A memoir about Chicano studies, intertwined with a history of Compton

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A memoir about Chicano studies, intertwined with a history of Compton

Book Review

Compton in My Soul: A Life in Pursuit of Racial Equality

By Albert M. Camarillo
Stanford: 312 pages, $28
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After learning about racial injustice firsthand in his hometown of Compton, where he was born in 1948, Albert M. Camarillo spent more than four decades pursuing racial equality as a professor of history at Stanford University. His new memoir moves back and forth between his story and Compton’s, illuminating both.

Camarillo relays the history of Compton in the decades following World War II, when it became increasingly Black and increasingly under-resourced, and he traces his remarkable academic career as one of the founders and shapers of the field of Chicano history, which was in its infancy in 1975 when he graduated as the first Mexican American to obtain a doctorate in U.S. history with this specialization. Ever the historian, Camarillo also frequently inserts episodes of Chicano and U.S. history in tandem with his own life story, which he relates in his own unflappable way.

The result is a drama-free mix of memoir and historical survey aimed at multiple audiences. Throughout, Camarillo makes clear that his Chicano identity is intertwined with his scholarly agenda: expanding the standard narrative of U.S. history to include folks like himself.

The Compton in Camarillo’s soul predated the city that became infamous in the 1980s for gang violence. The first part of the book traces the history of Compton from the 1910s, when both his father’s and his mother’s families first arrived, to Camarillo’s decision in 1966 to attend UCLA, 20 miles and a world away. He grew up “Chicano style,” meaning brown, poor and subject to what he calls “Jaime Crow.” As a youth, he also witnessed the sudden transformation of Compton from a white-majority city to a Black one, a dramatic demographic change that soon triggered, as elsewhere in the country, white antagonism and flight, and the eventual gutting of the tax base. Camarillo details familiar precursors to urban decline while sharing his generally positive memories of Compton during the 1950s and 1960s. Attending public schools, he enjoyed Black, white and Latino friends. Tapped for leadership by his high school teachers, Camarillo headed his high school’s effort to cultivate multicultural understanding in the wake of the Watts riots in 1965. The complex landscape of post-World War II Los Angeles informed his commitment to diversity once he became a professor.

Because the K-12 education that he received only minimally prepared him for college, the second part of the book explains how a young man who ended his freshman year at UCLA on academic probation nonetheless became a tenured professor at one of the nation’s top universities. Key here was discovering his love of history in conjunction with a political awakening inspired by the protest politics of the era, including the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement and, above all, the Chicano movement.

Camarillo felt a sense of “authentic freedom” in publicly declaring himself a Chicano, which by the 1960s emerged as a politicized ethnic identity that activists used to indicate their dedication to improving the lives of all Mexican Americans. This commitment flowed into Camarillo’s research and shaped his career. At a time when few academics studied Mexican Americans and those who did mostly characterized Mexican Americans as a problem, the idea that their lives and histories were not only significant but even integral to the American story was revolutionary. Even before he had finished his dissertation, Stanford University came knocking with a job offer.

That dissertation became the 1979 book “Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930,” still a classic text within the field of Chicano history for proving the long-lasting repercussions of the U.S. war against Mexico for the thousands of Mexican citizens who in 1848 suddenly found themselves living in the American Southwest.

Beyond securing tenure, the book also secured Camarillo’s platform to pursue racial equality in the academic arena. Highlights from his distinguished career mentioned in the book include helping found a center for comparative research on race and ethnicity at Stanford and fostering inter-university research beyond campus. Among his most enduring legacies, Camarillo mentored a pipeline of graduate students, who, in turn, have trained many more. Most recently, Camarillo testified before state legislators in favor of California’s 2021 law that mandated the inclusion of ethnic studies in California’s high school curriculum starting in 2026.

While these events are far removed from Compton, in the last part of the book, Camarillo “circles back to his origins,” inspired to counter sensational reporting about the city with stories of resilience and hope. Interested in the city’s history since graduate school, Camarillo shares some of the research that he has conducted in the years since, including oral history interviews with longtime residents. He also details how support for public education in the city became a family affair after his eldest son became a public school teacher in Compton.

The book is thus a hybrid narrative, specific portions of which are likely to appeal to different audiences. Administrative and teaching triumphs are probably most interesting to fellow academics, while the information he relays about Compton is likely to appeal to Angelenos and aficionados of Los Angeles history. As for the young people he mentions who might read the narrative one day, they are a group most likely to benefit from his short historical synopses that provide context for the events in his life.

Camarillo’s calm, confident and determined demeanor infuses the book, the same demeanor that once earned him a walk-on spot on UCLA’s freshman basketball team and no doubt contributed to his remarkable educational journey. Neither the upheavals that he and his hometown experienced nor the challenges he confronted as a young scholar are sources of much dramatic tension. Instead, Camarillo focuses on the positive, the importance of family and community, the benefits of multiculturalism for advancing research and building a more just nation, and the power of persistence. Tellingly, Camarillo credits his wife, Susan, as a constant source of support, while also taking comfort in the knowledge that, as he put it, “true societal and institutional change is a multigenerational project.” In keeping with that sentiment, he ends his account with the hope that the book might inspire future generations of changemakers.

We don’t have to wait. Camarillo’s impactful life, his decades of agenda-setting scholarship and extraordinary dedication to teaching showcase an academic career committed to political activism yet imbued with gentility and generosity. In an era of political polarization and a sloppy disregard for evidence among some partisans, his book provides a refreshing antidote and useful model.

Lorena Oropeza, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of “The King of Adobe: Reies López Tijerina, Lost Prophet of the Chicano Movement.”

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