Thalia Gomez says that when she began attending California State University, Dominguez Hills, she had no idea what a Ph.D. was. Today, as president of Associated Students, Inc., she is working to ensure that students have access to the guidance and support she has received during her education at CSU Dominguez Hills that has empowered her to become a scholar and leader.
“I’m a first generation college student,” says the Chicana/o studies major. “My first language wasn’t even English. I wanted to go to college but I didn’t really know too much about anything else. I didn’t have anybody to guide to me.”
Gomez prepared for her first semester by participating in Summer Bridge, a seminar for incoming freshmen administered by the university’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). With the help of her counselors in EOP and many other faculty and staff, Gomez says she received the mentoring that she needed to propel her not only toward her bachelor’s degree, but to set her sights even higher towards advanced degrees and a future as a university professor and expresses her gratitude to grateful to staff members throughout the university, including Susan Lopez, academic advisor, EOP; Imelda Quintanar, associate director, EOP; and Samuel Romero and Martha Clavelle of Student Support Services. She also credits Dr. Irene Vasquez, professor and chair Chicana/o studies and World Cultural Studies; Dr. Munashe Furusa, associate professor of Africana studies and acting associate dean, College of Arts and Humanities; and Janine Gasco, associate professor of anthropology; and Michelle Waiters, director of the McNair Scholars Program with helping to ensure her academic success.
Gomez also credits her parents, who originally came from Mezcala, Jalisco and Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico with her success in college. She says that she owes her work ethic to her father, who started working in the fields in California and now operates his own small company called United Plant Growers and to her mother who also started off working in the fields and is currently a parent partner for Hathaway Sycamores, a program for struggling families in Los Angeles County.
“I look at them and I’m really amazed,” she says. “They made me believe that if you want something, no matter what you may have to go through, you can achieve your goal.”
Despite the demands of her academic career, Gomez says she is committed to making a difference for her community and her fellow students. A member and former president of the CSU Dominguez Hills chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), she says that being in a student organization puts one “in the know” of what happens on campus.
“ASI gives you the ability to sit on a committee and vote as opposed to complaining,” says Gomez, who served as ASI’s upper division representative last year. “I was a McNair Scholar, thinking about applying to graduate school, and working as a peer advisor in the Student Support Services office while also being a participating student in the program. But at the end of the day, if you really have an interest in something, you’re going to do it, you’ll make time. I decided it was better to be able to vote on the board and look out for students. Even if it’s just one vote, it matters.”
Currently, Gomez is currently looking at the ASI Tech Fund in order to negotiate funds for additional printing services for students in computer labs. She is also taking on the challenge of working with the University Library and other offices on campus to establish a venue for extended or 24-hour study halls. She says this would be a critical service for the large population of students in evening classes, many of whom work during the day, and have family responsibilities that leave them little time – and limited facilities – available to study well. ASI is examining study facilities at other CSUs to find which model would work for CSU Dominguez Hills.
A leader by example, Gomez, who is working on a minor in anthropology, strives for excellence in her own academic endeavors. This summer she presented her research on gender dynamics in the Zapotec community of Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico at the Yale summer Nahuatl program in Zacatecas, Mexico. Her findings were based on her observances during a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico that she made in 2009 as a participant in a study abroad program at UCLA. Upon visiting the town of Juchitán, she was surprised to discover a matriarchal society that was unique in its own gender ideologies.
“[Juchitan] is a community that is mainly Zapotec, which is an indigenous society,” says Gomez. “They have resisted outside influences. They don’t even speak Spanish, they speak Zapotec. What got my attention right away was that the women were pretty much in charge of everything there. They were the ones selling [goods] in the market.
“I got curious and started to talk to a woman who was working in the market if there was a reason for why the women were in control and she gave me a straight-up answer. She said, ‘Because we like to be very independent. We have different ideas of what a woman is able to do in this community as opposed to other places throughout Latin America that have become more Westernized with a lot of patriarchy.’ She let me know that since she was six years old, her mom was always the one… in charge of the [family] economics, the house. They were just brought up like that.”
Gomez learned about the notion of a dual gender system, which according to Spanish colonization of the Americas, ascribed particular roles to men and women in regard to society, economics, and family structure. She was fascinated by the Zapotec acceptance and valuing of men known as ‘muxes,’ who possess feminine characteristics and work in typically female occupations.
“Some of the muxes dress like women, some of them don’t,” she says. “Some of them are married to women. They work in trades like jewelry. They are highly valued because they are thought of as having two spirits within one. Some people from Juchitan attribute this to women being the dominant sex in this community, so the community is not surprised when men try to be like their mothers.
“Being part Yaqui and Nahua (Native American tribes), I already knew some of the ideologies that go hand-in-hand with what they believe in, like being dual-spirited,” says Gomez. “All of us have feminine and masculine traits… a person who is homosexual, whether it be a woman or man, embodies certain characteristics that let them be dual-spirited.”
Gomez was also surprised to find that Zapotec men were very accepting of their women in dominant roles, rejecting a patriarchal role and instead, seeking a mate who is an equal, or even the chief breadwinner.
“I was talking to one of the men and asked him, ‘What are the qualities you would look for in a woman you would marry?’” she recalls. “He said, ‘A hard worker and a nice person.’ But ‘a hard worker’ was at the top of the list.”
Gomez also presented her resulting study, “Blurring the Lines in Dual Gender Systems Among the Zapotec Communities in Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico” at the annual conference of the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies in 2009. (PCCLAS). She hopes to return to Oaxaca to continue her research next year, financed in part by her award of the Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholarship from the CSU Office of the Chancellor.
Gomez says that while serving in student government is not without its challenges in difficult economic times, “it’s a challenge I’m willing to take because I care that much about it. CSU Dominguez Hills was my first choice [for college] because of the history of how it got to be in this community. I know it was supposed to be in Palos Verdes, but the community wanted a university here to educate the kids that are from Compton, Wilmington, and Carson.
In the meantime, Gomez hopes that her legacy as ASI president will be remembered as advocating for students’ accessibility to the tools for success and the best possible college experience.
“We have a lot of resources on campus as you can tell by my story, I’ve benefited from [many] of them. If I can establish a system where students are more aware of these programs, I’ll be happy with that.”
For more information about student government at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.