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Hector Delgado, professor of sociology, has been a leading voice on sociological and political issues at the University of La Verne for the better part of the decade. In addition to his teaching, Delgado has been executive officer for the Society for the Study of Social Problems for almost a year. Delgado made some time to sit down with me to discuss a few pressing questions about race relations, immigration and what movies meet his standards.
First off tell me a little bit about your academic history and how it led you to a career in teaching.
Well I did graduate from high school. I went to Temple University on a baseball scholarship and at that time I had no idea what I wanted to do. Like most people who went to liberal arts colleges I figured I would just take the first two years to explore, even though one of my biggest interests was anthropology. Not that anybody would be interested in this story but the first exam I have ever took in college was in anthropology. And after the exam all my friends asked me how I did and I told them I thought I had gotten an A, no worse than a B. I failed it. And it’s one thing to fail an exam when you didn’t think you were ready for it. But when you think you got an A…I thought to myself “My God”. I immediately thought I didn’t belong there. But I think I ended up with a C in that class.
But at that time, even though I was a good student, my world was sports. Especially baseball and basketball, and I had some basketball offers and baseball offers but I went with Temple. And so I played there for a while and I ended up majoring in political science. And then I immediately went to work in higher education. My first job was an admissions officer at Rutgers University and I went to school part time in the school of education. So I got my masters in education and did all of the course work for a doctorate in education but I never finished the dissertation for two reasons. One, I was politically active with a lot of organizations local, national and even international. And the other reason was I couldn’t find good mentorship, which was a problem, especially at that time, we are talking about the 1970s and it was difficult for students of color and women to get mentored, and that is really critical during graduate school. So I didn’t finish that and then from then on I went to work as a residence councilor for a while. Then I became the assistant director of an equal opportunity fund program at Rutgers University in Camden. I did that for a while and then I got a job as the dean of students at Princeton University and I did that for three years. And during my time at Princeton I would always be in the middle of one thing or another, some dispute. I remember one time I wrote a letter in the student paper, and I have always had a good relationship with the students, mainly because I always tend to be vocal. So I wrote a letter on institutional racism, which of course the administration wasn’t happy about. It was an interesting time but I was always engaged in conversations with students, faculty, and other administrator’s mainly about racism but about a range of other issues as well. And I thought to myself why don’t I become an academic and go back to graduate school and become a professor because I was already kind of acting like one.
I went back when I was about 34 years old and got a fellowship through the University of Michigan for a Ph.D. in sociology. I also got married in 1983 and my wife started in 1984 at the University of Michigan Law School.
She is an attorney, a union side labor lawyer. So politically we are compatible. In August we will be married for 27 years. I defended my dissertation in 1990 and I wrote a book based on it. And a number of people have referred to it as pioneering on the unionization of undocumented immigrants and it spawned a lot more research on immigrants and unions. My first job was at Occidental College and we were thinking about leaving California and so I took a job in Arizona thinking she would follow. And the way it worked out, I was actually commuting from Pasadena to Tucson. I would leave late Monday night, teach Tuesday and Thursday, and come back Thursday night. At one point I had my oldest son with me and she had our youngest with her and we would only see each other on the weekends. That was probably the low point because if anybody asks me what my master status is, it is father. That is the most important thing to me. And so being away from the youngest one for that long and it tore my wife apart not to see Andres every day. But we weathered that. Then we decided to meet halfway so I got a job at UCI but that was still too far.
So I ended up here, in La Verne, and I didn’t know anything about La Verne, not just the university but also the city. And the first thing that pops into most people’s mind when they hear La Verne is Shirley, right? But the thing that struck me was the mission and so I got in touch with the school. And there was a position at the time and they were able to create two positions and I came in with Ernie Thompson. In fact if you want to interview someone he would be a really good interview.
What do you think the biggest attraction La Verne has to offer students?
I think the intimacy and the size without question. In fact, that is why I think a lot of students come here. It’s my impression at least based on conversations I have had. Classes are still, and I hope they remain on the small side. Faculty tends to be accessible, for good and bad reasons. The good reason is that I think by in large the faculty really cares about the students. But at the same time, up to this point, the research requirements for faculty have not been that great, but I think it has been growing. The university recognizes that if we are going to become a more prestigious institution academically, we have to have a faculty that publishes. Ideally what you want are faculty who in the work that they do, faculty at other institutions who are doing work in that area, can’t do it without reading the work you do. So it becomes not only do you do work in that area but do you do work that others pay attention to.
Tell me an interesting baseball story from your time at Temple University.
I wasn’t getting a lot of playing time. When I was in high school I played everything, but in college I played outfield. My strength was fielding, I caught, I pitched, and I played infield and outfield. Before the game the coach always hit balls to the infielders and the outfielders and usually there is more than one person at each position, especially in the outfield. So the other guy went first, he was going to start that day, and when he was done the coach hit one out to me, but the other player cut in front of me inadvertently and so I couldn’t see the ball until the last moment. Of course the coach didn’t know this and one of my teammates was standing next to him and he told me later that the coach said, “F***ing Puerto Rican bastard.” Because he thought I was dogging it. We had been on a losing streak, so after the game the coach is giving us one of those talks coaches give about how if guys had a scholarship, which I did, that they could keep it if they quit the team. So after the game I said to him, “Did you make a comment about my ethnicity?” And he said, “Yeah, but I would say that about anybody, if they were Irish or German or whatever.” So I said to him, “What you said about quitting the team and keeping the scholarship does that still hold?” And he goes, “Yeah, why?” I go, “Because I’m not playing for you anymore.”
It was really very difficult because sports were a really important part of my life. In many ways it had become my identity. That is who I was. So all of a sudden this part of my life is changing quite dramatically. And if I recall correctly chances are I had tears in my eyes as I was putting stuff away from my locker.
And the thing that happened was I became much more politically active, this was during the war in Vietnam. So I became much more active on campus. There was an alternative newspaper to the campus paper because they thought the campus paper was too tame. I think it was called The Progressive and so I wrote a few columns for that and I really enjoyed it. I then filed for conscientious objector status for the war in Vietnam, and I got it but I was never called so I didn’t have to make the decision to either go and be a part of the machine or ultimately go to prison. People who filed for conscientious objector status had two choices, 1. Go to prison or 2. Go to Canada. So I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I think I was leaning toward going to prison, but it never came to that.
When I quit playing baseball this whole other world opened up to me. I became much more aware. In a way sports can inoculate you from everything else because you become so focused. You don’t find many athletes who are really that politically aware who are even that active politically. I mean they are really consumed by the sport. It’s not part of the culture. I worked with a guy at Rutgers University named Willie Hamm and he was amazing. He was an African-American guy who told me if you’ve got something to say and you think it is important, and it’s going to affect people’s lives, just say it. Your first thought should not be about you, you are driven by what is right. That doesn’t mean you fight every battle but there are some battles you really do have to fight.
Why do you think there is such strong opposition to gay marriage? Especially in California, when our voting record leans more to the left.
I think people who are opposed to it are opposed to it for a lot of different reasons. I don’t think there is any one reason. The proposition failed because people took it for granted that this is California and of course we are going to have gay marriage. I don’t think they organized as well and didn’t take it as seriously as people who are opposed to gay marriage. And I think if it comes up again, it will pass. A lot of people are opposed to it for religious reasons and feel it really conflicts with their religious views. I don’t think anybody has a right to impose their religious views on other people, but I am seeing just the opposite in this country. It scares me. When I look at the election, for example, where you have presidential candidates having two different debates, if that’s what you want to call them, with religious leaders, there is something very wrong with that. I think it is also something relatively new.
I don’t worry about who is sleeping with who. The only person I worry about them sleeping with is my wife, other than that I don’t care. And I’ll be honest with you; I went to see “Brokeback Mountain” and when the two guys kiss it made me a little uncomfortable. Intellectually in every respect there is nothing wrong with that. On the other hand there was part of me where there was a little homophobia. I would defend them to the hilt to do that as often as they wanted. I don’t quite understand how two other people getting married affects your marriage or the institution of marriage. As far as the sanctity of it, given the divorce rate among heterosexuals, I think heterosexuals took care of the sanctity part.
Do you think it will continue to be left up to the states to make their own decisions on it or do you think it will ever be taken to a federal level?
I think it will still be a state issue. I think there are gay activists who are really reluctant to have a case go to the Supreme Court. They think their chances are better going state by state and getting support. They are afraid that a case will go to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court will make a decision that would set a precedent. Sometimes activists don’t want their cause to go to the Supreme Court, especially not this court, I mean we are talking about gay marriage. This is one of the most activist courts we have seen in a long time. This is one of the most activist courts I have seen, especially when you have the courts deciding the president. So you definitely don’t want to take it to this group.
How, if at all, has Barack Obama’s election changed the nature of America? In terms of him being the first black President.
It got a lot of people pissed off for sure. I was asking a couple people I know if they thought we would have a Tea Party if everything else was the same and Obama was white, full white not half white. And I am not sure there would be a Tea Party. I mean that is something we can debate on. Clearly there would be groups of people opposed but I don’t think it would have taken the tenor and the tone that this Tea Party has. We saw some ugly parts of it this weekend with the epithets and spitting.
First of all I never thought I would see a black man elected president in my lifetime, and think about the extraordinary circumstances that it took for it to happen. It took near depression, a very unpopular war, it took a very old presidential candidate and a, I don’t even know how to describe her, vice presidential nominee. I’ll be careful with that one. People started thinking the closer we got that this woman could be president. One second she is saying that it is important where she lives because if we are invaded by Russia she will see the airplanes first, that she would call it in. I mean we wouldn’t know the airplanes were coming unless she called it in. So this is somebody that could have been president.
And I ask my students that what if both his parents were black? Or had he been darker skin? Would he have been elected? These are all things that come into play. The fact that he is part white with light skin and articulate are things that I think made it easier. At the same time to be more positive about it, there were a lot of people who wanted it to happen and not just African Americans. If it did nothing else, what it did was it said at least it’s possible. And I think by the time it’s done I think we will have survived it. Some people can say that okay we had a black president and we are still here. I’m still amazed we are still here after Bush quite frankly.
It’s ironic because one of the things you worry about is that whenever anybody from a minority group assumes a position and they are the first or one of the few, they don’t just represent themselves in our society, they represent the entire group. Because if, for example, whites were to represent their race we would have stopped electing white men a long time ago. So if Obama is a disaster it’s going to make it much harder the next time because you will have people saying, “I told you they couldn’t do it.” Or if a woman is elected president and she is a disaster some responses will be “I told you they can’t do it. We really need to stick with white guys.”
Even though a lot of people on the left are disappointed that Obama hasn’t pushed harder, that he compromises too much, or there have been a number of issues that he hasn’t addressed even from within the black community, that he hasn’t focused on more jobs and a lot of Latinos are getting angry for not addressing immigration issues. There are things that have happened and will happen under this administration that would have been very different if McCain and Palin were in the White House. Surely, health care. I don’t know how that is going to turn out. But I don’t think health care would have even been on the radar.
And finally, black kids can say now that at least there are possibilities. I think they will be fooled to some degree in a sense, in that thinking that this is a lot easier than it really is. But at the same time it provides some sort of motivation that may not lead to be president but may in fact lead to something else, then I think that is a good thing.
I think we have become more comfortable to a degree with respect to race. Whether it radically changes race relations in the United States, I think hardly at all. I think there have been many more significant changes that happened before his election on the other hand his election wouldn’t have happened if those changes hadn’t taken place. Most of the significant change we have seen in this country comes from political activists, people who have applied pressure. People who have made it difficult for the country to proceed with business as usual.
Now there have been murmurs that the next thing on Obama’s and the Democrats’ agenda is to reform immigration. What kind of legislation would you like to see implemented?
Well before I talk specifically about the immigration issue, let me first say that he probably expended a lot of political capital with health care. And I think when it comes to immigration I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a more conservative approach than he would have otherwise because already he is sort of being labeled as a socialist and that he is destroying our country. I think Boehner (John Boehner R-Ohio) said the bill was Armageddon.
So there is all this, the country is going down the toilet. And so if he comes out with a strong program it is going to be more measured. I don’t know if you realize this but deportation rates, for example, were higher this year than under Bush.
I would like to see an amnesty program. There have been people who have lived here a long time and have contributed to society by paying taxes, etc. And so I think that would be an important part of any comprehensive legislation. For most of labor’s history they have opposed it and have been the strongest opponents of immigration, and that is a relatively recent phenomenon when people see labor supporting this. And it’s partly out of necessity because they figure that they (immigrants) are going to be here anyway. So whether or not you make it easier for people to get here or whether you give them amnesty or not, they are going to be here. For one thing, we depend too much on their labor and so I think unions got out their calculators and made the easy calculation that they need to organize. And they thought, well, the thing is you’re not going to keep immigrants out, the only way you can maintain wages at a higher level or working conditions is by organizing immigrant workers.
For example, foreign relations, foreign affairs or economic policy around the world, especially in Mexico is important to understand. Because people don’t leave one country for another because they don’t want to be with their families. They go for a reason. NAFTA, for example, was something that was supposed to curtail immigration to this country and it had the opposite effect. Because in effect what it did was exploit workers even more and brought more workers to the border. It will be interesting to see what they adopt. Hopefully what they do is look at the work that has been done on immigration. I always like to see policies informed by good research.
If you could narrow it down to one thing, what is the most important thing you want students to take away from your classes?
That’s easy, actually, for me. The most important thing we do as teachers is to teach students how to think critically. To question; to scratch the surface; to see how things are connected to one another. Facts you can look up, you can’t look up critical thinking. Critical thinking is a skill that you develop and then you hone.
You can go at it at so many different ways; it’s the types of questions you ask on your exams, questions you pose in the classroom. I spend a lot of time trying to get students to see connections, and I spend a lot of time trying to play devil’s advocate. I am more interested with how they got there. As a teacher, I mean my politics are very much on the left, but as a teacher I’m not going to shove them down anybody’s throat. Partly because I am where I am, not because somebody told me to be there but because that’s where I arrived after thinking. What I would rather do is give students the skills, or help them develop skills, and I am pretty confident that if they take it seriously and they think they will arrive at the same place I will.
I enjoy debates a lot, and what I really like is when somebody on the right is really smart. I don’t like to see a debate when somebody on the left is blowing somebody on the right away. I really like to see somebody on the right who can really make a good argument. If you have a particular view and somebody counters you, it forces you to be even smarter. If somebody makes a really good argument and almost kind of blows some holes in your argument, your reaction shouldn’t be “Oh S***!” it should actually be “I need to make a better argument.” They have pointed out to you what the holes in your argument are, and it should excite you. Even the way you live your life; it’s the ability to be a good thinker. And that kind of thing makes you a better worker, it makes you a better spouse, makes you a better parent.
Is it a fine line for you to not expose your politics or let your politics influence the way in which you teach?
I don’t worry a lot about it because I think if you worry about it too much you have a tendency to distort, or if forces you to soften something that shouldn’t be softened.
For example, I teach a course in race and ethnicity and I don’t water it down. I have had colleagues over the years who teach the course that it is an issue that people are uncomfortable with so they are always very careful. I think that is a mistake. I don’t like building up straw men, I don’t build up an argument just to knock it down. Because I want people to be forced to make the best argument they can and the best way they can do that is to respond to a really good argument.
I have never really had a problem in class where somebody on the right politically got beat up by me or anybody else in the class. Because if you are going to attack, attack the idea, not the person. If somebody starts by saying “Well the reason you…” I’ll cut them off. The best way to kill an argument is intellectually as opposed to calling somebody a name.
And of course there are times when a student will raise a question and I’m not sure how to respond to it. I don’t have a problem acknowledging that I haven’t really thought about it that way. I have experienced in class, meetings and committees that people get really caught up in somebody’s tone. I really get annoyed with that. Especially if it is somebody white accusing somebody who is black of sounding too angry. Because it is bad enough that here is somebody who is a member of a group that this society has subordinated and now on top of that we are going to tell them how they can talk. Instead of telling the person to tone it down, maybe think a little bit more about why their tone is the way it is. It is a cultural bias in our society that if somebody is really pissed off then they don’t make sense or they can’t be rational. Sometimes the only time we make sense is when we are angry. Why can’t you be pissed off and be rational?
One of the reasons I teach and one of the reasons I like to teach and why I think it is important to teach is because I think it is important for people to be informed and to be good thinkers. Any democracy depends on that. If people are disengaged and people don’t know anything about the issues they are basically giving a lot of power to a small number of people to decide for them. I mean some people actually think Rush Limbaugh makes sense. They actually think he has something important to say; they hang on his every word. I mean that’s crazy to me. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t scare me; it’s the fact that all these people listen to him is what scares the hell out of me. If we had a different society where people were thinkers, and really thought about the issues, not that everybody would be a liberal, he wouldn’t have the same attraction. I really do believe that, and this might be a strong bias on my part, but I really do believe that if people really do think critically more people would come down on the left than the right.
If what we are talking about freedom, liberty, rights, justice and social justice, which is at the core of my being, I think people would arrive there. They would support gay marriage if they stopped thinking about it in a religious view and rather in a very rational way. I mean would you rather have two women who love each other and are amazing people raise a child or a man and a woman who are lousy parents raise that child?
In terms of sociology, if you could narrow it down to around five films, which films are must-see?
I’m not a real big Spike Lee fan but I thought that “Do the Right Thing” was really quite good. For anybody who wants to understand race, they need to see a three part documentary called “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” It’s a superb film. There is a film that is very good called “Los Mineros,” which deals with Mexican Americans. “Crash” wasn’t too bad. The film “Malcom X” wasn’t too bad; Denzel Washington did a relatively good job with that. “Mississippi Burning” rewrote history. I liked “Up in the Air.” I thought there were some really interesting sociological issues there. The films that I like the most are very often foreign films or more like indie films when there is hardly anybody else in the theater. Those I like a lot more.
Kevin Garrity can be reached at email@example.com.