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Saturday, September 23, 2023

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Augustine "Gus" Chavez Augustine "Gus" Chavez

In Memoriam: Gus Chavez

The founding director of SDSU's Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs is remembered for a decades-long commitment to educational inclusion.
By Aaron Burgin

The values of diversity and spirit of inclusion at today’s San Diego State University bear the decades-old fingerprints of Augustine “Gus” Chavez, who helped cement the university’s commitments to enroll students from historically underserved communities and support them to graduation.

Dedicated to social and educational justice and equality, Chavez was the architect of the current Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs and helped create what is now the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies as he mentored and inspired countless students. He also established an extensive collection of Chicano- and Chicana-related historical materials housed in the Love Library.

Chavez died Aug. 18 at his home in San Diego’s El Cerrito neighborhood from complications of chronic kidney disease. He was 76.

“Gus has always been a warrior; it really is the best way to describe him, not only back then (at SDSU) but up until his passing,” said Gonzalo Rojas, former director of SDSU’s Student Outreach Services.

“He had a very clear conscience about social justice, economic justice and educational inclusion,” added Rojas, a friend for more than four decades. “He was a mentor in the best possible way. He was always there to back people up and take the struggle and weight on his shoulders and provide an umbrella for them to succeed and excel.”

A celebration of Chavez’s life and a public memorial service begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, at Chicano Park, followed by a walking procession to Barrio Station, 2175 Newton Ave., in Logan Heights. A program at Barrio Station begins at noon.

“Gus was an incredibly special man, and this is a tremendous loss not only for San Diego State, but for the entire San Diego community,” said Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Christy Samarkos.

Equality movement

Chavez was part of a generation who pushed for social and legal equality that would include access to a college education for underrepresented and first-generation students and support services to help these students earn their degrees.

"We often tell our students that we stand on the shoulders of giants. I can humbly say that I definitely stand on Gus Chavez's shoulders as he will always be one of those giants,” said EOP Director Miriam Castañón. “He advocated and opened doors that provided our students and department the much-needed access and services that we continue to improve upon today."

Chavez was born in 1943 in Sonora, Texas, one of seven children in a one-bedroom home.

His youngest son, Emiliano Chavez, said his father was keenly aware of his family’s struggles from an early age, helping plant the seeds of a future fight for equality.

“Just the idea that his mother came from so little—she was an orphan who had to fight for everything that she got for her family,” Emiliano Chavez said. “He once told us that grandma had a heart attack and continued on with work and didn’t go to the hospital, although she was basically moments from death, because she knew that she had to help her family. Those things helped him find that urge to fight.”

Chavez spent most of his childhood in Texas, save for summers when he, his father and older brother would travel in a flatbed truck to Montana to shear sheep.

Navy to college

After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and served as a hospital corpsman from 1962 to 1966 at Naval Medical Center San Diego. After leaving the Navy, he attended San Diego City College from 1966 to 1968 and then transferred to what was then San Diego State College, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1971. He was appointed director of Student Support Services upon his graduation.

It was at a MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) meeting at San Diego State in 1968 where he met Enriqueta Valenzuela, who had helped found MEChA and Las Chicanas at the university. The two married on Dec. 18, 1969. Enriqueta would go on to teach at SDSU, work as counselor at Sweetwater Union High School District and continue as a leader in the Chicano movement.

In 1969, Chavez joined students and faculty inspired by the civil rights and Chicano movements to found what is now called the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies. That year, the university established its Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs to aid students from low-income backgrounds and historically underserved communities with services that helped recruit them to San Diego State and support their academic success once here.

Chavez was appointed director of the fledgling EOP in 1974 and was charged with restructuring and realigning the five separate EOPs—Native American, Black, Chicano, Filipino and Women—into one unified program.

To those who knew him personally, Chavez was a funny, warm character who often had a joke at the ready and a word of encouragement following close behind. He would need all those traits to succeed.

Rojas said Chavez’s combination of inclusivity, fairness and administrative savvy made him the ideal person to lead the restructuring.

“There probably would not have been the EOP we all know without Gus,” Rojas said. “The concept of EOP was still very new, and it was a difficult path that was set in motion.”

Chavez took the lead in working with student leaders, key staff, faculty and administrators to overcome misperceptions about the program’s worth, mistrust of the people running the program and misgivings about the loss of the different groups’ identities and autonomy.

“The integrity of the struggle depended on all the directors’ and staff members’ dedication to the idea that all of the strengths of the individual programs would be preserved in the one centralized EOP,” Chavez said later. As its viability and impact grew, EOP was established as a Student Affairs department.

Library collection

In 1978, Chavez established the Chicano Collection/Colección Chicana, a collection of nearly 17,000 documents of Chicana and Chicano-related materials at San Diego State.

After nearly three decades as EOP director, Chavez retired in 2003 but continued to advocate for the university to better recruit and retain students from the area’s historically underserved communities. Today, EOP serves about 2,500 students each semester.

Chavez also co-founded various university organizations, including RAZA Advocates for Chicanos in Higher Education (RACHE) and the CSU EOP Directors Association.

Chavez was an advocate for social reform and equality beyond his work at the university.

He was the lead co-founder and organizer of the Defend the Honor Campaign, an organization dedicated to preserving and acknowledging the contributions of Latino and Latina veterans who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam by advocating for the inclusion of their military experiences and civil rights struggles in documentaries, books and school curricula.
Chavez served in a number of professional and community organizations, including MEChA Central de San Diego County, the Brown Berets of San Diego and the American G.I. Forum.

Undocumented Resource Area Coordinator Cynthia Torres, hired by Chavez in 2001, said she is a living embodiment of his efforts to mentor hundreds of students, employees and others who now spread his message through their words and works.

“I entered SDSU as a Mexican American and transformed into an empowered Chicana who became empowered by my mentors, including Gus Chavez, and realized that the fight for social justice is constant,” she said. “To many of us involved in MEChA, he was like our father who guided us and taught us to give back to the community.”

Chavez is survived by his wife, Enriqueta; three sons, Enrique, Augustine, Emiliano; a daughter, Juanita; and four grandchildren.

SDSU plans to establish a scholarship in Chavez’s name.

Details of a military service at Miramar National Cemetery are pending.