Alicia Bencomo Garcia passes on her reawakening as Cabrillo College’s first ethnic studies faculty member

Alicia Bencomo Garcia (left) in her Cabrillo College classroom.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As California’s college systems move forward with new ethnic studies curricula, Cabrillo College has begun the formation of its department, headed by a daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico who saw her own life trajectory change when she took a Chicano/Chicana studies course at UC Davis at age 19.

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Alicia Bencomo Garcia asked her nine Cabrillo College students on Monday morning whether or not they thought hunter-gatherer societies could be categorized as a civilization.

She had just started the fourth Intro to Latino/a Studies class of the quarter by sharing a definition of “civilization” for the day’s lesson — which was focusing on Indigenous societies and colonization.

That definition, attributed to Merriam-Webster: “where people live in large, complex agricultural groups which eventually develop into urban centers where fewer people are engaged in agriculture.” Bencomo Garcia, who just began her tenure as Cabrillo’s first ethnic studies faculty member, told the class how the words “civilized” and “uncivilized” have historically been used quite selectively, often offering a biased view of “others’” way of living.

“These labels have been used to attack and compare groups and more recently countries,” she said. “How many times have you heard someone refer to a country as being a ‘Third World country’?”

Examine labels used to describe groups, she told her students, before asking them to partner and themselves define “civilization.”

It is a discussion that now comes easily to her as she takes on a job that is a first at Cabrillo. Sociology and English professors have been teaching ethnic studies courses for years, Cabrillo President Matt Wetstein told Lookout, but Bencomo Garcia’s position is the first full-time one dedicated to the field. Her hiring followed the Cabrillo faculty’s proposal to hire a faculty position well-versed in Hispanic history or sociology. It’s likely another proposal will be made this fall for a second faculty member, said Wetstein.

Cabrillo College administrators, staff and faculty finalized a report focusing on recommendations for the college to...

Cabrillo’s Hispanic Serving Institution Task Force had also recommended developing such a department in a report produced by Wetstein and faculty members after a year of research and seeking feedback on how to better serve the college’s growing Hispanic student population.

As ethnic studies becomes part of graduation requirements in California higher education, schools in the University of California, California State University and community college systems are adding to their curricula and making hires. In July 2021, the California Community Colleges board of governors announced that students would be required to complete an ethnic studies course to get an associate degree.

Bencomo Garcia grew up in San Joaquin, a small agricultural community just southwest of Fresno in the Central Valley. A daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico, she’s the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college.

Alicia Bencomo Garcia in her Cabrillo College classroom.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She attended UC Davis for her undergraduate degree, studying sociology and Chicano/Chicana studies, and then got a master’s in ethnic studies at San Jose State University before returning to UC Davis for a Ph.D. in education. She’ll finish that degree this December.

Her first Chicano/Chicana studies course, which she took when she was 19 at UC Davis, changed her life trajectory.

“I had never felt like I was heard and that I was seen, and it was a very powerful experience. Prior to me taking that class, I had been struggling academically,” Bencomo Garcia said. “And after taking that class, it shifted something for me, and I started doing really well.”

After her classes, she would go home and tell her parents about what she learned about Chicano history and Indigenous history — her history.

“That was the first time I ever learned in a classroom about my history and about my family’s roots and our Indigenous ancestors,” she said. “In high school, we were always taught the European, Western version of history.”

Because of that experience, she wanted to offer that same opportunity to students like her.

Alliah Valencia, 19, and Syerra Montes, 21, now share similar experiences. They say Bencomo Garcia’s class has been integral to learning about their backgrounds and identities.

“It was really interesting to learn about the term ‘Latinx,’ and where that came from and why that’s important now,” said Montes, whose great-grandparents immigrated to Watsonville from Mexico. “It’s basically used as a gender-neutral term to describe those of Latin origin.”

For Valencia, whose parents came to Watsonville from Michoacan, Mexico, the course has helped her better understand systemic racism. By developing this deeper understanding of how people may internalize racism and in some cases judge her because of her dark, curly hair, she said she feels she can better channel feelings of hurt and anger.

“I want to take things more calmly — but it hurts,” she said. “But what am I gonna do? I can’t change their mind. They’re still gonna laugh about it. I can’t change their opinion about me.”

Cabrillo College student Alliah Valencia
“I just have to know my roots and be happy for who I am,” Cabrillo student Alliah Valencia said.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

During Monday’s class, Bencomo Garcia also taught the students about the Spanish casta system, a racial hierarchy implemented by Spanish colonizers in Latin America. The system maintained Spaniards’ place at the top and placed darker-skinned groups below them. Valencia commented during class that she felt this was still a reality for many people.

“I just have to know my roots and be happy for who I am,” said Valencia. “I just need to protect my energy.”

Valencia said she plans on taking all the ethnic studies courses Cabrillo offers after taking Bencomo Garcia’s course, Intro to Latino/a Studies. This fall, students interested in ethnic studies could also take Chicano History, Native American History, or Race, Ethnicity and Society, courses taught by Enrique Buelna and Sadie Reynolds.

As it approved the new department and graduation requirement, the Cabrillo Academic Senate argued in a resolution that inclusive curriculum benefits students academically and enables students learn to challenge “internalized ideas of unworthiness or deconstruct internalized racism.”

What exactly is “ethnic studies”? It’s an interdisciplinary field focusing on the histories of four historically racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina/o Americans, according to the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. It covers disciplines such as Filipino studies, Central American studies, Black studies, Africana studies, Indigenous studies and more.

With that wide purview, it looks like more faculty will be joining Cabrillo to engage the field.

Wetstein says he believes such additions likely will get approved through the school’s faculty prioritization process.

“I think it would probably get very high consideration among our leadership team among the faculty leaders because of the Hispanic-serving work we’re doing. I can’t make a commitment,” he said. “I think our faculty would be really interested in having not just one but two of these professors, and growing that discipline set in the future.”