5 The University of Arizona — its History, People, and Mission

A Tucson Testimonio

Melani Martinez

“For the Old Pueblo, as Tucson is affectionately called, is the ancestral home of the Mexican American people. It was here, under three flags, that our forefathers tilled the land, built the ranches, dug the wells, worked the mines, dedicated the schools and churches, and published the newspapers. They were farmers, ranchers, writers, teachers, musicians, merchants, soldiers, intellectuals, politicians, and laborers. They were rich and they were poor. They were famous and they were nameless. They triumphed and they failed. They won and they lost. They celebrated and they mourned to the peal of the bells of San Agustín.”

-Patricia Preciado Martin, Los Tucsonenses

As a teenager, I worked in my father’s kitchen, a small tortilla and tamal factory in the downtown Presidio neighborhood of Tucson. I chopped chiles, onions, and tomatoes. I burned myself a dozen times on steaming pots of tamales, folded hundreds of sobaquera tortillas into birria burritos, and loaded a thousand paper bags with quesadillas and tacos. Leaving the kitchen each workday, I could never truly escape my father’s food; I carried the smell of garlic, beans, or red chile on my clothes and in my hair, wherever I went.

As an undergraduate student, I’d bike back and forth between work in the Presidio and classes on the UA campus. When my peddling under that resolute desert sun finally got me to Main Gate, I always felt like I was crossing an invisible threshold between the Tucson I knew and the academic world that was still foreign to me. I didn’t feel comfortable on that border, that shift from the familiar way my family spoke, learned, and worked into a university-version of my hometown lined with palm trees, red brick buildings, and textbooks written in a form of English I had never spoken. Between work and school, I was leaving one universe and entering another.

Like many Tucsonenses, my ancestors migrated to our Sonoran desert to be ranchers, miners, railroad workers, and of course, tamaleros. None of them were college graduates. None referenced degrees in their bios or obituaries, but they were described by the music they played, the God they worshipped, the spread on their holiday tables, and the potted plants cultivated in their backyard barrio homes. My family was in Tucson before the University of Arizona was founded on March 12, 1885, but they rarely came to campus for anything but a tailgate party or to celebrate the photo of our family’s 19th Century butcher shop in a corner of the air-conditioned Arizona Historical Society Museum. As a new UA student, this made me wonder if I belonged on this campus. Though I loved learning, I imagined leaving UA and never returning.

Back then, I didn’t know that UA was founded as a land-grant institution under the federal Morrill Act of 1862, where federal land was given to the university to serve the people of these lands, especially industrial and agricultural workers for whom higher education was still widely unavailable. Some wonder whether that land-grant mission promise is still relevant for today’s global society. Considering it took more than 100 years for anyone in my family to benefit from attending our land-grant university, I’d say the mission is still quite relevant.

UA is now a top-tier research university, renowned for its world-class scholarship and academic excellence all over the world. While this status is celebrated, we must consider the bedrock beneath all our beautiful buildings housing the highest levels of academic achievement. UA may be figuratively bigger than our town, reaching people from every corner of the world, but to have the biggest impact we must recognize those who made and continue to make Tucson its home. Furthermore, we must respectfully and justly acknowledge Indigenous people who established Chuk-son and upon whose lands our land-grant mission was enacted in an entangled past.

Despite the challenges, I became the first in my family to graduate from college.

After becoming a teacher, I eventually returned to my alma mater and found myself again crossing borders. I often took the new streetcar from my downtown home to work on campus. Like everyone else, I popped in my earbuds and swayed with each stop from block to block. Coming onto Fourth Avenue and University Boulevard, I’d get that familiar feeling. I was crossing a boundary again between new academic learning and what I had already learned from the deep, lasting contributions of my ancestors. I took many streetcar rides before I realized that even from my first day on campus as a freshman, I was the bridge across that line. I was carrying knowledge, even wisdom, between two seemingly opposite universes. And I wasn’t the only one.

As a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and American Indian and Alaskan Native Serving Institution (AIANSI), UA is committed to more than just enrolling students from across the Borderlands and Turtle Island. It is charged with serving them. Though not often front and center in the classroom or executive offices, there are hundreds of UA faculty and staff, some of them Indigenous and local Tucsonenses, who are committed to serving historically underrepresented people in higher education. Each day, they cross those invisible thresholds that would otherwise separate experiential and traditional knowledge from mingling with the prestigious higher learning associated with privilege. Their presence on campus is the very embodiment of the land-grant mission as they bridge local and regional communities, cultures, and values with what the university is meant to be: not a displacement machine nor a guarded tower of upward mobility, but a generator of knowledge and a place that lifts up diverse ways of knowing.

As a faculty member joining in the chorus of voices on campus, I’m looking forward to our institution’s earnest land-grant mission work and I’m hopeful for students who live in this special kind of frontier. I’ll be alongside many of them, crossing back and forth, with a bounty of precious gifts in tow.


About the author

Melani “Mele” Martinez, a senior lecturer in the UA Writing Program, is a native Tucsonan/Tucsonense and former tortilla and tamal factory worker. As a writer, she is most interested in Sonoran culture, Tucson history, and family food traditions. As a teacher, she is devoted to practicing the pronunciation of her students’ names, eating delicious meals with them, and sharing creative projects that, when necessary, use words.



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Wildcat Perspectives Copyright © 2022 by Melani Martinez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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