From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Teaching
Crescencio López-González

Crescencio López-González, assistant professor of Spanish, recounts a story of his youth. He is a scholar of urban Latino literature.

The Power of a Narrative

Behind Crescencio López-González’s disarming smile is a story he avoids telling. One of a man who sacrificed his homeland and for a time, his name, on a wager that a better life might exist.

López-González covers his barrel chest with white guayabera shirts, a hallmark of labor activist César Chávez. His black mustache is flecked with gray. When he smiles it conscripts his entire face to action. And when he doesn’t, a graveness seems to settle across his shoulders.

“I don’t like to tell my story,” he says plainly in his office in the basement of Old Main.

He is not being coy. Instead, López-González talks about his philosophy of teaching—a two-way street where the teacher and student learn from one another. He details some class assignment and confesses his wariness of newspaper reporters—they can impart a different story than the one the subject tells.

López-González, assistant professor of Spanish, debuted his first documentary Una Sola Familia in 2006 at the University of Arizona. It opens to the song “Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun” by singer Daniel Valdez. The camera focuses on a group of migrant laborers inspecting grapevines to lyrics “Up to California from Mexico you come to the Sacramento Valley, to toil in the sun … And what will you be giving to your brown-eyed children of the sun?”

The question permeates the film. Most wear long sleeves and pants and fasten bandanas to their necks. They speak while pushing up wires the vines will clasp as they grow towards the next rung. No one stops moving to talk. The first person López-González interviews candidly describes living apart from her husband to make ends meet. She doesn’t get emotional. “Life is better here because we have more opportunities,” she states unequivocally. “I can give things to my children I could not give them back home.” A second worker repeats the sentiment: “I came to work like everybody else.” Everyone questioned tells of being separated from loved ones and coming to the United States for the same reason, the opportunity to build a better life. López-González knows this story—because it is also his.

MAKING A CHOICE

He is the oldest child in his family and the first his parents could no longer afford to send to school. Without an education, his path was certain: labor in the fields and wonder about what could have been. So one day in 1986, López-González made a choice. With money borrowed from his mother, he purchased a one-way ticket to Tijuana and slipped across the United States-Mexican border with a friend. He was 16.

“I came here to work and send money back home,” López-González said. “That was the plan. I came across and the next day I had a job in Paso Robles at a vineyard picking grapes. I crossed and I never looked back.”

A coyotaje paid for the teens to be dropped off in Soledad, California. They arrived in John Steinbeck country without papers or work permits. López-González didn’t provide his birth name to the farmers who hired him. They knew he was under-age, but they needed the work, and he did too. López-González was, “always at the front of the line,” pushing the pace of the work crews. It is something he feels bad about now, he said.

Education was not part of the equation—just work. But López-González attended night school because he wanted to learn English. After three months, a teacher’s aide suggested he enroll in the migrant education program at an area high school. It was a godsend.

“Going to school helped keep me alive,” López-González said. “They offered food.”

“I was embarrassed,” he said. “I didn’t want my classmates to know I worked in the fields.”

By the fall of 1988, López-González had saved up $900 and planned to go home to Mexico. He didn’t intend on returning. But one of his roommates stole the money from his clothes, stranding him without savings. That Christmas López-González hit a new low. Two days before, his crew was contacted to plant asparagus. They worked 28 straight hours.

“We were paid for eight hours, in cash, in an envelope, and you couldn’t complain,” he said.

But the workers pooled their money to buy queso and tortillas and celebrate. A year later his fortune changed. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted some agricultural workers with a clean criminal record legal status. After petitioning for amnesty, López-González was one of nearly three million undocumented immigrants awarded papers. Afterward, he got a job at a library. He worked stints at fast food restaurants. He applied to college.

FINDING A PATH

As a scholar of Spanish literature, López-González studies narratives. He is acutely aware of how his can be perceived. To a casual observer, his story is a triumph over adversity: Latino teen spends his high school years planting crops and pulling weeds in the fields of California. After enrolling in school he discovers he is something of an academic and goes to college. Then more college. And becomes the first person in his town to hold a doctorate degree. But this is not a beautiful story, López-González said. It involved pain, sacrifice, and help from others.

“It’s not easy,” he says wiping his eyes, “and I don’t want people to think it’s easy. Who do you call when there’s no money? When you’re in school and you have $20 to live on for the month? It might look beautiful, but it wasn’t like that.”

He also doesn’t want his story used as an example of what hard work can achieve. Because hard work alone is not how he did it. There’s also the community that you have to have to support you, López-González said.

As an undergraduate at the University of California at Davis, he considered studying engineering. But the literature of 20th century writers like Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges forced him onto a new path.

“[They] made me feel like I belong to the world and I felt that my work had the potential of contributing to society,” he wrote in his personal statement for graduate school. “I … sensed a connection with these writers’ stories and found I no longer had to search for what I wanted to do.”

López-González earned his doctorate from the University of Arizona. He specializes in urban Latino literature and examines the real and reflected city in stories, as well as geography influences writers and the characters they create. His classes incorporate conversations about race, socio-economics, and cultural identity. One exercise López-González assigns students is to track how Latinos are covered in newspapers around the United States. What language is used to describe the Hispanic community? What type of stories do they appear in? Who owns the paper and how does that shape news reports?

“We see what images are created about Latinos,” López-González said. “In the end, I want them to see how we are being perceived in the media, for them to see who we are according to the papers.”

AN EXCHANGE OF CULTURES

Prior to joining Utah State’s faculty in 2012, López-González taught at Arizona community colleges and at the University of Arizona. Most of his students were Hispanic. In Utah, most of his students aren’t. One of his instructional goals at Utah State is to connect students through personal experiences to the Latino community they are learning about. He does this through documentary films. López-González believes there is cogency both in showing them and making them. He developed two new courses that require students to create one.

López-González has directed four films and has three additional in progress. However, he had no training when he initially set out to make Una Sola Familia—he didn’t even own a camera. He just realized migrant workers had a powerful narrative and no audience. López-González approached people he knew from the fields about participating.

“You have to build trust so that they can open up to you,” he said. “You also have to believe that there is a story, and that you can tell it, and reflect it.”

In his Introduction to Latino/a Culture course, students develop short documentaries about Hispanics in their community. They may interview anyone they want. They formulate their own questions, and then present a clip in class. The idea is to showcase what it means to be Latino in the United States and see there is not one story. Students come to the realization that these experiences are not something just in the books, said López-González.

“This is something experienced by people in their community,” he said. “It is about an exchange of cultures. Not many Latinos have the opportunity to tell their stories and some are excited to tell what they do and how they fit into the community. It’s empowering for the student and for the person being interviewed.”

MAKING THE CONNECTIONS

Krystal Kunz,’13, knew exactly who she wanted to film. Two years earlier, during a church mission to California, she met a woman who emigrated from South America decades earlier. Kunz had stayed in contact with her, but wanted to learn her story. While nervous about the technological aspects of the assignment, Kunz was excited to visit her over spring break with a list of questions. She set up a camera and listened as the woman recounted the successes of her grandchildren with pride. She felt their achievements stemmed from the opportunities afforded by her coming to the United States, Kunz said.

She walked away from the experience with “admiration for those who had to overcome discrimination, language barriers, financial obstacles, and political difficulties,” she said. Although a year has passed since her classes with López-González, Kunz is still processing what she learned.

“Professor López emphasized the importance of our individual responsibility to make connections in our education,” she said. “As a master’s student [in piano and pedagogy], I have reflected about that a lot. I feel like he kind of introduced me to the mindset that education is not simply about regurgitating facts.”

Kunz volunteers as an English tutor for international students at Utah State. Having learned a new language herself, she knows how intimidating the process can be—and how wonderful.

“Speaking another language is like opening the door to another cultural mindset,” she said. “To me, that’s refreshing that there’s more than one way of thinking about life.”

A NEW TYPE OF WORK

López-González looks for metaphors in books and in life. When he first arrived in Logan, the valley reminded him of his hometown in Mexico. The mountains represented yet another challenge for him to surmount. The familiar A atop Old Main hinted of the Aggie he was as a freshman at UC Davis looking for purpose.

“My life has been land-grant universities,” López-González said. “That’s one reason I chose to work at Utah State. I feel I’m impacting the community.”

He believes in the land-grant mission. He knows the students they serve and he wanted to teach at one. López-González understands his background may inspire some students or enable them to connect personally to course material.

“I know what it is to work every kind of job at $3.75 an hour,” he said. “I bring that to the classroom. When I talk about those experiences I know what I’m talking about.”

These days López-González has retired his camera. His documentaries are on hold as he delves deeper into his research and builds a new resume—the kind that involves tenure track practices and publications in scholarly journals. It’s a different kind of work. One day, López-González hopes to marry his two resumes to better reflect his professional journey.

“I know the role I want to play at this university,” he said. “I may not be at the front right now, but I’ll work my way up … slowly … with time, with work.”