Chris Zepeda-Millán

Prof. Chris Zepeda-Millán is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and Chair of the Center for Research on Social Change. He is also the lead faculty member for the CRG Social Movements research working group. Prof. Zepeda-Millán remains active in a number of ongoing social movements surrounding labor, immigrant, and indigenous rights as well as students of color inclusion and environmental justice. His research primarily focuses on social movements as well as immigration, Latino politics, and interdisciplinary research methods in Chicano/Latino studies.

In his book Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism, Zepeda-Millán chronicles and analyzes the groundbreaking immigrant rights protests of 2006, arguing that U.S. policy that threatens undocumented immigrant workers and families can ignite political backlash from not just “people without papers” but their citizen, and voting, family members and friends. For Zepeda-Millán, this backlash has transformative effects on U.S. racial politics and policies. Through interviews with activists, workers, and movement leaders, Zepeda-Millán offers the “first systematic account of these historic events.”

In the 2014 paper, “Surviving, Resisting, and Thriving (?) in the Ivy League,” Prof. Zepeda-Millán reflects that, during his time in graduate school at Cornell when interviewing the farm workers, domestic workers, and small business owners involved in the 2006 immigrant protests, he recognized that the “cultural identities and political ‘biases’” that “often marginalize” students of color can also help them “get through” their time in academia. For example, many of the people he interviewed for his dissertation research were undocumented and thus afraid of the consequences they might face if their stories and strategies were published. To develop trust and connection, Zepeda-Millán spoke Spanish with them, sharing that he grew up in the barrio and came from a family of farmworkers. In the end, many of the most prominent organizers in the movements began to trust him, sharing their critical strategies and experiences and providing insight he would need for a rich understanding of the successes and pitfalls of the movement.  He has continued to earn the trust of his many interviewees by remaining academically, personally, and politically accountable to them and their communities throughout the years following his dissertation.

The CRG interviewed Prof. Zepeda-Millán for the Fall 2017 issue of FaultLines. This interview has been edited for length.

CRG: How has your research, pedagogy and activism evolved since arriving at Berkeley?

Chris Zepeda-Millán: As a scholar-activist my role has had to change depending on the stage in my career I’m in. While in graduate school, for example, I was able to remain active in organizing and actions when I was back home in Los Angeles every summer and winter. Now as an untenured assistant professor with financial obligations to my family, I’ve had to take a step back from direct involvement—aside from attending protests when I can—and contribute in other ways, whether that be writing op-eds, speaking on panels for community groups, or helping NGOs I work with create popular education workshops on immigration and multi-racial coalition building. If I get tenure, however, I hope to be able to go back to being more directly involved by helping organizing actions, attending meetings, etc.

In terms of pedagogy, Berkeley Ethnic Studies students tend to care more about practice than theory. Because of this, one thing I’ve done more of—both in my small seminars and in my large research methods courses—is inviting local organizers and activists to come speak to my students about how the concepts, skills, etc. they’re learning about in our readings and discussions are applied to “real life” social justice work.

CRG: Could you briefly describe your involvement in the CRG’s Social Movements Working Group, which is now in its third year?

CZM: I started the group my first semester at Cal and it has evolved depending on the members and my schedule. For example, in the first few semesters we focused on giving each other constructive feedback on works in progress. This past year we co-sponsored several speakers working on issues related to social movements, from LGBTQ rights in Europe to the activism of Black mothers in Oakland. In terms of our future vision and why it’s important, Berkeley has a long history of producing scholar-activists and movement relevant research, so I hope that the working group can contribute to keeping that tradition going.

CRG: How did your publication, Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism, come about?

CZM: There’s a much longer answer to this related to my family history and transnational activism, but for the purpose of this interview I’ll just say that I thought it was important to change how we in political science understand “Latino Politics.” Most of the Latino politics literature focuses on voting, which excludes about 2/3 of the Latino population in the U.S. who are either too young to vote or are not citizens. Moreover, up until 2006, most quantitative research showed that Latinos, and especially Latino immigrants, were among the least likely groups to participate in political activism. Then came the massive 2006 immigrant rights protest wave, which was arguably the largest civil rights protest in U.S. history. On top of the vast majority of participants in these actions being Latinos, especially Latino immigrants, the protests also occurred in both likely (e.g. Los Angeles and New York) and unlikely places (e.g. Siler City, NC and Fort Myers, FL). My goal in writing this book was to help document these momentous events and help us understand how and why they emerged, as well as their short- and long-term impacts.

CRG: Could you expand on the importance of multi-racial coalitions during these 2006 protests? How were unlikely solidarities fostered and sustained during this period?

CZM: I think 2006 exposed both the importance as well as the challenges in forming multiracial alliances. For example, on the one hand, racial justice activists working on a variety of issues (from housing and police brutality to labor and immigration) demonstrated that they could come together—despite ideological and political differences—when facing a draconian legislative threat (the Sensenbrenner Bill). On the other hand, the fact of the matter is that although the organizers and leadership of the marches were often very diverse because the proposed bill would have impacted several different groups, the vast majority of participants in the marches across the country were Latino, especially Mexicans. Regardless of the fact that all undocumented immigrants (Chinese, Irish, Jewish, etc.) would have been impacted by the bill, not all of these communities felt equally threatened by it—and therefore didn’t mobilize against it to the same degree—because of the fact that the issue of “illegal” immigration is racialized as a Latino or Mexican issue.

CRG: Can you share the larger significance of the book and its relevance in our present political climate?

CZM: I think one of the most important aspects of the book is simply that it documents the development and dynamics of a historical event that nobody saw coming, activists or academics. It shows us that, despite everything social science has taught us and all the ways it helps us predict political behavior, people’s dignity is hard to quantify and their decisions to revolt and risk everything are impossible to fit into the statistical models that political science, as a field, has come to so heavily rely on.

(Photo above: Tom Williams via Getty Images)

Listen to a 2017 Voces Criticas interview with Prof. Zepeda-Millán about his book, Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, & Activism: