By Irene I. Blea (PhDSoc’80)
The only thing I was good at in the late 1970s was watching people and going to school. But high school was over five years past and now I found myself with a four-year-old daughter, divorced, on welfare and food stamps. I lived near a steel mill in Pueblo, Colorado and a friend suggested I take some university courses when I could not get a job at the local hospital for what was then called the insane.
I had trained as a mental health technician (grunt work) in a cukoo’s nest type hospital in Pueblo, Colo., but could not get a job at the end of my training. I qualified for financial aid and got a bachelor’s in sociology at what was then Southern Colorado State College. Once I traveled to Boulder with a friend who was nervous about his interview for admission to admission to graduate school. I didn’t even understand graduate school or advanced degrees.
When I was in Boulder I decided to interview with a professor who asked me three questions: my name, was I a student and what was my GPA? He was astonished that it was 3.9 (at Southern Colorado State) and asked me to visit another professor while he talked to my friend. I went off to answer more questions and to fill out several forms. In summary, I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship to attend graduate school at CU-Boulder.
At first, I reflected on my graduate studies in the department of sociology as strange and lonely. I missed my family and friends. My daughter was in a mostly white school and there were few Hispanics like me in my graduate program. I was shy but hid it well and often wondered what I was doing on campus. My refuge was the three graduate seminars I took each term. I did the work assigned in each seminar, and since I had no friends, I spent much time with my daughter and writing the 30-page term papers required.
While on campus I did not know someone could foster a relationship with a professor and that a professor could become a mentor. I had two or three different advisers but did not see them unless they asked to see me. Our conversations were academic, and I found them a curious lot, with dusty books and papers on their desks, on the floor and on shelves.
It was a busy time. Some students, including myself, protested the war in Vietnam, women fought for equal rights, hippies swarmed to Boulder. Free love, drugs and free thought were the rage. To me it was all a large classroom where I met different people engaged in various activities. Between the classroom and the campus atmosphere I learned how to build on my natural abilities: reading, writing about and studying people. It was on campus that I began to keep the journals I still write in almost every day.
Chicano Studies, African American studies and women studies attracted me. I studied in these departments and in sociology. I found the professors’ jobs of teaching and helping students fascinating. In my classes racism, sexism and class discrimination were discussed. These concepts were more than theory to me – they were my life. I was a civil rights activist and lost my shyness.
I challenged conservative instructors and attended rallies and consciousness-raising groups. I was criticized and supported for my positions, but it became clear that I had to pursue human justice.
I first read my original poetry at CU, and much later I read it across the U.S., in China and in Europe. Poetry helped sharpen my analytical and critical thinking skills.
I joined the early founders of Chicano studies, developed and taught courses on La Chicana and La Familia and got them cross-listed with women’s studies. For me, this was a time of integrating my professional and personal experience growing up Hispanic and being a single parent to render a unique perspective on the languages, history and cultures of the Southwest.
My CU days were busy. I learned time management and raised my daughter. For one of my seminars I lived on the streets conducting a participant observation study as a term project. That term paper was used by the city of Boulder to help address its homeless problem in the 1980s. I missed home, and it was important that my daughter be well rooted in her extended family. Somehow I managed to visit them and my friends every two weeks.
I graduated in December 1980 with a doctorate in sociology. I applied for and got college and university teaching jobs where I nurtured and enjoyed my students. I wrote six textbooks on racism and sexism ,which were used as required university classroom reading across the U.S. Two of my books, Toward a Chicano Social Science and La Chicana: The Intersection of Race, Class and Gender (both Praeger) are considered classics in their field. Besides the academic textbooks and poetry, I’ve written one play, four chapbooks of poetry, and received several awards as a poet, scholar and for community service.
An accident forced me to retire as a tenured full professor and chair of the department of Mexican American studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Leaving campus was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I now write novels as they don’t require footnotes or other references. I give a guest lecture once in a while keeping me current in my field of lifetime learning.