A Lifetime Commitment to Giving Voice: An Oral History of Elba R. Sánchez
Elba Rosario Sánchez was born 1949 in Atemajac, Mexico, a small town near Guadalajara. She is the oldest of three girls. Her father worked in the cotton mill until an accident injured one of his eyes. The accident sent him to the United States in search of work, first to Chicago, where the family had relatives, and then to San Francisco, where he worked as a bus boy at the Fairmount Hotel. After about eighteen months, he brought his family to San Francisco in 1960, where they lived at Divisidero and Pine, in a Black neighborhood. At the neighborhood elementary school, Elba was one of very few non-Black children; ironically, even as she struggled to adapt to a white-dominated country, in the racial definitions of that time she was considered white. She learned English quickly, and soon became the translator for her family.
Within a few years of her arrival, the social movements of the 1960s altered the national landscape. Witnessing the brutal repression of Black civil rights protestors on television was formative for Sánchez’s growing political consciousness and her eventual activism as a young supporter of the United Farm Workers movement. Her early activism with the United Farm Workers boycott on grapes was impressive, particularly since her family did not approve of her protest. This activism grew intertwined with her passion for writing and for language. In the oral history, Elba vividly recalls that her first pieces of poetry were written on small pieces of paper that she then crumpled up and hid in a drawer. Her first poem, “The Price of Color,” was published in her parochial high school’s yearbook.
After graduation, Sánchez attended San Francisco City College. There she was inspired by the Chicano activist spirit of several classmates who had been taking courses at San Francisco State College, where the student protests had shut the campus down. But after a semester and a half she dropped out of college to marry and have a child.
In the late 1970s, Sánchez and her husband relocated to Santa Cruz so that her husband could attend UC Santa Cruz. Sánchez became a bilingual counseling aide at Santa Cruz High School. In search of UCSC students who could serve as English tutors at Santa Cruz High, Sánchez met Paco Ramirez, a lecturer in Spanish who coordinated the tutorial program at Stevenson College and Paul Lubeck, a professor in sociology. Both encouraged her to return to college and finish her B.A., which she did, graduating in Latin American studies from Merrill College. At UCSC, Sánchez was a nontraditional student who lived off campus with her husband and her three-year-old child. This experience, plus the class and cultural differences between her and the mostly white middle-class student body of UCSC at that time, led to feelings of alienation and isolation.
Professor Roberto Crespi, Sánchez’s advisor in Latin American studies, encouraged her to go on to graduate school in literature at UCSC, which she did, earning her MA from UCSC. Crespi was one of very few Latino professors at UCSC in the early years of the campus. He was also one of the founders, with J. Herman Blake, of Oakes College. In 1979, Crespi also hired Sánchez as a tutor in the Spanish for Spanish Speakers Program (SPSS), which he had founded, and which was then only in its second year. Sánchez spent the next fifteen years teaching in, coordinating, and directing the multidisciplinary Spanish for Speakers Program. This pioneering, cutting-edge program, incorporated poetry readings, theatrical performances, cultural nights, political discussions, visual arts exhibitions, and small press publishing into its curriculum. Students studied Latin American history and literature in SPSS courses, and honed critical thinking, speaking, translation, and writing skills. Sánchez credits SPSS for higher levels of retention of Latino students at UCSC, and also for the successful careers of many of those students after graduation.
Also while at UCSC, Sánchez was one of the founding and primary editors of REVISTA MUJERES, a bilingual literary and visual arts journal published at UC Santa Cruz from January 1984 to 1993. According to their mission statement, “REVISTA MUJERES: In Our Words and Work, Our Vision,” REVISTA was
dedicated to interviews, poetry, essays, as well as visual art work and set a page in the history, struggles, and contributions of Chicana and Latina undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty members…REVISTA was also envisioned and produced as a response to the lack of access in mainstream publications for Chicana/Latina bilingual, budding as well as experienced writers, whose work was unpublished. Its aim was to promote and encourage a community of writers and artists, to plant a seed of reality and creativity.
Sánchez’s commitment to honor the Spanish language, teach Latin American history, and to offer a keen critique of colonization is part of her legacy on the UC Santa Cruz campus. This commitment was particularly evident in her fervent dedication to SSSP and the co-production of Revista Mujeres. In her oral history, Sánchez describes the organizational work that went into funding, editing, producing, and distributing this groundbreaking journal, which was distributed far beyond UCSC and was the first of its kind published in the state of California. Sánchez locates REVISTA in a cultural effervescence of Chicano-Latino writing and publishing in the 1980s and 1990s. Sánchez recalls that at the time of her earliest publications, there were very few Chicana and Chicano writers who were published.
Sánchez’s own development as a writer flourished during that cultural flowering. She participated in a bilingual writer’s workshop in San Francisco with several other key Chicana and Chicano writers. She is the author or coauthor of several books of poetry including Tallos de luna /Moon Shots (Moving Parts Press, 1992), From Silence to Howl (Moving Parts Press, 1993) and is a contributor to many anthologies, including Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader (Duke University Press, 2003), Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color (Aunt Lute Books, 1990). She continues to write and is currently working on flash fiction and children’s books.
Elba Sánchez was interviewed in three sessions by Susy Zepeda in several locations in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. The interviews took place on February 8, 2013, March 1, 2013, and April 5, 2013. The interviews were transcribed by Irene Reti and a transcript was returned both to Zepeda, who audited it for accuracy of transcription, and Sánchez, who edited it for flow and accuracy, corrected the Spanish. Both Zepeda and Sánchez added some footnotes. We chose not to italicize the Spanish in the transcript, a political decision that recognizes that italics can “other” Spanish words as “foreign,” or non-normative. This is a style preferred by many Latino/a writers today.
It was an honor and a pleasure to interview Elba Sánchez. Her storytelling was full of heart, joy, and animation. Her oral history offers a sense of her strength, vision, and dedication to forms of resistance.