Donor Profile: Alisha Vásquez

Why Someone in Tucson, Arizona Supports the Longmore Institute...

Webcam picture of Alisha Vasquez, wearing a red jacket, a white shirt with the word "la jeta" in fancy font, and hoop earrings, against a white wall with posters and pictures tacked to it.Before Alisha Vásquez was teaching as the first person of color in Earlham College's  Border Studies Program in Tucson, Arizona, she was a grad student at San Francisco State University. A 5th generation Tucsonan, Alisha was the first in her family to go to college after receiving a scholarship to the University of Arizona. A queer Chicana with a disability who grew up on welfare, she now draws from her own personal experiences to make her a better teacher, as she educates students about the history, politics and identity of the US Mexico border; “My body is a textbook” she says.

She moved to San Francisco to get a Masters degree in History in 2010, and even managed to find an apartment three blocks away from where her grandmother, a polio survivor, grew up.

And then, during her second week in the city, she heard the news that Paul Longmore, who was to serve as her advisor, had passed away.

Yet, she still managed to learn from Paul during her time at SF State. When the university decided to archive Paul’s papers, they turned to Alisha for help. “I was in HSS for hours and hours with his boxes, and he was present with me. His spirit was there, and I did get to know him by seeing what comics he cut out or what mementos he kept... I had to go through each box and sort out what mattered and what didn’t, and that was really hard.”

After hiring archivist Kate Tasker to pick up where Alisha left off, we launched the Longmore Papers in the J Paul Leonard’s Special Collections in 2014, and we flew Alisha out to join us for the celebration. She recalls how meaningful this was to her:

The time I was at SF State was such an intermediary between Paul’s time there and really getting the Institute going, so it felt hard to accomplish anything ... So to be recognized and be invited back and see what came out of that early time in Paul’s office, I felt it was very generous, very meaningful that maybe my efforts were that bridge that kept it going. And also seeing all the folks who showed up, his friends from the History department, administrators that remember him so fondly, and the Bay area community. Remembering that I had a tiny part in that was huge.

Cover of Rosamerie Garland-Thomson's book, "Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature". The cover features an image of a self-portrait of the artist Frieda Kahlo, seated in a wheelchair painting a portrait of a man in a suit.She still follows the work coming out of the Institute because she knows firsthand the importance of what disability scholarship as well as spaces like the Institute can bring to college campuses. She remembers her first day of college at the UA: “It was disorienting seeing how much wealth some students had, I felt like a foreigner in my hometown. Every day someone would ask ‘What happened?’ because I walk with crutches. If I wore shorts or a dress, showing my scars, people stared even more. I almost dropped out. But I read Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde for the first time in my second semester, and it was the first book I saw myself in, as kinda having a disability. I was still on the fence about returning, but that summer I read a small part of Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies with a grad student. I was vulnerable and talked about my fears with her and started to see myself as a part of something bigger. Then my next year I found Chicana feminist studies as well.”

She recently showed her support by donating $10 to the Institute with the request that it be used to support POC disability studies.  Alisha agreed with the Institute’s philosophy that what’s important is not how much someone gives but rather that they are giving at a level that’s personally significant to them, as this gift was for her. Finding that many disability spaces are not inclusive to people with disabilities who are further marginalized by race, sexuality, and economic status, Alisha says, “I’ve followed the work Emily and Cathy are doing and I’m just happy how much more color has been part of it. So I’m thrilled to contribute to that in even the most modest of ways.”

Alisha was humble during the interview about what she did for the Institute, both with her donation and also in sorting through Paul’s boxes, but we know how important her contributions are.  How fortunate the Border Studies Program is (which has grown increasingly more diverse thanks to her efforts) to have an instructor who can guide students coming from marginalized backgrounds to find their place in higher education, reminding them of their right to be there. While she might not have gotten to work closely with Paul Longmore, they certainly share this in common.