Tomás Rivera and Civic Morality by Carlos Cortes

When Tomás Rivera became chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, in 1979, he accepted both the honor and the burden of being a first: first Chicano chancellor, first minority chancellor, and youngest chancellor in the history of the University of California system.

Tomás earned plaudits nationwide for his accomplishments. Partly because of his firstness, he also became the object of national attention, serving on numerous prestigious boards, committees, and task forces, including the Los Angeles Times Board of Directors. Moreover, beyond his administrative firstness, Tomás also garnered literary acclaim for such works as his novel (. . . and the Earth Did Not Devour Him) and his poetry (“The Searchers”).

But, as inevitable for most firsts, Tomás also bore a heavy burden, the relentless pressure of knowing he was constantly being viewed as a representative, maybe even the embodiment, of his people. He lived continuously with the terrible knowledge that any of his perceived missteps or failings would be interpreted by some as definitive proof of the inadequacy of Mexican Americans. That burden ultimately contributed to his death from a heart attack in 1984.

In the aftermath of his death, Tomás reemerged as a Latino symbol. His name soon adorned schools, centers, prizes, and, of course, UCR’s Tomás Rivera Library. Yet, while Tomás attained enormous symbolic importance, his real life administrative accomplishments received little serious assessment for nearly three decades. Then, in the fall, 2013, Professor Tiffany López, holder of UCR’s Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair, organized a seminar dedicated to analyzing Tomás’ speeches and writings concerning the role of higher education administrators, particularly Latino administrative leaders.

From that careful and astute examination of those documents, the seminar identified one core idea that illuminated the trajectory of Tomás’ administrative life: his commitment to the concept of civic morality. Again and again Tomás proclaimed that college administrators should lead with the goal of spreading and inculcating a sense of civic morality, a basis for fostering a more equitable society.

During the seminar, Tiffany invited me, as Tomás’ friend and a 26-year UCR History professor, to spend a couple of hours with her students, sharing my observations of and experiences with Tomás. Later Tiffany asked me if I would participate in a theatrical piece she was developing based on the seminar. Intrigued by the idea of a seminar on college administration being transformed into a theatrical presentation, I said yes. Yet the cynic in me knew that an administration-oriented seminar could not possibly become effective theatre. How wrong I was!

While the expression “blown away” has become a cliché, that is precisely how I felt when I participated in the first performance of “Civic Morality” on December 3, 2013, before a packed house at UCR’s Culver Center of the Arts. Riversiders will get another opportunity to see how wrong I was when Tiffany’s theatrical presentation, “Civic Morality,” about the life of Tomás Rivera, is presented again at 7 pm on Wednesday, November 12, at the César Chávez Community Center Auditorium in Bobby Bonds Park, 2060 University Avenue.

“Civic Morality” is as difficult to describe as it is impossible to resist. Both Tiffany’s opening narrative, which sketches the contours of Tomás’ administrative career and the evolution of his thinking, and the students’ heartfelt reflections on their engagement with Tomás’ writings provide drama and insight into the life and ideas of this remarkable man. When the students had finished their parts and I made my way to the Culver stage to share my recollections of Tomás, I felt both the joy of personal revelation and the onus of responsibility of helping bring Tomás to life for an audience of many who had never known him.

Tomás Rivera was far more than a first; he was unique. With his sly smile and mischievous sense of humor, he could charm. A man of virtually limitless personal generosity, he gave himself to everyone almost without reservation. He and his wife, Concha, hosted more than 200 events each year in the Chancellor’s residence. No matter how imposing the administrative pressures, Tomás would somehow make time to answer a local teacher’s request to speak to her elementary school class. An academic leader who never forgot his farm laboring family roots, he always remained part of the people.

The life of Tomás Rivera, particularly those last five sometimes joyous, sometimes tumultuous, always challenging UCR years, provide the stuff of tragedy and triumph. “Civic Morality,” which captures both the tragedy of Tomás’ death and the triumphant timelessness of his vision, serves as a moving tribute to a good and, in some respects, great man. I hope that many of you will be able to join us on November 12 for this dramatic exploration of a life worth recalling, cherishing, and emulating.