Home » Uncategorized » Discovering the Rhetoric of the Southwest: Studies of People, Places, and Culture

Discovering the Rhetoric of the Southwest: Studies of People, Places, and Culture

Text Widget

This is a text widget. The Text Widget allows you to add text or HTML to your sidebar. You can use a text widget to display text, links, images, HTML, or a combination of these. Edit them in the Widget section of the Customizer.

Richard J. Jensen, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Communication

University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Flag of Aztlan, used by La Raza Unida activists and other members of the Chicano Movement, used under public domain.

From 1974 until 1976 I was a visiting assistant professor at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.  I enjoyed my years at Humboldt State but wanted to have a permanent position. During the 1975-1976 academic year the University of New Mexico (UNM) advertised a tenure track position for a rhetorician.  The description of the position indicated that the person chosen would teach the usual courses in Rhetorical Criticism and Rhetorical Theory but it also called for someone to teach a course in Southwest Rhetoric.  The chairperson of the department, R. Wayne Pace, had examined at course offerings at UNM noticed that there was a course in Southwest History and one is Southwest Literature among other that dealt with the Southwest.  He concluded that the Department of Speech Communication should have a course in Southwest Rhetoric.

I can honestly say that there was no one in the country who was an expert on Southwest Rhetoric.  I had done studies on Native American discourse in a course on Intercultural Communication at Indiana University so I did have some minor expertise that would be helpful in designing and teaching the course.

I applied for the position and was invited for an interview.  I was the fifth person interviewed for the position and there was another following me.  A few weeks after my interview I was offered the job and I accepted.  My family and I prepared to move to Albuquerque in the summer of 1976.

During the Spring Quarter of 1976 one of my graduate students and I attended a student conference on rhetorical criticism at California State University, Hayward (now California State University, East Bay).  At that conference I met John C. Hammerback.  I discovered that Hammerback and I were both graduates of Indiana University though he had graduated several years before I had.  John was interested in studying Chicano Rhetoric.  John had heard that I had been hired at UNM.  He approached me and asked if I was interested in studying Chicano Rhetoric.  I stated that I wasn’t. That was not a smart answer.  I did not realize that the study of Chicano Rhetoric would be an important part of the course in Southwest Rhetoric.  Also, little did I realize that Hammerback and I would become great friends and co-authors for more than 30 years.

My family and I moved to New Mexico in early July of 1976.  My wife and I both were interested in learning as much as we could about the history and culture of New Mexico.  Fortunately, one of the documents given to new faculty members was an article in which prominent New Mexico authors were asked to name which books about New Mexico they would like to have if they were stranded on a desert island.  We spent the next few months reading many of the books mentioned in the article.

During the fall semester of 1976 I was assigned to teach a course called “The Rhetoric of Dissent.”  That course focused mainly on protest in the 1960s and early 1970s.  It quickly became clear that the study of Chicano Rhetoric should be a unit in the course so I began an in-depth study of the subject.

In the spring semester of 1977 I was scheduled to teach the course in Southwest Rhetoric.  I decided that the course should begin in the early 1800s with the arrival of Anglos in the Southwest.  Anglo arrival along with the resident Hispanics and Native Americans created a unique society with three dominant cultures.  The interplay of those cultures became the focus of the course.

There was no textbook for the course so I set out to discover documents that I could give to the students. There were many books like The Far Southwest 1846-1912: A Territorial History by Howard Roberts Lamar that provided extensive bibliographies that were helpful in discovering sources for texts to study in the course.  I was also able to gain money from a faculty committee to travel to archives to do research. Particularly useful was the William G. Ritch papers at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California.  I also asked historians at UNM and in other states to recommend possible texts and speakers to study.  I received many excellent suggestions. 

I also discovered interesting books that had copies of speeches and other documents.  One particular useful book was a self-published volume by W.D. Grisso called From Where the Sun Now Stands: Addresses by a Posse of Noted Western Speakers.  Grisso’s book contained speeches that students particularly enjoyed.  I was fortunate that the University of New Mexico has several collections of documents that were useful in my study.

Hammerback was interested in studying the rhetoric of Reies Lopez Tijerina, the leader of the Alianza, a movement to recover the lands that Hispanics had lost in northern New Mexico.  Tijerina was a powerful spokesperson for the rights of Hispanics in the Southwest.  Many documents about Tijerina were housed in the library at the University of New Mexico.  John came to New Mexico to to research on Tijerina.  He stayed at our home while he did his research and also gave a very interesting presentation to the Southwest Rhetoric class on Tijerinas.

I later met Tijerina twice.  On one occasion one of my students who was doing a paper on Tijerina and I had a lunch at Tijerina’s home and we spent several hours interviewing him.  He was a fascinating individual.

 I once asked a historian at UNM to name the greatest speaker in New Mexico.  He quickly responded, “Reies Lopez Tijerina speaking in Spanish in Northern New Mexico.”  Unfortunately, those speeches were lost.

There obviously was no textbook for Southwest Rhetoric so I made copies of documents and distributed to the students.  Also, for several years, Kinko’s would publish packets of materials for courses.  Unfortunately, that service ended after many lawsuits so I was forced again to distribute copies to the students.

As I taught the course I became more and more interested in Chicano Rhetoric.  I began to read extensively and I hoped to get interviews with the major Chicano leaders Cesar Chavez, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, Reies Lopez Tijerina, and Jose Angel Gutierrez.  I was able to gain funding to travel to Crystal City, Texas to interview Gutierrez, the leader of the Chicano political party, La Raza Unida.  Gutierrez was an intelligent, dynamic leader.  Five minutes after I met him, he proposed that we should write a book together.  He took me to his home to look at his documents.  I was also able to conduct a lengthy interview with him. 

Gutierrez’s home was in a rural area.  I quickly noticed that there were loaded guns by the doors and windows.  There had been instances when individuals had driven by and shot into the home.  I met some individuals at the motel where I was staying who quickly made it clear that Gutierrez was not their favorite person.

 I enjoyed telling my students about the visit.  One of them became so excited that she went into the office of our departmental secretary who was transcribing the tapes and took them.  A few days later I received a note from her saying that one of her nephews had taken the tapes and lost them.  I was angry and stunned.  Fortunately, the tapes appeared in my mailbox one day and the interview was transcribed.  I never did find out the name of the student.

Hammerback and I began to write papers on the Chicano leaders that we presented at professional conferences.  Those papers attracted the interest of one of my colleagues at UNM, Lawrence B. Rosenfeld, the editor of the Western Journal of Communication.  Rosenfeld asked if Hammerback and I would assemble a special issue of the journal of Chicano Rhetoric.  That edition of the journal included articles on Chavez, Tijerina, and Gutierrez.  It also included an article on poetry from the Chicano Movement, and interviews by Gutierrez and Bert Corona, a leader among Hispanics in California.

We continued to do our research on Chicano Rhetoric. We presented many papers on Chicano Rhetoric at professional conferences.  We also published three books on the Chicano Movement: A War of Words: Chicano Protest in the 1960s and 1970s (Gutierrez was a co-author), The Rhetorical Career of Cesar Chavez, and The Words of Cesar Chavez. 

I also made presentations on Southwest Rhetoric at the gatherings of the New Mexico Communication Association, the Western Communication Association, and the Southwest Labor Studies Conference.

My courses in Southwest Rhetoric and The Rhetoric of Dissent allowed me to do research and publications that focused on materials covered in the courses.  I was also able to inspire my students to do papers, theses, and publications on Chicano Rhetoric.

I last taught Southwest Rhetoric during the spring semester of 1992. I left UNM in 1992 and moved to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  I was told that students asked for the course for several years after I left. 

After I retired I recycled most of the materials I used in the course.  I wish that there had been someone at UNM or another university that would be interested in using them.   Even though I no longer have the materials I have always felt a great deal of satisfaction that I was able to create and teach a unique and very interesting course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: