provost Persis Drell formed through the IDEAL initiative to envision what race and ethnic studies should look like for the next generation of Stanford scholars.

Reflecting on the growth of race and ethnic studies over the past three decades, Camarillo said: “It took not only the people – the faculty and the students who promoted the importance of race studies – it took innovative leaders of the institution to say, ‘It is important, we agree with you, and we are going to help you develop it because it’s something we should do as a university.’”

Paula Moya will serve as the next director of CCSRE. Her appointment will start Sept. 1, 2021.

CCSRE will host a virtual celebration in honor of its 25th anniversary on June 4, 2021, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. The evening of tribute will also include an address by CCSRE founding director Albert Camarillo; an awards presentation to honor campus, community and partners; videos of CCSRE community members to commemorate the occasion; and a presentation of Reaching Toward Warmer Suns (2020), a sculpture by CCSRE alum Kiyan Williams, BA ’13. RSVP here.

Photo of Albert Camarillo by Scott R. Kline (c) 2018

An original painting created by the Oakland-based artist Diego Marcial Rios shown midway in this post is part of the 25 year anniversary of CCSRE. (Image credit: Diego Marcial Rios)

This is an abridged version of longer article issued by the Stanford News Service.


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