He reached into his backpack to grab a history book and remembered he had stowed his pistol there as well. That moment, for Professor John Márquez, changed his life.
“Everybody had a weapon all the time. That’s an element of how we survived,” he says. “I realized that I was probably the only person in that classroom that was living that kind of life, and I was embarrassed by the moment … It shook me.”
Márquez, who grew up in an impoverished, working-class family in subsidized housing in Houston, was taking community college courses as part of his involvement in a gang violence prevention program. He had borrowed the gun after receiving threats from men in a rival neighborhood.
Fourteen years later, Northwestern hired Márquez to help build its Latina and Latino Studies program with other experts. Since beginning the program in 2006, he has taught Intro to Latino Studies, The Social Meaning of Race and other related courses, including the Capstone Seminar for students in the program.
Sonia Hart (SESP ’07) was part of the student organizing committee that pushed for a Latina and Latino Studies program. She says Márquez was the type of faculty member they were looking for, active and eager to improve relations with other student groups and help develop the new program and curriculum.
“We wanted someone that was going to be involved in the development of a very robust type of student-of-color scholarly community,” she says. “It was one of the few classes that I felt really challenged me to think critically about an issue and not just kind of be a receptacle for other people’s ideas and accept them automatically when it comes to race and ethnicity, from both the historical and psychological perspectives. More than teaching us a subject matter, he was teaching us how to be good thinkers.”
Many students enter Márquez’s classes with the idea that race no longer has social meaning, he says. He often struggles to balance intellectual arguments about race in a social context with providing “the language and the kind of support and the inspiration that students of color might be looking for.” But he says he finds these conversations rewarding.
Márquez has been on sabbatical for the past year, and he will resume teaching in the winter. During this time, he finished a book and started a new one, as well as bonded with his two sons and played soccer.
He also works on community initiatives, including Organization of the North East's Violence Prevention Committee, which collaborates with such programs as Chicago’s Operation CeaseFire, as well as other violence prevention and immigrant justice campaigns in his neighborhood. CeaseFire is similar to the gang violence prevention program Márquez worked on as a teen, so he hopes his experience can be a useful contribution to the organization.
Recruited by social workers into the short-lived Gang Activity Prevention program at 18 years old in 1992, he was “identified as a person who had street cred in [his] neighborhood but that also had a mind that was attuned towards politics.” He was trained to work as a violence interrupter, talking to his peers and organizing after-school activities for at-risk youth.
Márquez pinpoints the moment he found the pistol in his backpack as one of a series that highlighted the sense of hypocrisy he felt. “A part of me is fronting, acting like I’m part of the solution,” he says about the experience. “The other part of me does not trust the solution to the extent that I feel like I got to protect myself.”
That realization, along with the death and incarceration of several friends and an incident involving a fellow GAP member murdering another young man, led Márquez to leave GAP and seek other answers.
He says CeaseFire faces similar issues now, as volunteers occasionally struggle to distance themselves from crime and gang activity. Such programs focus on a lack of jobs, mental health facilities and educational opportunities, but they are often reluctant to address broader histories of colonialism, racial segregation and violence. He says that no solution will be sustainable without addressing these broader issues.
“I saw the limitations firsthand of how much those programs could actually work, and the issues that weren’t being addressed within those initiatives,” Márquez says of his work with GAP and CeaseFire.
After that, Black nationalism introduced him to the historical background of intraracial violence the world over, in most colonized areas. But that still couldn’t answer all of his questions.
“I began to realize that it was insufficient,” he says. “To really be able to address these issues in the most productive way is to appeal to our solidarity between [sic] all of us as human beings.”
Márquez says he hopes to continue addressing issues of race and ethnicity at the university and community levels. He says that diversity—be it related to race, class or sexuality—is a constant issue at Northwestern, and he encourages his students to think about qualitative diversity or the social climate, rather than the statistics.
“[Northwestern has] the people who are experts on this issue, we have students who are interested and eager to learn about such things, so we should be better than society at large in terms of our thinking and conversations we have about this,” Márquez says. “That should be reflected in the way that the student body and the faculty looks, appears, speaks, is perceived, is judged, is supported.”
Editor's note: The printed version of this story quoted Sonia Hart as saying Márquez taught his students "active scholarship." The quote was changed during the fact-checking process, when Hart corrected her statement. This version has been changed to reflect her original wording during her interview with the author. The printed version also incorrectly reported Márquez working for the NU Campus Violence Prevention Committee. This has been corrected. North by Northwestern regrets the errors.