After seven years as the director of the women’s and gender studies program and almost 18 years as an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri is transitioning her leadership from this border region to one in California.
She will begin as dean of the San Diego State University Imperial Valley campus on Aug. 4. It’s a homecoming of sorts, as she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the school.
The daughter of migrant farmworkers from Mexico, Núñez-Mchiri initially came to the El Paso area to research the environmental impacts on colonias in southern New Mexico as part of her doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Riverside.
When UTEP first established its women’s and gender studies program in 1981, it only offered five classes, she said. That number has grown over the years: this spring, the program had 47 courses and today, students can major or minor in the field, or obtain a graduate certification in women’s studies.
Núñez-Mchiri spoke to El Paso Matters about women’s and gender studies on the border, her departure from UTEP and the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
El Paso Matters: How has the field of women’s and gender studies changed?
Núñez-Mchiri: Intersectionality is really important. How we live life matters to who we are, how we self-identify. Intersectionality in the border involves language, identity, citizenship, agency, reproductive justice and economics. There are so many things that affect us. We’re not a one-issue kind of movement. Women’s studies has been evolving with the needs of our communities, and on the border, there are so many needs.
El Paso Matters: What needs does a border community like El Paso have that the field addresses?
Núñez-Mchiri: Immigration is really important. It’s hard for me to be a teacher when my students fear deportation. I’ve seen them when they get on the bus and that’s a student that doesn’t have papers. That’s a student that doesn’t know how they’re going to pay for rent. That’s a student struggling, not knowing if when she gets home her parents will be there, or if they’ve been picked up and deported, and now she’ll have to be responsible for her brothers and sisters.
My students don’t just come to school. They work, they come to school, they care for their families, and they’re worried about their parents’ immigration status and their own. That’s not your average topic in Midwest United States where students just go to school and work perhaps.
Now with the Roe v. Wade decision, a lot of the decisions that our women students make will impact their education. I’m wondering, “What will they do? Will they have the opportunity and the papers and the documentation to cross the border if they need help in Juárez or in New Mexico?” We’re privileged that this space allows us a couple of options for some, but not everybody has that privilege to cross the border or to go to a different state to seek reproductive care.
El Paso Matters: What are the takeaways for students who enroll in a women’s and gender studies course?
Núñez-Mchiri: An education in women’s and gender studies gives people a sense of self, a sense of agency and a sense of empowerment. When you have that, you’re invincible. I mean, you know you have rights, and you know that you have to fight for them, that your rights are not something to take for granted because they were given to us, and a lot of people had to work to earn them. But if you have never worked toward those things, you have a tendency to take them for granted. We just thought it (the constitutional right to abortion) was a done deal, that that was not going to be touched and we learned otherwise. Who we elect, who gets appointed to the Supreme Court really matters. I think it’s a wake-up call that if you are not going to act, others will act for you.
El Paso Matters: What impact will the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade have on border communities like El Paso?
Núñez-Mchiri: It’s a class issue. People with money find resources. You can get on a plane and go to a state that has resources. But if you don’t have money, what do you do? With abortion, having access to reproductive justice as a woman of color is not something to take for granted. With communities that have historically been underserved in terms of medical facilities, under-resourced and have had low levels of health care coverage, you better believe it is going to have an impact. Many of those situations will now be addressed in private and in silence, whereas before, you went to a clinic and had options.
El Paso Matters: How does a state’s political ideology affect the women’s and gender studies field and the work that scholars produce?
Núñez-Mchiri: I’m leaving a state that sees women’s bodies as something that can be manipulated, monitored, legislated over, and that makes me sick. Instead of nourishing women as givers of life, we are punishing them and forcing them to only have certain options, and I’m overwhelmed by that.
What I’m fearing for Texas is that when you become anti-everything, it’s such a disillusion. It’s a disillusionment for very creative people. People and companies will not want to come here. If you do not respect my body, if you don’t respect who I am, my identity, my orientation, why would I come live here? Why would I come work here? I think economics, business and culture, they’re all interconnected, and there’s power in consumption.
El Paso Matters: What are your thoughts on leaving El Paso at this particular moment?
Núñez-Mchiri: I came and I gave what I could, and I have to trust that those that will stay will pick up the responsibility and the torch. I remember Dr. Diana Natalicio, in one of her last lectures (as UTEP president), said “the mission is not mine, it’s ours.” Great leaders — and I’m not saying I’m one of them, but I’ve led through example — invite others to come with them, and then they know when to step aside for others to emerge as leaders. It’s time for me to move on to my next responsibility. I’m going home to where I graduated from high school, where I graduated from college. I’m going to lead my community because that’s where I’m needed now, and I just ask for the strength and the guidance to do it.