Lorena Chambers had worked for years as a nationally recognized political consultant and media strategist before finishing her doctorate during the pandemic. In 2020, Chambers earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history from U-M, studying the intersections of American history and feminist theory, focusing on 19th century ethnic Mexican representations and its role in diplomatic statecraft between the U.S. and Mexico.
LSA: Can you discuss your path and how you became a historian? What drives you?
Lorena Chambers: My path is nontraditional. I began my graduate studies at U-M in the 1990s and left the program only to return to finish and defend my dissertation in 2020. In between, I had a very different career—a very successful one—but my academic interests were always hovering. One factor that drove me to finish is the work ethic instilled by my immigrant parents. I knew how to work hard, but as a first-generation college student, I didn’t really know how to overcome academic hurdles. As an undergrad at UCLA, I thought I was going to go into law, but my undergraduate advisor, George Sanchez, asked me if I ever thought about pursuing a Ph.D. in history. After applying, I was offered two competing fellowships, one at UCLA and one at U-M. I chose U-M because it was the number one history department in the country.
LSA: How did you come to political consulting? And as a historian, what have you been able to bring to campaigns that others cannot?
LC: I had wonderful fellowships to conduct research at the Smithsonian, but when the funding ran out, I needed to find a job, so I went to work at an advertising agency specializing in Hispanic marketing. I was volunteering in local politics and started weaving all of it together: I brought new business from political campaigns into the agency, with cultural relevance informed by my graduate studies. My first major campaign was Latino political outreach for the John Kerry presidential campaign in 2004. Being trained as an historian, I was focused on finding interesting stories about Latino voters. If you think about it, TV commercials are essentially 30-second stories. You have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The stories you write must be so compelling they persuade others to your point of view.
LSA: Can you discuss your work on The First 100: 50 Years of Chicanas Changing History? What was the project’s genesis, and where does it stand now?
LC: As a graduate student, I knew about an informal list of Chicana historians. I was supposed to be the 28th or 29th to earn a history doctorate. But when I defended my dissertation in 2020, I learned that there were still less than 100 of us, which was an abominably low number in my estimation. There are 34 million people in the United States who are of Mexican descent, and still less than 100 of us women with Ph.D.s in history. Comparatively, thousands of people get Ph.D.s in history per year, the vast majority of whom are white. I was just appalled by the numbers, so I contacted the Smithsonian and asked if they would work with me on a project to help capture our elders’ oral histories. The project is ongoing and urgent. Pioneering Chicana historians are retiring soon, and some have already passed. The First 100 is in partnership with the Smithsonian and multiple units at U-M. Right now, we are in the process of getting these oral histories housed at U-M and collecting three-dimensional material objects at the Smithsonian.
LSA: How has your work and the work of those you have uplifted changed your outlook on career, life, and overall aspirations? What have you learned?
LC: I think that resiliency has always been a part of how communities of color succeed. We’re still here and we’re still surviving. Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that there will be hurdles and roadblocks, so let’s be kind to each other. I grew up with a sense of what’s fair and what’s not fair, and if I have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of others, I will. I feel that what I study and the work I do is important work that will not finish with me. I hope that others will continue it.
LSA: What would you tell aspiring Chicana historians and students of color?
LC: First and foremost, don’t take as long as I did to complete the dissertation! Instead, finish writing, defend it, and graduate in a timely manner. I would also say to find individuals who believe in you. The academy has naysayers—even from our own communities—and one needs to move past them. Separately, not all mentors work in the same way, but we need them all. Because the system is not made for us, we need to work extra hard to do well. But there are people who want to help. Find resources and seek allies. They exist.
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