Rita Sanchez was born and brought up in San Bernardino, California, seventh of eleven children. Her parents and their parents were from New Mexico, which had been home to her family for generations. Her ancestors were, in her words, the “first mestizos,” because of intermarriage between Spanish and Indian. This history, Sanchez points out, was the beginning of her “Chicana coming-to-consciousness,” the pride in her heritage, a tradition that she has celebrated throughout her life.
In her interview, she also takes pride in the way her parents raised eleven children. Sanchez grew up in a working class family. She recalls that she and her siblings did not wear shoes during the summer so that they wouldn’t wear them out for school. To her, those summers were about family: playing outdoors in fields that surrounded their home; stacking bales of hay into play houses with her brother and sisters; and watching her dad and brothers care for horses he raised. “I also remember my father and five brothers planting fields of crops, corn on one side and boysenberries on the other, she said. “We didn’t have much money but we did not consider ourselves poor. My mother and father always put food on the table.” In the realm of education, however, she noticed the discrepancies. For example, her high school counselor told her not to think about college, and encouraged her to take secretarial courses instead. She advised, “Don’t plan on going to college. Your parents can’t afford it.” Luckily, not everyone in Sanchez’s life gave such pessimistic advice.
In 1956, Sanchez was editor of the high school weekly newspaper, and her journalism teacher paid special attention to her because of her writing abilities. He encouraged her to apply for college. He also helped her apply for and win a financial scholarship, a competitive journalism award given by the local newspaper. She won first place.
Besides her teacher’s encouragement, Sanchez credits her five sisters, especially three older ones for her applying to college. She was not the first. In 1953, her sister Mary was a California Girl’s State leader who got to travel to Sacramento to attend a high school conference. At the local college, she was editor of the yearbook. However, Rita was the first one to go away and her father was especially resistant to her decision. In 1956, with the help of her sisters, however, she convinced her father to allow her to enroll at San Jose State University to study journalism.
Freshman year was not automatically easy for Sanchez. Although she enjoyed her courses, she was alone most of the time, living with an Anglo family in a room away from campus with no guests allowed. A boy in her school saw her, invited her out; they fell in love and married the next year, against her family’s advice. “My mother reminded me that I was raised Catholic and he was not.” Much to her father’s disapproval, she dropped out so that she could work full time in order to finance her husband’s education, including law school, and a move to San Francisco. Living in a flat in a strange city, while her husband attended law school, worked, and studied nights, she missed her large family. “I thought I was being the altruistic woman I was expected to be; but besides that, I thought I knew it all, and so did not stop to listen to my family.” She also had two daughters, with all of the joy that came with them, but then came the pangs of isolation, raising them alone much of the time. As a working mother, and with plenty of guilt, Sanchez decided to return to school, one course at a time. Despite her sacrifices, her husband, now an attorney, questioned her choices, especially when it interfered with household duties; when she protested his judgments—challenging gender roles, and his long hours of absence from the home—their marriage ended. After ten years of marriage, they divorced.
In 1969, Sanchez got custody of their daughters and, broken hearted, went back to school. According to her interview, she “walked right into the Chicano/a movement.” As she became more involved in a community of people dialoguing about their civil rights, she became engaged in political activism. “I began to care about other people, rather than feeling sorry for myself; besides, they felt like family to me. I also began to understand the double standards I had faced, as well as my own immaturity.”
As a young mother, she realized she had been trying to understand these conditions on her own. She also met people who believed in her abilities. She worked hard to get good grades, transferred to Stanford University, changed her degree from journalism to English, so she could teach, and joined Chicano student groups on campus. Professor Arturo Islas, her advisor, invited her to join a campus committee called “Assistant to the President for Chicano Affairs.” This advisory to the president of the university was the result of hundreds of African Americans and Mexican Americans entering college for the first time since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We were also the committee that hired Cecilia Burciaga, assistant to the president. Working on the committee led to a whole new perspective that changed the course of her life. In 1973, she applied for the Chicano Fellows Award, given as a result of a proposed academic project. The first woman, Sanchez proposed teaching a writing course to incoming Chicano students arriving at the university for the first time; and a course for women she called “Mujer de la Raza,” a title after Antonia Castaneda’s Chicana course at the University of Washington in the 1960s. Sanchez edited for publication the student writings from the women’s course she taught that year.
At Stanford she received two Masters degrees. She got a Master’s in Education; and, soon after, a Master’s in English Literature. In 1974, she was hired at San Diego State to teach English, the first tenure-track woman in the department of Chicana and Chicano Studies. In order to be tenured she had to be in a Ph.D program. She was accepted at UCSD with a Ford Foundation Fellowship–now incredibly busy, but passionate about all aspects of her life. In 1976, she still had a drive to organize a Chicana course, and to act as editor of a Chicana journal, Vision, upholding the idea that “writing is a revolutionary act,” from a talk she gave as one of a few Chicanas at a Latin American Women Writers Conference at San Jose State in 1976. She also recalls another time she presented at the UC Berkeley First Annual Chicana Conference with two others, one of whom was Anna NietoGomez. In 1977, she met her second husband, Mario Torero, an artist, and had two more children. She was, in her own words, a “full-time mother, a full-time teacher, and a full-time student.”
In 1983, when she was given a terminal year at SDSU because she had not completed her Ph.d. she instead became more entrenched in the arts and political communities. Together, Sanchez and Torero opened up the Acevedo gallery, where she worked for eight years and where Sanchez successfully sold Chicano art. After twelve years of marriage, they went their separate ways and Sanchez returned to teaching.
In 1990, Sanchez was hired in a joint position with the English department and the department of Chicana/Chicano Studies at Mesa College, the first full-time Chicana professor to be hired since the department began in 1970s. She moderated a Chicana Literary Symposium designed by her colleagues who had hired her. It included Ana Castillo, Lucha Corpi, and Alma Luz Villanueva. Sanchez eventually became the first Chicana to chair the department; she has been responsible herself for bringing such dignitaries to campus as Dolores Huerta, Gracia Molina de Pick; and giving a special homage to Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez. She has given several presentations inviting her colleagues to join her. One of them for Womens History Month was “Writing Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton Into American Literature,” a contemporary of the greats, Helen Hunt Jackson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sanchez published other works, including “The Five Sanchez Brothers,” Mexican Americans & World War II, (Ed. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez. Austin: UTexas Press, 2005). However, she will always be best known for her 1976 “Writing as a Revolutionary Act” essay, republished as “Chicana Writer Breaking Out of Silence,” in Chicana Feminist Thought: The Basic Historical Writings (Ed. Alma M. Garcia. New York: 1997).
Rita Sanchez, Professor Emerita, is happily remarried and lives in San Diego with her husband of twenty years, Richard Griswold del Castillo; they have six children between them and nine grandchildren. Sanchez continues to write and make art as a way to create positive social change. Presently she is gathering the stories of local Chicanas. In 2011, surrounded by her family and children, she was inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame in the area of “Activist.”