Memory, Identity, and Activism on Campus: The Role of the Historian

By Dr. Alicia Romero, University of New Mexico and Santa Fe Community College

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The Borderlands History Blog recently contacted me to talk about my experience at the University of New Mexico and how student activists used my research for a major social justice cause on campus.  This was an unexpected, yet welcomed, instance of how scholarship can directly impact individuals and even institutions.  I remember reading E.H. Carr’s What is History? as an undergraduate student and realizing that facts could be contentious even among historians themselves. We saw recently in the media another discussion taking place in which “alternative facts” can and do exist for some to meet a specific end.

As scholars, we take care to use and interpret reliable sources, be they oral histories or numerical data, when writing a historical analysis.  During the times when our research is used to advance a social issue, responsible use of sources – our facts – becomes even more important.  In this summer series, I wrote a small piece about my research at UNM and how that helped students fight a decades-old cause.

I began researching the history of the University of New Mexico’s official seal during the fall of 2015, my first year as a postdoctoral fellow with the university’s Division for Equity and Inclusion (DEI).  The idea for this research was new, although controversy surrounding the seal was not.  Initially charged with conducting research into how UNM has historically addressed its faculty and students of color since it first offered classes in 1892, I became interested in the seal following protests from some student groups, faculty, and community members calling for its retirement.  This particular research tangent felt appropriate given what I had learned about the university’s founding and its twentieth-century colonial relationship with Nuevomexicanos – multi-generational Spanish-speaking New Mexicans also referred to as Hispanos or Spanish Americans – and Pueblo and Diné peoples in and around Albuquerque.

While I conducted research, one student group in particular became increasingly vocal concerning the university seal and the figures depicted therein.  The KIVA Club, a student group primarily for Indigenous students and their interests on campus, had continually opposed the seal for decades.  Citing that the seal’s use of two colonial figures – a white frontiersman in buckskin and a Spanish conquistador in armor – promoted racism and inequality on campus in light of their treatment of Native people in New Mexico, the KIVA Club and the Red Nation, a community group promoting Indigenous interests in the state and who specified eleven demands on the university for equal Indigenous representation, called for the seal’s removal.  KIVA Club members, many of whom also belonged to the Red Nation, were active in promoting Indigenous awareness and worked through their faculty mentor to reach the ears of the administration on this matter.

I was invited to present my research to the KIVA Club during one of their regular meetings in the spring of 2016.  There, I discussed the historical nature of the seal as it was originally designed in 1910 and how it had changed in 1968.  Of interest was the use of Indigenous symbolism to refer to Natives without them being represented in human form akin to the colonial figures previously mentioned.  The students felt that the seal represented genocide over Native people and expressed their anger concerning the seal’s appearance on campus, on their graduation regalia, and on their diplomas.   I quickly learned that this concern extended into their tribal communities as well.  Our conversation was fruitful and the students supported my research and perspective, as I supported theirs.

What followed during the course of the spring and fall semesters of 2016 aimed to engage students, faculty, staff, and alumni concerning the future of the official seal.  My office sponsored forums comprised of a presentation on the history of the seal followed with public comment and dialogue. Attendees of the forums expressed little indecisiveness as to whether or not they felt the seal should be replaced.  Some entered the conversation convinced that the seal should remain as it was for tradition’s sake, while others heard the testimonies of students opposing the seal and changed their opinion.  Those who spoke out publicly against the seal from the beginning were of every ethnic background.

National politics regarding racial and ethnic bias, social membership, historical trauma, and future presidential leadership made their way, at times, into these forums and certainly revealed themselves in any number of emails the university received regarding the future of the seal.  During the student-focused form in September 2016, a Trump supporter – as noted in his red hat containing the former GOP front-runner’s slogan – spoke to the audience about his concern that symbols of the nation’s history were at risk of erasure.  He alluded to the removal of Confederate monuments across the US South as well as the redesignation of any number of buildings elsewhere in the country initially named for politicians who were also slave owners. After engaging in a heated exchange of words with individuals who wanted to seal to be replaced simply because they felt it, like Confederate monuments, represented a traumatic, violent past, this individual ended his public comment asserting that the seal and other symbols would not be removed without a fight.  This student was correct.

The Board of Regents has the final say in the matter of the university seal, and some of those members saw no reason for its repeal.  During regular public meetings and Academic/Student Affairs & Research committee meetings, the Regents supported the idea that the seal represented the unique history of New Mexico and, that while problematic to some, overwhelming consensus from faculty, staff, students, and alumni – most importantly as athletics boosters and foundation donors – did not necessarily indicate support for replacement.  They were unconvinced that the forums held to generate public opinion gathered all of the opinions of those that wanted to be heard; a fraction of the total university community on and off campus weighed in and this, for one Regent, was insufficient data to begin a redesign.

Despite pushback from the Regents, the KIVA Club continued to gain momentum in the fight over the seal in alliance with the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), the Black Student Union (BSU), and other student groups vocalizing the need for change.  Finally, the Regents voted in November 2016 to attempt another round of data collection to retire the seal and consider other options for a redesign.  This came days after Trump’s victory to the presidential seat.  While not a complete victory, the Regents’ decision was not a total loss; in vowing to collect more data, the Board agreed to suspend use of the current seal upon further review.  The KIVA Club, while understandably disappointed, was lauded on campus for their activism, dedication, and commitment to changing an element of their university that they felt was racist and inappropriate.

The fight over the seal represents a long history of student and youth activism at UNM, and it has coalesced broad support for its repeal among people of all backgrounds.  Situated among other twenty-first century movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, this particular case joined together activism, trauma, discrimination, representation, and the right to claim membership to an unpleasant and troubling history during a political moment wrought with communities of color and underrepresented groups demanding humane treatment and basic human rights.

Alicia Romero received her PhD in History from the University of California – Santa Cruz in 2015.  Her dissertation, “Portrait of a Barrio: Memory, Photography, and Popular Culture in Barelas, NM, 1880-2000,” focused on memory, photography, and identity in a small Nuevomexicano community in Albuquerque, NM.  An alum of the University of New Mexico, she returned there as a postdoctoral fellow for the Division for Equity and Inclusion in 2015.  Alicia researches and teaches about Nuevomexicanos/as in the twentieth century, memory, and popular culture and is an adjunct instructor for the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies as well as for Santa Fe Community College. 

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