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Chicana/o Studies prof wins Gold Shield Faculty Prize

  • By Wendy Soderburg
  • Published Oct 6, 2008 8:00 AM
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Alicia Gaspar de Alba

"A border girl, through and through."

That's how Alicia Gaspar de Alba, professor and chair of the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana & Chicano Studies, describes herself. And it's just one of many aspects of her life that have provided her with countless rich experiences that she uses in her teaching, research and writing.

That, in turn, has won her the prestigious 2008 Faculty Prize from Gold Shield, Alumnae of UCLA — a $30,000 award given annually to a mid-career faculty member who has achieved excellence in teaching, research and community service.

"Alicia Gaspar de Alba's undergraduate teaching career is exemplary, and her unique style of writing caught our eye," said Harriette Williams, chair of Gold Shield's 2008 faculty prize committee. "She wrote about poor women in Mexico and brought that experience to campus by organizing a conference unlike anything UCLA had seen before.”

Gaspar de Alba's 2003 conference, "The Maquiladora Murders, or, Who is Killing the Women of Juárez?," focused attention on the unsolved murders of more than 300 women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It also prompted her 2005 book, "Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders."

A native of El Paso, Texas, Gaspar de Alba has family on both sides of the border. After receiving degrees in English and creative writing from the University of Texas at El Paso, she completed her Ph.D. in American studies at the University of New Mexico in 1994.

That same year, she came to UCLA as an assistant professor. She was one of the first six faculty hired into what was then the César Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies. It was a difficult time, Gaspar de Alba recalled, in which she and her colleagues struggled with administrative instability and student hostility. When the center was finally departmentalized in 2005, "it was huge," she said.

The author of eight books, Gaspar de Alba's border spirit comes through in her most recent work, "Calligraphy of the Witch" (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), a novel about a Mexican slave in colonial New England who becomes embroiled in the witchcraft trials when her 9-year-old daughter accuses her of speaking "the devil's verse" — a poem written by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican nun and poet considered by many to be the first feminist of the Americas.

Winning the Gold Shield Faculty Prize capped an extraordinary year for the professor of Chicana/o studies, who recently celebrated her marriage to Alma Lopez, a digital artist, painter and muralist. Gaspar de Alba confessed that she practically jumped out of her chair when she heard she had won the award.

"It's a fabulous opportunity to recognize faculty for their teaching, especially in a research university," she said. "And it also helps to open up the visibility of Chicana and Chicano studies. People who don't even know that it exists as a field at UCLA realize that, hey, it does exist, and people are doing a lot of good work there."

Adapted from a story in UCLA Today, Sept. 19, 2008.