With an interest in Chicano literature since her college days, professor Barbara Curiel has dedicated her profession to Chicano and Latino Studies at Humboldt State University for more than 20 years.
“I wanted to sort of locate my experience, my family’s experience, the experience of people that I knew, within our own history,” Curiel said.
A San Francisco native, Curiel traveled many roads before arriving at HSU in 1997.
“I think my family always supported me in my desire to go to college even though they didn’t understand it. They probably still don’t understand it very much, but I think they wanted me to use my curiosity in a positive way.”Professor Barbara Curiel
She started her undergraduate studies at Mills College, a women’s college in Oakland. Curiel went on to get her master’s degree from Stanford University and her doctorate from UC Santa Cruz.
With a B.A in English and Spanish, master’s in Spanish, and a doctorate in American Literature, Curiel asked herself where she could apply her work, which brought her to HSU.
“When I was an undergrad, we had ethnic studies, but it was very small,” Curiel said. “It was a very small department, we had few classes. The programs came into existence because of student and community activism in the 1960s.”
In the ’60s a Chicano Movement began with the goal to empower Mexican Americans through the restoration of land, labor, education, and historical awareness.
As a result, Curiel drew an interest in knowing more about herself and her family.
“Like a lot of people, when I went to college, I really wanted to understand my family’s history.” Curiel said. “By the time I went to college, the Chicano movement was not that far in the distant past.”
Poetry and Activism
“I was interested in literature because I was a writer too,” she said.
During her time in college, Curiel was also involved with M.E.Ch.A. and a writer’s group comprised of both students and community members in the Bay Area.
Curiel published her first book of poetry, “Speak To Me From Dreams” in 1989. Her most recent publication “Mexican Jenny and Other Poems” in 2014 won her the nationally-recognized Philip Levine Prize.
“I have been writing for most of my life,” Curiel said. “As a student, I was studying Chicano literature but at the same time, I was involved in different community-based projects for writers.”
Her award-winning book is “a huge accomplishment,” published 25 years after her first work in 1989.
She describes writing another “fulfilling” part of her career.
Curiel is the only one in her family to graduate from college.
“I think my family always supported me in my desire to go to college even though they didn’t understand it,” she said. “They probably still don’t understand it very much, but I think they wanted me to use my curiosity in a positive way.”
Through her studies, she was able to learn about her grandparents’ experience as immigrants and learn more about her own heritage.
“Like a lot of people’s families, my grandparents were immigrants but they didn’t talk about their lives in Mexico,” she said. “I think because of the trauma that they experienced coming to the United States.”
Exploring ethnic studies in college made it possible for Curiel to develop a knowledge of what that context was.
“Ethnic studies is a place where we learned that knowledge,” she said. “Because really, the dominant narrative denies the experience of people of color, of other marginalized groups, queer people.”
Curiel was setting a precedent among her generation, especially for women.
“Even though a lot of my peers did go to college, we were really raised to be mothers, to get married and have children,” she said. “I feel like people in my generation were negotiating both of those things all the time.“
Education is important
As a mother herself, she has encouraged both her son and daughter to go to school.
“I think my kids have taken an untraditional path,” she said. “They both worked before they committed to go to college, but I think that worked out for them.”
Her daughter graduated college two years ago and works for the state at an environmental agency. Her son is still working on completing his education. When he complains about school, Curiel jokes and tells him, “that’s why people go to school.”
“They know that education is valuable and there’s a reason why you do it. It’s for personal fulfillment, as well as for a career, as well as to have something to offer back to society,” she added.
Curiel said that as a professor, teaching is always the best part – working with students and developing relationships them.
Her advice to students is to explore more options during their time in college.
“I encourage students to do the things that they’re really interested in, to invest in their interest,” Curiel said. “I also want to encourage students to give themselves that experience, that exposure to other things.”
Curiel is semi-retired now and only teaches one semester a year. Outside of teaching at HSU, she enjoys knitting, gardening and cooking.
Her plans for the future include exploring more of her own interests, as well as writing more.