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Julian Nava, LA School Board's First Mexican American Member, Dead At 95

A black and white photo of a man in thick-rimmed glasses and a suit jacket and tie.
Julian Nava
(Courtesy of Pomona College)
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Julian Nava’s life accomplishments are impressive.

Nava, who died on July 29 in San Diego at 95 years old, was born in 1927 in Los Angeles, graduated from Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and served in the Navy in World War II. He went on to earn a doctorate in Latin American history at Harvard, which opened a door to teaching at what would become Cal State Northridge.

He was the first Mexican American on the L.A. Unified School District board, serving multiple terms beginning in 1967. In 1980, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as ambassador to Mexico.

But it’s the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s that arguably shaped his legacy.

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“Maybe even our textbooks, as we know them, are due for revolutionary change,” Nava said during a 1970 UCLA speech, two years after tens of thousands of Mexican American students in his school district walked out of high schools to demand educational reforms.

“We must head into the future remembering that it is time for an open mind and search for new concepts.”

The Vietnam War and the disproportionate death toll among Mexican American soldiers galvanized activists in Southern California. Nava was leading a comfortable life when a coalition of civic organizations approached him about running for school board.

“I could have slipped through writing books for other scholars to read or chosen the quiet life of a tenured professor or combine both,” Nava told the UCLA audience.

“But like many of you, I wasn't satisfied with the world as it is. I want to change it. I want to make a contribution.”

An Advocate At A Different Tempo

But there was a big difference between Nava’s very institutional credentials and the in-your-face demands of the 1960s Chicano Movement.

“The community was on the precipice of a, you could say, an explosion or a transformation or something that felt like a revolution,” said David Ayon, author of "Power Shift: How Latinos in California Transformed Politics in America."

“I don't even know how significant a reformer he would have been, If he'd had more time before the Chicano movement explodes and runs right over him,” Ayon said.

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While on the LAUSD board, Nava advocated for bilingual education, culturally inclusive curricula, racial integration of schools, and hiring more African American and Mexican American administrators.

One of the leaders of the 1968 student walkouts, Victoria Castro, remembers criticizing Nava at the time.

“He wasn't advancing on our concerns as fast as we would like,” she said. But Castro went on to work for L.A. Unified as a school teacher and administrator and served two terms as a school board member in the late 1990s. That’s when she gained a new appreciation for Nava’s impact.

“When I reflected as a board member, I realized it's not just you. You’ve got to have four other people along with you,” she said.

And Nava did in fact inspire her to become a teacher and administrator, and she in turn has also mentored the young educators who came after her.

In 2011 the L.A. Unified school board named a new middle school after Nava.

With his family surrounding him in the school’s auditorium, Nava urged dozens of students to take charge of their education.

Asked afterward what he was proudest of in a long career, Nava did not list the school board seat or his ambassadorship.

“[It’s] having helped young people learn for themselves in college, because after all, I taught for 40 years at a university,” he said. “And I always felt that it was a wonderful way to earn a living, helping people.”

What questions do you have about colleges and universities?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.

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