Names and Places of UTSA: Tomás Rivera (revisited)
This month we continue “Names and Places of UTSA,” a blog series on university history, with a post by archives student assistant, Marissa Del Toro. This month’s blog post returns to an influential figure within UTSA’s early history, Tomás Rivera, who was covered in an earlier post.
This remembrance of Tomás Rivera begins with a personal anecdote from my childhood in California. Since 1986, my mother has worked at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), so my sisters and I became acquainted with the campus from a very early age. On special occasions my father would bring us to the campus to visit her at work. Our visits to UCR were a treat for my sisters and me, as we were also given the chance to stop by the library and choose a book to read while we waited for our mom to get off work. Now this may not seem much but this library, the Tomás Rivera Library, became a sacred space for me as I grew up; it was an escape from some of the harsh realities of life. The tall white arches leading to the building’s entrance were a gateway to another world for my sisters and me.
Later on when I attended UCR as an undergraduate, the Tomás Rivera Library became a different haven for me. It became a space of learning, hanging out, and of course the magical environment for overnight study sessions. When I came to UTSA in 2013, I was surprised—but excited—to see the Tomás Rivera Center (TRC) here on campus. I learned that the TRC was an on-campus site for student tutoring services; the center has even assisted me with my Master’s thesis, giving me the guidance and tools to become a better writer. I viewed Tomás Rivera’s presence here as a sign of good luck for my time at UTSA.
While I knew some biographical information about Rivera, I did not fully understand the extent of his legacy that existed in California, Texas, and the United States. Tomás Rivera was a professor, poet, author, scholar, and activist who led an impressive life before his untimely death in 1984 at the age of forty-nine. His story begins in 1935 in Crystal City, Texas, where he was born to a migrant Mexican-American family. During his youth, Rivera became an avid reader while he was on the road with his family following the migrant stream of work from Texas to the Midwest. Despite the harsh circumstances of poverty, constantly moving, and working from a young age, Rivera became a successful student with a strong interest in writing.
In 1954 Rivera graduated from Crystal City High School and attended Southwest Texas State College (now known as Texas State University). By 1964 he had received his Bachelor’s degree in English with minors in Spanish, History, and Education, and a Master’s Degree in Education. He continued his studies at the University of Oklahoma, and by 1969 had completed his PhD in Romance Languages and Literature, as well as a second Master’s Degree in Spanish Literature. While earning his advanced degrees, Rivera impressively managed to teach both Spanish and English at schools in League City, Crystal City, and San Antonio, Texas.
In an interview with his wife Concepción “Concha” Rivera, whom he married in 1952, she notes that Rivera encountered difficulty in finding work as an English teacher in 1950s and 1960s America. She attributed this to the prejudicial belief that “they weren’t going to hire a Hispanic to teach English.” She recalled that moment as when Rivera decided to receive additional degrees in Spanish so he could find work more easily.
From 1971–1973, Rivera was Director in the Division of Foreign Languages, Literature and Linguistics, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Professor of Spanish Literature at UTSA. He was invited to campus at the request of the first president, Arleigh B. Templeton, after they had previously worked together at Sam Houston State University. Mrs. Rivera recalls her husband’s integral role in the early planning stages of UTSA, since he was only one of five people developing the curriculum and academic blueprints for the new university.
Afterwards from 1973–1976, Rivera became Associate Dean of the College of Multidisciplinary Studies and continued as Professor of Spanish at UTSA. He would eventually become Vice President for Administration at UTSA before leaving in 1978 to become the Executive Vice President and Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas at El Paso.
A year later in 1979, Rivera became Chancellor at the University of California, Riverside, as well as Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. This was a momentous occasion in his life—and for U.S. and California history—as Rivera became the first Mexican-American to hold such a position within the University of California system. Mrs. Rivera noted that she once told him that, “You’re still a migrant worker. You keep moving every two years.” However, UC Riverside would be Rivera’s final position before his untimely death in 1984.
Rivera lived a short life but he accomplished a great deal. Besides teaching, he was appointed by both Presidents Carter and Reagan to serve on the Commission of Higher Education. He also served as a board member for the Carnegie Institute, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey, and the board of directors of the Times-Mirror Company.
In addition to being a successful educator and administrator, Rivera was also a gifted writer who wrote from the personal yet powerful experiences of his life. He wrote several prose pieces, poems, and essays on literature and higher education. Rivera even contributed to El Grito: A Journal of Contemporary Mexican-American Thought, a journal founded by Octavio Romano and Nick Vaca at the height of the 1960s Chicano Literary Renaissance. From its opening in 1967 until its closure in 1974, the El Grito provided an essential outlet for Chicano writers who found difficulty getting their work published in mainstream publications.
Rivera’s most well-known work is his 1971 novel, Y no se lo tragó la tierra: And the earth did not part. This semi-biographical book of poems, which earned him the prestigious Quinto Sol Literary Award in 1971, reflects the stories of his migrant upbringing and the community he belonged to. Rivera’s powerful words reveal the world he existed in but also the formation of his identity as he encountered the harsh and sometimes unfair elements of life: alienation, exploitation, racism, love, family, community, death, and resurrection. At UTSA, our Rare Books collection holds several of his published works including, This migrant earth (1987) as well as Y no se lo tragó la tierra: And the earth did not part.
Rivera’s legacy reveals him to be a dedicated individual who broke down barriers and established new opportunities for Mexican-Americans, Chicanxs, Latinxs, and Hispanics through his numerous accomplishments. In a 1981 interview, Rivera noted that his success was due in part to his parents and his family’s encouragement. Following the support he received growing up, he inspired others to “maximize education as much as possible.” He viewed education as a sense of power and strength that creates more possibilities and better visions for a future. Rivera was a humble person but also tremendously insightful. He once said: “Have a very strong love for each other as people. Help the less fortunate. Develop a stronger consciousness of what you are and how you can help each other.”
The memory of Tomás Rivera lives on in the numerous plazas, buildings, research centers, and schools named in his honor. These sites offer thousands of individuals who walk through their doorways a welcoming and supportive environment, as seen in the Tomás Rivera Library at UCR and the Tomás Rivera Center (TRC) at UTSA. My experiences at these places—as a child, an undergraduate, and a graduate student—are a testament to his legacy. Rivera’s life stands as an influential model for my young brown life, and for many others as well.
Handbook of Texas Online, R. R. Hinojosa-Smith, “Rivera, Tomas,” accessed April 11, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fri34.
Meier, Matt S., and Margo Gutiérrez. “The Mexican American Experience.” 2003. Accessed April 11, 2016. https://books.google.com/books?id=-E1_hLqmUCIC.
Rivera, Concepcion Concha, and Jan Erickson. “Transcription of Oral History Interview with CONCEPCION G. RIVERA.” Transcription of Oral History Interview with CONCEPCION G. RIVERA. August 13, 1998. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.ucrhistory.ucr.edu/pdf/rivera.pdf.
“Rivera’s UCR Curriculum Vitae, 1984.” Tomás Rivera archive, Collection 253. University of California, Riverside Libraries, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, Riverside. 1992. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/hb567nb5kv/?brand=oac4.
Tomás Rivera archive, Collection 253. University of California, Riverside Libraries, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, Riverside. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf6r29p0kq&brand=oac4/
Salazar, Veronica. Dedication Rewarded, Volume 2. San Antonio, TX: Mexican American Cultural Center, 1981.
“Tomás Rivera.” Tomás Rivera Center. 2016. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.utsa.edu/trcss/TomasRivera.html.