Garcia named director of School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

Arizona State University food justice scholar and author Matt Garcia

Arizona State University offers the intellectual community, teaching and cutting-edge research to create “the perfect fit,” says Matt Garcia, a food justice scholar who has just been appointed the director of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“If you studied the civil rights movement, wouldn’t you want to be at the heart of where it’s happening?” says Garcia. “It’s in Arizona where policies, such as SB 1070, the elimination of Latino Studies, and decision-making are being formulated, discussed and tested. It is the natural place for me to be.”

Recruited from Brown University, Matt Garcia joined the ASU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2011, with a shared position in the School of Transborder Studies. Here he helped to build ASU’s Comparative Border Studies program, an initiative that examines the U.S.-Mexico border and other border regions around the world. However, his primary focus as director will center on restoring understanding of the important roles that the humanities play in today’s society.

“Humanities is all around us,” says Garcia, quickly referencing the influence of agriculture and food, the roles of women, marriage and religion on politics and society. “Philosophers and historians can shed light on these topics and more. Marriage, for example, has been an evolving conversation in society, never the set situation that it is often presently perceived to be.”

“Too often we as scholars forget how we can contribute to discussions about public issues of great importance,” he adds.

Garcia is particularly interested in how the culture of food and agricultural production in the United States provides pivotal insights for our future. He has penned book chapters and numerous journal articles, and, most recently, the book: “From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement.”

Published by University of California Press in 2012, Garcia says that his book offers the most comprehensive history ever written on the accomplishments and shortcomings of the United Farm Workers (UFW), the most successful farm labor union in U.S. history. He originally started by looking at the parallel efforts of Filipino American and Mexican agricultural workers, whose united efforts around the grape boycott allowed the UFW to gain traction in the 1960s.

But during his exploration of the archive at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, Garcia unearthed a treasure trove of taped recordings that the Arizona-born Chavez had made of all his meetings. The tapes included Chavez’s fights with the UFW executive board, purges of boycott volunteers and the UFW legal department. Ultimately, the archive revealed Chavez’s instability, and how it contributed to the dissolution of the executive board.

“I was hearing Chavez’ own words. It was gripping,” says Garcia. “Knowing this history informs our future choices.”

“Our agricultural workers are working in conditions similar to those 40 years ago. Awareness of how food is produced should create in the public a consciousness about social justice, as well as the importance of ‘eating locally’ or ‘eating healthy,’” adds Garcia.

Garcia hopes that the schools’ students will make connections between the ideas that they explore in their classes and the process of moving forward as a society: “Learning history is not simply about studying the past, but understanding how past events guide us to a better, more sustainable and socially aware future.”

“ASU is an incredible place to work and learn and do what I do best,” says Garcia. “I can’t think of another place to do it.”