Ronald Lopez Sr., who played a key role in creating the 5C program in Chicano/a Latino/a Studies, died in Sacramento March 10. He was 83.
Lopez helped establish what was then called the Mexican American Studies Center in 1969, in what would become the second program of its type in the country. He served as the executive director of the center for four years and helped oversee the department’s renaming to Chicano Studies Center.
Throughout his life, Lopez was committed to working in Mexican American communities and organizations. An avid organizer during the 1960s Chicano movement, Lopez’s zeal for organizing was only rivaled by his passion for connecting with students.
His philosophy of creating mutually beneficial working relationships between the work of the center and local communities set an important precedent for the community outreach work that 5C students undertake today.
Born in Santa Paula Aug. 19, 1938, Lopez graduated from Villanova Prep High School in Ojai, CA, according to a family obituary. After graduating, Lopez found work in different areas, from engineering to volunteering.
While attending Ventura College, Lopez met and married Lola Taylor and had two sons, Ronald and Antonio. The couple would go on to attend San Fernando Valley State College together, where Lopez obtained his Bachelor of Arts in 1967. He later received his Master of Arts in History at UCLA as a Danforth Foundational Fellow.
During his time at UCLA, Lopez established the Institute in American Cultures as a member of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Urban Crisis. He would also be an active figure in the emerging Chicano movement. As an early member of United Mexican American Student — one of many student organizations that coordinated the East L.A. walkouts in 1968 — Lopez was at the forefront of bringing about radical change for the local Chicano community.
In April 1969, Lopez attended a Chicano movement conference at UC Santa Barbara, which would become one of the most pivotal episodes in the history of the Chicano movement. The conference brought about the inception of “Plan de Santa Barbara,” a document calling for the creation of Chicano studies programs throughout the California university system. Lopez both contributed to and signed the manifesto.
Invigorated by the early stirrings of the Chicano movement in the late 1960s, Claremont students drew on inspiration from their peers in LA to call for the creation of the department prior to Lopez’s arrival as its founding director.
Leading up to Lopez’s time in Claremont, students had already successfully pressured college administration to admit more students of color from surrounding areas while becoming active advocates in the United Farm Workers campaign led by César Chávez. By 1968, students were participating in the grape boycotts and forming picket lines at local markets.
In the spring of 1969, the 5Cs only offered two courses in Chicano studies, “The Mexican American in Modern Society” and “Contemporary Politics of the Southwest,” offered at Pitzer College.
Almost a month after the “Plan de Santa Barbara” was written by the Chicano Coordinating Council on Higher Education, a four day conference was held by Claremont Colleges students and faculty titled “The Chicano Movement, the Challenge of Urgency.” Shortly thereafter in the fall of 1969, the Mexican American Studies Center officially opened after the hard fought efforts of students who advocated for its creation. Lopez left his position at UCLA to start at the new Mexican American Studies Center as its founding executive director in the fall of 1969.
The center expanded the course offerings from eight in its first year to an average of 30 in following years. Of these new offerings, Lopez taught a course in United States history and another course in Mexican American history. He also led the creation of a summer bridge program that prepared first generation students for college life and academics.
Rita Dearborn, the first secretary of the Chicano Studies Center, formed a connection with Lopez in the early years of the Center.
“Working with Ron was an absolute joy as he was not only intelligent beyond compare but was blessed with an incomparable sense of humor,” Dearborn said via email.
“Working with Ron was an absolute joy as he was not only intelligent beyond compare but was blessed with an incomparable sense of humor.”
Dearborn also noted that Lopez had strong connections with the students he worked with.
“During this time there were no counselors of color and he was frequently sought out by students as a friend and counselor,” she said.
Tomás Summers Sandoval, an associate professor of history and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies, said Lopez was a “charismatic fighter” who created a model of mutually beneficial college and community partnerships that the Intercollegiate Department of Chicano Studies still practices.
“All of us who work inside … [Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies] owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude,” he said. “We are inheritors of all their work and the stewards of it.”
After leaving the Claremont Colleges, Lopez would continue to hold a wide range of roles, from serving as director of the Venice Drug Coalition to becoming a restaurateur. By the early 1980s, Lopez returned to teaching history at several Los Angeles community colleges. He retired in 2007 and moved to Sacramento to be near his family.
Lopez is survived by three sons and three granddaughters, along with many other family members. A graveside service was held March 28 at the Pierce Brother Cemetery in Santa Paula.