Ethnic Studies Continuing Lecturer Pablo Gonzalez talks about Chicano history and children’s books

UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Continuing Lecturer Pablo Gonzalez.

Character design artist Nathalie Bernal, helping students with their book drawings during the in-class workshops. 

Dr. Pablo Gonzalez with Hoover Elementary (Oakland) Librarian and Cal Alum, Kristen Flores welcoming students from the Introduction to Chicana/o History course to read their children's books to third grade classes. (pictured: Jennifer Garcia (left), Dayane Silva (center), and Lilia Evans (right).

June 5, 2024

UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Continuing Lecturer Pablo Gonzalez is a first-generation Chicano scholar-activist and anthropologist, and the recipient of the 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award. His research is focused on the political and cultural impact of indigenous social movements, particularly their resonance with Chicanxs and communities of color in the United States. Gonzalez teaches courses on Chicanx history, culture, ethnography, migration and criminality. 

During the Fall 2023 semester, students in his Chicano Studies history course created children's books focused on Chicanas in history as a way to counteract the defunding of ethnic studies programs in certain states. 

Gonzalez spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences recently about his Chicano Studies history course, movements and impactful work of his students.  

Tell us about your background as well as this class and your students

Pablo Gonzalez: I was born and raised in Berkeley and Richmond. My grandfather migrated from the Mexican city of Acámbaro in the state of Guanajuato in the early 1960s to Berkeley, after working as a Bracero worker (Mexican laborer). He worked in the steel mills of West Oakland and West Berkeley. He brought his many daughters, including my mother to Berkeley. 

My grandparents and parents instilled education at an early age. Yet, you might think that attending Berkeley public schools would give you a birds eye view of UC Berkeley, but that wasn’t the case. Like many Latinos in Berkeley, we knew the Berkeley campus more intimately due to our family members working as custodial staff or parking attendants. I didn’t know about UC Berkeley until high school, when my brother attended UC Berkeley. I also eventually met my brother at UC Berkeley. 

As a first-generation Chicano student, I attended UC Davis for a year before transferring to UC Berkeley and graduating in 1999 in Chicano Studies. I attended Berkeley at a time when there was a constant attack on immigrants in California and the end of affirmative action. The activism of the 1990s inspired my future Ph.D. research. I wanted to continue my studies in graduate school and attended the University of Texas at Austin for my Ph.D. in anthropology. At UT, I was trained by the very best in Chicana/o anthropology and borderlands studies. My research looked at Chicana/o transborder activism in the U.S. and Mexico with indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. It was a project that aligned with my activist and scholarly interests. I received my Ph.D. in 2011 and started working at UC Berkeley as a lecturer in 2012. The first course I taught at Berkeley was an introduction to Chicano history course in the fall of 2012. The course is one of our foundational courses in Chicanx and Latinx Studies. I am honored to have taught the course over the last 10 years, given that it was taught by our esteemed Ethnic Studies Professor Emeritus Alex Saragoza, who taught it for decades. The course is our largest in the Chicanx and Latinx Studies program at 120 students. They are predominantly first-generation first-year Chicanx and Latinx students from throughout California. 

Alongside the wonderful cohort of students who take the course, I also have had the pleasure of having the most amazing graduate student instructors (GSI),, who have won outstanding GSI awards and are recent Ph.D.’s in ethnic studies. The course covers the long history of racialized ethnic Mexicans in the United States, through the lens of silences and absences in the historiography. This has led to class projects where students collaborate to create podcasts, infographs, tiktoks, pop up books, augmented reality projects, and more recently, children’s books on Chicanas in history.

Your students' children's books sound fascinating, tell us more about them.   

Pablo Gonzalez: About a year ago, I was reading articles about recent debates over ethnic studies in the k-12 curriculum in California. I was reading how groups lobbying to silence black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) voices were gaining influence in the new curriculum. 

Similarly, colleagues in Texas and in Florida were outraged at recent legislative bills banning and defunding LGBTQ+ and ethnic studies (read as critical race theory) from schools. I was inspired by the libro traficante movement of the early 2010s in Arizona that challenged the banning of Mexican American Studies in Tucson, to think about how to respond to this growing movement against ethnic studies. 

Since I had already worked on creating children’s books in one of my courses in Spring 2022, I came up with the idea to expand and incorporate the children’s book module to a much larger course. In this case, the project would focus on Chicanas in history. I gathered a list of Chicana and U.S. Mexican women figures in history and asked students in groups of four to choose one of the figures and research them. 

I then invited a talented graphic character designer, Nathalie Bernal, to give workshops to conceptualize the children’s books during the second half of the semester. My students  then created children’s books for different age groups that were recently published by Eastwind books in Berkeley. There is one added element that we are working on. Some of the books already have augmented reality (AR) embedded in each image, where you can hear the authors of the books read the book out loud. I want to make sure that all 30 books have this AR quality. This will help with young children who want to learn to read or follow along with the book. 

What inspired you to start this project? 

Pablo Gonzalez: Chicanx and Latinx communities are often written about as a “people without a history” — as secondary players in history. Ethnic studies is about responding to this erasure. What better way to respond to recent debates and legislation that bans and criminalizes ethnic studies than to write children’s books that introduce K-6 graders about the contributions of Chicanas and Mexican American women in the United States.

What impact do you hope to make with these children's books? 

Pablo Gonzalez: Our hope, my hope, is that these books can reach the schools, libraries, community centers and children that want to learn about other cultures and communities in struggle. That they see themselves in the stories of Emma Tenayuca, who in her early 20s, led one of the largest strikes in Texas for better wages in 1938 or Yolanda Lopez, one of our most important Chicana activist artists, who recently passed away. Eventually, we want our students to also write books about unknown leaders in their communities that have transformed lives. In order to combat the rise of hate and censorship, we must overwhelm with our stories.

What is next for you and your students?

Pablo Gonzalez: This first attempt at the children’s book project was a success. But there is so much that we can improve on. I hope to bring guest speakers and other community members to help with the consultation and training of creating the books. I want to build relationships with elementary schools and libraries to bring the books to their collections and to offer my undergraduate students an opportunity to read to children the books they created. 

Berkeley African American Studies Black Studies Collaboratory Elder-in-Residence Daphne Muse recently shared with me the decades of amazing work her students have done in African American Studies and creative writing. I am inspired by my elders, who also see early childhood education as a place to bridge communities. A course dedicated to these types of projects could also be in the works in Chicanx and Latinx Studies. I feel this is just the beginning.