Dante Seminar: “Spotlight on Pioneering Latino Scholar and Activist Ernesto Galarza”

Julie Leininger Pycior, Ph.D., opened up this semester’s first Dante Seminar with a discussion on her research on Ernesto Galarza, a Mexican-American activist who fought for workers’ rights throughout his lifetime.

Rocco Marinaccio, Ph.D., introduced Pycior as leading a “special Dante Seminar for Latino Heritage Month,” to start off a “really great line-up” of discussions to be held later this year.

Photo by Cara Ledwidge.
Faculty members at the first Dante Seminar of the year. Photo by Cara Ledwidge.

Pycior’s work on Galarza is for a conference she will be attending, the Western History Conference, later this month.

Pycior just released her latest book titled “Democratic Renewal and Mutual Aid Legacy of U.S. Mexicans,” which also speaks on Mexican-American relations throughout the history of the United States.

Galarza was a Mexican-American civil rights leader of the 20th century, but in her paper, Pycior focuses on Galarza of the 1930s and 1940s as he became a “transnational research scholar and activist,” Pycior said.

Galarza was born in 1905 in Mexico, and at the age of eight he and his family moved to Sacramento, Calif. as many other Mexicans did within this time period. His mother died of influenza in 1917, but instead of “working in the local cannery,” Pycior said, “he went on to graduate from Stanford in 1929.”

As an undergrad, Galarza was highly aware of the “discriminatory quotas and restrictions” against Mexicans that were being debated about across the country, Pycior said.

The only people who were in opposition to the quotas were the growers who hired many Mexicans to come and work for them each year.

“The growers had a voice in the debate, the immigrants themselves did not,” Pycior said.

The growers had a power within the United States, and they insisted that the Mexicans were just coming to work, and so the quota movement did not turn into law just yet.

Despite the lack of a quota against Mexican immigrants, “the United States deported over 200,000 people during the Great Depression,” Pycior said.

While the debate of Mexican-American relations and immigration waged on, Galarza married Mae Taylor in 1929, who attended Columbia Teachers College. Galarza would then go on to receive his doctorate from Columbia in 1944.

Galarza became the co-editor of the short-lived magazine Photo History, a “left-wing publication that was only ever published three times,” Pycior said.

Galarza then became a member of the Pan American Union where he met Louisa Moreno, another famous Hispanic activist of the time period. She was also involved in the Congress of Spanish Speaking People “which was supported by grassroots, unions and members of congress,” Pycior said.

Galarza, while working in Washington, was also “concerned about ties to business interests of the U.S. in South and Latin America,” Pycior said, especially because of the attachment of Mexican government-owned companies such as their electric company.

Galarza later accused the United States ambassador to Bolivia of pressuring the Bolivian government to not help the tin industry because the U.S. in the early 1940s needed tin to help fight World War II. The U.S. denied these accusations, and so began “Galarza being known as the man against tin,” Pycior said.

Galarza even quit his job at the Pan American Union to make his point, but he was later reinstated until he quit once again for good in 1947.

After Galarza quit, he began to join a movement to form a union in California, the National Farm Workers’ Union, which became one of the biggest unions in the country. The backing of the American Federation of Labor gave the union even more credibility as it attempted to protect many of the migrant workers. The laborers were coming to America through contracts that allowed them only to work, not to immigrate, which Pycior added, “was the antithesis of free labor.”

Galarza opposed the movement to allow these farmers to enter the country like this because he felt that these workers were being exploited. As time went on, the AFL “did not understand,” Pycior said, and that Galarza’s options became extremely limited, and so he turned to writing books on the subject instead.

Much later on in his life, Galarza gave a talk at Michigan State University on the history of Mexico and America, and it turns out Pycior was an undergrad studying Spanish literature and minoring in history at Michigan State University, and she heard Galarzo speak in detail about these relations in 1970.

“As my husband would say, and the rest is history,” Pycior said.

As a current history professor, Pycior revealed that she “was so interested in Mexican-American relations” both then and now. To give a talk on Galarza “is only fitting” after she had seen him in person giving a speech on a very similar issue many years before.

“When I saw him, I didn’t know who he was, but the revelation that I had to know what I wanted to do stemmed from similar feelings I shared with him,” she said.

These “similar feelings” on Mexican-American relations led her to work on many volunteer trips to help migrant farmers during her senior year of college.

This personal connection was the conclusion of Pycior’s seminar and was followed by a discussion among the other professors who had come to listen to her research.

Robert M. Geraci, Ph.D. and professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, then went on to ask Pycior, “How do we leverage history in these moments?” These “moments” refer to how in his hometown, the school districts have stopped busing students from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to school together.

Pycior answered the question with, “When things like that happen, we lose a lot, and Texas history is a history of struggling” with “white men talking about white men.” In these moments, Pycior said, it is so important to remember not only Ernesto Galarza, but also the deep and rich history that Mexican-Americans have to offer this country.