Department News

Department News

Mario Barrera, Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies (1939-2024)

April 22, 2024

In Memoriam


By Professor Lorena Oropeza


Mario Barrera, Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies, passed away on March 29, 2024, in Ventura, California. He was one of the founders of the field of Chicano Studies whose influential writings shaped the discipline. He was our respected and beloved colleague.


Barrera was born on November 8, 1939 in Mission, Texas, a small town near the U.S.-Mexico border. He received his B.A. at the University of Texas in Geology in 1961. His graduate school training, however, was in political science. He received a PhD from UC Berkeley with an emphasis on comparative politics, Latin America, and political behavior. His dissertation focused on the twin themes of information and ideology during the administration of Arturo Frondizi, who was president of Argentina between 1958 and 1962. After graduation, Barrera taught at UC Riverside, UC San Diego, and UCLA before returning to Berkeley in 1977 as a visiting assistant professor where he helped found Chicano Studies on campus. The next year his path-breaking research earned him a full-time position as an associate professor of Chicano Studies within the Ethnic Studies Department. He was promoted to full professor in 1988. Although he retired in 2000, he came back to teach on occasion. 


Even before arriving at the Berkeley campus, Barrera had not only revised and published his dissertation, but in 1972 co-authored a foundational text within Chicano Studies. With his future departmental colleague Carlos Muñoz and scholar Charles Ornelas, he wrote “The Barrio as an Internal Colony.” In a recent talk, Abraham Ramirez, a UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Ph.D., explained the enduring significance of the article: it established a new analytic through which the racialization of Chicanos could be studied. At the time, most academic research placed ethnic Mexicans alongside other European immigrants and stressed their attempt to assimilate into the United States. In contrast, the concept of “internal colonialism” drew new attention to parallels between the Chicano struggle and anticolonial/anti-imperialist struggles occuring in the Third World. It shifted the focus of inquiry from considering Mexicans and Mexican Americans as somehow deficient to emphasizing race-based structural inequalities.


A testament to the power of this idea, Barrera’s book, Race and Class in the Southwest: A Theory of Racial Inequality, which incorporated the internal colony thesis, was the recipient of the American Political Science Association’s Ethnic and Cultural Pluralism Award in 1980. The book offered a sweeping examination of the causes of economic inequality in the American Southwest since 1848. Praised for its “thought-provoking” character and its extensive research base at a time when archival sources regarding the Chicanx/Latinx experience were fragmentary at best, Barrera’s book wove together class and colonial analysis to explain the mechanisms, including the company store, the dual-wage scale, and occupational stratification, that together had ensured Chicano economic subordination, or what he calls “a colonial labor system,” since 1848. 


His second book, Beyond Aztlán: Ethnic Autonomy in a Comparative Perspective (1988), grappled with the legacy of the Chicano movement by asking what ethnic nationalism means for a population that remains a minority within a nation-state. Noting the tension between a desire to maintain community as an ethnic group and seeking equality as individual citizens, Barrera looked elsewhere for answers. The book examined the status of distinct ethnic minorities in other countries, including French-speaking Canadians in Quebec, and the even more complex gathering of languages and ethnicities in Switzerland. More of a thought experiment than a policy prescription, Barrera challenged his readers to imagine a United States that both welcomed cultural diversity and embraced social justice.


Another intellectual interest of Barrera’s was film. Pablo Gonzalez, a lecturer in the Chicanx Latinx Studies Program, recalled visiting the UC Berkeley campus for the first time as a high school senior to attend a film class that Barerra was teaching. The experience inspired Dr. Gonzalez to pursue his undergraduate education at Berkeley and receive a degree from the same department in which he now teaches. 


Along with teaching and writing about film, Barrera produced documentaries, including the classic Chicano Park, which documents how activists in 1970 claimed land rights under the Coronado Bridge in San Diego after city officials reneged on a promise to build a park for residents of Barrio Logan. Then they proceeded to cover the concrete bridge pillars with extraordinary murals– thereby making Aztlán something tangible and real. In 2006, Barrera completed d a documentary that gained increased attention after Ken Burn’s multi-episode treatment of the war the next year managed to not mention Latinx people at all. 


Fittingly for someone who wrote articles encouraging “action research,” Barrera in 1972 contributed to the formation of NACS (the National Association of Chicanos Studies) which later changed its name to NACCS (the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies). Even more fitting, in 1999 he received the organization’s lifetime achievement award.  


NACCS will be holding its annual meeting this year in San Francisco on April 24-27. The Chicanx Latinx Studies Program is paying for a contingent of Chicanx Latinx Studies Program majors to attend, a majority who will present their research. Although their paths never intersected with Barrera’s, they are direct beneficiaries of his lifetime of work–as are so many of us.