New Faculty Profile: Jorge Klor de Alva

by Fernando Quintero

Long before Rodney King asked the question, "Can we all get along?" during the worst racial unrest in US history, Jorge Klor de Alva was studying the answer.

The new professor of anthropology and comparative ethnic studies has spent more than two decades researching and teaching interethnic and interracial relations, especially in the United States and Mexico.

Born in Mexico City and raised in the barrios of east San Jose, Klor de Alva brings personal experience and insight to his subject.

The former professor of anthropology at Princeton University and Berkeley alumnus--he received his BA in '71 and his law degree in '74--refers to himself as a "hyper-hybrid."

His mother is indigenous Mexican and Spanish. His father, a Russian Jew, left his native country for Mexico via China, Japan, and San Francisco to escape the pogrom.

His paternal grandmother was from Turkey.

In 1957, Klor de Alva's family moved to the largely Mexican-American community of east San Jose, where he lived an "impoverished middle-class" existence picking apricots and peaches in the San Joaquin and Santa Clara valleys and working local construction jobs.

In his youth, Klor de Alva joined a gang called the Saints Ten.

A junior high school principal spotted the restless boy's potential, and suggested he join the Jesuits at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, where he "fell in love with the world of the mind."

At Berkeley, where Klor de Alva became heavily involved in the Chicano movement of the late '60s and early '70s, he majored in philosophy.

The works of a Mexican scholar named Miguel León-Portilla, with whom Klor de Alva later collaborated, pointed out the relationship between philosophy and nation-building, and Klor de Alva went on to study law.

In 1971, while finishing up his graduate work at Boalt Hall, Klor de Alva began his teaching career at San Jose State University, where he later chaired the department of Mexican American Graduate Studies.

He later taught at UC Santa Cruz, and then at State University of New York in Albany while serving as director of its Institute for Mesoamerican Studies. In 1989, he left for Princeton.

It was while living on the East Coast that Klor de Alva gained an important new perspective on his field of study.

"My vision of ethnicity changed," he said. "Before, I was perceiving issues around race and nationalism from my experience with Asians, blacks, and Mexicans on the West Coast. On the East Coast, however, you have Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Afro-Caribbeans, and native people as well as Europeans.

"I have since done everything I can to develop a broader vision that links experiences of both coasts."

The result of his expanded point of reference is evident in a recent essay by Klor de Alva titled "Beyond Black, Brown, or White: Cultural Diversity, Strategic Hybridity, and the Future of Democracy."

In it, he writes:

"For the media, politicians, scholars, and most people out of touch with everyday life in US cities, "race" means African-American, and 'racial' conflict connotes primarily, if not exclusively, a contest between so-called 'blacks' and 'whites.'

"This widespread belief, steadfastly sustained in the face of a contradictory history of multiracial frictions and in light of a dramatically diversifying nation, stands in the way of our addressing what may well be the central dilemma of our 21st century: how to learn to grow dark peacefully in political makeup, cultural practice, and skin color."

Klor de Alva's scholarly accomplishments number several pages--he has been named a Fulbright Scholar, Getty Scholar, and Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors, fellowships, and grants. He has brought ethnic and racial issues to the attention of a variety of audiences.

On campus, Klor de Alva's arrival was met with much anticipation. "Professor Klor de Alva brings the recognition of ethnic studies to an important level," said Margarita Melville, acting chair of Ethnic Studies.

One of his pet projects is the development of multicultural education. He has helped create a Latino heritage curriculum for the New York State Education Department.

He is co-author of a series of K-8 textbooks and is currently working on a high school world history text.

In all, Klor de Alva has published more than 70 scholarly articles, co-authored eight social studies textbooks, and helped write or edit 14 books on Mexican, Mesoamerican, and Latino American anthropology, socio-cultural history, and historical ethnography.

With a handful of publications forthcoming, it is clear that Klor de Alva's love affair is still going strong. But in a time of continued conflicts, from the Los Angeles riots to the war in Bosnia, his intellectual pursuit is much more than a labor of love.

It is important to the survival of the human race.

"Understanding the differences and similarities between different groups is absolutely critical," said Klor de Alva.

"For everything from racial conflicts to politicians taking a nationalistic stand to address local concerns, pitting groups against each other, comparative study moves toward analysis that permits one to locate various groups in contention.

"Having a better understanding of the differences and similarities between people results in a more realistic public-policy response."

One of Klor de Alva's long-term goals is the establishment of a center to promote the study of ethnicity and race in a global context. For the moment, he looks forward to teaching the "high caliber" students at Berkeley.

This fall, he leads a graduate research seminar called "The Comparative Study of Collective Identities." Next semester, he will teach a graduate course on the changing nature of culture in the past and present.

For Klor de Alva, being a good teacher means being a mentor.

"I've always had the good fortune of having mentors," he said, thinking back to his high school math teacher, who encouraged and supported him. "It's a small investment compared to the rewards of watching a young mind grow."


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