(b. 1 March 1920 in Pagosa Springs, Colorado; d. 2 February 1996 in Albuquerque, New Mexico), college professor and sociologist whose research in the 1950s and 1960s influenced government policies toward Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants.
Samora disliked speaking about himself, which is why his early life is only known in vague terms. In later life he said that he grew up amid intense discrimination against Mexican Americans. For example, he was embarrassed by failing first grade because he could not speak English well. In elementary school, if he spoke in Spanish in class, he would be sent to the principal's office, where the principal would hit him with a ruler. Children were forbidden to speak Spanish even during recess or in the school's playground, and these slights stayed with him throughout his life. He had a moment of triumph in 1971, when a new law, as he put it, made it "illegal to prohibit children from speaking Spanish in the school yard."
Samora said that his drive to achieve reform stemmed from his desire "to prove I was equal." It was tough going. When he was chosen to play the lead in a high school play, what should have been a triumph was soured when the other youngsters in the play quit rather than accept a Hispanic leading man. In 1938, he entered Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1942. From 1942 to 1943 he taught high school in Walsenburg, Colorado, and from 1944 to 1945 he was an instructor at Adams State College.
Samora had a strong desire to learn how Hispanic Americans came to be the targets of discrimination, and he pursued his education in social studies at Colorado State University, where he received his M.S. degree in 1947. He later said that during the 1940s, African Americans knew they were being segregated, but that Hispanics often did not recognize that they were as well. As an example, he recalled trying to find a hotel room in an unfamiliar city; all hotels seemed full except for a seedy one in a bad neighborhood. In the morning, he discovered he had only been given even that room because it was assumed he was Indian, not Hispanic.
From 1948 to 1949, Samora studied sociology at the University of Wisconsin; he then attended Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology in 1953. For his dissertation, he studied folk medicine among Mexican-American communities in the Southwest. He taught at the University of New Mexico as a visiting professor in 1954, at the School of Medicine of the University of Colorado as an assistant professor of preventive medicine and public health from 1955 to 1957, and at Michigan State University as an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology from 1957 to 1959, before accepting an appointment as professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame in 1959. In addition to teaching and research, he was put in charge of recruiting Hispanic students and began shepherding these students through graduate school, with his home serving as a student hangout.
From 1963 to 1966 Samora served as head of Notre Dame's sociology department. By then, he had earned a reputation for expertise on Hispanic American culture and social needs, and was often consulted by government agencies about the civil rights of Hispanic Americans. In 1966 the University of Notre Dame Press published Samora's book La Raza: Forgotten Americans, which discussed how Mexican Americans were marginalized by American society and how their civil rights issues were ignored. Samora credited the civil rights movement with helping the cause of civil rights for everyone, not just African Americans, and for providing avenues for other ethnic minorities to make their cases for equal rights.
La Raza was a landmark study, and it, more than Samora's other achievements, led to his being dubbed the "father of Hispanic sociology." To many sociologists, Samora had seemed to be laboring almost by himself in Hispanic studies, but in the 1960s, his work began defining the study of Hispanic society as a new field of research. He was soon appointed to federal commissions such as Upward Bound and the Commission of Rural Poverty. He also served on the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission.
Samora coauthored, with Richard A. Lamanna, Mexican Americans in a Midwest Metropolis: A Study of East Chicago (1967). This book introduced research into the lives of urban Hispanic Americans and was pioneering in moving its focus of inquiry from Southwestern states to the Midwest. Thereafter, Samora did much fieldwork along the Mexico–United States border, resulting in the publication of Mexican Americans in the Southwest (1969), which he coauthored with Ernesto Galarza and Herman Gallegos. While researching this book, Samora became especially interested in the lives of immigrants from Mexico. This resulted in another landmark book, Los Mojados: The Wetback Story (1971), which suggested that Mexican farm workers were exploited on both sides of the border.
In 1972 Samora established the Mexican-American Graduate Studies Program at Notre Dame, which he directed until his retirement in 1985. From 1981 to 1984 he served as Notre Dame's Director of Graduate Studies. The most important book of his later years was A History of the Mexican American People (1977), which he coauthored with Patricia Vandel Simon. The book was revised in 1993 and remained the standard book on its subject into the twenty-first century.
Samora's wife, Betty, with whom he had four children, died in the mid-1980s; Samora died from a rare disease of the nervous system. On 13 April 1996, a memorial service featuring Mexican and American customs was held at Notre Dame. Samora is noted for having pioneered studies in Hispanic American culture, for laying the scholarly foundations for modern research into the lives of Hispanic Americans, and for helping numerous Hispanic-American students earn advanced college degrees.
Samora's papers are in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas. A good interview of Samora is Rosemary Horvath, "Voice in the Wilderness," South Bend Tribune (10 Nov. 1990). Obituaries are in the New York Times (6 Feb. 1996) and Los Angeles Times (17 Feb. 1996).
Kirk H. Beetz