‘You have to write your own history’: BC Professor inspires, informs generations of students of a history their parents took part in

October 7, 2018 /

Editor’s Note: To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, South Kern Sol is highlighting notable latinos in Kern County who are working to create positive change in their community. Do you know somebody who deserves to have their story told? Contact us at Elizabeth@SouthKernSol.org.

Oliver Rosales is not an activist.

He’s not an advocate, or a champion of union rights or liberal ideals. He’s never even stood on a picket line.

Ask Rosales, and he’ll say he’s a historian whose priorities are simple and idealistic: seek the truth and teach it.

But the history the Bakersfield College professor researches and shares — mostly local stories of how immigrant laborers in the latter half of the 20th century rebelled against social injustice and fought for rights in Kern County — inspires and informs new generations of a struggle many still see reflected in their community.

Many of those students, however, are unaware of the rich history that has taken place in Kern County, Rosales said.

The Grape Boycott; the farmworker strikes; the birth of the United Farm Workers, Cesar Chavez and La Causa. All of it is foreign to the majority of his students — including those whose parents’ and grandparents’ were children of Huelga, the strike movement of the 1960s rooted in Delano that became a national phenomenon.  

“The problem is that I can go to any part of the country for a history conference and people talk about farmworkers every single time, but that knowledge is not being relayed on the ground. The kids don’t think it matters, and they don’t think their own histories matter,” Rosales continued.

“That’s the problem. I try to get them to understand that the outside world talks about their history,” Rosales said. “You have to write your own history.”

Just knowing their own history creates a more engaged and empowered youth, Rosales said. It also leads to better academic outcomes, he added.

When students see themselves in their own curriculum, they become invested, Rosales said. That was the case for him.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I could see my own world in the curriculum,” Rosales said, reflecting on his undergraduate studies at University of California, Berkeley.

A lifelong Bakersfield resident, Rosales’ family have deep roots in Kern County.

“I’ll out-Bakersfield anybody,” he said proudly.

His great-great-grandfather abandoned the Mexican Army, changed his name and emigrated to the United States to take a job building the Pacific Railroad in 1876. In quintessential Kern County fashion, Rosales’ grandfather was born in a boxcar on Sumner and Baker streets (the house still stands in that location).

His father served in Vietnam and returned to become the first college graduate in his family. He taught at Bakersfield College alongside Jess Nieto, founder of the Chicano Studies program and dean of the Delano Center, where Rosales now teaches most of his courses.

An accomplished researcher of the farmworker movement and relational histories among different racial groups in the Central Valley, Rosales could have selected anywhere to teach. He chose BC because of his family’s roots, and also the proximity to his research subjects: the people of Delano.

“There’s people at Yale, Brown, Dartmouth and Berkeley who research the farmworkers,” Rosales said. “I’m the only one on the ground studying the history from the bottom up. That’s why I wanted to be in Delano. There’s so much cultural capital there with the stories and the people. I try to leverage that every single day when I’m in the classroom.”

During his time at BC, he’s worked to preserve the history of Kern County’s farmworker movement — one rooted in liberalism, dissent, civil unrest and rebelling against generations of local conservative government majorities.

In a county that remains staunchly Republican and maintains a complicated relationship with the legacy of the UFW, Rosales’ job isn’t always easy, especially as a historian who portrays every aspect of the movement.

That includes teaching students about UFW labor leader Chavez’s less-glamorized decisions, like calling Immigration and Naturalization Services to deport undocumented immigrants who crossed picket lines while workers striked in the fields.

“None of this is in the curriculum in high schools, and families involved don’t really talk about it,” Rosales said. “Not everybody was a union member, and if you weren’t in the union, you wouldn’t have a positive view of the movement.”

Understanding local history, however, is critical for movement-building and achieving social justice, Rosales said.

“You can’t measure progress unless you know how it was,” Rosales said. “If you’re an activist today, you have to know where we’ve been. That’s how you keep momentum going, or else you get burn-out.”